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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. 61
    swanstep on 26 Jul 2013 #

    @ciaran, 58. Sadly I didn’t clock to Illmatic until 1998-99, when it started appearing on ‘Best of Decade’-type lists.

    As for the general Michelle Pfeiffer discussion above: I’m not sure whether it’s principally Hollywood’s fault or Pfeiffer’s but it feels to me as though she’s never quite made the impact on screen that she could have. Apart from Catwoman in Batman Returns and a siren in The Fabulous Baker Boys she hasn’t had roles that really exploit her beauty. Put slightly differently, she’s taken a lot of roles that ‘anyone’ could have played – whether that’s strictly been her choice, I don’t know. Maybe overall there’s a slight blankness or lack of personality about her that has made it hard to build films around her?

  2. 62
    Mark M on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Re 60: Wider perception apart, I think that hip hop acts were in an album state of mind by the late ’80s – as well as the aforementioned PE and NWA, I’m thinking of people like BDP (By Any Means Necessary) and Eric B & Rakim (Paid In Full, Follow The Leader). Although they are best known here for three singles (De La Soul) and one (A Tribe Called Quest), the Natives Tongues very much had that Clash-like thing of ‘on this particular album, our mindset/sound is x’. The groundwork for Illmatic is audible in the second and third Gang Starr albums and (a wonderful thing in its own right) Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s Mecca And The Soul Brother.

  3. 63
    James BC on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Would it have been a lack of radio play that pushed hip-hop artists towards being album artists? Especially harder-edged ones like Wu Tang (who I am only just discovering; I don’t know anything).

  4. 64
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 Jul 2013 #

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hip_hop_albums_considered_to_be_influential

    ^^^Helpful? (Tho it omits Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1988 double, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper)

    re mid 80s rappers thinking album-wards, I suspect the record company would have been important also (since they would have been calling at least some of the shots, and running the promotion strategies)?: Def Jam in particular — and beyond this Rick Rubin, with his background in US punk and what wasn’t yet called alt.rock.

    (it’s surely not accident that the early entrants in the wikipedia list are all Rubin-linked — though actually Run DMC’s first two albs predate his involvement I think, so I guess they are the full-on innovators…)

    I don’t really know enough about US radio to know about album-oriented stations (or anyway programmes) for black music: I would guess these had existed at college radio level since the late 70s at least, but maybe not on a scale to encourage record companies to branch out into “album-based thinking”? Certainly historically it isn’t something that chart-oriented black American artists tended to dip into until they became very established stars (Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were pioneers here).

    (Funk is a bit of a different animal: George Clinton and Sly Stone were both fascinated by rock practice; James Brown’s LPs are conceptual in a fairly loose sense, but not really conceived as “works”, I don’t think. Rap was arguably shifting towards a Clintonian model in the mid-80s, from a chart-based model — probably at least part of the — probably simplistic? — thinking is that when it comes to sustainable audiences, black fans tend to favour singles and white fans LPs… rap being in the end a herald of the ongoing shift … )

    (Crate-mining for samples also tends towards album-based listening, I suspect…) (there’s an interesting underlying history here, which I am speculatively brainstorming, probably in slightly misshapen fashion)

  5. 65
    Mark M on 26 Jul 2013 #

    I don’t mind that list, although it leans a bit towards grumpy adherents of cranky religions presumably because of the ‘seriousness’ of their intent – I mean, I liked X Clan, but I don’t think they were major figures in the history of hip hop.

    It guess it does, as so often, come back to Run DMC.

  6. 66
    Lazarus on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Not much mention of chorus-singing sidekick LV – real name Larry Sanders (!) – but I seem to recall he was a rather stout fellow, and I couldn’t help but think: ‘luncheon vouchers.’

  7. 67
    James BC on 26 Jul 2013 #

    My then nine-year-old brother was very taken with L.V. It’s a great vocal from him that’s perfect for the song (even if “so blind to see” is a bit of a clunker).

    I believe he did have one or two minor solo hits.

  8. 68
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 Jul 2013 #

    I’n in Shropshire at the moment so can’t remind myself what I’m thinking of, but wasn’t there a Fat Boys Xmas album? It had a Keith Haring sleeve

    (Google is not being helpful)

  9. 69
    thefatgit on 26 Jul 2013 #

    L.V. and C**lo G***n, never seen a better example of “brothers from another mother”.

  10. 70
    glue_factory on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Re: 68, Are you thinking of this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_in_Hollis

  11. 71
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Possibly: and this was the full xmas compilation — except I remembered the sleeve was yellow, so perhaps not? Will have to check once I’m home.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Very_Special_Christmas_(album)

  12. 72
    Matt DC on 26 Jul 2013 #

    This is a superb example of a floor filler that no one can actually dance to. I actually heard it on Saturday night and people ran to the dancefloor only to just sort of stand there lurching at each other while singing along.

  13. 73
    Billy Hicks on 26 Jul 2013 #

    See also ‘Love the Way You Lie’ (incredibly not a bunny, look it up), an equally huge seller but causes a club to just awkwardly shuffle and mime Eminem’s rap bits, perking up only when Rihanna comes in.

  14. 74
    Jonathan on 28 Jul 2013 #

    I know the point here is the context of the song within the charts, but I can’t help it; this song seems so unnecessary given everything else that was going on in rap at the time. You know, the break is nice and Coolio sounds interesting for about forty-five seconds, but the whole thing seems theatrical retelling of gangsta rap, and considering gangsta rap is pretty theatrical as it is, the end result sounds awfully clumsy. (Which isn’t to act like Coolio isn’t authentic or whatever, but to say that he did a poor job of telling these stories.) And you don’t even have to look to Big or Pac or Nas for examples of contemporaneous music that makes this seem so weak in comparison. Look to “Tha Crossroads,” which found similar crossover success (#8 in the UK) at a similar time, mined a similar gothic gospel sound, and similarly placing conscious themes in a grim setting, but is executed far more skillfully and with finer detail.

  15. 75
    taDOW on 28 Jul 2013 #

    “tha crossroads” is interesting in that it either represented a moment when even regional hip-hop acts could score megahits (and kinda setting the stage in a way for the oncoming dominance of the south) or it represented a track becoming a #1 hit on the back of being an eazy-e tribute and either scenario represented a huge ‘ok paradigm has definitely shifted’ signifier to me.

  16. 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.)

  17. 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.

  18. 78
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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).

  22. 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.

  23. 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..

  24. 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.

  25. 85
    Steve Mannion on 29 Jul 2013 #

    So…when are we doing the BritRap poll?

  26. 86
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2013 #

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

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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