Coolio’s “gangsta paradise” and the struggle to be taken seriously
Grunge. Wu-Tang clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall”. The music of the 90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does that say about the time – and why is it still important? In our new show 60 songs that explain the 90s ringtone ’90s musical author and survivor Rob Harvilla sets out on a quest to answer these questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 37, which challenges “Gangsta’s Paradise” against “Amish Paradise” and pop rap in the 90s.
Is a rap song less believable if it hits the pop charts, or more to the point if it hits all the white kids on the St. Louis rink? Do you take a rap song less seriously if it makes you wanna dance, if it’s funny, if even white kids dance, if white kids are laughing? Who can laugh at, and at what, at whom? This conflict didn’t originate with Coolio, but few of the chart-topping, fun-loving ’90s rappers were more successful in unifying America, and hardly anyone found the experience more alienating.
Coolio was born Artis Leon Ivey Jr. in 1963. Born and raised in south-central Los Angeles. Raised mainly by a single mother. He had asthma. He was a bookworm. He skipped the sixth grade. He had a youth association with the Crips; he turned to theft, burglary, in his teenage years, and he turned 18 in jail for trying to cash a warrant associated with armed robbery. In his early twenties, he struggled with crack addiction; he cleaned up, in part, by moving north to San Jose to live with his father and work as a firefighter for the California Forest Department. As he said later Turn magazine, regarding crack, “I didn’t stop fighting fires. I stopped by God. It happened by will. It was time for me to stop. God had plans for me, so he made me quit.
He started rapping in earnest in the late 1980s; he hadn’t decided on a rapper’s name yet until one day he was having fun playing guitar or something and a friend of his said, “Who do you think you are, Coolio Iglesias? Ergo. Coolio made his debut, as a legitimate recording artist, in the years 1991 Ain’t a fucking changed Thang, the debut album from LA WC and Maad Circle. This is Maad spelled MAAD for you Kendrick Lamar fans. WC was the frontman and fellow rapper, the producers included Crazy Toons and Dr. Dre’s cousin, Sir Jinx, who had previously worked extensively with Ice Cube. Maybe it’s in hindsight that makes me say that Coolio already sounds like a star, on a song like “Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed”, but Coolio already sounds like a star.
More importantly, Coolio is now in his late twenties and has already lived several lifetimes, and he can describe those lives to you with, say, youthful ferocity and liveliness, but he’s also already grappling with the question of how to sell without selling.
In 1991, before fame, Coolio already had a grim awareness of how rap music is sold – how rappers themselves are sold – to those rap fans who were not born and raised in the world. south-central Los Angeles. He is aware of the national cultural prejudices that these eager foreigners are expected to confirm.
A house that I don’t own and no respect on the street. Coolio understands that the Rap Is Not Pop debate is partly about perception versus reality. Their perception vs. your reality. Through their perception, I mean soft-jawed kids who watch MTV. Coolio understands the mission. Coolio understands the pitfalls, the stereotypes inherent in the mission. His charisma, his buoyancy, his light aura, his hearty star power, it will all work both for and against him, as he becomes a star himself. What he did in 1994, with the release of his first solo album, It takes a thief, which starts with an ecstatic and unifying air entitled “Fantastic Voyage”.
“Fantastic Voyage”, which peaked at no. 3 on the Hot 100, didn’t sample the 1980 Dayton, Ohio funk group Lakeside hit “Fantastic Voyage” as much as requisitioning it. With dynamism. But Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” video is where Coolio really shows you where he is. The charisma. Fantasy. The mysterious gentleman with the cane and the pink suit who turns a bicycle into a convertible Chevrolet Impala, which Coolio then drives, points to the treasure map on the screen, from Da Hood to Da Beach, then hundreds of revelers come out of the trunk of the Impala. There is also the issue of Coolio’s hair. The spider braids. A pretty striking look. He’s a pretty striking human being. And musically, his path seems like an escape, even though there’s a whole chasm, physical and metaphysical, between what many of his new MTV fans might escape and what Coolio himself is escaping.
It takes a thief, the album, debuted and peaked at no. 8 on the Billboard Albums chart. So: a blow. Was it a pop knock, however? In a 1995 Rolling stone Profile, Coolio explained how, after the explosion of “Fantastic Voyage”, he feared he had alienated his primary audience. So, for the album’s next and final single, he chose the more serious and funky “Mama, I’m in Love Wit a Gangsta”, a duet with rapper LeShaun – which you may remember from “Doin ‘It” by LL Cool J – in which Coolio plays a guy in prison and she plays his possibly cheating girlfriend on the outside. It’s a serious love feud, it’s played for a laugh, but he also slaps you hard in the face for the first 30 seconds.
To listen to the full episode Click here, and make sure you follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes of the decade’s most important songs. This excerpt has been edited slightly for clarity and length.