Coolio: Paradise Found
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.”
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