Coolio on Dublin, Gangsta’s Paradise, and his unlikely collaboration with Christy Dignam

Rapper Coolio has died aged 59. The late hip-hop star was in Dublin this summer working on a track with Christy Dignam. He told Ed Power why he loved the city and shared his thoughts on Ringsend rappers Versatile, the Black Lives Matter movement and his iconic hit Gangsta’s Paradise
Coolio on Dublin, Gangsta’s Paradise, and his unlikely collaboration with Christy Dignam

Coolio says he spends so much of his free time in Dublin that he can 'pull a proper pint with the best of them'. Pictures: Moya Nolan.

Ask Coolio what he loves most about Dublin and the rapper delivers an enthusiastic homily about the city he has adopted as his home away from home.

“I walk about,” says the 58-year-old hip-hop star (real name Artis Levon Ivey Jr). “I go to friends of mine. I go to clubs and bars. I talk to the people on the street. I hang out. I meet some nice, nice-looking women. I have a pint. I can pull a proper pint. I can do it with the best of them.” 

Coolio has been visiting Ireland for years. He started touring internationally in 1995 when his single 'Gangsta’s Paradise' became a global smash. And the longer he has spent abroad, the more he has come to regard Dublin as the city closest to his heart. It is almost as familiar to him, in a way, as his home town of Los Angeles.

“On my days off on tour, when I’m in Europe — instead of going back to America for a couple of days, I come to Dublin,” he says “And I spend my time here.” 

His Irish love affair was initially kindled by a friendship with the South African-born owners of Zulu Tattoo in the North Inner City. One thing led to another and soon he had a whole circle of acquaintances. This has in turn paved the way for new creative opportunities — including a collaboration with Aslan’s Christy Dignam.

Coolio is working on a  collaboration with Christy Dignam. Picture: Moya Nolan
Coolio is working on a  collaboration with Christy Dignam. Picture: Moya Nolan

“We’ve just got into it,” says Coolio. “We’re working on a track. We haven’t even started writing any lyrics. The track is being built as we speak. Somewhere within the next four to six weeks we should have something tangible we could work with. 

"It’s probably going to be a banger, I would imagine. I don’t know if it’s going to be dark and deep or if we’re going to go clubby and happy — that remains to be seen. I’m more inclined with being dark and deep and still being a banger.” 

He’s also worked with Versatile — aka Ringsend rappers Casey Walsh and Alex Sheehan. The duo were once the hot new thing in Irish hip hop. They played Electric Picnic and Longitude and created history as the first Irish rap act to headline 3Arena.

But as their profile increased, so did scrutiny of their music until finally their charmed existence unravelled. In June 2019 there was widespread condemnation of their lyrics by figures such as Irish-Nigerian author and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, Dublin singer Erica-Cody and former Amnesty International director Colm O’Gorman.

Walsh and Sheehan eventually apologised, saying “we have now learned it's not enough to be quietly anti-racist”. Walsh had already said sorry for wearing blackface when pictures emerged of him dressed as Ice Cube from NWA, alongside a friend done up as Eazy-E from the same group.

Coolio considers Versatile friends. He guested on their single Escape Wagon and performed with them at 3Arena in 2019. They’ve just collaborated on a new number, 'Keep On Coming', and will be shooting a video in Dublin with the pair this summer. So it is no surprise he feels they’ve been treated harshly.

“People are always criticising somebody for something,” he says. “You can criticise anybody and try to cancel anybody. I don’t get into all that bull****. 

"People do what they do. They made a parody of Eazy-E and they [the critics] started claiming they were doing blackface or some bull****. Come on man…Some people got behind it [the criticisms]. They were mad at them. It could happen to anybody. 

"I don’t agree with it. I know they’re not like that at all [racist]. It was a bunch of bull****. Actually, whoever started it needs their ass whooped.” 

Nearly 30 years after its release, Coolio says he's 'proud' of Gangsta's Paradise
Nearly 30 years after its release, Coolio says he's 'proud' of Gangsta's Paradise

Coolio grew up in Compton, the Los Angeles suburb regarded as a crucible for rap music on America’s West Coast. It is also the home of the aforementioned NWA, the influential outfit that included not only Ice Cube but producer Dr Dre. And of Kendrick Lamar, who chronicled his early life in Compton on his records 'DAMN' and 'good kid, m.A.A.d city'.

Those artists are all critically acclaimed. And yet none has had a hit as ubiquitous as 'Gangsta’s Paradise'.

The track is a showcase for Coolio’s raw impassioned rapping. Those vocals are memorably paired with soulful crooning by singer Larry Sandars, aka LV, and with producer Doug Rasheed’s driving beats. Combined, they achieve lightning-in-the-bottle magic. The song is uncomplicated but also essentially perfect.

'Gangsta’s Paradise' was built around a sample of Stevie Wonder’s 'Pastime Paradise', rediscovered by Rasheed as he knocked around the studio one day. It was recorded in early 1995 in the Hollywood house of Coolio’s then-manager, Paul Stewart. The finished composition was clearly special and so Stewart shopped it to various Hollywood studios. He believed it was the perfect soundtrack for a summer blockbuster.

Their first stop were the producers of Bad Boys. They were keen but balked at the asking price. Then came Dangerous Minds, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays a middle class teacher helping elevate kids from “the hood” (it has since been criticised for its white saviour narrative and today is essentially unwatchable).

Pfeiffer starred in the 'Gangsta’s Paradise' video, donning a leather jacket to scowl at Coolio as he fires out his rhymes. It’s one of her most iconic performances – certainly more memorable than anything in the actual film.

Coolio knew 'Gangsta’s Paradise' was special. He had no idea, though, that it would still be listened to nearly 30 years later.

“You make music and you never think about what it’s going to do and what it’s not going to do. This is the amazing thing about 'Gangsta’s Paradise' and I’m proud of it. It only got put up on YouTube on Tommy Boy [the hip hop platform] four years ago. It reached a billion views in four years. 

"I reached a billion the same week Fifty Cent reached a billion with 'In Da Club'. It took 'In Da Club' 17 years to reach a billion. It took me four.” 

The original Stevie Wonder sample is a knockout. Nonetheless, it’s Coolio’s bare-knuckle rapping that elevates 'Gangsta’s Paradise'. It starts with Coolio quoting the Psalms: “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”.

The song evolves from there into a freestyle rap about a 23-year-old gangster kneeling in front of a street light wondering if he’ll make it to 24. Twenty-seven years later, as America reckons with racism and police brutality, it arguably lands as forcefully as in the mid-1990s. Coolio was reminded of this in 2020, when the Black Lives Matters demonstrations took off across the US.

The climate and the way times are — it’s actually more a 'Gangsta's Paradise' now than we’ve ever been.

He has issues, however, with Black Lives Matter itself, feeling it has exploited a social evil rather than worked towards a solution. 

“Black Lives Matter is some bull****. The whole movement itself is fake as f**k…I hate that they capitalise on something that was so bad.” 

Our time is coming to an end. To finish, I wonder if Coolio is struck by the contrasts between LA and Dublin. His interactions with the police must be hugely different?

“You guys got your situation too, with the things over the years in Belfast. You have your own set of problems,” he says. “That’s why the black community and the Irish community resonate with each other. We understand each other.” 

  • Coolio’s new single with Teddi Gold, 'Floor Is Lava' is out now.

This article was first published on July 19, 2022.

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