‘He believed in everybody’: The everlasting legacy of Atlanta’s Rico Wade

Friends remember the Atlanta hip-hop legend, foodie, sports fanatic and coach who changed their lives forever.
Rico Wade photographed in Piedmont Park in the 1990s. Photographer Shannon McCollum spent time documenting Wade and the rise of Dungeon Family.

Credit: File photo/Shannon McCollum

Credit: File photo/Shannon McCollum

Rico Wade photographed in Piedmont Park in the 1990s. Photographer Shannon McCollum spent time documenting Wade and the rise of Dungeon Family.

Before he died at the age of 52, Atlanta music pioneer Rico Wade had his sights set on a new venture: food truck owner.

Yep, the man credited with guiding the careers of OutKast, Goodie Mob, TLC, Future and too many others to fit into print was focused on realizing a culinary dream. Since his passing earlier this month, Wade has been aptly remembered as a “visionary” and ”Godfather of modern Atlanta rap.” This is not hyperbole.

It’s also not the full story.

In addition to being a legend, he was a foodie. Wade liked to talk with his hands; long digits helping amplify the passion behind whatever subject he was discussing. The topic could be what to wear to an Atlanta Hawks game, being a dedicated Georgia football fan, or maybe his newfound love for grilling lamb lollipops. He was always smiling. He was big fan of Nirvana. He loved his family, and the families his friends were building.

Rico Wade, left, serves up some barbeque to rap star Sean "Puffy" Combs during a party at Wade's house on Sunday, Aug. 17, 1997. (AJC Staff Photo/Mark Adams)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Wade died on April 13. He was survived by his mother, two sons, his wife, and a host of brothers and sisters.

Wade’s life will be celebrated in a private service on Friday, April 26, followed by a procession from Mercedes-Benz Stadium to the corner of Headland and Delowe in East Point.

As the co-founder and voice of the Dungeon Family, Atlanta’s storied hip-hop collective, Wade was known as one of the most prominent figures in Atlanta’s history. He’s hailed as an ambassador for Black creatives pushing to bring them more visibility, pride and confidence. Andre 3000 made his clarion call at the 1995 Source Awards that, “the South got something to say,” but it was Wade who instilled a sense of red clay fearlessness and moxie that fueled the now legendary proclamation.

As part of the production trio Organized Noize with Ray Murray and Pat “Sleepy” Brown, Wade gave the city its own sense of sound, identity and self-worth. According to friends and family who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wade was a local kid who wanted to see Atlanta win, and its Black have-nots get a fair shake at success.

“A part of Atlanta died when he died,” says Ramon Campbell, Wade’s best friend. “He was that connection, that energetic soul of Atlanta that gave people hope.”

Two dope boys

Rico Renard Wade was born on Feb. 26, 1972, the son of Beatrice Wade and Augustus Griggs, Jr.

Campbell and Wade met back when they were teens in East Point. As the story goes, Wade took a liking to Campbell’s twin sister. After Wade’s failed attempts to woo her, the two boys started to click over a love of music despite their differences. Whereas Wade was the dark-skinned, chatty and messy one, Campbell was the lighter, quieter and more organized of the two.

Originally from New York, Campbell would travel back in the summer to visit his father and grandmother, returning with mixtapes that he’d share with his friend. Wade admired Campbell’s music collection, while the latter remembers being impressed by a young Black man making his own way to help his family. “He was always a hustler. He was working at a very young age to support his mom and his two sisters,” he recalls.

Wade got Campbell a job at the video store next to Lamonte’s Beauty Supply, the very location at Headland and Delowe where OutKast auditioned for the East Point native. The two spent time at the Atlanta University Center and Jellybeans skating rink, befriending Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins. “We were the first two that were hanging with each other, and then it seems like everybody in the family kind of started to migrate toward us,” he says.

Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of TLC and Rico Wade at MTV's "A Great Day In Atlanta" shoot at the Gilbert House. (PHOTO SONIA MURRAY/STAFF)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

The pair eventually formed an R&B group along with Sleepy Brown and their friend Marqueze Etheridge known as U-Boyz. The group had a failed audition for executive Pebbles Reid, who had a label partnership with LaFace Records. But Pebbles took a liking to Wade, and introduced him to her then-husband, LaFace Records co-founder L.A. Reid. Reid offered Wade an executive role.

“He was like, ‘I got other plans, I got other dreams, I got a whole crew’,” Campbell recalls. Instead, Rico recommended Kawan Prather aka KP the Great, a member of the Dungeon Family’s first group, Parental Advisory, who had an eye for talent. “He’s always had a vision, even if that vision didn’t involve him directly, he would make sure he had people around him that can execute that vision,” Campbell says.

When Organized Noize signed their $20 million contract with Interscope, Wade brought Campbell on as an A&R rep for the label. Campbell also managed Dungeon Family artist Cool Breeze, and served as Sleepy Brown’s road manager. Campbell was also as an executive producer for the documentary “The Art of Organized Noize.”

One of his favorite memories comes from this period of time when Campbell saved up money to buy a BMW station wagon, but was denied because of his credit, sharing his disappointment with Wade. “A couple days later, the BMW was sitting in the driveway,” he says. “He bought it for me.”

Campbell doesn’t have the car anymore, but he’s been replaying that story a lot since Wade died.

‘Humble guy from southwest Atlanta’

Former music executive Shanti Das was hired by LaFace Records four months after finishing college. In addition to doing promotion for the label’s R&B acts, she was assigned to work with the rap groups, including OutKast.

She remembers one of her first meetings with the guys when they offered to take her “down into the Dungeon.”

“To the what?!,” she recalls asking before descending down the steps into the crawlspace at Wade’s mother’s Lakewood Heights house. Seeing the music equipment, dirt, Black kids working together for a dollar and a dream, it clicked. “I understood the red clay and the symbolism of growing up in the weeds from the streets of Atlanta,” she thought.

Das also saw that Wade’s genius in life came in the form of bringing people from separate walks of life together for a collective good. “How can I say this? I think the artists and the other producers and everybody in the family really looked up to Rico. So even though he led with the passion, he had this way of commanding the attention in the room.”

In a recent interview with Monica Pearson, former music exec Shanti Das talks about what music producer Rico wade meant for Atlanta.

It was Wade who would typically meet with the labels and come back to relay the info to everyone else. He and Das joked about finding ways to disrupt the music industry system. “He would say, ‘C’mon, Shanti. We got to make everybody else know why this is a hit’,” she says. “He never wavered on his excitement or his intentionality.”

“When I met Rico, he was this humble guy from southwest Atlanta before they had received the notoriety, the success and the accolades, and he was still the same person to this day,” she says.

As they grew older, the two co-workers turned friends kept in contact because Wade loved to talk on the phone. “Rico would talk to you on the phone like y’all were in high school; you might be on the phone with Rico for an hour or two and just get lost in the conversation,” she says.

One of those conversations came a few weeks before Wade died, and Das hasn’t stopped thinking about it. “We were just talking about life and we were talking about health challenges that we had both experienced and the importance of eating healthy and taking care of ourselves at our age,” says Das who is one year older than Wade at 53. “I can’t believe that he’s not here.”

Picture me rolling

Next to the image of Wade holding his forearms stacked to show case off corresponding “DUNGEON” and “FAMILY” tattoos, there is probably no visual more synonymous with his legend than one captured by longtime Atlanta music photographer Shannon McCollum. The photograph shows Wade sitting atop his Range Rover in Piedmont Park, wearing a University of Michigan basketball jersey, his long hands and fingers stretched outward.

In the early ‘90s, McCollum was a sophomore at Clark Atlanta University when he was hired by Black-owned entertainment magazine, Tafrija, to photograph the Dungeon Family. After meeting the crew at Wade’s house on Adams Drive in southwest Atlanta, McCollum spent the next five years documenting their rise. Wade paid him $500 a week starting out. Thanks to connections he made through Wade and lessons learned from him on navigating the industry, McCollum was later able to branch out on his own, shooting Atlanta events and eventually growing to become one of music’s most accomplished photographers.

