“I’m 23 now but will I live to see 24?” Coolio demanded with quiet desperation on his signature song, the all-time rap classic Gangsta’s Paradise. Well, it turns out he made it to 59, defying the doomy prognosis of his haunting 90s hit.
American rapper Artis Leon Ivy Jr was found dead at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, with paramedics indicating he may have had a heart attack. He was made globally famous by a song that poignantly drove home the fear and nihilism of young men raised in a criminal life in his hometown neighbourhood of Compton, LA, boys who lived fast and feared they would die young. “Fool, death ain’t nothin’ but a heart beat away / I’m livin’ life, do or die, what can I say?” as the song proclaims.
Sidestepping that fate under the guise of his rap alter ego Coolio, with a tough but clear voice, direct almost stately rap style and trademark haircut of short wiry dreadlocks, he went on to enjoy a long career, taking in Grammy awards, movie appearances, a cookery side-line and two stints on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother. If never a star of the first rank, and little more than a one hit wonder outside of the US, Coolio could still claim to have made pop history, and to have changed the face of his chosen genre.
Gangsta’s Paradise is an extraordinary song, a melancholy anthem steeped in death and paranoia that broke out of the hip hop pop ghetto to become a mainstream crossover hit. When it was released in 1995, there was an atmosphere of moral hysteria surrounding the genre known as “gangsta rap.” Hard hitting tales of street crime were feared by some self-appointed moral guardians to be corrupting young listeners, and rap releases regularly came plastered with Parental Advisory Stickers, facing censorship and daytime radio bans.
Controversial even within hip hop itself, “gangsta rap” was accused of glamourising crime, revelling in misogyny and promoting racial bias, whilst it champions defended it as a protest music articulating social oppression. It was hugely popular from the late 80s to mid 90s, spawning the careers of Ice T, NWA, Dr Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG but generally considered too hot for the mainstream.
The sonorous chords, emotional chorus and lyrical empathy of Gangsta’s Paradise somehow cut through all of that, putting gritty storytelling right in the commercial centre of pop culture. It became the biggest single of 1995 in the US and went to number one in 16 countries, including the UK, where it was the first rap song to sell over a million copies. It paved the way for rap to invade the mainstream and become the dominant commercial pop genre of our times, and it remains one of the most universally known and loved rap tracks of all time. It is, by any measure, a spectacularly great record: atmospheric, addictive, impossible to forget, a song that still hits with heart and soul 27 years later.
It is also, it has to be said, one of the least “gangsta” songs to be associated with the genre, with a notable absence of profanity, until then a staple of pretty much every song Coolio had released. This was down to soul legend Stevie Wonder, whose approval was required for its core sample. “I had a few vulgarities,” Coolio later admitted of his original lyrics. “He wasn’t with that, so I changed it.”
At its root is an interpolation of Wonder’s Pastime Paradise, a gorgeous track from his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key of Life. Although released as a single at the time, Pastime Paradise was never a hit, perhaps due to the eccentricity of Wonder’s arrangement. The original was one of the first songs to use a synthesizer to recreate a string section and comes over like a cross between a stirring ballad and wonky medieval madrigal. The motif and melody though remain utterly magical, whilst the lyric (arguably much more sophisticated than Coolio’s version) challenged notions of nostalgia for a past of racial and social injustice.
Record producer Doug Rasheed sampled the original, but crucially simplified the arrangement, with stabbing synth cellos, a deep synth bass and a nimble, mid-tempo drum machine groove. American session singer Larry Sanders (known as LV) sang Wonder’s original chorus before coming up with the inspired idea of changing it to “gangsta’s paradise”. Sanders sang all the parts on the song, including the choir, for which he multitracked vocal lines from bass to soprano.
Coolio was the last member of the crew to become involved, after long forgotten fellow rapper Prodeje turned it down. Coolio was paying a visit to his manager to pick up a cheque, where Rasheed shared a studio place. When he heard the backing track, he declared “that’s mine!” and started working up a lyric on the spot.
