Coolio’s death last week struck a big chord here and across the world. The popular rapper was one of the few to have achieved a genuine world wide hit, but before we speak of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, it’s worth acknowledging that he was already years in the game by the time it became a hit.
Coolio was in his 30s by the time ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ came out, but his career had been steadily rising. A former member of WC and the Maad Circle, Coolio later helped soundtrack one of the great music summers of 1994 with the infectious ‘Fantastic Voyage’. Utilising the classic Lakeside track of the same name, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ was a typical Coolio jam. Breezy and uptempo, it aligned thematically with more with the old school west coast funk of the day than the gangsta rap popular in the ’90s, though the musical template came from the same old records.
I met Coolio that summer when he was just breaking through. He was still only a warm-up act at the time, playing support to jazz rap US3 in a small show in Providence, Rhode Island. Remarkably, the next time we crossed paths, around 10 or 15 years ago, it was similarly modest circumstances for a rapper who was known the world over.
He hadn’t exactly capitalised on the golden years of his career in the mid to late ’90s, and thus he found himself guesting at one of our teenage discos for Junior Cert night in Cork City Hall. Coolio as always delivered the goods, and he was a great performer, but I couldn’t help but think that an artist of his ilk should have been bigger than some of the more recent shows he did in Ireland. When you end up on Celebrity Big Brother something has probably gone wrong. Coolio had his issues but even though his best music days were long gone he remained a popular personality, and his Cookin’ with Coolio TV show was hilarious at times.
For most, he will be remembered as the rapper who brought us ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, the iconic rap track which helped the genre establish itself as a commercial force in the ’90s. Not many successful rap songs thus far had been so honest and introspective, and this track struck a huge chord with people who were previously dismissive or ignorant of the genre.
An update of Stevie Wonder's incredible ‘Pastime Paradise’, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ was originally performed by LV, whose solo version was later released and sadly ignored. Again, Coolio was offering a different perspective on the gangsta lifestyle to many of the records of the day, and certainly those that hit the mainstream.
This was of course much more digestible to a mainstream worldwide audience who lapped it up, and it became one of those hits which is still played everywhere more than 25 years on. These days rap is a huge commercial force but in the mid ’90s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ brought down a lot of barriers in a era where most crossover hits had been full of gimmicks. While no doubt more commercial than much of the rap of the day, it was hard to doubt the sincerity at the heart of the song, and even now it still sounds great.
Stevie Wonder, initially wary of any perceived gangster associations, gave Coolio his blessing, and even appeared on stage when it became a hit. The original ‘Pastime Paradise’ is taken from his Songs in the Key of Life album, which was recorded during Stevie’s incredible 1970s stretch, arguably one of the most exciting and innovative musical runs in pop history.
Stevie used a synthesiser to recreate a whole string section and uses both gospel choir and Hare Krishna chanting to create a spellbinding sonic experience. Thematically Stevie Wonder was always questioning the past and perceived truths, and it’s a stunning track that sits comfortably in this great musical cannon. But it’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ that will ultimately be known to many more people.
This happens quite a lot, and even now in 2022, one of the biggest rap tracks of the year has surpassed the tune from which it drew its origins. ‘Super Freaky Girl’ by Nicki Minaj draws on ‘Super Freak’ by Rick James, itself later sampled by MC Hammer, for one of raps first worldwide hits, ‘U Can’t touch this’.
Sampling and reinterpreting classics is an art-form in itself, and ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is a fitting testament to the rapper who we all grew to know as Coolio.