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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  1. 31
    Tom on 24 Jul 2013 #

    #29 I remember that review and remember deciding not to buy it!

  2. 32
    James BC on 24 Jul 2013 #

    One more comment: let’s hear it for Coolio’s Kenan and Kel theme tune. Great show, great G-funk opening.

  3. 33
    Mark M on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Re 31: Sorry, Tom.

  4. 34
    Rory on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Thirteen weeks at number one in Australia in 1995/96 (when I turned 28), and our highest selling single of 1995. I remember it being everywhere for ages. Stands up well, too. A seven from me, I think.

  5. 35
    Doctor Casino on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Tom @ 9 – all fair points! I suppose I’m thinking through the use of samples mainly in terms of different audiences and taste cultures, which gets us at Andrew Farrell’s comment @ 10. I suspect that for much of Coolio’s black audience, at least in America, it is a VERY recognizable sample – a deep cut on one of the best-selling albums of the late Seventies, something their parents bought right around the time they were born, and probably played the hell out of through their childhood (its themes of parenthood probably giving it an extra boost). The equivalent for me as a whitebread guy born in the early 80s would be somebody sampling a deep cut from Graceland. I don’t have any personal insight into this but I suspect Stevie Wonder album cuts are rather better known in the black community than they are in the world of people who bought enough copies of this to send it to #1 in America (where it also topped the end-of-year charts and won several awards including a Grammy), let alone the UK or the Urkaine. Out in that world, it’s either just some cool, spooky music – or, if you’re in the know, it’s a song that got sampled, about which practice one could potentially assert some critical opinion or another (getting back to Tom) even if you’d never personally heard the original song or formed complex associations around it. If you grew up with it – well, I don’t know. I suspect this album of having warm childhood resonances (despite the spookiness of “Pastime Paradise” itself) which would certainly enhance the tale of youth in dystopia.

    Personally, I always much preferred the party jams “Fantastic Voyage” and “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)” but “Gangsta’s Paradise” is much better than I remember it being from the leaden video and its cringe-inducing images of Serious Pfeiffer facing down Recalcitrant Youths. The film was successful enough to produce a forgotten TV series, but I’m sure most people know it from the song and video. I’ve heard it referenced more than once, and not without some eye-rolling, in discussion of people doing Teach For America or other, well, Pfeiffer-esque career moves.

    I also should say that, at the time, I was listening to the wrong radio stations (and probably still a lot of Graceland to be honest) and so while I knew the song I didn’t know it well – but I had every line of the Weird Al parody memorized!

  6. 36
    Kat but logged out innit on 24 Jul 2013 #

    From the perspective of a Capital FM listener in 1995, this must have been one of their first A-list rap hits, presumably due to the lack of swears/drug references/etc that would have discounted any Snoop or Dre. I think Arrested Development were safe enough though! Bear in mind that the rest of the playlist was George Michael, Eternal, Simply Red, M People, Jacko, occasionally the Lightning Seeds – Coolio really stood out, as did Michelle Pfieffer’s Acting Face in the video, which was on every bloody week on TOTP (no Coolio performance iirc?). However I was thoroughly sick of it by Christmas.

    From the perspective of a karaoke regular I can confirm that this is amazing fun to sing, esp if your mates are doing the gospel ‘aaaah’s. It is going on in the kitchen, but I do not know what is cooking!

  7. 37
    don'tshootmeI'monlysaying on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Then, I couldn’t escape the notion that it was a diet-version of “It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube. I couldn’t see why the protagonist was worrying “I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24” – why 23? Really? Other than that there was a good line in “It Was A Good Day” – “Thinking will I live, another twenty-fo’ ”

    Homies and fools too. But I accept there’s a lot of that about in other tracks.

  8. 38
    Andrew Farrell on 24 Jul 2013 #

    @25: There’s also the first use in the second verse, preparing us for the final irony: Coolio is an educated fool, with money on his mind – but an educated fool is still a fool, you see.