The song opens with a famous quote from Psalm 23:4 of the King James Bible: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” It conjures just the right sombre tone for a powerful description of the vulnerability and defiance of a young man living on the frontlines of crime.
It is a song where brittle bragging masks genuine desperation: “I’m the kind of G the little homies wanna be like / On my knees in the night, sayin’ prayers in the streetlight.” Coolio’s voice is double tracked, giving it a thick tone reminiscent of Tupac Shakur, whilst LV’s gospely vocal lifts the chorus to the heavens: “Tell me why are we so blind to see / The ones we hurt are you and me.”
The release of Gangsta’s Paradise required a delicate negotiation. Initially Stevie Wonder rejected out of hand the very idea of using his music for a gangsta song. Coolio managed to get a face to face meeting with the great man, where his objections were boiled down to removing two “N-words” and one “f_____.” It is impossible to imagine Gangsta’s Paradise crossing into the mainstream without Wonder’s intervention, which meant it could be played on daytime pop radio. Coolio was ever thankful, although less enamoured of Wonder’s other stipulation. “Unbeknownst to me, he wanted 95 per cent of the publishing,” Coolio later revealed. “Had I known that, I’m not sure I would have went ahead.”
The final element that carried the song to pop immortality was a video featuring Hollywood superstar Michelle Pfeiffer. Disney had struck a deal to include Gangsta’s Paradise in her latest movie, inner city teacher drama Dangerous Minds. The video was made by rising black filmmaker Antoine Fuqua, who would go on to direct Denzel Washington in Training Day, The Equalizer films and remake of The Magnificent Seven.
His dramatic concept placed one of the most strikingly beautiful and iconic actresses of her moment in a challenging face to face with a starkly lit Coolio raging about his doomed life, whilst other men lurked ominously in the shadows. “Michelle was kind of nervous,” Coolio later recalled. “I don’t think she’d ever been around that many black people in her life.” Indeed, for many viewers, it would have been the first time a black rapper had been seen mingling with the white Hollywood elite, to potent effect.
The film was only a minor hit, the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes summed up as: "Rife with stereotypes that undermine its good intentions, Dangerous Minds is too blind to see that the ones it hurts are the audience.” The punchy video arguably became more resonant and widely seen than the movie. It helped put a tough, sensitive, serious and emotional song addressing the underlying social issues of a much maligned musical genre into a global spotlight. By breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes, Gangsta’s Paradise was a game changer for rap music, as well as Coolio himself.
The truth is, Coolio never really succeeded in building on its success to establish himself as a major artist. He did have a handful of hits in America, and reached number three in the UK with C U When U Get There in 1997, a hip hop anthem that goes some way to recreating the classical symphonic stateliness of Gangsta’s Paradise. The rest of his career was less starry and saw him involved in various side projects and reality TV shows, often focussing on his love of cooking. When he passed away, he was touring with the rap one hit wonders, Vanilla Ice and Young MC.
His career may not have been particularly starry or storied, but Coolio himself was forever grateful for his hit, which gave him financial security, global recognition, and a place in pop history. “I still get quite a few people coming up to me and telling me that Gangsta’s Paradise got them through some really rough times in their life,” Coolio told Rolling Stone in 2015. “A lot of people say it saved them from whatever demons they were dealing with, that they listened to the song and it helped them carry on; it saved them from suicide, all kinds of s___. That’s why I think of the song as divine intervention, because it doesn’t even have the same meaning that it did in the beginning – it now means whatever you think it means. It has nothing to do with me; it has to do with whatever person is listening to it at the time.”
All of this is the mark of a truly great song, a reminder of why pop music really matters to so many, and lingers so long in our hearts. We don’t have to look far to detect this anthemic tracks continued relevance. As Coolio told an interviewer earlier this year: “The climate and the way times are, it’s actually more a Gangsta’s Paradise now than we’ve ever been.”