Coolio: Paradise Found

Rapper completes his fantastic voyage from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the top of the pop charts

Coolio in 1995. Credit: Des Willie/Redferns

WHAT DO YOU mean 'Gangsta's Paradise' is a romanticized view of the hood?" A perturbed Coolio has lunged forward on the white leather couch in the living room of his Los Angeles home. Poised at the edge of his seat with both hands flat down on the coffee table in front of him, he stares quizzically into my eyes and says, "I'm trying to understand why you use that description."

We are talking about the theme song to this past summer's Michelle Pfeiffer movie, Dangerous Minds, which is also the title track of Coolio's brand-new album. And I am treading on thin ice. Romantic, after all, is a pretty loaded word and not exactly the image Coolio intended for his lyrics about growing up amid violence and chaos – particularly when the song's refrain poses the very sober request "Tell me why are we too blind to see/That the ones we hurt are you and me." And yet "Gangsta's Paradise" taps the very same vein that has catapulted other Los Angeles rappers — Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound — into the Top 10. Riding a silky smooth bass line and drenched in classical strings and choral music, the song finds Coolio rattling off a laundry list of button-pushing lines like "Got my 10 in my hand and a gleam in my eye." Unlike songs by Dre and Snoop, though, the underlying message of "Gangsta's Paradise" is that education is the best ticket out of the ghetto.

For the sake of civility, I backpedal. "I'm not saying that it glorifies the hood," I say. "I just mean the classical overtones paint a picture of the emotional aspects you don't get in little media bites. You know what I'm saying?" The two or three seconds of silence are deafening as Coolio tugs at one of the little fly-away braids shooting from his head like electronically charged shoelaces. Finally he responds in a much softer tone: "But what's romantic about that?"

More than a decade after he cut his first independent single, "Whatcha Gonna Do," the 32-year-old Coolio is in full control of his life and career. He has survived the death of his mother from a stroke, and he nearly lost his own life to a nasty crack addiction, yet Coolio has managed to come out of it all with his clownish sense of humor intact. He recently appeared in 2Pac's star-studded "Temptations" video as a zany bellhop opposite Ice-T's lascivious hotel manager. Today, Coolio runs his own management company, Crowbar, and owns a hair salon in Long Beach, Calif., whose name sounds like his hair looks: Whoop-De-Doo.

In July, "Gangsta's Paradise" spent four weeks at No. 1, selling nearly 2 million copies on the strength of Dangerous Minds and Coolio's platinum-selling 1994 debut, It Takes a Thief. If anyone thought the mass appeal of Coolio's first cross-over hit, the dreamlike "Fantastic Voyage," was a fluke, his new album should allay all doubts.

"What I don't like about most rap these days is that it's all about singles," Coolio says. "This is an album. I want to make albums that people will listen to all the way through."

Coolio has done that — twice. If It Takes a Thief was an autobiography of Coolio's childhood days of hustling and drug addiction, Gangsta's Paradise is more like a collection of parables for the 'hood: instructions, dedications and a smattering of adventure stories tossed in purely for amusement. There's some gunfire and hard language on the album, but Coolio puts it in a useful context. Alongside the introduction like "Ghetto Highlights" and the skit "Recoup This" — a fantasy about a rapper who feels so manipulated by a sleazy independent record label owner that he loses control and shoots him — are songs of encouragement to kids in the ghetto ("Bright as the Sun," "Revolution"), women in a man's world ("For My Sistas") and men struggling with fatherhood ("Smilin' ").

Other songs draw from the music of Coolio's childhood. For "Too Hot," he enlisted Kool and the Gang's James "J.T." Taylor to remake the group's 1980 Top 10 hit; "Cruisin' " uses the breezy melody of the Smokey Robinson original for guest rapper Malika's updated tale of adolescent love; and Coolio looped a hefty chunk of Billy Paul's soulful '70s ode to infidelity, "Me and Mrs. Jones," for his own "Thing Goin' On."

"When I was a kid," Coolio says, "my mom and stepfather was listening to Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Dramatics, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield — all that shit. Back in those days, people didn't have big album collections, at least not in the ghetto, but we did." He gazes out the sliding glass door at the swimming pool sparkling in his enclosed backyard. "I listen to old soul, old funk, a couple of old rap albums, maybe some new rap stuff here and there. I don't like new R&B — period."

You won't find any Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston records in the modest yet sprawling redbrick home Coolio shares with his fiance, in upscale Ladera Heights, a quiet neighborhood south of Hollywood and northwest of Coolio's hometown of Compton, Calif. Behind a pink stucco fence with an electronic wrought-iron gate, Coolio's "killer guard dog," a white German shepherd named Fernix, plays in the driveway alongside a shiny black Lexus and a blue Infiniti. A small foyer just inside the house opens into a spacious living room with large portraits of Coolio's family, an award celebrating the multiplatinum sales of the Dangerous Minds soundtrack, several desert houseplants and a stone fireplace.