“I owe that dude so much because he just was there for me, man,” he remembers. “He just trusted me. I knew how to handle myself and conduct myself because I had been around Rico Wade.”

Rico Wade (from left), Patrick "Sleepy" Brown, artist Big Rube and Raymond Murray pose on the red carpet at the Atlanta Chapter Recording Academy Honors at the Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta on April 26, 2007. Wade, Brown and Murray were being honored at the event. (Mikki K. Harris / AJC STAFF)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Though his days of hanging out in Wade’s basement have passed, McCollum says the two always made time to chop it up when they’d see each other out. The last time was at a funeral and they ran into each other outside, sitting next to each other inside to keep the conversation going. He jokes that Wade would have crushed it on the TED Talks circuit.

It was Wade’s way with words and injecting that confidence in others that guided McCollum. At the time artists weren’t bringing photographers on tour, but Wade saw McCollum’s skills, pushing him to have more confidence in himself. “It was just his gift of gab and truly believing in him and the talent around him. That was huge for me,” he says. “I just loved that man because what it did for me was it allowed me to talk with so much passion about my own work.”

In later years, Wade was less interested in being photographed and would ask his now-famous photo friend to shoot his son’s basketball games. He would also make it a point to tell McCollum how proud he was of McCollum’s son, Grammy-nominated artist Lil Yachty.

“Can you believe it? I’m getting this love from Rico Wade about my kid,” he says. “Wade will forever be a God. That dude deserves a statue in Atlanta.”

Coach Wade

That Wade’s voice is the first one listeners hear on Killer Mike’s Grammy-sweeping album, “Michael,” is no accident. The rapper and entrepreneur calls Wade the costar of “Michael,” serving as the narrator because as Killer Mike puts it, “No other voice could speak for a Atlanta” the way Wade could.

On the album opener, “Down by Law,” Wade’s voice comes in the form of one of his legendary pep talks. Wade talks about the importance of timing, staying motivated despite life’s stalls.

“I just think timin’ is everything/ Like [expletive], 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.”

Wade’s comments stem from an argument the two men had years ago over the name Killer Mike. The latter set out as a solo artist, and when a meeting with label execs headed south, Wade pulled Killer Mike out into a hallway. “They don’t want to support ‘Killer Mike.’ And that’s [expletive] up and that’s wrong. So we got to figure something else out. Maybe we got to say ‘kill a mic,” Wade said at the time.

Killer Mike refused, citing that the label had a group of four white rockers known as The Killers. Rather than keep fighting, Wade told Killer Mike he believed in him, and supported his vision, even if they saw it differently. “He never let me forget that you made the decision and now that you made the decision, you’re going to see this [expletive] all the way through.”

“Rico helped me understand that their fear was going to inhibit me,” he says. “So even when the struggle came, it was just a part of the journey.”

Nearly two decades later, when Killer Mike won three Grammys earlier this year, it was Wade who called to congratulate him. The journey had come full circle.

“He was truly a man that wanted to see you be your absolute best, that’s a coach,” he says. “We lost an amazing coach.”

‘We love you, Rico’

The scene was so thick.

On a chilly Sunday evening in downtown Atlanta, over a week after Wade’s passing, a few hundred people are gathering for a tribute. It’s a 420-themed music festival called The Sesh. Standing in front of the stage at Forsyth and Garnett streets embracing are Sleepy Brown, members of Goodie Mob, Dungeon Family artist Slimm Calhoun, Das and others. Wade’s family is in attendance. A haze of smoke rests over the crowd staring up at the stage toward KP the Great.

Members of the Dungeon Family gather on stage during a tribute to Rico Wade at The Sesh music festival on April 26, 2024.

Credit: Gavin Godfrey

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Credit: Gavin Godfrey

He’s wearing a Black hoodie from Andre 3000′s New Blue Sun tour. Only days before, The Sesh advertised an Organized Noize tribute following Wade’s death, featuring a set from KP and performances from Dungeon Family members.

