His signature song owned the airwaves and proved that an emcee could be gangster and gregarious
Coolio’s hairstyle was one of a kind: trademark twists sat atop his head like Medusa’s snakes. It was a look that defined 1990s hip-hop as much as Tupac’s nose piercing and Flavor Flav’s clock chain, even if no one ever imitated it (perhaps only Coolio had the dexterity to thread those thin braids through the holes of his baseball cap).
On Wednesday, the rapper – real name Artis Leon Ivey Jr – died at a friend’s house in Los Angeles, his manager said. The 59-year-old was a critical figure in establishing west coast hip-hop’s 1970s-flavored R&B sound – the style that would come to be known as G-funk – in the mainstream.
As a pure emcee, he had a way with words and delivered them with the urgency of a man cruising around town in a lowrider – another favorite hobby of his. And yet for all of Coolio’s obvious skill, which really shows up in his early work (he recorded his first single in 1987), he’s easily summed up in one song: Gangsta’s Paradise.
Gangsta’s Paradise was too hypnotic too escape
That single, which headlined a sophomore album of the same name and was also featured on the soundtrack for the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds, owned the airwaves. It was arguably the beginning of rap music truly going pop. It topped the charts in 14 countries and locked out the top two spots on Billboard’s US Hot 100 list on the way to going triple platinum. The music video, directed by The Equalizer’s Antoine Fuqua and also featuring Pfeiffer, dominated music television and has since surpassed 1bn YouTube views.
The song, which interpolates Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise and a swelling church choir, arguably showcases the most doleful version of Coolio. And yet it was too hypnotic to escape. “It chose me as the vessel,” Coolio would say of his signature song – which Entertainment Weekly dubbed “the bleakest tune to ever top the pop charts”. Idolator went one better, calling it “rap rhapsody”.
Gangsta’s Paradise didn’t just crush the competition and win Coolio a Grammy. Even the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody, Amish Paradise (which featured the bespectacled satirist on the cover with his hair styled like Coolio’s) made it to No 53 on the Hot 100 list in 1996. That this send-up became the sore spot of his most public rap beef is, in some ways, so Coolio – who initially felt he was being clowned. It didn’t help that Dangerous Minds, with its heavy-handed white savior themes, would go on to be regarded as something of a joke, too.
Coolio performs in Belgium 2000. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images
But in time – after cashing many royalty checks, says Yankovic, who remained reverential of Coolio throughout – the rapper came to see Amish Paradise as the ultimate tribute. “I mean, he did Michael Jackson. He did Prince. You know, people who were definitely more talented than I am,” Coolio said in a 2016 appearance on the YouTube show Hot Ones.
Coolio, who churned out eight studio albums and collaborated with everyone from Janet Jackson to Kenny Rogers, doesn’t get enough credit for setting the tone for people like Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes. And he doesn’t get enough love for making Fantastic Voyage, 1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New) and other G-funk classics that still turn a party out today. With that hair, his bouncing lowriders and his generally chill vibe, he proved that a rapper could be gangster and gregarious.
Since news of his death broke late on Wednesday, condolences have poured in from all corners. On Instagram, Pfeiffer said she was “heartbroken” to learn of Coolio’s passing, while Hillary Clinton pronounced his death “a big loss”. “I witness [sic] first hand this man’s grind to the top of the industry,” tweeted Ice Cube. The rocker Bret Michaels remembered him as an “awesome guy who will be missed”.
When he wasn’t topping the charts, he was walking on to awards shows, celebrity basketball games, sitcoms, films and even kids’ shows – providing the theme song for the Nickelodeon variety show Kenan & Kel. Every time Coolio showed up, whether on screen over a speaker, he left you smiling. It hardly mattered that most times he’d be playing himself. Who else could?
In his later years he had become a creature of reality TV, with appearances on Big Brother UK and Marriage Boot Camp – all while remaining a robust concert draw. He has also been candid about overcoming poverty and substance abuse on his rise to fame and contrite about past crimes – not least, multiple gun possession charges that complicated past international tours.
Medusa might have turned her onlookers to stone, but Coolio did just the opposite. He was a stone-face who softened hearts and never took himself too seriously, snake hair and all.
story by Andrew Lawrence