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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. 76
    Ed on 28 Jul 2013 #

    @64 and @65 – Yes, Run DMC were unashamed rockists (sorry) from the get-go. As Public Enemy put it: “Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band and stand on its own feet, get you out your seat.”

    They were recognized for it at the time, too. Christgau on the first album: “It’s easily the canniest and most formally sustained rap album ever.” (Found that on his site, but it looks like a contemporary review.)

  2. 77
    Wizi on 29 Jul 2013 #

    This was the last good rap/hip hop record IMHO. After that, it was just people using rap to get rich and boast about it without actually having any musical ability to earn by merit.

    I liked Dangerous Minds and was moved to tears during the sad part. Michelle Pfeiffer has had a great career since, as far as I’m concerned. Mark M has already mentioned “What Lies Beneath” with Harrison Ford. She also went on to make the highly popular films “One Fine Day”, “Stardust” and “Hairspray” with Clooney, De Niro and Travolta (and Walken) respectively.

  3. 78
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Yeah, not like those nice whte folks with guitars, right?

  4. 79
    Wizi on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Mark G, I feel the same way about white rappers of the moment. At the same time, I love Public Enemy (had I been at Glastonbury, I would have skipped the Stones to see PE instead) and a lot of earlier rap and hip hop as they actually had something to say, and there was a lot of deprivation in New York and this was a great way of people expressing themselves.

    BBC4 showed a documentary a couple of years back and Chuck D was quite scathing about the current crop in similar terms as me, so I’m not sure how race enters into it anyway.

    By the way, my favourite artist is Prince and I was at the Nile Rodgers gig on Saturday night. There goes a couple of performers who truly have talent and deserve their wealth.

  5. 80
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

    To clarify, I don’t mean it from a ‘race’ pov, more that you have it that the whole musical genre that exists right now is only and soleley about making money and bragging about it.

  6. 81
    Tom on 29 Jul 2013 #

    I haven’t scoured the listings, but I can’t think of any upcoming hip-hop #1 where the main focus of the track is the artist’s wealth!

    (I appreciate you’re talking about hip-hop in general, but even so it’s a pretty enormous generalisation).

  7. 82
    James BC on 29 Jul 2013 #

    I’d like to know more about Wizi as the idea that anyone could agree with the statement “Gangsta’s Paradise is the last great hip hop record” fascinates me. Obviously we are all entitled to our own opinions but I can’t get a handle on that one.

    Hip hop bragging goes right back to Rapper’s Delight and the guy boasting about having a colour TV. But with a lot of it I tend to think the rappers are doing it because it’s a convention of the genre rather than to be boastful. It’s rarely the focus of an entire song.

  8. 83
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Bragging goes right back, let’s drop in to “Duke of Earl”, and now your go-back futher..

  9. 84
    Wizi on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Mark G & Tom, I don’t think the whole genre exists just to brag about wealth, it sadly reeks of sexism too and I do get fed up with great female singers feeling as if they have to have one of these rappers on their record to give it any kind of credibility.

    This may have to come down to difference of opinion, but if you think I am a lone voice on this, then please note a very recent Radio One documentary where they discussed the possible reasons for the widespread bragging about wealth within the genre. As well as this, Radio Two reviewed the latest Jay Z album and the reviewer effectively wondered how many more ways the rapper could find ways of bragging about his lifestyle.

  10. 85
    Steve Mannion on 29 Jul 2013 #

    So…when are we doing the BritRap poll?

  11. 86
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

    OK, you have Radio 1 documentaries and Radio 2 reviews on your side.

  12. 87
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 29 Jul 2013 #

    The point here is not that you’re a lone voice speaking truth to power, wizi — or boldly on the side of contrary opinion alongside the forgotten prophets at Radio One — it’s that this line is a cliche ppl can hardly turn around for falling over. Half the world thinks this: the half of the world that doesn’t bother listening to rap very carefully, and builds its justification on very selective half-listening (and half-thinking).

    Chuck D is like every other 53-yr-old*: of course he thinks the world was better when he was a young man, and that music was better when everyone thought they should be making it the way he made it.

    The talent thing is just silly: there have been scores of younger rappers who have better flow than Coolio and a wittier/smart way with words. Decisions about morally high-flown topics — and manifestations of monkish character — don’t make for better music (quite the opposite, sometimes).

    *haha CD is a BABY he is three months younger than me, i just checked

  13. 88
    fivelongdays on 29 Jul 2013 #

    Sorry I’m a touch late here – been away.