As he stood behind the turntables, KP was honest about his emotions. “This is one of the hardest ones I’ve ever had to do,” he tells the crowd.

From there, KP takes the audience on a journey through the soundtrack of Wade’s life, opening with “You May Die,” the intro from OutKast’s sophomore album, “ATLiens.” KP’s set is an homage to Wade and Dungeon Family’s catalogue, but also songs he loved like Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the “Golden Girls” theme song.

Dungeon Family members join KP on stage. Backbone talks about “Reek neck,” the movement Wade made in the studio when he heard beats he liked before going into his record, “5 Duce-4 Tre.” With KP as their guide, Dungeon Family members cycle through staples “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” “Black Ice,” “Cell Therapy,” and “Crumblin’ Erb.” The set then transitions to Mista’s “Blackberry Molasses,” the R&B group’s biggest hit, which Organized Noize produced.

Rico Wade (from left), rapper 'Backbone' and Backbone's manager Bernard Parks rat a party Sunday, April 22, 2001, at Wade's Atlanta home to wrap up a weekend of Universal Records showcasing it's Southern acts. (Kimberly Smith/staff)

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

At this point, the stage is teeming with artists, former executives, friends and family. They’re clutching white balloons, laughing, crying, singing along. The lyrics speak to perseverance, even in darkness. “You gotta keep pushin’ on/ the sun don’t rain all the time/ there’s gonna be some heartache and pain.”

It’s at this point that Sleepy Brown addresses his fallen friend and the crowd gathered to honor him.

“We want to thank you for everything,” he says, his eyes hidden behind shades. “We want to thank you for the love, the understanding, and always looking out for people.”

He tells the story about Wade introducing him to Future, how he always had the foresight to see what others couldn’t.

“It just goes to show you he had a big heart. He believed in everybody,” Sleepy Brown says. “... He gave everybody a chance. And right now we can let these balloons fly for his family, for his lovely wife, Debbie, for his sisters, for his whole family, for the Dungeon family, for all of us. For all of y’all, man”

As Sleepy Brown counts up to three, the white balloons start ascending. The crowd saying in unison, “We love you, Rico!”

East Point’s greatest hit

Campbell says his best friend took the journey as far as it could go. The two men spoke on the phone every day. A week before Wade passed, they were watching the Final Four. Wade was winning his March Madness pool. That someone would go up against Wade in a game of betting on winners defies logic if you know his track record.

As he grew older, wins and losses took a back seat to Wade’s love for family. Campbell and Wade built a friendship through music, but their relationship outlasted the beats.

“I’m having parties with my kids, he’s the first one there. He’s doing something with his kids, I’m the first one there,” he says. “So I think our bond became stronger because of family.”

In the last conversation they had, Wade was explaining how excited he was to get his food truck business off the ground. They also discussed an upcoming visit to Las Vegas, where he planned on rooting for Campbell’s daughter at a cheerleading competition next month. Sadly, neither will happen.

The original Dungeon is located in Lakewood Heights. Wade grew up in the house with his mother and two sisters.

Credit: Gavin Godfrey

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Credit: Gavin Godfrey

Campbell says he finds comfort seeing tributes pour in for Wade. There’s talk of renaming a street in East Point to honor him. The City of Atlanta also has plans in the works. Das, Killer Mike and McCollum have all said they’d like to see creative arts programs established in his honor.

“What Rico understood is that art is not exclusive to those who have, that art can constantly be created by those who have not to make something out of nothing,” Killer Mike says.

Wade’s friends say he laid the foundation for the next Atlanta kid bold enough to think beyond their current situation.

Contemplating his best friend’s legacy, Campbell connects it back to Wade’s willingness to reach the world by starting from your corner of it.

“Georgia has been known for red clay, so it was like Rico in a sense was the first one to mold a brick and said, ‘It starts from here’,” he says. “Now you got a whole house that’s been built starting with the first brick that Rico laid.”