If you were a 1990s Hollywood music supervisor who wanted a high-energy, zany, yet completely self-assured rap verse to spark up your movies, you couldn’t do much better than calling up Coolio. The wide-eyed Los Angeles rapper with a unique coif and distinct sing-song timbre was a fixture of soundtracks for quite a few beloved ’90s flicks and TV shows: Clueless, Poetic Justice, All That, Dexter’s Laboratory. Sure, he may have been slightly overshadowed by more technically skilled and lyrically dense rappers like Busta Rhymes and Redman, but when Coolio stepped up, it was difficult not to be absorbed by his singular presence. Just look at the infectious energy he brought to “Hit ’em High (the Monstars’ Anthem).”
It may seem strange to begin a remembrance of the 59-year-old Coolio, found dead at a friend’s home in L.A. on Wednesday, without mentioning the one song that comes to everyone’s mind when they hear this name: the Stevie Wonder–sampling, Weird Al–parodied, ubiquitous rap hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” That song is an undeniable part of both his legacy and of hip-hop history: It was the first rap single to sell more than a million copies, the biggest-selling Billboard No. 1 single of 1995, and the favorite of that year’s music critics, as measured by the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll. Decades later, it remains well remembered by both nostalgists and younger listeners, with a music video that’s tallied a billion views on YouTube even though that platform wasn’t even around when it came out. But Coolio had a lengthy, impressive career even outside of that era-defining single. To take stock of the impact of Artis Leon Ivey Jr., it’s worth looking at the road to “Paradise,” and where he went after.
Before he walked through the valley of the shadow of death, Coolio got his start in the burgeoning world of West Coast gangsta rap in the early 1990s, which in the post-N.W.A. age was primed to rival the East Coast’s dominance. He joined the group WC and the MAAD Circle, penning lyrics about American racism (MAAD stood for Minority Alliance of Anti-Discrimination), Black history, life in poverty, and resisting the feds. The crew’s gritty albums, Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed and Curb Servin’, became underground favorites and prepped its members for future stardom. (The posse’s leader, WC, would later form the platinum-selling trio Westside Connection with Ice Cube and Mack 10.) Coolio went solo in 1994, signing with Tommy Boy Records to release his debut album, It Takes a Thief, carried to critical and commercial success by the single “Fantastic Voyage.” Sampling Lakeside’s bass-heavy 1980 funk hit of the same name, the song became an irresistible smash, reaching No. 3 on the Hot 100 with the help of its effects-heavy, low-riding music video. The single showed Coolio was a G-funk star in his own right, simultaneously touting a cool-breeze L.A. lifestyle and shining a light on the grim realities that underpinned it. (“I’m tryin’ to find a place where I can live my life/ and maybe eat some steak with my beans and rice/ a place where my kids can play outside/ without livin’ in fear of a drive-by.”)
As a rapper, Coolio may not have had all the skills that made his West Coast peers stand out—Ice Cube’s vivid imagery, Snoop Dogg’s deceptively laid-back tongue twisting, the D.O.C.’s lyricism—but for a time his ear for pop hooks rivaled anyone both within the genre and outside of it. His rhymes were simple and direct earworms, but he performed them with an earnestness and a steadiness that was arresting. Just listen to what he pulled off in his verse for “The Points,” the superstar posse cut from the 1995 flick Panther: “I shot dice with a preacher and drank yak with a pastor/ so it’s me, myself, and I know, my own lord and master.” In the video, he sells his alternately rapped and sung lines with intense stares and gesticulations, drawing viewers in with an animated presence that serves as a worthy follow-up to a preceding verse by, of all people, the Notorious B.I.G. Coolio may not have kept his cool, but he could hold his own.
“Gangsta’s Paradise,” which was first released that year on the soundtrack for the Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds, changed everything. Coolio became a household name, with listeners across the U.S. becoming aware of his songwriting ability, which could “examine the abyss with journalistic coolness,” as Entertainment Weekly put it at the time. The song powered his sophomore album of the same name to the Top 10, with the LP ultimately going double platinum, supported by dance-floor singles like “1,2,3,4 (Sumpin’ New).”
Coolio could be self-aware when it came to his newfound place of stardom (“This ain’t a fantastic voyage, but I’m still on a mission/ to see if I can get your attention”), but this wouldn’t prevent “Paradise” from overshadowing much of the rest of his career. After Weird Al came out with the megapopular parody “Amish Paradise” in 1996, Coolio feuded with the comedian over whether he’d actually had permission to record the spoof, souring the rapper’s public image a touch. (He eventually apologized to Yankovic, claimed his accusations were “wrong,” and admitted the song was “funny as shit.”) And since there was no way he could follow the mammoth success of “Paradise,” his 1997 project My Soul failed to catch on as his previous works had, leading to his firing from Tommy Boy. None of his albums after that ever charted on the Billboard 200.
But it’s not as though Coolio disappeared. He made the theme song for the kids’ sketch show Kenan & Kel, toured and collaborated with a wide array of musicians from Kenny Rogers to Insane Clown Posse, and appeared on a number of films and TV shows, including a short stint as cooking-show host. Nor was it all winking cameos: A month after the release of “Amish Paradise,” “Sumpin’ New” reached the Top 5, and Coolio returned to the Top 15 more than a year later with the motivational “C U When U Get There.” (This time the smash that Coolio sampled was Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.) Still, like so many musicians, he gradually lost his chops, and persistent legal trouble, including a 2013 domestic abuse charge that was later dropped, did him no favors.
In a way, as Los Angeles music journalist Jeff Weiss tweeted, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was “the apex and beginning of the end.” Coolio had the grit and persistence and bars to make it to the very top, but the fall came hard and brutal. Still, his rise to worldwide fame left behind a notable body of work, representing a moment in rap history the likes of which will never appear again: the ascendance of a powerful California scene to challenge New York, a combination of militant social awareness and repetitive small-vocab choruses, a pop sensibility that could take a tale of existential struggle to global ubiquity. Whether or not it was a fantastic voyage, it was quite a journey.