Scotsman Obituaries: Coolio, US rapper and actor behind Gangsta’s Paradise

Coolio, rapper and actor. Born: 1 August 1963 in Monessen, Pennsylvania. Died: 28 September 2022 in Los Angeles, California, aged 59

In September 2017, Glasgow’s Paradise rocked to Gangsta’s Paradise when rapper Coolio, who has died aged 59, made an unexpected appearance at Celtic Park, announcing the winners of the Paradise Windfall draw as his signature hit rang out across the stadium.

His Glasgow connection was the MSP Tommy Sheridan. The pair had struck up an unlikely friendship as contestants in the sixth series of Celebrity Big Brother and remained in touch. Coolio was already in town for a more conventional gig at the Hydro as part of the I Love the 90s hip-hop nostalgia tour but his Paradise PA was typical of a popular entertainer who had pivoted from gangsta rapper to showbiz all-rounder.

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Curiously, this was not the Californian rapper’s only brush with Scottish football – this proud owner of three kilts once performed at Ayr’s Club de Mar wearing a personalised Ayr United jersey. On hearing of his death from a suspected heart attack, Sheridan paid tribute to his pal, saying "Coolio was a huge talent and a massive character. He filled every room he occupied. He will be greatly missed but will never walk alone. His appearance at Parkhead will never be forgotten."

The kilt-owning Coolio once made a surprise appearance at Celtic Park (Picture: Zak Hussein/Press Association)
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By some, perhaps. But the impish star with the punky, spiked hair was unarguably best known for his 1995 international hit Gangsta’s Paradise, a rap repurposing of Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise with soulful guest vocalist L.V. and dramatic gospel choir. The track featured on the soundtrack of the Michelle Pfeiffer-starring school drama Dangerous Minds but easily eclipsed the film, going on to become one of the biggest rap anthems of all time. Coolio won the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for his contrite chronicle of a wasted life and the atmospheric video has been viewed more than a billion times on YouTube.

Coolio was born Artis Leon Ivey Jr in the Rust Belt town of Monessen, Pennsylvania, but raised from the age of 11 in the future hip-hop hotbed of Compton, California, where he lived with his mother Jackie and attended Compton College.

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Coming up through the nascent hip-hop scene in Los Angeles’ southern boroughs, he was nicknamed Coolio Iglesias for his smooth performing style. Owning the moniker, he developed a lighter musical tone than his Compton contemporaries Dr Dre and Ice Cube and began his recording career in 1987 with the single Whatcha Gonna Do? Not much commercially, as it transpired, so Coolio divided his time between jail, voluntary firefighting (as a way of kicking his crack cocaine habit) and working security at LAX.

In the early Nineties, he joined the hip-hop outfit WC and the Maad Circle and caught a break when he signed as a solo artist to respected New York rap label Tommy Boy Records in 1994. Fantastic Voyage, the lead single from his debut album It Takes A Thief, greased the wheels for greater success to come, walking a credible line between streetwise lyricism and pop marketability.

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Worldwide fame came at the age of 32 when Gangsta’s Paradise topped the Billboard charts, becoming the biggest selling single of 1995 in the US. This success was repeated around Europe and Australasia. Only Robson & Jerome’s anodyne Unchained Melody sold more in the UK that year. In a further sign of cultural ubiquity, the track spawned a Weird Al Jankovic parody, Amish Paradise.

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Coolio struggled to maintain this musical high watermark with follow-up hits and further songs on film and TV soundtracks – Rollin’ with My Homies from Clueless, It’s All the Way Live (Now) from Eddie, Hit ’Em High (The Monstar’s Anthem) from Space Jam and Aw, Here It Goes from buddy comedy Kenan & Kel, none of which were especially covered in distinction. He was dropped from Tommy Boy Records when his third album failed to match the stellar success of its predecessors but went on to release five more albums independently.

Along the way, there were acting bit parts in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed and Batman & Robin and probation for a couple of firearms offences. Despite the requisite brushes with criminality, he was never comfortable being labelled a gangster rapper. Public Enemy’s resident jester, Flavor Flav, described him as his West Coast equivalent and his next move established him as a mainstream entertainer.

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The world of celebrity reality TV spin-offs welcomed this big, brash character over and over – on Wife Swap, on Celebrity Cook-Off and, most memorably for UK audiences, on Celebrity Big Brother where he left his mark on the particularly motley 2009 season, finishing in a respectable third place behind broadcasters Ulrika Jonsson and Terry Christian but ahead of Sheridan, LaToya Jackson and Hollywood actor Verne Troyer, before returning for another sojourn in Ultimate Big Brother, which blended civilian and celebrity contestants.

By this point, Coolio had married, divorced and fathered an unconfirmed 11 children in and out of wedlock. Some of his kids featured in his own TV show Coolio’s Rules, which ran for one season in 2008. More recently, he scored a hit with online series Cookin’ With Coolio, named after his previously published cookbook.

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However, his most bizarre move in a career of curious exploits was to join porn star Cherie DeVille’s doomed bid for the 2020 presidency, appearing as her running mate on a ticket to “Make America F***ing Awesome Again”.

With a side hustle in politics now a busted flush, Coolio was out on tour with his Nineties rap peers Vanilla Ice and Young MC and reportedly in talks to mount his first Las Vegas residency at the time of his death. His biggest hit speculated “will I live to see 24?” – Coolio managed 35 more years and was still far from finished.

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