Remembering Rico Wade: How the legendary producer influenced Atlanta, Southern hip-hop, and pop music

The Organized Noize and Dungeon Family member died April 12 at age 52

Rico Wade
Rico Wade in 2019

Photograph by Moses Robinson/Getty Images for Revolt

Even with the knowledge that none of us will live forever, Rico Wade’s untimely passing at age 52 is still hitting hard days after the April 12 announcement. As the cornerstone of the game-changing production trio Organized Noize, formed in his teens with Ray “Yoda” Murray and Patrick “Sleepy” Brown, and the de facto general of the Dungeon Family—the music collective that includes OutKast and Goodie Mob among its members—Wade’s impact in the music industry is huge. That has been evident in how widely his death has been covered outside Atlanta, with the New York Times, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the Hollywood Reporter penning tributes to the late producer.

With hundreds of credits, including OutKast and Goodie Mob’s debut albums Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Soul Food, TLC’s “Waterfalls,” and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love),” Wade helped to expand Atlanta’s imprint in music, reaching global heights. With OutKast and Goodie Mob, Wade was part of mainstreaming Southern hip-hop, expanding its boundaries and perimeters.

The Atlanta City Council praised Wade in an Instagram tribute as “a music pioneer and a cultural architect whose impact resonates far beyond his times. His contributions to hip-hop and production shaped the sound of generations and made our city the beacon of the modern hip-hop era.”

“Rico left an indelible mark on music and culture around the world and for that, the South will always have something to say,” shared Mayor Andre Dickens in a statement. Both the Hawks and Falcons also acknowledged his role in promoting Atlanta pride and their brands in particular through social media posts featuring him rocking their jerseys.

Among his musical family and peers, the love and respect, as well as pain, has been overflowing. Killer Mike, the first to post publicly about Wade’s death, said on Instagram, “I don’t have the words to express my deep and profound sense of loss. I am praying for your wife and children. I am praying for the Wade family. I am praying for us all.”

“This is a different type of hurt,” shared OutKast’s Big Boi via Instagram. “WE LOST PART OF THE SOUL OF THE CITY,” said super producer Lil Jon. “Simply Put, THANK YOU RICO WADE,” Ludacris posted.

Back in 2015, the City of Atlanta showed its appreciation for Wade and Organized Noize through ELEVATE, the annual visual arts program and festival sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, then in its fifth year. Themed “Forever I Love Atlanta” or F.I.L.A., programming put a spotlight on the Dungeon Family’s game-changing contributions to the city, culturally, artistically, and mutually. For its curator, renowned artist Dr. Fahamu Pecou, working closely with Wade was both a professional and personal highlight.

For the Brooklyn-born, South Carolina-raised Pecou who moved to Atlanta in 1994, the same year OutKast’s debut album was released, Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family served as his introduction to the city and its soundtrack. The music also helped to alter Pecou’s personal perceptions of hip-hop and clarify his own artistic vision.

“I was still very much a New York hip-hop purist,” he says, “but I remember vividly hearing “Crumblin’ Erb” [from that debut album] for the first time and that’s what really turned me on to Organized Noize.”

That initial introduction transformed into deep appreciation with the arrival of Goodie Mob’s Soul Food. “That really pushed me to try to create something through visual art that had the same sort of feeling and emotion that I felt listening to Goodie Mob, and particularly that song “Guess Who.” That song changed everything for me.”

Pecou says he was surprised to learn just how organic the Organized Noize and Dungeon Family sound was. He also was happy to give Wade and his crew their flowers, but also to cultivate a real friendship with him.

“Every time I think about Rico, I envision that photograph, I think it was in Vibe magazine, where they were all at the White House and were dressed up almost like X-Men characters. Rico was Professor X,” Pecou says. “I always see him like that. He was so visionary. And working with him on the exhibition, I got to see that on full display. The way he thought and how quick he was with an idea. Like you [could] say, ‘Oh, I’m thinking of x, y, and z,’ and then immediately he’s like, ‘Okay, you could do it like this.’ It was just really fascinating to be in his presence and to also become friends with him.”

Allen S. Gordon, an Oakland native who served as editor-in-chief of the Larry Flynt-owned Rap Pages in Los Angeles in the late 90s, felt so strongly about Wade, Organized Noize, and the Dungeon Family’s contributions to hip-hop that he oversaw a bold cover of the collective he dubbed as Nat Turner’s Orchestra, in reference to the slave rebellion Turner led in Virginia in 1831. On that April 1998 cover, the Dungeon Family posed in front of a tree with rope from a would-be lynching present, and the words “Nat Turner’s Orchestra” were displayed in a refashioning of the Confederate flag.

While a student at Grambling State University, an HBCU in Louisiana, Gordon became impressed by Organized Noize first through “Player’s Ball,” OutKast’s debut Christmas single in 1993. For Gordon, Organized Noize’s production had an impact he considers even greater than Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and “Player’s Ball” was just a taste of what was to come.

“More so than The Chronic, there’s more diverse and layered styles and sounds in that record. There’s jazz, there was blues, there was R&B from different places [or artists] that nobody else was pulling from. It didn’t sound anything like a New York record or a West Coast record, or what you would typically consider a Southern record from either Houston or Florida, being Orlando or Miami at the time. It was something totally different. It was its own animal. And to have those brothers rap how they rap, but it come from such a soulful place [was impactful],” Gordon says. When Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik dropped months later, “that album changed everything, not just for the South, but for all of hip-hop,” Gordon says.

For Gordon, OutKast’s sound on that debut album was a dramatic tonal and thematic shift from other rap albums because “it was street without the crime” and reflected more of “How do we live? How do we survive? How do we encourage each other? How do we kick it? How do we have fun? None of it is degrading,” he says. Wade, with Organized Noize and OutKast, offered an intimate window into the Black Southern experience and the Black experience overall that had been missing.

By the time that Rap Pages Dungeon Family cover came out, Goodie Mob had joined OutKast in national conversations, with other members of the collective were also making waves in Atlanta and throughout the South. And Gordon wanted to reflect that.

“It was like a plantation rebellion,” Gordon says, explaining both the cover and the Dungeon Family’s culture-shifting impact. “Like, we’re killing old ideas. We’re killing old masters. We’re killing the idea of what people thought about Southern rap.”

“I think Rico was greatly instrumental in helping OutKast, Goodie Mob, Lil Will, and other artists all around Atlanta find that voice and find that space and tap into those things from their own perspective, how they want to do it, even for somebody like Ludacris,” Gordon says specifically of Wade’s effect on Atlanta’s emergence as a hip-hop force and mecca. That impact certainly extends to his cousin, mega rap star Future, and to Killer Mike, a later addition to the Dungeon Family who recently won three Grammys for his latest album, Michael.

For Danyel Smith, who served as both music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine in the 1990s, Wade’s legacy was solidified long ago.

“If the only thing Rico Wade ever did was co-create TLC’s singular 1994 “Waterfalls” and OutKast’s seminal 1994 Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik debut, he would be a legend,” said Smith, author of the groundbreaking Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop and host and creator of the Spotify Black Girl Songbook podcast, via text.

“Because Wade influenced Southern hip-hop and American pop music for three decades,” she says, “he is immortal.”