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The Story of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’ Coolio’s Biggest Hit


It began in 1995 in a house in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills, where two roommates — a music producer and a D.J. — used to compete over who could find the very best sample from their record collections.

In the future, Paul Stewart, the D.J., conceded that his roommate, the producer Doug Rasheed, had bested him when Rasheed placed on a vinyl copy of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album “Songs within the Key of Life.”

The track that Rasheed played, “Pastime Paradise,” opened with a mournful synth loop that replicated the sound of a string section. The song that it inspired, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” would change each of their lives and catapult an up-and-coming West Coast rapper named Coolio to global stardom.

Coolio, born Artis Leon Ivey Jr., died on Wednesday in Los Angeles at age 59; the cause has not been disclosed. The rapper had a handful of hits before and after “Gangsta’s Paradise,” but nothing in his profession would top the recognition and cultural influence of that track, which was featured within the 1995 movie “Dangerous Minds” and went on each to win a Grammy and encourage a Weird Al Yankovic parody.

In recent times, Coolio had commented on the legacy of the song and its long shadow over the remainder of his profession, calling it, in a single interview, each a blessing and curse (“More of a blessing than a curse,” he noted).

“That record: It took him excessive,” Rasheed, the song’s composer and producer, said in an interview on Thursday. “It made him a household name worldwide.”

Coolio’s opening words, that are based on Psalm 23, became probably the most widely remembered verses in ’90s rap: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a have a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left.”

The singer L.V. (born Larry Sanders), who features on the song, had already began collaborating with Rasheed on the track, he said in an interview, when Coolio wrote those lyrics. Listening to the Wonder song in that Hollywood Hills home, it had been L.V.’s idea to show “Pastime Paradise” into “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

L.V. recorded multiple vocal tracks that Rasheed combined to sound like a big choir singing a haunting refrain, in addition to the chorus: “Been spending most their lives living in a gangsta’s paradise.”

The story of how Coolio first heard the track differs depending on who’s telling it. In L.V.’s version, L.V. brought the song, together with his recorded vocals, to Coolio on a cassette tape, hoping to influence him to collaborate on it after one other rapper had turned him down. In Coolio’s account, in response to a Rolling Stone oral history of the song from 2015, the rapper was visiting the Hollywood Hills home to select up a check from Stewart, who was his manager, when he heard the track.

“I walked into the studio, and asked Doug, ‘Wow, whose track is that?’” Coolio told Rolling Stone. “Doug said, ‘Oh, it’s something I’m working on.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s mine!’”

Coolio recalled writing his verses in a single session, rapping about chasing his dreams and the uncertainty of whether he would live to 24 years old. (He was in his early 30s on the time, but 24 rhymed higher, he said in a 2015 radio interview.)

The reinterpreted song still needed to get a green light from Wonder’s camp. But, Rasheed recalled, Wonder was turned off by the profanity and violence expressed within the lyrics. The producer asked Coolio for a rewrite, and the rapper agreed. The opposite catch: Wonder’s music publishing company would receive three-quarters of the publishing proceeds.

“The terms were a bit harsh, but without them approving it there’s no hit,” Stewart, who managed each Coolio and L.V. on the time, said in an interview on Thursday.

Stewart shopped the song around and located a really interested party in MCA Records, which was producing the soundtrack for “Dangerous Minds,” starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a former Marine who becomes a teacher at an underfunded Bay Area highschool. (The movie received mixed reviews, with The Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan calling it “stereotypical, predictable and simplified to the purpose of meaninglessness.”)

The music video, directed by Antoine Fuqua and featuring a severe-looking Pfeiffer staring down Coolio, initially received a pass from MTV, Stewart recalled, until MCA arranged to advertise the video on the channel, generating interest from viewers.

MTV picked it up, and “it was probably the most phenomenal takeoff of a record that I’ve ever seen,” Stewart said. “Gangsta’s Paradise” spent three weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 and was named the chart’s No. 1 song at the top of the 12 months. It won the Grammy for best rap solo performance in 1996.

Then got here Weird Al.

The musical parody artist and his team approached Coolio to get his blessing to make their very own version of the song — “Amish Paradise” — Rasheed said, however the rapper refused. Knowing that legally speaking, Weird Al didn’t need their green light, Rasheed gave them his approval, despite Coolio’s skepticism.

“I feel he just didn’t need to be made light of,” Rasheed said. To Coolio, his collaborators explained, “Gangsta’s Paradise” spoke to the true hardships and fears around street life in a way that appeared to resonate with people from different walks of life.

“Loads of people say it saved them from whatever demons they were coping with, that they listened to the song and it helped them carry on,” Coolio said within the Rolling Stone oral history.

The “Amish Paradise” music video from 1996 opened with Yankovic in a broad-brimmed hat and a thick beard rapping, “As I walk through the valley where I harvest my grain.” Rather than Coolio’s references to being “raised by the state” and finding protection in “the hood team,” Yankovic rapped about “milkin’ cows” and partying “prefer it’s 1699.”

Rasheed said that over time, he saw Coolio soften to the parody, viewing it as more homage than mockery. And in later interviews, the rapper said that he had modified his perspective on Yankovic’s song.

“I let that go so way back,” Coolio told Vice in 2014. “Let me say this: I apologized to Weird Al an extended time ago and I used to be mistaken.” He added, “I listened to it a pair years after that and it’s actually funny,” adding an expletive.

In an interview with Newsweek a couple of months later, Yankovic said he was relieved. “I’m not the type of guy that has beef with people, because I am going out of my option to be sure that individuals are advantageous with what I do,” he said. “That was the one little moment in my whole history where there was an issue,” he noted, saying it was “very sweet” of Coolio to have told Vice he had made amends.

While “Amish Paradise” gave Coolio’s song a lift, the track was a smash by itself. L.V. remembered Coolio and his crew touring the world — Japan, France, Australia — and feeling like they were drawing “Michael Jackson-level” crowds that recited the lyrics together with them. Earlier this 12 months, Coolio celebrated the song reaching a billion streams on YouTube.

“He put some magic on that track,” Rasheed said. “His voice, his delivery his cadence — it was something really special.”

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