A colorful Peter Kitchell print hangs on the white wall above the couch where Coolio — dressed in baggy, green-plaid flannel pants, a white T-shirt and black slippers — sits with his legs crossed and his arms folded on his chest. "I guess I know what you mean by romantic," he says, returning to my unfortunate observation. "You're talking about the lyrical context, right? We're not really arguing then." He drifts off for a moment, then adds, "It's just that people have said all kinds of stuff about that song, and they usually miss the point."

The rub for Coolio is that most people might not know that he is generally agrees with other parents about the effects of senseless violence in entertainment. "The ghetto is a lot different now than it was before all this shit," he says. But he emphatically sees himself as different from your average gat-toting rapper: "I'm trying to get rid of that jacket that's been put on my back – that I'm a gangsta rapper. That's not my thing. My thing is to be true to myself and try to educate and entertain kids. I have children of my own, and I realize that other people have children, too. I also realize that they don't any more know what the fuck to do with their children than I do."

Still, Coolio chose to name his new album Gangsta's Paradise. "When I make references like that, I'm trying to get kids' attention using language they want to hear," he says. "Then I can take them to a deeper level. I'm just trying to get a better understanding of myself and a better understanding of other people."

TO GET TO THE COMPTON neighborhood where Coolio grew up, you take El Segundo east from the Harbor Freeway past the sprawling Magic Johnson Recreation Area, the Golden Bird Fried Chicken, graffiti-covered gray walls, barren industrial sites and vacant lots, rows of tiny bungalows, and the "liquor stores and churches on every other corner" that he raps about on his new album. A battered sign on one storefront church reads, TO HEAVEN, TURN RIGHT.

Coolio was born Artis Ivey Jr. in South Central Los Angeles in 1963, but his factory-worker mother moved him and his sister to Compton eight years later, after she divorced his carpenter father. The family lived at the end of a long driveway with two giant palm trees at the front and a cluster of houses at the end. Less than a block away was a library. "I lived in that library, man," says Coolio. "I read every kid's book they had in there. I even read Judy Blume" (the author who specializes in books about female adolescence).

Compton got more violent during the '80s, and Coolio turned to drugs and rap for solace. By the time he reached his mid-20s, he had recorded a single that got limited local airplay — and was a full-fledged crack addict. To kick the drugs, he moved in with his father, who had relocated north to San Jose, Calif.

Coolio gradually picked himself up, returned to Los Angeles and went full-force into music. He recorded another single, with his buddy Spoon as NuSkool, and then joined WC and the MAAD Circle, whose album, Ain't a Damn Thing Changed, came out on Priority in 1991 and sold about 150,000 copies. About that time, Coolio met DJ Wino, his current sidekick, landed a deal with Tommy Boy and began working on It Takes a Thief. The last song of the sessions was "Fantastic Voyage," which launched Coolio into the pop arena. "I don't think you can classify rap as pop," he says. "The only time people classify rap as pop is when they start playing it on white stations."

One reason "Fantastic Voyage" got played on "white stations" is because its video was a universal invitation to a journey to the center of Coolio's mind. It opened with a ghetto-confined Coolio dreaming of a seaside utopia where "there ain't no Bloodin', there ain't no Crippin'/Ain't no punk-ass niggas set trippin'/Everybody's got a stack, and it ain't no crack/And it really don't matter if you're white or black." Worried that "Fantastic Voyage" had alienated his core audience, Coolio released "Mama I'm in Love With a Gangsta" (featuring guest rapper LeShaun), which was much grittier. "I thought I was losing touch with the street scene after 'Fantastic Voyage' blew up so quick," Coolio says.

Coolio blew up again when "Gangsta's Paradise" appeared in Dangerous Minds. Although he denies it, the crossover consciousness on the new album is palpable. It glides effortlessly from smooth R&B to hard hip-hop; one song, "Exercise Yo Game," actually recalls the old-school hip-hop of Afrika Bambaata. "Gangsta's Paradise is just a reflection on me right now," Coolio says. "I know I'm always gonna be connected to the streets, because I'm a street person — mentally. But it ain't my physical thing no more. And I'm not a liar. I'm not gonna sit here and say I'm doing the same things I used to do just to make songs."

"I got a song on Gangsta's Paradise called 'Smilin' ' that I wrote for my kids because I don't get to see them as often as I'd like to," Coolio says, "and I want them to know that I love them. But it's also dedicated to fathers who are real and are trying to make a difference." Another song, "For My Sistas," is for similarly principled women, although Coolio wrote it specifically for the women in his own life. "That's to give points to the women who have inspired me," he says. "If you listen to the music, there's nothing else I could have wrote. It was a flash. It was pure inspiration."

Inspiration is what kept Coolio going through the worst years of his life, when he thought he was doomed to failure. "You know, I'm not a believer in any organized religion," he says. "I don't call myself a Muslim or a Christian or a Buddhist. But I do believe in one God. And he's been watching over me. I mean, by now I should be in jail, living on the streets or dead."