Remember when the Beatles’ John Lennon got in trouble for saying his band was bigger than Jesus? Well, in the summer of 1995, rapper Coolio may have actually accomplished that … without even saying a damned thing.
That’s because every high school kid on the planet—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist—knew the first line of his monster hit, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’ 50 percent of which was a direct quote from the Bible (i.e. Psalm 23):
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (G-d’s word)/I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left.” (rap-god’s word)
The 1990s saw a true explosion in the popularity of hip-hop, a music genre that had been growing in influence throughout the ’80s. (It arguably may have had a greater effect on popular culture than Lennon’s little rock group ever did, too.) While artists like N.W.A., Ice-T, and Big Daddy Kane brought early tales of urban gangstadom to the inner-ear in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it took pop-minded barnstormers like Public Enemy, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg to bring that “gangsta” vibe into the mainstream (Dre could give you 3 billion reasons alone). Once the doors of FM radio and MTV swung open, rap literally stormed in, guns blazing, and took the fuck over.
“It just has so many different meanings for so many different people that it’s taken on a life of its own. I’m a vessel, homie. I’m just the vessel that the song came through.”
One of the ’90s artists talented enough to make it above the noise floor was Coolio, born in Compton, California, the same rough neighborhood gangsta-rap forebears N.W.A. had come from and been rapping about seven years prior. On his first try, Coolio knocked it out of the part, scoring a monster hit with 1994’s It Takes a Thief. Peaking at No. 8 on the U.S. charts, it was later certified platinum and its lead single, “Fantastic Voyage” hit No. 3. Sophomore slumps be damned; Coolio was poised to take over the world.
The following August, when Coolio dropped his follow-up single and same-named album, Gangsta’s Paradise, it was as if a sonic bomb had detonated. The song shot to No. 1 in the U.S. (and 17 other countries) and landed on the soundtrack of Dangerous Minds (the semi-biographical urban high school drama starring Michelle Pfeiffer, in theaters just three days later). The single went on to sell a staggering 5.7 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles in music history.
Naturally, we were curious about the Oral Hit-story. So we caught up with the man/myth/legend himself to reflect on ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’
We read somewhere that you’re 50. When is it too old to be a rapper?
When you start lookin’ all old and shit. You’re kind of walking around with a cane, motherfucking feet swell up, belly all big, and looking crazy and shit. Can’t rap, wheezin’ and coughin’ on stage and shit. Start lookin’ like an old man! [pauses] I can’t even really say that, ’cause when is too old to be a carpenter? When are you too old to be a plumber? When are you too old to be a carpet man? Honestly, I’m one of those guys who’ll probably be dead before I start lookin’ too old. This is a profession, man. It’s not a fly-by-night [job]. You don’t get to be a really skilled MC overnight.
The mid-’90s were a turning point for hip-hop in America. What was it like being a rapper during that influential time period?
It was a pride thing back then, you know. It was a badge of honor. People looked up to you. People knew that it really took something to become an MC. They knew if you made it back then that you’d been through something.
Do you see yourself in modern rappers like Kanye West?
Um, absolutely. Come on, [Kanye] ain’t been through shit. Kanye got in the game young and started makin’ money young. Almost instantaneous. He wasn’t the lyrical guy; he was a producer. But you know, I can’t really sit here and say that Kanye been through nothing. ’Cause I don’t know what Kanye’s been through. I don’t know what kind of emotional turmoil he was born through or what kind of mental anguish he suffered in the beginning of his career. I can’t say. I saw that he was in that car accident, [and] I just thought, ‘What the fuck does a car accident got to do with you bein’ on a mic?’ You know, but that’s something he went through, so I don’t know. I can’t say. But I will say that… a lot of rappers that are making it today, they’ve been around for a long time, [and] people just don’t know. It’s name changes and years of trying to get on and finally making it. So with a lot of these cats, they just fly by night. But you [won’t] know who those cats are, ’cause in a year or two, they won’t be around no more.
