Artist Coolio Remembered For Popularizing The West Coast Hip-Hop Sound In The Mid-90s
My introduction to Coolio, the artist born Artis Leon Ivey Jr., was him urging me to go run and tell my homeboys and homegirls it was time for Kenan & Kel, the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show starring Kenan Thompson (SNL) and Kel Mitchell.
Many people in the mid-’90s met Coolio and Rap music concurrently. Whether it was his performance of a theme song in a children’s show, a feel-good song about excellent expeditions, urban utopias, or songs that sample Pachelbel's Canon with a modern twist, Coolio pioneered so many things. His wiry, erected braids made him conspicuous; his animated persona combined with his massive hits forged him into pop stardom, growing the hip hop genre extensively.
His unexpected and sudden death this week at 59 brought back a lot of memories for many people.
In the mid-1990s, West Coast gangster rap was at its pinnacle. The mothership that was N.W.A produced an inordinate amount of generationally talented rappers and producers that sustained strong careers throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s.
In 1994, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was still in rotation at California house parties. Snoop Dogg had positioned himself as the biggest rapper on the west coast following the success of his debut album “Doggystyle.” Ice Cube and 2Pac were simultaneously selling platinum albums and starring in feature films. They were essentially the popular kids in school who dictated the culture from music, fashion, cars and language.
A Different Path To Top
Coolio had a much different path to the top. While he did have a minor affiliation with Ice Cube, through their mutual friend WC, (Coolio and Cube can both be seen in the 1991 video for “Aint a Damn Thang Changed”) Coolio dreamed of fame and fortune in the music industry as he battled an addiction to cocaine and worked jobs ranging from a security guard at LAX to volunteer firefighter. Coolio’s role in the West Coast musical apparatus was that of the answer to the East Coast’s Busta Rhymes and Biz Markie, a more lighthearted, animated rapper than his more stoic, seemingly apathetic peers.
His career began to bloom shortly after the release of his track “Fantastic Voyage” in the summer of 1994, which became a favorite of MTV and peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Charts. Less than a year later, Coolio would reach heights very few have ever seen in music when “Gangsta’s Paradise” went number 1 hit in thirteen countries.
The track was structurally perfect, and conceptually genius. A song about a gangster reflecting on his life. R&B singer LV sang a beautiful, yet haunting hook, coupled with Coolio’s opening bar quoting Psalm 23 and ensuing lyrics which provided a wide valley of substance. After that inescapable hit, nearly everyone in the world was familiar with Coolio.
About 'Gangsta's Paradise'
When I first heard Gangsta’s Paradise on the radio sometime in 1996 I was terrified of the eerie strings, and his talk of death in the opening lines. I thought it was funeral music, and I didn’t understand the appeal. I wanted to change the station the same way I would change the channel when I would hear the theme for the wrestler Undertaker appear on television.
Coolio was not the coolest rapper/entertainer to come from Compton, California, nor was he the biggest star to come from the West Coast, but he was the rapper most willing to walk through the valley of the shadow of death time and time again, bringing back new fans for hip hop each time.
A resilient renegade who took the road less traveled and then embarked on a fantastic voyage no one could have anticipated.