Coolio, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ rapper, dies at 59
By Eduardo Medina and McKenna Oxenden
Coolio, the West Coast rapper whose gritty music and anthemic hits like “Gangsta’s Paradise” helped define hip-hop in the 1990s, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 59.
His longtime manager, Jarez Posey, confirmed his death.
Posey, who worked with the rapper for more than 20 years, said he was told that Coolio died at about 5 p.m. at a friend’s house. No cause was given.
At a time when rappers were derided by some as garish outlaws, Coolio, whose legal name was Artis Leon Ivey Jr., achieved mainstream superstardom and critical success with “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Billboard’s top song of 1995 and the Grammy winner for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1996.
The song, later certified triple-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, outshone the movie it was featured in, “Dangerous Minds.” Its music video won Best Rap Video and Best Video From a Film at the MTV Video Music Awards.
“Coolio still builds his raps on recognizable 1970s oldies, and he delivers intricate, syncopated rhymes as if they were conversation,” Jon Pareles wrote in a review in The New York Times, noting that “Gangsta’s Paradise” uses “the somber minor chords” of “Pastime Paradise,” by Stevie Wonder.
The song nearly did not make it into “Dangerous Minds,” critic Caryn James wrote for the Times in 1996. She wrote that the late addition “turned a preachy Michelle Pfeiffer film about an inner-city teacher into a hit that sounded fresher than it really was.”
Coolio’s other hits included “Fantastic Voyage” — the opening song on his debut album — and “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New),” which were both nominated for Grammys. “C U When U Get There,” which samples Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” was a standout track on his third album of the 1990s, “My Soul.”
But nothing could match the success of “Gangsta’s Paradise,” a song that, with its piercing beat and ominous background vocals, became instantly distinguishable for millions of ’90s rap fans, especially with a memorable opening verse based on Psalm 23:
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left.”
The song would expand the commercial possibilities of hip-hop, but Coolio would later say that he sometimes lamented how the track seemed to overshadow his other bodies of work, particularly follow-up albums.
Still, he told PopkillerTV in 2018 that the song had taken him on “a great ride.” Its popularity has endured for decades, with the music video garnering a rare billion-plus views on YouTube.
Artis Leon Ivey Jr. was born Aug. 1, 1963. He grew up in Compton, California, a place known for producing some of hip-hop’s most successful artists, such as Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar.
He told The Independent in 1997 that as a child, he would play board games with his single mother, to whom he later dedicated his success. After a turbulent youth — the bookish, asthmatic child became a teenage gangbanger, juvenile offender and drug addict — Coolio worked as a volunteer firefighter.
In his 20s, he moved to San Jose to live with his father and fight fires with the California Department of Forestry, The Ringer reported. There, he became more spiritual. He later credited Christianity for helping him overcome his addiction to crack.
When he embarked on his music career, he quickly gained a following among the rapidly growing audience of hip-hop fans, who had been enraptured by the music of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
After performing with the group WC and the Maad Circle, alongside WC, Sir Jinx and DJ Crazy Toones, Coolio went solo. His debut album, “It Takes a Thief” (1994), garnered praise for clever lyrics infused with funky rhythms.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” had a vast cultural imprint, even spawning a parody in Weird Al Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” that replaced the streets with pastoral lyrics about churning butter and selling quilts.
Reflecting on his career, and on the success of “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Coolio told Rolling Stone in 2015 that he was on tour in Europe when the song went No. 1 on the charts and he realized: “I was No. 1 all over the entire planet — not just in the States. I was No. 1 everywhere that you can imagine.”
On Wednesday, the rapper Ice Cube recalled the significance of Coolio’s music at the time, writing on Twitter that he had witnessed “first hand this man’s grind to the top of the industry.”
Coolio, whose spindly and sprouting cornrows defined his look, went on to sell over 17 million records throughout his career.
He expanded his influence by writing and performing the theme song for “Kenan & Kel,” a Nickelodeon staple in the late 1990s. Coolio later became a fixture on reality TV, starting with “Coolio’s Rules,” a 2008 series that focused on his personal life and his quest to find love in Los Angeles.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available. Coolio had four children with Josefa Salinas, whom he married in 1996 and later divorced.
Years after he topped the charts and solidified himself as a mainstream artist, Coolio confronted legal trouble, pleading guilty to firearms and drug charges.
The rapper, who struggled with asthma all his life, served as the spokesman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, according to his official online biography. At a 2016 performance in Brooklyn, New York, Page Six reported, he had an asthma attack and was saved by a fan who had an inhaler.
In recent years, Coolio had become aware of his indelible mark on hip-hop. He said in 2018 that after years of lamenting over his struggles in the music industry, he had realized that “people would kill to take my place.”
“I’m sure after I’m long gone from this planet, and from this dimension,” he said, “people will come back and study my body of work.”