    @35: I think that’s largely what I was fumbling towards, but I think that even if you don’t recognise the music it’s still fuel for the argument – it’s definitely something external to the track being reused. Also (as we will sadly not being seeing them later in Popular), reminds me of sükråt talking (er, I can’t find where) about the context of Wu Tang’s backing being largely the stuff their parents would be, er, parenting to.

  9. 39
    Mark M on 24 Jul 2013 #

    One of the things I loved about mid ’90s hip hop was the ease and fluency of a generation for whom rap was almost a first language, possibly best exemplified by 93 ’til Infinity by Souls Of Mischief, but also Snoop, Nas, The Pharcyde, Outkast, Ghostface Killah from the Wu-Tang. It sounded like the future, but hip hop went somewhere else entirely.

    Coolio’s age, as mentioned above, puts him into a group who were deep into their teens when Rapper’s Delight came out, and thus had rap as a second language.

  10. 40
    23 Daves on 24 Jul 2013 #

    This felt inescapable to me at the time, although that fact didn’t bother me. I have a peculiar memory of being at somebody’s house party, and this got played in the front room three or four times in a row. Nobody complained and a lot of people actually stopped what they were doing to appreciatively listen – it had just hit number one at that point, and that was all the indication I needed that it was going to become a monstrously huge single. Usually a few dull indie/rock purists would complain at parties if someone jumped on the stereo to put a hip-hop track on, but this crossed all the boundaries.

    Time and over-familiarity has waned its appeal for me slightly, and I don’t think it’s the best hip-hop number one Britain has had, but it’s a strangely powerful piece of work. An easy 8 from me.

  11. 41
    Ed on 24 Jul 2013 #

    As others have said, it was remarkably easy in mid-nineties Britain to miss the biggest stars of US hip-hop.

    I think ‘California Love’ would have been the only song I heard by either Tupac or Biggie; it was the biggest hit either of them had in Britain, helped by the brilliantly OTT video. So when the stories of their deaths were reported over here, it was hard for us to appreciate what a big deal they were.

    The good thing about missing them at the time was that I got to discover them both last year, which was a great pleasure. My reaction was that Tupac was slick but a bit superficial, while Biggie was a certified genius, fully justifying every word of the hype about him. But I know some people take Tupac very seriously, so maybe I am still missing something.

    @11 I also bought the first Gravediggaz album, which is great, but not necessarily better than a lot of the other mid-90s hip-hop that I missed. As you say, it must have been well reviewed. The prog / supergroup / Black Sabbath / “hip-hop is the new metal” angle may have helped.

    @39 Vampire Weekend apparently felt the same as you about Souls of Mischief. So maybe in that sense they were the future, or at least a bit of it.

  12. 42
    mapman132 on 24 Jul 2013 #

    And now it’s time to mention the hilarious (to me) Weird Al Yankovic parody “Amish Paradise”. Of course, I’m curious about two things:

    1) Is Weird Al as big in the UK as he is in the states?

    2) Are the Amish well known in the UK? Are the song and video funny to UK listeners, or does the humor fall flat?

    I should note I grew outside Philadelphia, about 60 miles from the Amish’s most famous stronghold.

  13. 43
    Izzy on 24 Jul 2013 #

    No, he isn’t; but he’s curiously well-known as a name. I’ve heard Eat It, I know he had another one called Smells Like Nirvana, but nothing has ever explained why his name keeps cropping up as some kind of parody genius.

    I haven’t heard Amish Paradise and don’t intend to, but the Amish are certainly famous here. I doubt we know many details, though I did see some in the wild, riding pony-and-trap, when I was in Pennsylvania.

    The Hutterites aren’t well-known, but they seem to be much the same thing, only further west and maybe fifty years more advanced. Has Weird Al ever done them, Hutterite Ite Baby or similar?

  14. 44
    Cumbrian on 24 Jul 2013 #

    About my only exposure to the Amish is the film Witness starring Harrison Ford. So I know basically nothing about them beyond what is covered there. It’s a belting film though. Probably Ford’s most overlooked decent film.

    Weird Al seems to be one of those guys that crops up every now and then in dispatches in the UK but I don’t know whether he has much of a profile beyond the occasional mention. The last I heard of him was the to do over his Lady GaGa parody (which presumably is quasi bunnied) and Dave Grohl claiming that Nirvana knew they had made it when they got the call that he was going to take them on.

