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Rico Wade, one third of the legendary Organized Noize Productions trio and orchestrator of the Dungeon Family, died Friday (April, 12, 2024) at the age of 52. Anyone who knows the legacy of ATL music knows the impact of Wade. He embodied Atlanta’s spirit in a way that made him seem like family even if you’d never met him. He felt like East Point and College Park and he took that energy global — giving a voice to a city, and by extension, to a state and a region. There’s no doubt that Jermaine Dupri put Atlanta on the hip-hop map, but it was the work of Rico Wade that mainstreamed authentic Atlanta culture.

Atlanta’s commercial breakthroughs in 1992 shouldn’t be dismissed. The chart-topping successes of Dupri with Kris Kross, as well as the bohemian alt-rap of Arrested Development and Dallas Austin’s hits with TLC all served notice that the ATL was a musical hotbed. So So Def and Laface Records drew the industry’s attention to Georgia’s capital city. But it was the vision of Rico Wade and what he and Organized Noize built that showed the industry — and the world — what Atlanta culture truly looked like. Wade had been introduced to singer/songwriter Patrick “Sleepy” Brown by Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins of TLC when Wade was still working at a beauty supply store.

And as the sound of Organized Noize was cemented and the Dungeon Family soared, it was Rico who served as the linchpin. Part ringmaster, part big brother, Rico Wade had the kind of charisma and passion that made people want to follow his lead. Even casual fans know the story of teenagers Andre Benjamin and Antwon Patton rapping for Organized Noize in an East Point strip-mall parking lot on the corner of Headland and Delowe. That moment would be the spark that birthed the Dungeon Family and, by extension, what would become Atlanta’s signature sound. Wade had the foresight to put the two teens on a remix Organized Noize was tapped to do for TLC, which led to a deal with LaFace Records. The rest is Atlanta rap history.

Their musical ambitions were evident from the very beginning. Early OutKast and oft-overlooked act Parental Advisory showed that Organized Noize wasn’t sample-reliant like most of their early ’90s peers; there was something organic, rich and soulful about the sound. Wade, Brown and Murray teamed with D.F. poet Big Rube and vocalist Esparonza Brown to form the short-lived supergroup Society of Soul in 1996; they would famously produce mainstream hits like TLC’s “Waterfalls” and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love).” After securing a deal with Interscope/A&M, Organized Noize helmed albums for fellow Dungeon Family affiliates like Witchdoctor and Cool Breeze in the late 1990s. And in the 2000s, the Dungeon Family continued to expand and flourish, with the emergence of Killer Mike, Konkrete, soon-to-be star Janelle Monae and, perhaps most notably, Wade’s younger cousin Nayvadius Wilburn, a sing-songy rapper out of Decatur who called himself “Meathead” and was part of a group called Da Connect. Meathead would soon become famously known as Future.

Future’s evolution from Dungeon Family mentee to trap sensation was the latest in that long lineage of talent that Rico Wade cultivated. Future was bred in Dungeon Family ethos, even as he pushed the aesthetic into new directions as the 2010s dawned. His success provides a conduit for Gen Zers who may have missed Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Soul Food in the 1990s, but bears the hallmarks of the ground broken by Rico in those years. The Dungeon Family is embedded in Future’s DNA.

Hip-hop has no shortage of legendary crews, but the Dungeon Family has always felt like exactly that — a family. It all started in Rico’s mother’s basement, the famed “Dungeon” — and even as OutKast became multi-platinum icons, as Goodie Mob became southern rap sages, as Killer Mike became a Grammy-winning political-rap spokesperson and Future became a neo-trap superstar — a family is what they remained. Rico’s connection to Future is the most obvious evidence of that familial bond; and with Future’s impact on an entire generation of second wave trap artists from Young Thug to 21 Savage, there’s a wide shadow that has been cast by the vision and influence of Rico Wade.

Over the years, Wade and the D.F. had to endure highs and lows like any family would. Battles with addiction, financial woes, shifting dynamics within the crew, changing times — there were storms to be weathered, for certain. But the bonds have never broken. Organized Noize released an EP of original songs in 2017, Rico could be seen celebrating Killer Mike’s recent Grammy wins for his 2023 album Michael and Andre 3000’s recent jazz-flute release New Blue Sun. And Future’s new album, We Still Don’t Trust You, dropped mere hours before the world heard of Rico Wade’s passing. The momentum that Wade started at his mother’s basement almost 35 years ago is still moving in perpetual motion. His vision has been more than realized, it’s a through line for generations of Black southern music.

And that, perhaps, is the greatest legacy of Rico Wade. In not attempting to duplicate what had worked for New York and Los Angeles in contemporary urban music, he helped edify southern Black culture. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, there was very little southern Blackness in the landscape of urban music. Old labels like Stax Records and Hi Records had come and gone, and the perception of southern Black culture was still largely defined by Civil Rights era struggle and airings of In The Heat Of the Night. The Dungeon Family gave Atlanta and Georgia an identity and carved a place for that identity to thrive in Black America’s mainstream. When one looks at the past three decades, it’s impossible to miss how much that identity would come to shape that mainstream. Words like “crunk” and “twerk” and “trap” have become a part of everyday vernacular, there is a litany of TV shows and movies shot in, around or about Atlanta; fashion, entertainment and art all have to come through the city at any given point. That all starts with what Rico Wade saw in his hometown.

In the wake of his passing, the Dungeon Family issued a statement mourning the man who was a pillar of what they represented.

“We are devastated by the news of the passing of our dear brother Rico Wade. The world has lost one of the most innovative architects in music, and we have lost an invaluable friend. Rico was the cornerstone of Organized Noize and the Dungeon Family, and we will forever treasure his memory and the moments we shared, creating music as a united team. Our hearts weigh heavy with sorrow, and we kindly request privacy and empathy during this challenging period. Rico’s presence will always have a special spot in our hearts, and in the music we presented to the world.” – Organized Noize and The Dungeon Family

Atlanta is mourning. Rico Wade was one of the city’s favorite sons. He gave Atlanta a voice. He gave Atlanta an identity. He gave Atlanta a standard. In shifting the look and feel and sound of popular culture, he showed the world what we truly looked like. If Rico was leading, you were likely to follow. And the proof is right there.

The whole city has been following Rico Wade for 30 years.

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