‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is the song that made Coolio an international phenomenon and opened up hip-hop to a brand new audience. He had already established himself in the rap world with his debut album, It Takes A Thief, but his 1995 hit changed everything for the rapper and shaped his legacy.
The track, one of the most successful in rap history, is based upon the sample of ‘Pasttime Paradise’ by Stevie Wonder, who allowed them to use his track on the one condition there were no profanities. The cleanness of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ undoubtedly helped it become a mainstream hit as it allowed radio stations to play the track without having to bleep out swear words.
Doug Rasheed, who produced the track, was friends with Coolio’s then-manager, Paul Stewart. One day, the rapper went round to Rasheed’s studio to collect a check from Stewart and was offered ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by L.V., who had been looking for a rapper to appear on the song but had recently been rejected by Prodeje from South Central Cartel.
Speaking to Rolling Stone, L.V. explained: “I came in singing “Pastime Paradise,” but then I changed it up to ‘Gangsta’s Paradise.’ I did my parts, all the vocals and the chorus, and I did the choir. That whole choir that you hear was actually me — I did all the parts from soprano down to tenor to the bass. Doug and I were like, ‘Man, who can we get to rap on the song?’ I asked my homeboy Prodeje from South Central Cartel to do it, and Prodeje told me, ‘Man, you should do it by yourself!’ I said, ‘No, I want a rapper on it!’ Prodeje didn’t get on the song, so I thought of Coolio.”
Coolio recalled: “I sat down and I started writing. Hearing the bass line, the chorus line and the hook, it just opened up my mind. ‘As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and I see there’s nothing left’ — I freestyled that; that came off the top of the dome and I wrote that down.
“I thought about it for a minute, and then I wrote the whole rest of the song without stopping, from the first verse to the third verse. You know, I like to believe that it was divine intervention. ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ wanted to be born; it wanted to come to life, and it chose me as the vessel.”
‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ single-handedly changed the mainstream perception of hip-hop and showed the genre was just capable of displaying deep emotion as its musical counterparts. This performance below on Howard Stern captures the magnificence of the collaboration between the late Coolio and L.V., which showed rap could also be soulful and tug on the heartstrings.