Gangsta in Paradise
YEARS BEFORE HE WOULD FASHION the electroshock corn rows, perfect the grim gangsta stare and become one of the most successful rappers in the genre's brief history, Artis Ivey Jr. lacked something essential: a name that was slick enough for MTV. Fate, in the form of a friend from his Compton 'hood in Los Angeles, delivered the career-making moniker. "Who do you think you are," the friend said when he saw Artis strumming a guitar, "Coolio Iglesias?"
A stormy decade passed before Coolio, now 32, finally became an in-the-house name. Thanks go to "Gangsta's Paradise," a lament about inner-city life he wrote for the soundtrack of the film Dangerous Minds. It went on to become, with more than 2 million copies sold, 1995's bestselling song. His Gangsta's Paradise album hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and the single was nominated for a Grammy as Best Song of the Year. His current hit, "Too Hot," forgoes the usual gangsta ranting in favor of graphic warnings about AIDS. "He doesn't come off as hardcore," says J.R. Reynolds, Billboard's R&B editor, "yet he appeals to consumers who are into harder rap."
Coming on the heels of his 1994 Top 10 debut album It Takes a Thief, Paradise meant riches for Coolio, who has a former have-not's respect for hard-earned wealth. From his three-bedroom L.A. home, he drives a 1991 Infiniti he bought used—"I hate to be in debt," he says—to a no-frills office in West Hollywood. There, Coolio oversees his own Crowbar management company; a recording studio where ghetto kids can learn the music business; and a foundation he formed with his fiancée, L.A. deejay Josefa Salinas, to encourage the teaching of black and Hispanic history in public schools. "I know I'm successful," he says. "But I want to go further. I want to expand my ability to help and employ others."
For much of his life, it was Coolio who needed help. Two years old when his father, a carpenter, left their Compton home, Artis and his sister Venita were raised by their mother, Jackie Jones, a factory worker. A studious child—"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book," he says—Coolio got into trouble when he skipped from fifth to seventh grade. "I got picked on. Kids used to chase me home from school," he says. "So I started running with the 'hood. I started gang-banging."
A case of what he swears was mistaken identity—friends say he tried to cash a money order taken in an armed robbery—landed him a seven-month jail stretch when he was 17. And despite a talent for writing, Coolio got hooked on crack, a habit he found a novel way of kicking. "Up in the mountains," he says of a job fighting fires for the California Department of Forestry, "you can't get drugs." He came down clean 18 months later but then coped with the 1987 death of his mother, from a brain hemorrhage, by immersing himself in the burgeoning L.A. rap scene.
His musical fame has led the rapper to entertain a new ambition. "I'd love to be a Klingon with a talking part in Star Trek," Coolio says. "That would be so dope."
JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles
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