‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ at 25: Coolio talks ‘great white hope’ movie clichés, Weird Al feud, and performing with Michelle Pfeiffer, Stevie Wonder and Howard Stern

Twenty-five years ago, the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds was released — and while it was a hit at the box office, the real success story was its theme song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Compton rapper Coolio. It became the top-selling single of 1995 (and one of the top-selling singles of all time, with 6 million copies worldwide); it was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards and won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance; and it was voted as best single of the year in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.

The dark, dramatic, orchestral track remains a bona fide hip-hop classic, and it has held up better than Dangerous Minds itself, a film whose “white savior” trope seems antiquated and actually tone-deaf in 2020. Even Coolio points out to Yahoo Entertainment that “those kinds of movies” – like Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, and The Help — are “cliché as hell.”

“To be honest with you, I hate those kinds of movies where, you know, the great white hope comes into the inner-city neighborhood and saves the little children — ‘Ooh la la, hey Santa Claus!’ or whatever, all those kinds of things put it in play,” Coolio confesses with a chuckle. “Those kinds of moments happen very few and far between. It’s not that many people that care about each other [in real life].”

Dangerous Minds was actually based on the true story of LouAnne Johnson, a retired U.S. Marine who became a schoolteacher at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif. However, it was Coolio’s music that, as he puts it, “gave it that emotion and the human element.” And he had no problem being part of what he saw as mutually beneficial situation, after his record label, Tommy Boy, incredibly dismissed “Gangsta’s Paradise” as an “album cut” and didn’t want to release it as a single. (“They will deny that right now. … But if you think about it, if they knew it would have been a monster hit like that, there's no way they would have let it be a soundtrack — sharing the revenue of that. You feel me?” Coolio says of Tommy Boy’s questionable decision.)

“This is what I knew. I knew that song being in the movie helped the movie. And I knew that the movie having a song in it helped the song and just gave it a chance,” Coolio explains. “They both helped each other, because the movie was not testing well. And they anticipated it to be a flop. They thought it was going to be Michelle Pfeiffer's first flop, and they were trying, they were scrambling, to do whatever they could not to make that not happen. I mean, it was testing very low. When they put the song in it, it gave it whatever it was missing.”

Pfeiffer continued on with her A-list acting career unscathed, of course — which it was why it was a big deal for her to agree to be in the Antoine Fuqua-directed “Gangsta’s Paradise” music video, in the famous face-to-face interrogation scene. Coolio remembers that she was, of course, a consummate professional.

“At first I didn't think she was going to show up,” Coolio laughs. “She wasn't actually late or anything, but I just didn't think she was going to show up. And when she showed, I was like ‘OK, all right. She's not scared.’ I thought she was going to be scared! She brought her [two kids] with her. ... And they did her up real quick and she nailed it. I mean, she got it. It was easy for her. It was as easy for her as it was for me, I think. … She came in, she nailed it, and she went back to ‘Mommy,’ went back to mommy duties.”

The massive success of “Gangsta’s Paradise” led to Coolio teaming with several other superstars. At the 1995 Billboard Music Awards, he performed with Stevie Wonder, whose 1976 song "Pastime Paradise" was sampled on “Gangsta’s Paradise.” (Wonder only gave permission after Coolio removed the profanity from his recording.) Coolio describes the high of dueting with the legend as similar to being “on drugs,” and recalls the magic when Wonder and R&B crooner L.V., who sang the hook on “Gangsta’s Paradise,” began ad-libbing — belting, “Ain't no racists living in paradise” towards the end of the epic, choir-backed number. “It was considered the very best hip-hop performance ever at the Billboard Awards at that particular time,” Coolio points out.

Coolio also ended up performing an impromptu duet with Howard Stern, when he and L.V. appeared on Stern’s morning show. That moment was iconic in its own way, although it may have seemed like a strange pairing at the time. “I was always liked Howard, even though he can be offensive, he can be crass and rude, almost borderline racist sometimes,” says Coolio. “But you know, it don't bother me, because it's OK to be who you are. I don't think he means anything by it, anything intentionally. He means well, is what I'm saying. And he's always been cool with me. He's always supported my music. I’ve overlooked the stuff about him that I don't like. You always have friends or family or people that do things… You like people, but you don't like everything they do.”

And finally, on the subjects of controversy and strange bedfellows, Coolio caused a stir in the mid-‘90s when he publicly objected to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parody “Amish Paradise,” claiming the musical comic hadn’t asked for permission to spoof “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Yankovic later explained it was all a big miscommunication, clarifying that he had been granted the rights by Coolio’s record label, but Coolio claimed he’d been unaware of that deal. The two eventually patched things up and even co-presented at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, but years later, Coolio is aware that the feud was a bad look for him.

“I felt disrespected. But in hindsight, that was not one of my most cerebral moments,” Coolio admits. “[Yankovic] did Michael Jackson. He did a bunch of people of a much higher stature to me. I should have just let it go. … It was one of the dumb things I did. It made me look petty and shortsighted and dumb and ghetto, and yeah, all the above, check off every box. It just wasn't it wasn't cool, is what it was. It wasn't cool. And I'm supposed to be ‘Coolio.’ It wasn’t Coolio of me to do that.

“In hindsight, especially after I thought about it, and then I talked to some friends and some family, it was like, ‘Man, what's wrong with you? Stop it!’ … I was embarrassed. I embarrassed myself, and I just told [Yankovic], ‘It's cool, bro. I'm sorry about all the hoopla. It's cool.’ And he was like, ‘Yes, cool. Don’t worry about it.’”

As for whether another iconic performance possibility exists — a live “Gangsta’s Paradise”/“Amish Paradise” mashup, maybe done in Zoom quarantine, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Coolio’s smash? — the rapper simply answers with a chuckle, “It's totally possible. Because ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is not mine anymore. It's everybody’s.”

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