A '90s Teen Fan Turned Reporter Reflects on Her Special Connection with Late Rapper Coolio


Des Willie/Redferns/Getty Coolio

"Where were you when …"

It's a familiar question we tend to think back on when a beloved entertainer or public icon dies. Like countless other Coolio fans, I received a text from one of my best friends on Wednesday night. I was celebrating another friend's birthday at a restaurant in New York City when the notification from my college BFF popped up: "RIP Coolio. Truly in a Gangsta's Paradise now." Oh no. The mood at our table dimmed considerably as we checked our phones. There it was: The New York Times "Breaking News" email, the tweets, the TMZ report, and the PEOPLE news story confirming the 1990s rapper had died at the age of 59.

"He was my best interview ever!" I blurted out, rather embarrassingly. Insert face palm emoji here. But it's true.

When you're an entertainment reporter, the question "Who is the coolest celebrity you've ever met?" is par for the course. Honestly, I tend to get a bit of journalist's amnesia on that one. It was pretty cool to interview Brad Pitt, Beyoncé, Oprah, the cast of Lord of the Rings, Grumpy Cat … but I can't say I truly connected with any of those famous folks (not even Grumpy, and I'm a cat person). They certainly would not remember me. But Coolio was different.

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Let me back up a moment. I was born in New York, and for the first few years of my young life, my parents worked at a school (my dad was the headmaster) just outside the city, not unlike the one depicted in Dangerous Minds. The 1995 film starred Michelle Pfeiffer, my then-favorite actress, and was one in a series of movies from the 1980s and 1990s featuring the "savior" teacher at a "bad" school plot trope. Think: Stand and Deliver, The Principal, Lean on Me, and more.

I know I saw Dangerous Minds in the theater during the summer of 1995, but I don't really remember the experience. What I do recall are those mesmerizing synthesized strings of Coolio's No. 1 hit song "Gangsta's Paradise" — on the radio, on heavy MTV rotation, at my senior high school homecoming dance — throughout 1995 and 1996. The hit music video showcased a femme fatale version of Pfeiffer facing off, intellectually, against the newly minted hip hop superstar Coolio. His wild braids, offbeat yet approachable persona, and the earworm anthem, which smartly sampled Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," were simply inescapable.

Saryn Chorney
Saryn Chorney

Courtesy Saryn Chorney Saryn Chorney

That same summer, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone, along with its hit soundtrack, also became a huge favorite of teenage girls across the U.S. In one integral scene of the 1995 movie, Tai (played by the now deceased Brittany Murphy) sings the lyrics to another hit Coolio song "Rollin' with My Homies," before getting knocked unconscious by a clog flung at her head. Classic! I saw the movie with friends at a drive-in theater in suburban Connecticut, and the iconic line and hand motions became a Coolio-influenced fad of the era. But Coolio proved he was capable of far more than 15 minutes of fame. I have fond memories of my too-cool older brother Ivan letting me tag along for a drive, singing along to "Fantastic Voyage" and "1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin' New) in the car. (My oldest brother, Pete, was more of a '90s Seal fan, but that's another story.)

At the 1996 Grammy Awards, Coolio won the best rap solo performance for "Gangsta's Paradise." Many people think back to that time period and focus on the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Puff Daddy, Snoop Dogg, the whole East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry, and subsequent scandals. But I mostly recall driving around my small hometown of Madison, Connecticut, listening to Coolio's sunshiney hip hop beats on a cassette mixtape I made before CDs became the dominant medium.

Fast forward a decade to 2005, and this newbie PEOPLE reporter was assigned a "Where Are They Now" Grammys Edition article in advance of the big awards show. I had only been a freelance stringer at the magazine for a few months when I was offered the dream pop culture nostalgia project of tracking down a group of one-time Grammy Award Winners, including Fiona Apple, the Baha Men, Marc Cohen, Paula Cole, Young MC, and — you guessed it — Coolio.

While I do recall a lovely conversation with Marvin "Bust a Move" Young, none of these interviews came close to the length or candor of Coolio, a.k.a. Artis Leon Ivey Jr. It was thrilling to get that phone call, pick it up, and hear Coolio introduce himself on the other end. He called me directly from his house in Los Angeles (most celebs have publicists set up and sit in on these kinds of calls). Usually, you're lucky to get 15 minutes, possibly 30 on a "phoner." Coolio ended up talking with little old starstruck me for nearly two hours.

