R.I.P. Rico Wade: A Pivotal Bridge In Hip-Hop's 50-Year History

BYGabriel Bras Nevares4.1K Views
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Revolt And AT&T Host Revolt 3-Day Summit In Atlanta  September 14
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 14: Rico Wade speaks onstage during day 3 of REVOLT Summit x AT&T Summit on September 14, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Moses Robinson/Getty Images for Revolt)
It seems impossible to attribute this title to any one rap icon. But such was the vision and dedication of the Dungeon Family's cornerstone.

"I just think timing is everything," Rico Wade opens up the first song on Killer Mike's Grammy Award-winning 2023 album, MICHAEL. "Like, n***a, this it. This, this one right here... That ain't easy. Stay motivated, stay inspired. I owe it to myself, stay down on it. And it ain't been hard throughout the journey: it's been a journey." On April 12, 2024, Wade passed away at the age of 52, and Mike offered a touching tribute. "I am Praying for your wife and Children, I am praying for the Wade family, I am praying for us all. I deeply appreciate your acceptance into The Dungeon Family, mentorship, Friendship and Brotherhood. Idk where I would be without ya'll."

Much like the Run The Jewels MC, countless hip-hop artists, legends, and fans have much to thank Rico Wade for. From Outkast to Future, from Goodie Mob to Janelle Monáe, and even acts outside of their Dungeon Family collective like TLC, Ludacris, and more, it's clear that the East Point native is among the key reasons why the South (and Atlanta, in particular) has such an omnipresence right now. Not just hip-hop, but music and pop culture at large. He lives on in many ways: as a host, a talent judge, a gifted producer alongside Sleepy Brown and Ray Murray as Organized Noize, a curator, a liaison, an organizer... But perhaps most importantly, Rico is a bridge. He is the crux through which 50 years of hip-hop history can be examined, as one of his greatest achievements was honoring the old and shaping the new.

The Growth Of The Southern MC In Rap's Ecosystem

While Houston already created a blueprint for Southern rap through acts like the Geto Boys, the talent that Rico Wade introduced to the "Dungeon" (the studio in his mom's house's basement) proved instrumental in furthering the identity of the Southern MC as opposed to their East Coast and West Coast counterparts. They were not simply backpack rappers, cold-blooded lyrical killers, or hot-headed gangsters. They could be a little of everything with unique self-awareness, diverse melodic sensibilities, and palpable passions for soul and cultivating the mind. "It was street without the crime," Rap Pages editor Allen S. Gordon said of their content. "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."

For examples of this, look no further than André 3000, who as early as Outkast's first single "Player's Ball" (on which Rico Wade provides the intro), previewed his eventual space in GOAT conversations alongside legendary lyricists like Nas, Ice Cube, and Scarface. On the flip side, look at one of the Dungeon Family's late-era bloomers: Meathead, or as he's better known today, Future. While he may not have the same weight behind his pen, he's easily one of the most influential artists in music period working today thanks to his auto-tuned crooning and other aesthetic innovations, his earworm flows, and that same woozy, soulful, bass-heavy, and ATL-drenched idiosyncrasy that he attributes to his time with his big cousin Rico in the Dungeon. "Nobody could ever do what Rico Wade did for me," Pluto said in 2014. "Everything I know about music, I know because of Rico."

Rico Wade & Organized Noize's Production: Defining The Dirty South... And Beyond

Ever since the very early 1990s, Rico Wade's mentorship, instincts, talent curation, and sensibilities put innovative and impressive rappers at the forefront no matter the style. But of course, that's also because of the production that Organized Noize perfected. In the face of sample-based and therefore expensive production styles dominating the Coasts (and thus, all of mainstream rap), the Dungeon Family cut down and got live: bass, multiple different drum sounds for each new song, horns, guitars... you name it. Just listen to the lushness of "Crumblin' Erb" by Outkast, "The Day After" by Goodie Mob, or "Sumthin' Wicked This Way Comes" by TLC and Andre 3000. However, the percussion was still rooted in grimy and familiar rap rhythms, and in terms of songwriting, Organized Noize knew exactly how to capture the culture.

Rico Wade provided plenty of hits and commercial smashes to etch Organized Noize into many popular styles of music of the time in addition to the musty underground. The most notable of these is likely TLC's "Waterfalls," whose combinations of vocal harmonies, guitar plucks, and horns are Dungeon all the way. While Wade definitely built off of established g-funk and other scenes, it was this overtly colorful production that most tangibly laid the groundwork for the Pharrells, the Kanye Wests, the Tyler, The Creators, and the JIDs of rap history.

Why Rico Will Forever Represent The Roots And The Fruits

Rico Wade's place in hip-hop history will never fall victim to old-head biases or new-school ignorance. One of the most interesting ways in which he links the roots and the contemporary fruits of rap is how he welcomed the first and final waves of the Dungeon Family for two completely different reasons. Outkast had to audition and ended up delivering 30-minute-plus verses, which impressed Wade and earned his trust and support. Meanwhile, when he found out that Future was his cousin, they started to speak about Rico's father's side of the family that Fewtch was connected to, which he knew very little of because many of them were incarcerated. The trap icon stuck around in the Dungeon and soaked up so much game, all simply because he was family.

At the end of the day, neither approach is more valid or heartening than the other, and they resulted in amazing art for the culture regardless. On MICHAEL, the album that the late legend opened up just last year, "SCIENTISTS & ENGINEERS" reunites representatives from three distinct waves of the Dungeon Family: André 3000, Killer Mike, and Future. 30 years after "Player's Ball," and 50 years since hip-hop was born, he continued to evolve the game, to fuse it with other beloved and important music, to represent his city to the fullest, to embrace the next talents, to preserve the culture's foundations, and to always create something greater and more compelling than the sum of the old and the new. It was extremely hard for Rico Wade to forever be the bridge in hip-hop history. But to him, it wasn't hard throughout the journey: it was just a journey.

About The Author
Gabriel Bras Nevares is a music and pop culture news writer for HotNewHipHop. He started in 2022 as a weekend writer and, since joining the team full-time, has developed a strong knowledge in hip-hop news and releases. Whether it’s regular coverage or occasional interviews and album reviews, he continues to search for the most relevant news for his audience and find the best new releases in the genre. What excites him the most is finding pop culture stories of interest, as well as a deeper passion for the art form of hip-hop and its contemporary output. Specifically, Gabriel enjoys the fringes of rap music: the experimental, boundary-pushing, and raw alternatives to the mainstream sound. As a proud native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he also stays up-to-date with the archipelago’s local scene and its biggest musical exponents in reggaetón, salsa, indie, and beyond. Before working at HotNewHipHop, Gabriel produced multiple short documentaries, artist interviews, venue spotlights, and audio podcasts on a variety of genres and musical figures. Hardcore punk and Go-go music defined much of his coverage during his time at the George Washington University in D.C. His favorite hip-hop artists working today are Tyler, The Creator, Boldy James, JPEGMAFIA, and Earl Sweatshirt.