Let’s get dreaded up like Mr. Coolio, shall we?
One of the first rappers to balance pop hooks with gritty, street-level subject matter and language, Coolio had no problem delivering radio friendly, happy-go-lucky hits. While still sharing the West Coast scene’s love of laid-back ’70s funk, most of Coolio’s good-time party anthems (except for the grimy, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” of course. ) came with a goofy persona in the their accompanying videos. Coolio also kept it real with younger audiences, going on to become a favorite on Nickelodeon comedy shows due to those spidery dreadlocks that seemed to go in all sort of different directions, much like his music career.
Born Artis Leon Ivey, Jr. in the South Central L.A. area of Compton, as a a young boy, Coolio was a highly intelligent bookworm, which often made life in the music hood difficult. His parents divorced when he was 11, and desperately searching for a way to fit in at school, he began a stint with the Baby Crips and got himself into loads of trouble. But the social struggle was still real and he was never formally inducted into the gang. But that didn’t keep him from going to jail at 17 for larceny by apparently trying to cash a money order that had actually been stolen by one of his friends. After high school, he studied at Compton Community College where he would began taking his high school interest in rap to the main stage and took his performing name from a dozen contests in which someone called him “Coolio Iglesias.”
Coolio quickly became a regular on Los Angeles rap radio station KDAY and cut one of the earlier SoCal rap singles called, “Watcha Gonna Do,” which was unfortunately disrupted by his addiction to crack cocaine, which temporarily derailed his music career. After spending time in rehab, he came back and straightened himself out by….taking a job as a firefighter in the forests of northern California while getting his fledgling rap career back on track. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Now that Coolio was on the straight-and-narrow, he cut another single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” that went absolutely nowhere. It wasn’t until he started making connections in the L.A. hip-hop scene that he linked up with WC and the Maad Circle, guesting on their 1991 debut album, Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed. He soon joined a collective dubbed the 40 Thevz and from that magic moment, he ended up landing a deal with Tommy Boy Records. Side-by-side with DJ Brian “Wino” Dobbs, Coolio recorded his debut album, It Takes a Thief, which was served to headphones in ’94. While lead single, “County Line,” didn’t create tha elusive Coolio fuss, the track still went down as a hilarious retelling of the indignities of welfare. The record really took off when “Fantastic Voyage,” a rap remake of the funk classic by Lakeside, was released as a summer single.
Accompanied by a playful visual, “Fantastic Voyage” set off to number three on the pop charts, pushing It Takes a Thief into the Top Ten and past the platinum sales mark. Many critics and listeners welcomed Coolio’s friendlier, gentler approach to the gangsta-dominated West Coast sound, despite the fact that some of his album tracks took on a hardcore themes in a similarly profane manner. But who really cared about all that when it came to Coolio? No one.
But as we all know, things really took off for Coolio after he teamed up with gospel-trained singer L.V. on a little track based on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life cut “Pastime Paradise,” called “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Laced with lyrics about ghetto life, “Paradise” was dark, haunting, and a spellbindingly atmospheric rap ditty. In fact, Tommy Boy was nervous to piu the song on Coolio’s forthcoming album and instead placed it on the soundtrack to the film Dangerous Minds, the classic film that stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, err, a tough-as-nails inner-city teacher who gives out candy to her students for getting good grades. Right?
Released in the summer of ’95, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was a staggeringly huge hit, becoming Coolio’s first number one pop single and also the first ghetto-centric rap song to hit number one in the U.K. The song was such a phenomenon that Weird Al Yankovic recorded the parody “Amish Paradise,” (Hey, Ms. Florence.) and the accompanying album Bad Hair Day became Al’s biggest-selling record..ever. Later going on to win a Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance, “Gangsta’s Paradise” would come with an album of the same name, as well as two more smash singles, the vibrant, “1,2,3,4(Sumpin’ New),” and the Kool & The Gang sampling, “Too Hot.”Coolio also nabbed a cameo in the ’97 box office joke, Batman & Robin. Anyone remember? Anyone?
However, things took a disappointing turn after Gangsta follow up, My Soul, was complicated by a music boat load of legal difficulties. It also kind of hurt a little bit that in late”97, Coolio and seven members of his entourage were arrested for allegedly shoplifting from a German clothing store and assaulting the owner–Coolio was later convicted on accessory charges and fined. But later on in California, he was pulled over and cited for driving on the wrong side of the road with an expired license and was also charged with carrying a concealed weapon and possessing a small amount of chronic.
While over the years there’s been rumblings that Mr. Coolio and his dreads are hard at werk making a new album, but for now all we can do is reminisce on the days when Coolio certainly owned the music world and had all of us living in his “Gangsta’s Paradise. It certainly was nice, wasn’t it?