From his various stage names — Coolio, Cool Magnifico,  and Mr. Burns — to his braids, his supposed beef with Weird Al Yankovic over the "Gangsta's Paradise" parody, his 1995 Grammy win, the follow-up pressure, troubles with his former record label, his foray into early reality TV stardom, to working on music with his young children, it seemed no topic was off limits. Our conversation was in-depth and sprawling. While talking about his kids, he told me he loved my unusual name, asked about the origins, and said he'd consider the name if he ever had another daughter. For real? Well, no. He did not end up with another baby girl. But the man was so genuine, I fully believed he might name one after me if he did! That charming authenticity and ability to connect with audiences was a huge part of his success.

Another meaningful topic we discussed was the appreciation he had for his white suburban teenage fans (yes, that would be me).

"People act like white kids just started listening to hip-hop," Coolio said, "but they've been listening to it as long as we have…there's never really been a difference in hip-hop when it came to color. Maybe the masses weren't familiar. They weren't hip to hip-hop right away, but they educated themselves pretty fast … white kids, when they like something, they want to know who they liking. So, they take the time to go and try to find out who it is. I've always wanted it that way. I've always felt that music is for everybody."

Rapper/actor Coolio XX at the Flamingo Go Pool Dayclub at Flamingo Las Vegas on July 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Rapper/actor Coolio XX at the Flamingo Go Pool Dayclub at Flamingo Las Vegas on July 21, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Mindy Small/FilmMagic Coolio

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Coolio told me he appreciated the diversity of his fans. "When you start segregating music, then you're f—ed up. If you think the '60s was bad … I never agree with music being segregated. There are only 16 notes. Country people will play the same notes that we play in hip-hop. People in hip-hop play the same notes that people play in jazz and rock and even polka and folk music. It's all the same notes, just different instruments. So it all stems from the same place. Music is music, and music is for everybody."

I appreciated Coolio in return for expressing his openness to fans like me, a Jewish girl who grew up in the suburbs, yet felt "different" from most of the kids in my hometown. He told me a story about a concert in Tel Aviv, and how a huge thunderstorm broke out right as he came on the stage. At that moment, he said he felt God with him, and how enlightening it was to travel through Israel and Palestine. Later, when he talked a little loving smack about 2005 best rap album nominees the Beastie Boys — a trio of Jewish rappers — I let it slide because he was arguably correct their album didn't hold a candle to JAY-Z or Kanye that year (he thought JAY-Z deserved the award, but Kanye ended up winning). I was just happy to hear his insider opinion on such matters. He called me "mama" while we chatted, and I relished it.

Skipping ahead to 2012, I finally got the chance to meet Coolio in person. By that time, he had segued into the food business, published a popular (and hilarious — "Drunk Ass Chicken," anyone?) cookbook called Cookin' with Coolio, and was serving up his "Soul Rolls" in-person at a Brooklyn food festival called The Great GoogaMooga. Not surprisingly, Coolio seemed down to chat with anybody who approached. I bought one of his tasty deep-fried treats and introduced myself as the reporter who interviewed him about his Grammy experience for PEOPLE so many years ago. He remembered my name, or maybe pretended to, but either way, once again he was the Coolio I felt I personally knew and loved. A true renaissance man, musician, actor, chef, and father with an open heart, kind soul, and articulate voice, who spoke his mind freely and connected with all walks of life through both heavy metaphorical lyrics and lighter party grooves.

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While I'd like to feel special that Coolio opened up to me — and it truly is special to me and my inner '90s teen that I got this opportunity — from the sounds of it, he was pretty wonderful to everybody. Even that dust-up with Weird Al (who I also love, by the way) over "Amish Paradise" was forgiven in the end.

"I'm not gonna fight Al, and I'm not gonna shoot him or anything. I'm not gonna get into street s— with Weird Al Yankovic," Coolio said spryly.

On that silly note, I'd like to wrap up this fan tribute with a suggestion to take a more serious, or let's say more sincere, listen to Coolio's body of work, especially his music this weekend. He was more than a "One-Grammy Wonder" — he was a skilled artist, a straight shooter, and perhaps even a soothsayer for Gen X and Millennial audiences around the world.