In one of his last interviews, US rapper Coolio spoke to Review about the highs and lows of his long career, trying to recreate the success of Gangsta's Paradise, and working with successful Dublin duo Versatile. This article was first published in July 2022
Say what you will about Coolio, but he sure knows how to bag a bargain. When Review turns up at his Temple Bar hotel, he’s cock-a-hoop. The reason? The veteran rapper has just returned from Brown Thomas with four pairs of designer trainers that he picked up for €180 in total.
“Look at this,” he says, jubilantly, as he holds up a pair of size eight black sneakers with multi-coloured piping. “Down from €175 to €20!” Twenty quid is a snip in anyone’s book, especially when they seem to match perfectly with his Adidas tracksuit. And, with that, he puts on a pair of flamboyant wrap-around shades and says: “So. What do you want to ask me?”
Coolio is in Ireland to record some new songs for a forthcoming album. He has just laid down a track with controversial Dublin rappers Versatile and proceeds to play me the tune. A bass-heavy, expletive-strewn number called Step explodes from his Bluetooth speaker. He raps along to his part, gesticulating passionately in time with the beat. “It’s a demo,” he says, after the song has concluded. “It’s not finished, but it’s f***ing tight.”
He has worked with Versatile before and is especially enamoured with the talents of one member, Alex Sheehan, aka Eskimo Supreme. Versatile songs have been widely criticised for perceived sexism, homophobia and racism, but Coolio has no time for such critics.
“That was a couple of people who don’t like them, just being petty and being mean,” he says, looking pained. “They’re two young boys just trying to do music. They’re having fun, bro.”
Revelations that the band’s Casey ‘Casper’ Walsh donned blackface while a teen don’t bother Coolio in the slightest. “How many times has somebody done that? C’mon on? Why would they pick these two boys out and say they’re doing something racist?
“What they do isn’t racist,” he adds. “It’s f***ing comedy. They’re two of the least racist people I’ve ever met. When all that went down, they called me and say, ‘Coolio, what do we do?’ And I said, ‘Don’t do anything. Tell them all to f*** off.’ But somebody scared them and they started apologising.”
Coolio himself has largely avoided cancellation attempts. “If one little thing could make everybody turn against me and wanted to cancel me, then so be it. If I did something wrong, I apologise — that’s what a man does. But if I know I didn’t do something wrong, I’m not going to apologise — I’m not getting punked like that.”
It is easy to forget now, but Coolio — born Artis Leon Ivey Jr in Compton, Los Angeles — was once among the world’s biggest rap stars. In the mid-1990s, he was inescapable. His song Gangsta’s Paradise was one of the best-selling hip-hop singles of the decade, and an album of the same name was a global sensation. The Grammy Awards came thick and fast. After years toiling in the margins, Coolio was in the big time.
“I was ready for that,” he says. “I was already 30 years old. People, didn’t know but when I said [on Gangsta’s Paradise] ‘I’m 23 now, but will I live to be 24?’ I was so much older at the time. I already had some minuscule success with being in the group WC and the Maad Circle, but this [newfound fame] was different.”
Coolio wasn’t short of mentors in his early years and one of them would go on to become something of a hip-hop godfather. “Ice T taught me how to be an artist,” he says. “He was my biggest mentor. I used to hang onto his every word. I had the blessing to be on tour with him in Canada 1990/91. In the morning, when he’d get up to do radio interviews — when everyone else was sleeping — I would get up and sneak into the limo. He let me do it. And I would do stuff he’d ask me to do. I was a team player.
“Watching how he conducted himself in interviews, in public, how he dressed, the way he created his persona and kept that persona intact. I paid very close attention to what he did. He was very strategic with the way he did things. So when I got the chance to become an artist, I was basically Ice T.”
Despite preparing assiduously for fame’s arrival, he was taken aback by how different his life became. He cut a distinctive figure then, as he does today, and he was recognised everywhere. “When you walk down the street and every other person knows who you are and calls you out by name and every fifth person asks for a picture with you or wants to shake your hand or wants you to sign something, that makes you a superstar.”
The Gangsta’s Paradise album sold more than two million copies in the US alone and, as Coolio remembers it, virtually every rap artist of note was clamouring to work with him. But the success proved to be short-lived. A follow-up album, My Soul, was only a modest success, while each subsequent release failed to chart.
The rapper says the decline in his fortunes was hard to take. “I became very badly depressed,” he says, simply. He believes the quality of his work didn’t dip, and blames some of the people he was working at the time for not promoting the music as well as they should have.
He reaches for his phone and plays me a song he released in the late 1990s called One More Night. He believes it should have been as huge as Gangsta’s Paradise. “That song means a lot to me. It’s about me dying and going to heaven. I meet God there and I say, ‘God, hold on. I don’t want to be dead yet. Let me go back, for one night, and tell my homies, ‘Hey bruh, check it out: I just met God. That motherf***er is real. So listen. Y’all gotta stop this bulls**t you’re doing. You’re all gonna go to hell.’”
But, he laments, virtually nobody got to hear the song. “I didn’t have the [publicity] machine any more — and if you don’t have the machine, nobody gets to hear it. And that was part of my depression. And there’s another song I have, Sunshine… I thought they were important songs. I thought somebody was going to get behind them and champion these records and say, ‘Oh my God, y’all gotta hear this s**t.’ But it never happened.”
His mood darkens. He names a DJ on a Los Angeles radio station. “That little b**ch. He f***ed me over.” Coolio had been asked to replace the rapper Xzibit on a tour of Japan, but it didn’t go to plan. “They begged me to do it. At that time I was getting about $30,000 a show. These motherf***ers only gave me $10,000. ‘Whatever you do, Coolio, we got your back, bruh.’ I said, ‘All I want you to do is champion this record for me — make sure people hear it, get me into rotation.’ But when I get back to LA, they wouldn’t even pick up the phone to me.”
He says he has made his peace with where his career has gone. He had his own TV show, Cooking with Coolio, and he surfaced on Celebrity Big Brother, but it’s all about the music for him now. At 58, he believes he still has a lot to give and, he says, he conducts himself today in a way that makes his three daughters — “and three granddaughters” proud.
“I don’t want to have to go back in line,” he says, firmly. I misunderstand, assuming he’s talking about dole queues. “No, bro! I don’t want to have to queue for stuff. I’m Coolio!”