With the unfortunate death of beloved rapper Coolio on Wednesday, hip-hop lovers have been mourning the passing of one of the genre’s most viral performers.
People across the music community have paid their respects to the Los Angeles rapper including Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Quest Love, Chuck D, Ice-T, MC Hammer, Xzibit and a plethora of other artists. It’s clear Coolio had the respect of his fans and his peers.
Coolio had other hit songs including “Fantastic Voyage,” “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)” and “Stomp.” But “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the smash hit that most resonated with music lovers. But why? What factors led to this song becoming a worldwide phenomenon that is still played and revered like in 1995? Why is this one track so important?
The song has become a hit on social media and on any given day, someone on TikTok or Instagram uses the song to show how “Gangsta” they are. Whether it’s children or old folks.
The first factor was the sample. As hip-hop heads know, the genre was built on using something old and creating something new and fresh. The song takes the beat, chorus and title inspiration from Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise, ” from his classic 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life.
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Coolio said:
“But the thing was, we still had to get Stevie to sign off on it. When Stevie heard it, he was like, ‘No, no way. I’m not letting my song be used in some gangster song.’ So that was a problem. And it just so happened that my wife, she knew Stevie’s brother — I guess he had been trying to tap that for years [laughs]. She made a call to him, got a meeting with Stevie and talked him into it. His only stipulation was that I had to take the curse words out. I had two places where I had the N-word in it, and two places where it was, like, ‘Fucked in the ass,’ or something like that. And Stevie said that if I’d take that out, he would sign off on it. Unbeknownst to me, the other condition was that he wanted 95 percent of the publishing! Had I known that, I’m not sure I would have went ahead with that — but I don’t know, maybe I would have [laughs]. So that’s how we ended up clearing it.”
Only a few artists have the ability to take a sample from a singer as legendary as Stevie Wonder and make the new song just as, if not more iconic than the original. Coolio did so with “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
The second factor is the song was released as a part of the soundtrack for the Disney film, Dangerous Minds, making it a hit among hip-hop fans, but an absolute mainstream banger among people who usually don’t enjoy rap. This one song may be responsible for making “Gangsta Rap” international.
While some may thank the success of N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, 2pac and other west coast rappers for the popularization of Gangsta Rap, none of those artists had a song that was featured on the tracklist of a Disney movie directed by Jerry Bruckheimer. None of them.
Snoop Dogg and 2pac had countless songs that were included in classic 90s movies such as Deep Cover and Above the Rim, but nothing on the level of popularity as a Disney movie featuring Michelle Pfeiffer of all people (who’s also in the music video).
Often when we think about the rappers who we have to thank for hip-hop being as popular as it is today, Coolio’s name is not brought up enough, but it should be. Nowadays, it is commonplace for a rap single to be on the soundtrack of kids’ movies (look at Minions: The Rise of Guru). Hell, it was used as a marketing campaign for the Black Panther soundtrack (also a Disney movie). But, Coolio did it 27 years ago when it was not so common and rap was still considered a controversial genre that was not “safe” for America’s children to listen to.
Now, it’s a song that’s regularly used on social media by children who weren’t even thought of when the track was released. Coolio was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry, and it’s in large part because of his timeless rapping on “Gangsta’s Paradise.”