Farewell to Coolio: the Rapper Who Turned Hip-Hop History Upside Down

Coolio, the “Gangsta Paradise” rapper, has died at the age of 59.


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LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Adiós a Coolio: el rapero que dio un vuelco a la historia del hip-hop

On September 28, the news of the death of the famous rapper Coolio was released, recognized for being one of the artists who helped promote the hip-hop genre in the 90s with his hit "Gangsta Paradise".

His Early Years

Coolio's legal name was Artis Leon Ivey Jr.He was born on August 1, 1963 in Pennsylvania, but spent most of his childhood in Compton, a city in the state of California famous for its high crime rate, but also for being the birthplace of many of the most representative rappers of the West Coast.

As a child, Coolio suffered from asthma, spending most of his time in the library and constantly excelling in his studies. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1995, the artist mentioned that he read all the children's books in his neighborhood library. However, at age 11 his parents divorced and Coolio began to enter the world of gangs. In this way, his once-promising student career stalled. At the age of 17, he was arrested for theft and for bringing knives to school.

His start in the world of hip-hop came when he entered Compton Community College, where he also acquired his stage name thanks to a friend of his who told him, perhaps sarcastically, that he looked like Julio Iglesias. Hence, the name Coolio was born, alluding to "Julio". During this time he appeared regularly on the Los Angeles rap radio station KDAY and was even one of the first Southern California artists to record a single: "Watcha Gonna Do." However, his crack addiction paralyzed his career for a time. At age 20, he moved to San José with his father, where he worked as a firefighter and was in rehab.

A year later he returned to Los Angeles and recorded another single, “You're Gonna Miss Me”, which, despite not being very successful, helped him create connections. He released his debut album “It Takes a Thief” in 1994, which gained strength thanks to the song “Fantastic Voyage” , which, when released as a single, was the engine for the album to exceed platinum sales. With this first album, Coolio established his signature as an artist: funk rhythms and socially conscious lyrics. Critics praised that path, noting that West Coast hip-hop responded to gangsters.

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The Classic that Changed the History of Hip-Hop

A year after “It Takes a Thief”, Coolio released one of the most recognized songs of the genre around the world. Producer Doug Rasheed sampled Stevie Wonder's song “Pastime Paradise” and added backing vocals from Larry “LV” Sanders, Coolio listened and decided to write the lyrics with an opening based on the 23rd Psalm: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/ I take a look at my life and realize that there is not much left.” This is how “Gangsta Paradise” was born.

The song, which is a narration of a 23-year-old man who is part of the gang world, does not praise the gangster, but rather reflects on the lack of opportunities on the part of society and its institutions for those people who grow up in violent and heavy environments.

The combination of the heavily commercial lyrics and sound, and the accompanying music video featuring Michelle Pfeiffer, launched the song to fame. It was the best-selling single of 1995 in the United States, and was the first rap song to top the US and UK charts. Today, “Gangsta Paradise” remains popular, appearing on movie and TV soundtracks. It has more than 1 billion views on Spotify and YouTube. The single was a cultural milestone and opened the door for hip-hop to become a more popular and commercial genre.

Life after “Gansta Paradise”

Following its popular success, Coolio wrote and performed the famous theme song for the Nickelodeon series "Kenan and Kel" and released his third album “My Soul” which flopped. He released 5 more albums until 2009, and then only released singles until 2011.

During his career, Coolio has collaborated with Blondie, LL Cool J, B. Real, Snoop Dogg, 40 Thevz, among others. Also, most of his appearances were in talk shows, series and movies. In 2008, he even had his own reality show, “Coolio's Rules”, which revolved around his search for love in Los Angeles. He was married to Josefa Salinas from 1996 to 2000, and they had four children. In 2009, Coolio pleaded guilty to drug possession and returned to rehab.

Although his career did not take off after “Gangsta Paradise”, there is no denying the great influence he had on the world of hip-hop.