A renaissance man

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Believe it or not, I’ve had something slightly greater than a mild fascination with Coolio for a while now.

I don’t lay awake at night and wonder what the rapper had for lunch that day or anything, but I will admit that when Coolio appears on my pop-culture radar, I tend to pay attention.

You see, Coolio is more than just a musician with a string of ’90s hip-hop hits and a WTF hairstyle. He’s actually something of a renaissance man.

Yes, I’m totally serious, and if you’ll bear with me a minute, I’ll explain why after I dispense with some preliminaries that might be necessary for anyone who doesn’t share my interest in the rapper.

Hailing from the city that ’90s hip-hop made famous—Compton, Calif.—Coolio, born Artis Leon Ivey Jr., was a rapper of some regional renown when he signed with Tommy Boy records in 1994. He wasted no time before making the most of the opportunity, releasing his debut album It Takes a Thief and unleashing what would become one of the biggest hits of that year, “Fantastic Voyage,” which, in turn, propelled the album to platinum status.

While “Fantastic Voyage” might’ve seemed like an inescapable monster jam, in truth, Coolio was just getting started. After milking a couple of other, more minor hits out of It Takes a Thief (“County Line” and “I Remember”) the rapper followed that up with the song that would define his career.

Recorded for the soundtrack to 1995’s Dangerous Minds, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was a bit of a departure for Coolio, whose previous efforts had been hailed for bringing a more lighthearted viewpoint to the often-grim genre of gangsta rap. Beginning with the lyrics “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left,” the song is a gritty slice of unflinching reality that details the cycle of life on the streets where Coolio is from.

And it was a hit of massive proportions.

Buoyed by the success of the movie that inspired it, as well as a music video (back when such things made a difference) featuring Dangerous Minds star Michelle Pfeiffer, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was far and away the biggest song of 1995, going platinum five times, hitting the top spot on the charts not just in the United States, but also in 12 other countries, and spending three months in the top two of the Billboard Hot 100. By year’s end, it would also win a Grammy and a pair of MTV Video Music Awards and more than cement its place in music history.

If that was all Coolio had to offer the world, it would be enough. But he had more than just music up his sleeve.

Shortly after his ascension to the music industry’s most dizzying heights, Coolio determined that acting would be his next artistic challenge. He began his career as a part-time thespian with an appearance on Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1996, and has continued to be active in front of the camera ever since. Most of his roles have been bit parts rather than breakout star turns, but despite that (or maybe because of it) he’s managed to find his way onto the sets of such productions as Charmed, Muppets Tonight, Batman & Robin, The Nanny, and many more.

As well, he’s shown an affinity for reality television, appearing on Celebrity Big Brother, Ultimate Big Brother, Celebrity Wife Swap, and more. He also has a lifelong love of cooking, and merged his dual passions for cooking and the camera with a web series called “Cookin’ with Coolio,” which garnered enough unexpected cyber success to warrant a 2009 cookbook of the same name featuring recipes like Drunk-Ass Chicken and Mozzarella for the Pimpish Fella. Lest anyone think cooking isn’t a serious endeavor for the apparently multitalented star, he put his culinary skills to the test on the Food Network series Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, a competitive reality cooking show that pitted Coolio against the likes of known foodie Cheech Marin and boy bander Joey Fatone. Coolio didn’t win—that honor went to Lou Diamond Phillips—but he came in second place, won $10,000 for charity and proved himself to be a serious kitchen contender every step of the way.

These days, Coolio is balancing his rapper persona with his desire to further his chef career (he made headlines late in 2013 for wanting to sell his back catalogue to fund his culinary pursuits). He’s still touring, still cooking and still making television appearances as the opportunity arises. In other words, he’s very busy being a very renaissance kind of dude.

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