    I’m not a hip-hop fan – a little goes a long way for me – but fuckin’ hell, this is FANTASTIC. It’s dark, it’s doomy, it’s lower-case gothic, it makes the hairs on your arms go up in the chorus, it’s catchy, it’s smart, and it’s a lot of fun.

    Hip-hop for people who don’t like Hip-hop? Well, as someone who doesn’t really like hip-hop this gets a big fat NINE.

  14. 89
    Wizi on 29 Jul 2013 #

    I never at any point said that I liked all the earlier rap and hip hop and I never said that wealth was not bragged about in earlier tracks.

    I do find it baffling that so many rappers of today are thought of as great artists, when I do listen and the subject matters I hear are about wealth, about the screaming fans or something about women which uses extremely insulting terminology. Can we actually cover some subjects like all the real musicians do, even if it is just a straightforward love verse?

    We recently read a book of poetry by a single poet for the book club I go to, and most of the poems were about poets, leaving all of us yearning for some actual subjects instead of just the self-praising and self-indulgent stuff.

    It pains me when there are so many other great young artists of the day out there such as Muse, Paloma Faith and Laura Mvula who deserve the number ones more.

    Hip hop and rap was originally probably not about great musical talent, but about expression about the situations that people were living in, and what I am most perplexed by is how we are allowing rappers to get the Brit awards etc without actually being musicians in the first place. How many rappers are there who could be locked in a studio with just some instruments and actually produce something of worth?

    I do hear good bits on recent rap and hip hop, basically the wonderful singing parts which are done by someone else. Sadly the words are sometimes just there for the singer to praise the rapper…

    I know that “injustice” occurs across the genres as someone who can’t sing very well could get a top producer in to actually put the tracks together and then they go on to become the respected star, I accept that to be the case.

    IMHO again, I feel that it is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes and the greatest talent demonstrated is that of self-promotion.

  15. 90
    Patrick Mexico on 29 Jul 2013 #

    No gigantic expert on this genre – well this sub-genre, sometimes I’ll wax lyrical about Public Enemy, De La Soul, Afrika Bambaataablahdeblah then make doughnutted comments about NWA and gangsta rap “ruining hip-hop” on forums I have since been blocked from, but since then I’ve come a long way, baby, and can’t wait to discuss this anyway.

    However, this is a deserved number one. I’m not sure why it’s being held up as an example of hip-hop “bragging” and “materialism”.. it sounds a very lazy and stereotypical way to approach a big turning point in popular genres, love or loathe it, and the opening lines are from the common-or-garden funeral psalm.. a jarring but well-meaning opening gambit.

    I used to find the Stevie Wonder template uninspired, but agree with Tom that sometimes pop can be most profound when it “borrows” themes from the past then throws them into sharp relief in a darker, more uncertain context – just like Nirvana’s mangled, warp-speed take on the Youngbloods’ Get Together in Territorial Pissings, “to make the baby-boomers look in the mirror and feel guilty.”

    This could potentially be one of the best Popular threads so far, but a hip-hop one, especially the further away we get from its “golden age”, risks the following doughnuttery (yes, it’s a noble baked good, but it’s also a noble insult.. I think as much about Punctum at the bakery as I do about John Steed when I stir my coffee)…

    a) the “all that rap crap is just crash bang wallop bloody nuis@nce” bunch, mostly from older generations.

    b) those who accuse a) of casual racism, especially if they’re from older generations, which is idiotically pseudo-right-on in itself, but also risks people going on the defensive into cringeworthy “I have black friends, you know” discussion.

    c) those who accuse people innocently trying to discuss and embrace a genre they may not necessarily be used to that much, with cries of “Ermahgerd!! You’re white and middle-class so You DON’T HAVE ARTISTIC LICENCE TO WRITE ABOUT HIP-HOP!! Go and listen to WHITE MIDDLE-CLASS BANDS ONLY! It’s ok for EVERYONE ELSE ON THE PLANET to PICK AND CHOOSE, but how DARE you EXPLOIT your WHITE MIDDLE-CLASS PRIVILEGE! You are all GEORGE OSBORNE ACOLYTES who KICK PEOPLE IN WHEELCHAIRS! Bow down to FRAN HEALY, your cappuccino Führer!”

    Just warning you guys.

    More echoing the sentiment people from all over the world have with pride and defiance when they’re up against it – “where I’m from might be a hellhole, but it’s MY hellhole, MY ‘paradise’.” A hearty 7.

  16. 91
    Andrew Farrell on 29 Jul 2013 #

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

  17. 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…

  18. 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)

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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’.

  23. 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

  24. 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…

  25. 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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

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