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Jul 13

COOLIO ft LV – “Gangsta’s Paradise”

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#729, 28th October 1995

Coolio was 32 when “Gangsta’s Paradise” came out, but the man he’s voicing is 23 – born in ’72, then, the year Stevie Wonder released Talking Book. For some critics, to draw a line from Stevie Wonder to hip-hop was to trace a decline: to tell the story of black American pop’s lost soul, from a 70s full of hope, warmth and conscience to a present day of seeming aggression and amorality. With that reading, Coolio using Stevie Wonder’s beautiful “Pastime Paradise” so fully was flaunting rap’s supposed lack of creativity. But those critics were wrong. Isolating musical developments is a luxury: it means ignoring music’s social and economic context. And “Gangsta’s Paradise” deliberately forces Stevie Wonder’s conscious, anti-materialist soul music into dialogue with that more brutal context. It wants you to remember how sweet soul could be in the early 70s, and then it wants to tell you, as straight as it can, why it can’t be that way now.

If “Gangsta’s Paradise” were only didactic it wouldn’t be effective, and it wouldn’t be great pop. The stern, basic backbeat makes Wonder’s strings hit hard, the bassline gives the track a sinister momentum “Pastime Paradise” never had. They turn the 1976 track from sermon to single. This song earns its sample, in other words. But what really makes it work is Coolio’s storytelling and self-justification. Researchers and other interviewers have a well-known – and no less effective for that – technique for getting the most out of their subjects. They simply shut up, letting the interviewee carry on, expanding their story, filling in blanks, turning back on and contradicting themselves. And that’s what happens to Coolio’s character here. He’s playing a man whose first impulse is to self-knowledge and self-analysis, but whose second impulse is always to anger, and each verse leaves him long enough to see the one switch to the other. “Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of”: he knows a bad role model, a screw-up, but he’s got his pride.

Two other examples: the top of the second verse, where he jumps from glib explanation to glib explanation – welfare, peer pressure, TV, money – none of them ringing completely false or true: he doesn’t sound quite like he believes them himself. By the end of the verse he’s shrugging them off – “what can I say?” And the final, hopeless conclusion he comes to about the establishment who want him to change: “They say I gotta learn but nobody’s here to teach me / If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me? / I guess they can’t / I guess they won’t / I guess they frontin’” – the verse running rapidly through the gears, from despair to anger. It’s a nod to the film “Gangsta’s Paradise” comes from , Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the tough but fair white teacher redeeming hood kids with Bob Dylan lyrics. But the contempt with which Coolio spits “frontin’” makes it more like a slap.

This makes “Gangsta’s Paradise” sound nihilistic – but it’s only uncompromising or chilling in the context of the rest of pop. Its success – the first really satisfying hip-hop Number One – and the gulf between its subject matter and anything else in the Top 40 does suggest how weak and backwards the charts might have sounded to anyone interested in rap. But this is far from hardcore hip-hop, nothing like the paranoid tabloid take on ‘gangsta rap’. Instead “Gangsta’s Paradise” is grand pop theatre, without much subtlety but with a clear moral stand. LV’s sorrowing chorus – “the ones we hurt are you and me” – lays it down, the gothickry of the horrorcore choir piles it on. Whatever sympathy we feel for him, however well he tells his story, Coolio’s character is a lost soul.

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Comments

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  1. 91
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Thanks Patrick, I think with that warning we’ll be well placed to avoid those trouble spots.

  2. 92
    Pink champale on 29 Jul 2013 #

    I’ve just been googling some Paloma Faith lyrics now that I know that they contain more artistic worth than the whole of hip hop. It seems that Paloma is sometimes a little but crazy but that’s just her being real. She also has some commonplace thoughts on romance. Okay, a cheap shot, but he idea that hip hop, as compared to the rest of pop music has no lyrical content is just so bizarre. I wouldn’t deny that lots if that content can be problematic, so it’s fine if you can’t get past that, but lazy rubbish about it just being boasting gets on my wick. And as for the idea that say RZA is a lesser musician than some no mark who can play a couple if chords…

  3. 93
    Chelovek na lune on 29 Jul 2013 #

    #85 And It Wasn’t A Dream….

    Although actually…MC Buzz B > Ruthless Rap Assassins in my book, just about, probably. Certainly only the former had the same idea (to base a “social issues” rap around a certain Bruce Hornsby & The Range sample) taken, and given worldwide fame, by 2-Pac, anyway, a few years later.

    It strikes me that (in the years that rap was crossing into the mainstream) there were so many “Britrap” artists who showed some degree of talent, or at least capacity to make interesting records, and, just occasionally, maybe, say something of note…but who then rapidly disappeared from view as rapidly as they had entered it. Derek B, The Cookie Crew, Monie Love, and so on, without ever making any earth-shattering impact, either commercially or critically. One can think of acts (much) later on, on the fringes of rap, that one might say this of, I suppose, but I am hard pressed to think of any British rap acts from those earlier years that really made a mark…

    (Also: how close to Carter USM count to being Britrap?: they did, kind of rap, sometimes had social commentary type lyrics, when they weren’t overplaying the South London puns, and they were about as idiosyncratically London working-class as you can get: Chas and Dave with worse haircuts. The New Cross cousins of the London Posse, too, perhaps.)

