Coolio, whose Nineties music was a staple on radio, a favorite on MTV, and included the hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” died Wednesday at the age of 59. Coolio’s manager, Jarez Posey, confirmed the rapper’s death to Rolling Stone. A cause of death was not immediately available.
As the news broke, those who knew him paid homage.
“This is sad news,” Ice Cube wrote. “I witness first hand this man’s grind to the top of the industry. Rest In Peace.”
“One of the nicest dudes I’ve known,” MC Hammer posted. “Good people. R.I.P. Coolio”
Born Artis Leon Ivey Jr. in 1963, he went to school in Compton, California and attended Compton Community College. He cut his first single in the late 1980s, “Watcha Gonna Do,” a song that was played locally on a hip-hop station. He later connected with WC and the Maad Circle and contributed to their 1991 debut album, Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed.
By 1994, he had established himself in the Los Angeles rap scene and signed to Tommy Boy Records, where he released his debut studio album, It Takes a Thief. Album single “Fantastic Voyage,” accompanied by a playful video, hit Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100.
A year later, he linked up with gospel singer L.V. for “Gangsta’s Paradise,” the unexpectedly haunting track that sampled Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” and appeared in the movie Dangerous Minds.
“I wasn’t really familiar with ‘Pastime Paradise,’ as much of a Stevie Wonder fan as I was,” Coolio told Rolling Stone in 2015 in an oral history of the song. “My very first album I ever bought was the one with ‘Superwoman’ on it. [1972’s Music of My Mind.] I got that for my 12th birthday, that one and Fight the Power by the Isley Brothers. Songs in the Key of Life, my mother had that album at the house, so it was kind of weird that I didn’t know the song…. I went back inside my manager’s house to use the toilet before I rolled out, and that’s when I heard the track. I walked into the studio, and asked Doug, ‘Wow, whose track is that?’ Doug said, ‘Oh, it’s something I’m working on.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s mine!’”
He added: “I sat down and I started writing. Hearing the bass line, the chorus line and the hook, it just opened up my mind. ‘As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and I see there’s nothing left’ — I freestyled that; that came off the top of the dome and I wrote that down. I thought about it for a minute, and then I wrote the whole rest of the song without stopping, from the first verse to the third verse. You know, I like to believe that it was divine intervention. ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ wanted to be born; it wanted to come to life, and it chose me as the vessel.”
Tommy Boy reportedly did not think the song would fit for his next album and added it instead to the film’s soundtrack.
It hit Number One and became 1995’s biggest single. Its success guaranteed its inclusion on his next album titled after the track, and it won a Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance.
The song was so popular that Weird “Al” Yankovic parodied it with 1996’s “Amish Paradise,” which Tommy Boy approved of, but Coolio did not. Coolio eventually admitted his ego had got in the way and the two made amends. On Wednesday, Yankovic shared a photo of the two of them hugging, with the caption “RIP Coolio.”
(And while he never released “Rollin’ With My Homies” as a single, the song had an iconic placement in the 1995 film Clueless). His sophomore set produced the hits “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New),” which hit the Top Ten in 1996, and “Too Hot.”
While his music encapsulated many of the trademarks that made gangsta rap so dominant in prior years, his affable, playful approach to both his music and videos endeared him to a larger audience. He was tapped to rap the theme song for the Nickelodeon comedy series Kenan & Kel, “Aw Here it Goes.” He also began pursuing acting and he made his on-screen debut in a cameo for 1996 comedy Phat Beach and had a part in 1997’s Batman and Robin.
Coolio released My Soul in 1997, which featured the single “C U When U Get There.” While he ran into some legal trouble that derailed the success of that album — an arrest in Germany for alleged shoplifting and assaulting the shop owner and a charge for carrying a concealed weapon a year later in California — he continued to work in the acting realm, starring as triplets in the film Tyrone and was a regular on Hollywood Squares. His last album was 2009’s From the Bottom 2 the Top.