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Renowned Atlanta hip-hop producer Rico Wade dies at 52

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rico Wade, the renowned producer and architect of Atlanta hip-hop, has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELL THERAPY")

GOODIE MOB: (Singing) Who's that peeking in my window? Pow (ph), nobody now.

CHANG: As a member of the producer trio Organized Noize, he helped shape the sound of groups like Outkast, Goodie Mob and TLC. Wade helped launch the careers of aspiring musicians from a studio in his mother's basement, known as The Dungeon. And here to tell us more about Wade's legacy is NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael. Hey, Rodney.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So Atlanta's been, like, a hip-hop capital for decades now. How did it get that way? Like, what role would you say Rico Wade played in bringing the sound of that city to the rest of the world?

CARMICHAEL: Well, first, Ailsa, you got to understand that Atlanta was not even a player. It wasn't even on the map. I mean, everything was either East Coast or West Coast. There was a little bit of hip-hop trickling out of Atlanta before Rico Wade came along, but most of it, it really mimicked the sound of other cities, whether it was Miami or LA. But after, he and Organized Noize blew the doors open with Outkast's debut album, "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik." It had a sound. It had an identity and a real foundation.

I mean, he filled the city with a sense of pride and put Dungeon Family on the map. You know, in hip-hop, obviously, representation is what it's all about, you know, repping where you're from and the environment that made you who you are. And Rico Wade is really the reason that Outkast and the rest of the Dungeon Family put the ATL on their backs and represented to the fullest.

CHANG: And what about other artists that Rico Wade helped make household names?

CARMICHAEL: Well, yeah, there's a lot of them. I mean, even outside of the Dungeon Family, you got really big names like TLC, who Organized gave, you know, their most important hit in "Waterfalls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERFALLS")

TLC: (Singing) Don't go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to.

CARMICHAEL: He worked with the likes of En Vogue, Brandy, so many artists, especially in that R&B world in the '90s. But the entire Dungeon Family consisted of Goodie Mob, Cool Breeze, Witchdoctor, Backbone, and later, of course, Killer Mike. This was the real root of the tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN BY LAW")

RICO WADE: It's been a journey.

CARMICHAEL: Of course, is the biggest act in that group being Outkast. I mean, the first voice that you hear on the first Outkast song is none other than Rico Wade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAYER'S BALL")

WADE: The scene was so thick - lowriders, '77 Sevilles, El Dogs. Nothing but them Lacs (ph). All the players. All the hustlers. I'm talking bout (ph) a Black man heaven here. You know what I'm saying? Yeah.

ANDRE 3000: (Rapping) It's beginning to look a lot like, what? Follow my every step.

CARMICHAEL: He's both the big brother to Big Boi and Andre early on. They auditioned for him in the parking lot of a beauty supply store that he worked at in the early '90s. And after hearing them rhyme non-stop over a Das EFX instrumental, you know, he was ready to bring him to The Dungeon and eventually signed them or helped them get signed to LaFace Records.

Within the trio of Organized Noize, which also consisted of Pat (ph), Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray, Rico was known as the mouthpiece. He was a motivator, industry negotiator. And he was really the leader in a city that was built on this legacy of civil rights movement. You know, Atlanta, you're talking Dr. King and that whole legacy. Like, Rico really was an organizer in the truest sense. I mean, he'd gone to school with the children of some of Atlanta's biggest Black politicians. But he also kept his ear to the streets. And that, combined with his own charisma, it really made him a magnetic cat, somebody that people followed, but also somebody who knew how to spot talent and how to hone it into something magical.

CHANG: That is fascinating. Well, as producers, Organized Noize had a really distinctive sound - right? - especially for hip-hop in the '90s. What do you think made it so groundbreaking, that sound?

CARMICHAEL: OK. So sampling was and for a long time has been the backbone of hip-hop production, especially in the early '90s. But sample-based production was also notoriously expensive. So when Organized got their production deal with LaFace Records, LA Reid basically told them no sampling. And it forced them to innovate. And the result was this live instrumentation of a bass heavy hip-hop beat sound that they created. And together, they just created this red clay funk sound that owed a lot to the '70s soul that they had grown out of, but really pointed to something Afrofuturistic.

CHANG: Afrofuturistic, I love that word. Well, Rico Wade, he died at 52, which is so young.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah.

CHANG: What legacy does he leave behind? How would you describe it?

CARMICHAEL: Well, I think when you talk about his legacy, you have to begin with his first cousin, the rapper Future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASK OFF")

FUTURE: (Rapping) Percocets, molly, Percocets. Percocets, molly, Percocets. Rep the set.

CARMICHAEL: He's one of the most influential artists in rap and really in music today and has been for the last decade. And his career wouldn't be possible if his big cousin Rico hadn't taken him in as a youngster and really initiated him into the music game. And beyond that, man, Rico's legacy is one that reverberates beyond Atlanta, the South and even hip-hop. I mean, only a dude as cool and connected as Rico could basically organize the sound, the soul and the swag of Atlanta into something that the rest of the world couldn't deny. I mean, he's the godfather.

CHANG: Well, rest in peace. That is NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael. Thank you so much, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]