Pioneering Hip-Hop Producer Starita Is on Sacred Ground

Starita stands in a recording studio, photographed in black and white.
Watch the new music video for Starita and Otis McDonald’s “The Wake Up Re-Call” featuring Illa J, Zay Bcuz, and NicX.

Sitting behind the glass at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Starita is honored to be recording in a city he believes is a sacred ground for music. According to legend, the Tennessee River, which flows through Alabama, was referred to as “the singing river” by the Yuchie Tribe because they claimed that the breeze whistling off the water sounded like a woman singing. “That’s the philosophy behind why this is such a musical town: There’s a spirit in this place, something you can’t put words to,” Starita told Noisey while discussing new song, “The Wake Up Re-Call.”

The Mississippi-born multi-talented artist and songwriter’s discography demonstrates his experience and flexibility in crafting songs, with collaborators ranging from Childish Gambino and A Tribe Called Quest to Christian Scott, aTunde Adjuah, Madame Gandhi, and Los Amigos Invisibles. As an artist, a producer, and an engineer, Starita has played many different roles on both sides of the glass on dozens of records.

Tracing “The Wake Up Re-Call” back to its beginnings, Starita said that DJ Rasta Root—the late rapper Phife Dawg’s longtime manager—was instrumental in its creation. “I was working on Tribe Called Quest’s most recent album, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, and then Phife and I started working on his solo album,” Starita said. Phife Dawg passed away two days after wrapping up work on the album track “Dis Generation” in 2016. “I recorded his last record,” Starita said. “So that turned into a deeper relationship with the Tribe Called Quest family.”

“The Wake Up Re-Call” first took the form of a slow and solitary instrumental from Starita and Trent Park released in 2021, fittingly titled “The Wake Up Call.” The track was transformed by Starita’s friend and collaborator, Otis McDonald, earlier this year. McDonald, a producer and multi-instrumentalist, recharged the record by infusing swing and breaks, making it into a soulful hip-hop instrumental track. The recording then went to Rasta Root, who invited a trio of rappers to the studio to add verses: Zay BcuzNicX, and Illa J, the Detroit singer, producer, rapper and younger brother of J Dilla.

“It is unbelievable what Otis did with the record,” Starita said. “I never could have imagined it would evolve into this.”

But Starita added that he doesn’t refer to the new recording as a remix because he said the process “turned into something so collaborative and different.” The verses each contribute specific angles and meaningful prose from the featured rappers, who flowed effortlessly over McDonald’s warm and soulful approach. Illa J sets the tone insightfully with the first verse, Zay Bcuz brings his focus and flexibility to the second verse, and the tight dexterity of NicX elevates the track’s final verse.

The collaboration for “The Wake Up Re-Call” grew from seeds planted over the last decade, which took root in the same recording sessions that immortalized Phife Dawg’s final lyrics. The music video, fittingly, came to life in a packed club in Atlanta at a listening party for Phife Dawg’s posthumous solo album, Forever, released in March. Rasta Root granted permission for the artists to film “The Wake Up Re-Call” music video at the LP’s listening party. It was a fitting tribute to the cycle of hip hop: It doesn’t die; it’s continually reborn.

Today, after decades of collaboration and history across a wide spectrum of sound, Starita said he is focused on maintaining a beginner’s mindset. “If you think you know how something is supposed to be, you can’t explore and drop the mind,” he said. The words he found to describe his philosophy to music were rooted in spirituality. “Curiosity and consciousness power art,” he added. “Art is constantly trying to mimic reality. Being curious begins this entire exploration. The inquisitive nature to question and the nature to make art are linked. You can’t separate art and consciousness, that’s where it comes from.”