  15. 45
    Billy Hicks on 24 Jul 2013 #

    He’s had one top 40 hit here when ‘Eat It’ went to #36 in 1984. ‘Smells Like Nirvana’ charted one week at #58 in 1992.

  16. 46
    Ed on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Weird Al is *extremely* variable, I think. Sometimes, as in ‘Eat It’, he is painfully, embarassingly, inappropriate speech at a wedding unfunny.

    ‘Amish Paradise’ is quite amusing, though. Sample line: “If thou finish thy chores, and I finish mine, then tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1699.”

    If you don’t crack a smile at that, you should probably spare yourself the whole thing:


  17. 47
    Mark M on 24 Jul 2013 #

    Re 41: The Gravediggaz’s Niggamortis I gave 4/5. Correct score, but a horrible, horrible bit of writing. Contains a reference to The Afghan Whigs in an attempt to give the reviews editor something to relate to.

  18. 48
    James BC on 24 Jul 2013 #

    When people start playing you their Weird Al mp3s, that’s when it’s time to leave and go to bed. I found “Amish Paradise” as awful as all his other stuff – soft target, cliched jokes, silly voice, goes on forever. It’s not even a real parody because it says nothing about Gangsta’s Paradise – Weird Al just uses its framework as a vehicle for his own vastly inferior lyrics.

    Other people do like him, though. They can’t all be morons so there must be something in it. Right?

  19. 49
    Kinitawowi on 24 Jul 2013 #

    #45: surprised to not see any success for ‘White N Nerdy’, which seemed to be huge at the time. I have a feeling that if he came into being today he’d be a Lonely Island-level Youtube smash for about ten minutes and that’d be his lot.

    Of course, we’ve mentioned nothing about how Gangsta’s Paradise was one of his more controversial parodies due to uncertainties as to whose permission he had for it.

  20. 50
    Kat but logged out innit on 24 Jul 2013 #

    I had a tape of the Smells Like Nirvana album (copied off a friend) and thought it was hilarious at the time. Polka Your Eyes Out, while dubious in quality, was definitely a introduction of sorts for me to the wonders of 80s US Hair Rock (that I’d clearly missed from my parents not having MTV…)

  21. 51
    Alfred on 25 Jul 2013 #

    As for Dangerous Minds, it was a moderate hit in America, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s last before disappearing.

  22. 52
    Mark M on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Re 51: Dangerous Minds took a perfectly respectable $178m worldwide.

    Pfeiffer’s last big hit was actually 2000’s What Lies Beneath ($291m). The non-US box office was about the same for both films – WLB was much bigger on home soil.

  23. 53
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jul 2013 #

    #36 Coolio did perform this on TOTP at least once – I know because it led to a bit of an argument between me and someone I knew at the time who was being a massive racist about it ]:[

    I’ve ‘performed’ this at karaoke once but got the explicit version in which Coolio’s character describes himself not as an ‘educated fool’ but an ‘educated n****’ …so I just left that bit out. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ would be far more fun to do – if only it hadn’t stalled at #41 maybe it would’ve got onto more (any) songbooks.

    Like many I really did believe Coolio to be 23 at first.

  24. 54
    Ed on 25 Jul 2013 #

    @36 and @53 – I am pretty sure he was on at least one of the live pop shows with this one, because my friend who works in TV met him.

    She said he was very charming, but did give them a laugh at one point. Making small talk with another woman on the production team, he said: “You’re having a baby? Congratulations! When is it due?” She replied: “No. I’m just fat.”

  25. 55
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Andrew @38: yes I was discussing Nate Patrin’s lecture at EMP 2007 — or at least, this was the source of my understanding in these matters (and I hope I credited Nate). But I can’t find it either!

  26. 56
    Andrew Farrell on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Dark shadows did about $150m as well, though I suppose that’s more of an ensemble (or at least a sharp step down from first place)?

  27. 57
    hardtogethits on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Chart observations!