Let’s talk about ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ Were you just listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life one day, and just started rapping over it?*
The idea came actually from L.V., the guy who sang [the hook] on ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ I think it was originally supposed to be his track. I happened to walk into the studio, I heard the track playin,’ and I heard him singing little parts of the hook. And I never, for the life of me … I cannot tell you why, but on Songs in the Key of Life, for some reason, I always skipped ‘Gangsta’s,’ I mean, ‘Pastime Paradise.’ I had never heard the song before. The first day I walked into the studio was the first time I ever heard the riff. I never heard the melody. I knew nothing about it. And I was like, ‘Wow, who is that?’ And the producer said, ‘Oh, this is something I’m working on.’ I said, ‘It’s mine.’ I spit just four or five lines; you know, just straight freestyle off the top of the head. I sat down and started writing it immediately.
No question about it: Album cover still looks pretty badass.
Wait … you just came up with the first lines out of thin air?
Yeah. [raps] ‘As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left/’cause I’ve been blasting and laughing for so long …’ Then I was like, ‘That’s dope,’ and I just kept writing. I never really picked up a pen; I wrote it completely out of my head without even thinking about it. I never stopped once and had to go back and say… it wrote out like I already knew it.
There’s a line in there: ‘Too much television watching’s got me chasing dreams.’ You’ve been on TV a bunch of times. When you rap the song now, has the meaning changed for you?
You know, the meaning of the song for me became obsolete. To tell you the truth, if I had to go back and tell you exactly what the message I was trying to convey when I first wrote the song, I don’t even know if I can tell you. Because it just has so many different meanings for so many different people that it’s taken on a life of its own; it’s its own entity. I’m a vessel, homie. I’m just the vessel that the song came through.
The other thing that strikes me about this song is how you deliver the lyrics. When you were in that isolation booth in the studio, did you have someone in mind you were rapping to or at?
I was rapping to a generation. To a generation of people. To the people that grew up in circumstances like I did.
That song blew up on the charts. Do you remember how you celebrated?
I was pretty quiet and calm. You know, the first real celebration was after [1994’s] ‘Fantastic Voyage’ went platinum. That was when I realized, ‘OK, damn, I’ve fulfilled part of my dream.’ That was the ‘Wow!’ First time on the first record, and then after that, I gained high expectations for myself, you know. Everything that came after the first album, I expected something to happen. Then with ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ doing what it did, I had some moments where I sat back and watched myself from [the] outside, and [said], ‘Damn. Look at this guy. Wow.’ It was surreal. And it’s still surreal at some points, when I sit back and look at what things occurred. What it did for me, what it did for hip-hop, what it did for the culture.
You won a Grammy for ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ Where do you keep it?
When you walk in my front door, there’s a glass case, and the first thing you see is all the awards with the Grammy in the center. Personally, in my opinion, I think that the World Music Award is a much more important piece than the Grammy. I mean, people got Grammys and they don’t got nowhere to sleep. There’s homeless people that got Grammys.** When you win that World Music Award, though, that’s when you really arrive. Because that means the world knows. The world has acknowledged you as an artist. Once you win that World Music Award, you don’t gotta worry about eatin’. You gonna eat. You’ll probably be able to sustain yourself through your art for the rest of your life.
Michelle Pfeiffer is in the video for ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’ and the idea is that you’re kind of chewing her out at a table. But we sort of got the feeling that it’s a good edit job and not actually her in the video.
She’s actually there, and if you remember, like, I was rapping at her, and she was talkin’ at me: She walked around me, and she flipped a chair over. I just kind of imagined I was Al Pacino, you know. He went in on her hard in the Scarface movie, so I was him.
The tune also got a reworking by Weird Al Yankovic. We remember there was a bit of controversy there…
[interrupts] You know, I’ve answered this question many times, and let me say again: That was totally a brain-fart on my and my management’s part at the time; I was an idiot for being mad at Al. He was doing what Al does, and nobody else took offense to what he did, and I shouldn’t have either, and I really made myself look stupid at the time. And yeah, that’s water under the bridge, man. I’ve long, long ago forgiven Al and myself.
I’ve heard you’re an Insane Clown Posse fan. Is it safe to say that Coolio is an honorary Juggalo?
Oh, absolutely. Not ‘honorary’; I’m a full-fledged Juggalo.
Does that scare you at all, because the government recently said Juggalos are a terrorist organization or something?***
I’m not doing any terrorist activities, but you know, shit, we all have those thoughts.
*The song’s sung hook and melody is basically sampled from Wonder’s ‘Pastime Paradise’ from his album Songs in the Key of Life.
**We couldn’t find any current example of homeless Grammy winners; but Grammy winners Skrillex, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lil’ Kim were all homeless at one point before they hit it big.