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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Marcus Williamson

Coolio: Musician behind one of the most popular rap hits of all time


Coolio was the musician who rose to stardom with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, a Nineties mega-hit and one of the most successful rap singles of all time. Released in 1995, it became the signature song for the soundtrack to the film Dangerous Minds.

Coolio, who has died aged 59, made playful, melodic and popular music, in contrast to many others in the LA hip-hop and rap scene, and had worked hard, succeeding in achieving recognition in a crowded field.

Artis Leon Ivey Jr was born in 1963 in Monessen, Pennsylvania – the son of a carpenter and a factory worker – and grew up in Compton, California. His nickname began as Coolio Iglesias, after the Spanish singer, Julio, and was soon shortened to simply Coolio.

On leaving Compton Community College, Coolio had dabbled with drugs and found work in airport security and as a volunteer firefighter, before discovering his vocation in music. His first single, “Whatcha Gonna Do?”, was released in 1987 but made little impact. It Takes a Thief (1994) was the first of his albums to gain major recognition, selling over a million copies, with the single “Fantastic Voyage” reaching No 3 in the US singles chart.

Gangsta’s Paradise, released the following year, was the massive hit that would propel Coolio to worldwide fame. Sampling Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” (1976) and sung as a duo with LV, the song begins with the lines of Psalm 23:4, “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and continues “I take a look at my life and realise there’s nothin’ left.”

Performing in front of US troops serving in the Nato-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, November 2002 (AP)

Coolio’s No 1 hit went on to be used in the soundtrack for Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays an ex-marine turned teacher at a tough, inner-city high school. Pfeiffer in turn featured on the video for “Gangsta’s Paradise” and said recently, “Thirty years later, I still get chills when I hear the song.”

“Gangsta’s Paradise” spent three weeks at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 list, won a Grammy Award the following year for best rap solo performance and recently exceeded one billion plays on the music site Spotify.

1996 saw him go solo, releasing a number of albums and composing the theme tune “Aw, Here It Goes” for the television sitcom Kenan & Kel.

Playing the Night of the Proms Festival in the Antwerps Sportpaleis, Belgium, October 2000 (Getty)

Talking in 2005 about his tour of the Balkans with the United Service Organisations charity three years earlier, Coolio revealed his thoughts on death. “When it’s your time to go, you go ... If you’re going to die, you’re gonna die, no matter where you are, what you’re doing. That’s why I’m not really scared to go anywhere. That’s my job – to take hip-hop to another place, to bring it to everybody. The more places I go, the better it is for my sons when they get their rap career going.”

In 2009 he became a finalist in the UK edition of Celebrity Big Brother, managing to stay for the full 22 days and coming in third behind Ulrika Jonsson and Terry Christian. Jonsson later recalled: “I spent a fair bit of time with Coolio – he was a misogynist, broke wind a lot; he fancied himself as a cook but my God, we had so many laughs.”

In later life he had spent more time with his family and had devised Cookin’ with Coolio, a book and internet-based cookery programme, offering what he called “Five-star meals at a one-star price.”

Coolio was found on the bathroom floor of a friend’s Los Angeles home, having had a suspected heart attack.

His manager, Sheila Finegan, paid tribute, saying “We are saddened by the loss of our dear friend and client, Coolio ... He touched the world with the gift of his talent and will be missed profoundly. Thank you to everyone worldwide who has listened to his music and to everyone who has been reaching out regarding his passing.”

Coolio had 10 children, including four with his former wife, Josefa Salinas, whom he married in 1996 and divorced in 2000.

Coolio, musician, born 1 August 1963, died 28 September 2022

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