    This record showed real stickability. Of all the records to enter the charts at number one up to this point in the common chart era:

    1. GP shared the record for longest consecutive run in the Top 10 (12wks)*
    2. GP equalled the record for longest consecutive run in the top 50/75 (20wks)*
    3. GP became the first to rebound up the charts 2 times whilst still in the top 10.
    4. GP became the first to rebound up the charts 3 times whilst still in the top 20.

    Thus, like Whigfield the year before, it showed that the demand curve for number one hits had not just shifted leftwards*, it had flattened (ie the predictable tumble down the charts could no longer be taken for granted).

    You can read all about it in my book “What Have They Done To Our Charts? – Singles Buyers, Marketeers and the Diffusion of Innovations”.

    * Meaning – as stated elsewhere – that since “Some Might Say” it had become more commonplace to enter at number one than to climb there. Except for the Outhere Brothers.

    **Obviously the number ones which broke these records are bunnied – but it’s fascinating (to some, obv) to realise what they were.

  28. 58
    ciaran on 25 Jul 2013 #

    This is surely an example of youth grade-inflation but this would be a possible 10 for me.Definitely the best Number 1 for a long while and in my top 5 of the decade.

    Like U.S raps very own answer to ‘Ghost Town’ with a hint of an ‘It’s a Sin’ type narrative – not a note is wasted throughout with the sample fitting perfectly with Coolio’s doom laden performance. I rarely hear Number 1’s from this time anymore but I made sure this was one of the first tracks downloaded onto my ipod touch bought around 4 years ago.I’ve never felt it was overplayed and I certainly have never gotten sick of hearing it.I started secondary school in the autumn of 95 and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.Only Oasis could unite opinion as strong as this.

    Which makes it even more disappointing that Coolio never did anything as brilliant as GP.Too Hot was a pretty poor follow up and I dont mind C U When U get there but it was over exposed.Also supporting Keenan and Kel was not what I thought of as a good move.They were not that popular in my school.Probably dues to being on nickelodeon more then anything. Similar to Flavor Flav with the reality tv appearances which was a fair fall from GP.

    Rap was starting to make more of an impact on me about a year or so before this.My older brother was heavily into House of Pain, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Cypress Hill so it felt right that a gritty tune like 3 GP hit the top spot.It’s only in recent years I learned of the existence of the ‘classic albums’ of the mid-90s – Enter the wu tang clan, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Illmatic, Ready To Die – so quite a time for rap fans.California Love from 1996 was one of my favourite songs of 1996 but I never like 2pac the way others did.Of course we will her from him again a decade down the line in a GP like setting.

    GP wouldnt be out of place on Illmatic. Having only discovered Illmatic a year ago I wanted to know if it made any immediate impact on any of the contributors here?

  29. 59
    Mark M on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Re: 59 I absolutely loved Illmatic, still do. I think it’s the high point in the careers of pretty much everyone involved, and considering the people concerned that’s big praise. I don’t think Nas came close to being that good again. Definitely one of the best albums of the decade. (incidentally, or maybe pertinently, I think it is one of the last hip hop LPs that fits happily on two sides of vinyl).

  30. 60
    Izzy on 25 Jul 2013 #

    Nothing immediate. I wasn’t a head, so it wasn’t at all clear to me that those were four peaks worth paying heed to. In fact I’m not sure when it twigged that rap had become an albums genre – there was the occasional Straight Outta Compton or Black Sunday, and PE had always been a law unto themselves. Dr Dre probably changed attitudes. But iirc the perception for the casual listener at this point was probably still that you’d get a couple of good singles then it was time to look elsewhere. Unfairly obviously, strong albums were piled high by this time in retrospect. But it was no surprise that Coolio’s follow-ups didn’t hit too big.

    The first time I heard anything from Illmatic was The World Is Yours on some evening music show in summer 2001 – as well as completely flooring me, I can place the time because I excitedly ran down to Fopp on my lunch break the next day to buy the album. Still one of my very favourite tracks, and imo just about the best lyric pop has ever produced.

    (I don’t see that GP would fit on it at all though – Illmatic has such a light touch, and everything about GP is far too heavy in comparison)

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