    I think the point is, to summarise, and for numerous reasons: in the 80s/90s, at least, rap was never the dynamic force (or focus of…thought and voice of protest/identity/intellectual thought) on in the UK that it was in the UK: Hijack would have surely aspired (a little too obviously, perhaps) to be London’s Public Enemy…but too few people were listening. (“The Badman Is Robin” was of course sampled in at least one later significant UK rap-offshoot-related track). Mind you – for Silver Bullet to have almost had a top 10 record with a notably uncompromising and aggressive track…was something)

  4. 94
    Jonathan on 30 Jul 2013 #

    I was going to be all “rap doesn’t need people like Wizi anyway” but I’ll be more constructive and more specific: How obnoxious to demand of the poor and marginalized that their music be exclusively “worthy.” That it live up to a standard of social consciousness not demanded of music made by and for the middle class. That their artistic work should be patronisingly valued for its message because it “was probably not about great musical talent.”

    Also, while I think it’s great that rap is ignant because I don’t think it needs to prove anything to anyone, I do wonder what kind of denuded imagination fails to make the connection between people coming from a place with “a lot of deprivation” and their valuing wealth and the power of capital.

  5. 95
    Ed on 30 Jul 2013 #

    @94 I agree with all of that. Demanding more worthiness from hip-hop than we would expect from the Rolling Stones, Babyshambles or One Direction is daft.

    My constructive suggestion for Wizi is that you should listen to some more contemporary rap: you might be pleasantly surprised.

    But… I feel uneasy about dismissing Chuck D’s concerns about the cultural impact of today’s superstar rappers by saying “Chuck D is old.”

    Deepening inequality is a real issue – perhaps the biggest issue of all – in the US and other western societies, and it would be naive to think that the way that inequality is reflected in popular culture has no effect on our ideas and values.

    I guess that means that society is the problem, not hip-hop. But it doesn’t stop me wanting to look for some awareness of that in music, whether it is rap or anything else.

  6. 96

    I wasn’t saying he was old, I was saying he’s the same age as me!

    And really all I was doing — yes a little flippantly — was pushing back against Lord Chuck of D’s repeat anointment as the Figure who Entirely Validates All Negative Opinion of Rap Since its Golden Age (viz his own heyday). See also Dan Hancox here. Political insight and views on the relative quality of musicianship are generally better treated as elements in a fricative cross-ply, not as co-affirming — and besides, as anyone active in years gone by can pertinently be asked, if your activism was so amazingly tremendous, how come we all ended up here? You can’t have got everything right!

  7. 97
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Point taken. And that Dan Hancox piece is great, as usual. His writing on grime is my favourite “pop” journalism of the past decade.

    As for musicianship, I buy the argument that rap technique has become much more, not less, sophisticated over the past 25 years, to the extent that I can sympathise with this guy, even if I don’t agree with him:
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/07/05/156327372/youve-never-heard-public-enemys-it-takes-a-nation-of-millions-to-hold-us-back

    But even so, I am glad Chuck D is still out there, still raising those questions.

    Full disclosure: I would count ‘Yo! Bum Rush The Show’ as one of the very few records that has genuinely changed my life, and I have no critical distance at all on Public Enemy. I would even make excuses for ‘Flavor of Love’.

  8. 98
    Ed on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Incidentally, I am pleased to see Dan Hancox has come out with his own veteran’s ten-year retrospective, “I remember when it was all tower blocks around here”, grand old man book.

    As Tom said, it looks great: http://dan-hancox.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/new-book-announcement-stand-up-tall.html

  9. 99
    DanH on 1 Aug 2013 #

    Re: Weird Al… You don’t have to have grown up with his music (as I did) to like him, but I’m pretty sure it helps…

  10. 100
    Patrick Mexico on 14 Oct 2013 #

    I’m sure everyone already knows about this, but here’s the man himself making it just like old times in a most unlikely venue:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCyvv8VJJMQ

  11. 101
    Patrick Mexico on 14 Oct 2013 #

    May I add, at my old university, in halls I possibly lived in, and that day at my old local, Preston’s Ship Inn/”Ships and Giggles”, Coolio (yes, really) lost a FIFA 14 match 7-0. As well as taking a breather outside Friargate McDonald’s. I don’t know how these things happen, I really don’t.. and is it a good or a bad thing, walking through the shadow of the valley of butter pie? You decide.

  12. 102
    Erithian on 28 Mar 2014 #

    The Rap Song Your Dad Likes? I wasn’t a Dad at the time, but other than that, guilty as charged – an impressive and convincing portrait of an uncomfortable life which serves rap’s role as “newspaper of the ghetto” admirably. Great use of the sample too, as something to build on and create something new and valid.

  13. 103
    Mark M on 22 Nov 2014 #

    Re58: Some thoughts on Time Is Illmatic, the documentary that looks at Nas’ life up to the release of his colossal debut album.

  14. 104
    Inanimate Carbon God on 22 Feb 2015 #

    Back in the singles charts at #81 this week! No idea why.

  15. 105
    Matt on 23 Feb 2015 #

    @104 I think it’s because iTunes discounted it to 59p in the past week, which sometimes has a noticeable effect if the song is liked enough. Same thing happened with Linkin Park & bunnied rapper nearly making the top 40 a couple weeks back (having climbed into the top 20 on iTunes).

  16. 106
    Vieuphoria on 12 Jan 2018 #

    Saw Coolio perform this song last year. He dedicated it to the memory of Princess Diana. Still unsure why.

    But the stripped back version with a live saxophonist was actually quite a treat.

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