Before 1995, it was unheard of that a Hip-Hop song topped the year-end charts. There were several hits released years prior that could have done so, including Biggie’s “Juicy” in 1994 and Naughty By Nature’s “Hip-Hop Hooray” in 1993, but it was another newcomer that can forever claim he was the first.
Artis Leon Ivey Jr., better known as Coolio, had burst onto the scene a year earlier with his debut album It Takes A Thief. It would receive praise from critics for its wittiness as opposed to edgier lyrical content from other Rap artists. The album peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard charts and delivered the hit “Fantastic Voyage”, the album’s lead. The song would become one of the biggest hits of 1994, reaching No. 3 on the Hot 100, a huge accolade given other emerging Hip-Hop artists like Snoop Dogg and Biggie, who at the time had hits of their own on the charts.
In the latter half of 1995, Coolio was getting ready to release his second album, and in August released the lead single and album namesake, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, which featured fellow artist LV. His label was hopeful that he would continue to release party songs, as “Fantastic Voyage” the year prior did so well, but a different approach was taken.
The song began with a sample of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” – off his 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life. Additionally, both songs share a chorus, with a slight word adjustment to reflect each song’s respective title. The song was produced by Doug Rasheed who was roommates with Paul Stewart, Coolio’s manager. According to Rasheed, everyone would come over and hang out, including Coolio. LV told Rolling Stone in 2015, “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. 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 of course did do the track, and we couldn’t imagine it sung by anyone else! “I sat down and I started writing. Hearing the bass line, the chorus line, and the hook, it just opened up my mind,” he would tell Rolling Stone in that same interview. Though the lyrics and melody were completed, they still needed Stevie Wonder’s approval, who at first rejected it due to not wanting his music associated with profanity. Eventually, he agreed to sign off if the profanity was removed.
As a means to increase the exposure, Rasheed shopped the song around to filmmakers and ultimately got a taker in Dangerous Minds, the upcoming Michelle Pfeiffer film after outbidding the Martin Lawrence film Bad Boys. Michelle Pfeiffer would appear in the music video alongside Coolio, with scenes from the film sprinkled throughout. “I had no idea that it was gonna take on the kind of life that it took. I totally was still thinking, in my mind, that it was gonna be a ‘hood song. I was thinking to myself, “Man, with what’s going on in the video and what I’m saying, there’s no way white people are gonna get into this song. No way.” But I was wrong”, Coolio would say of the song. When “Gangsta’s Paradise” became the basis for the movie’s marketing and was heard in trailers and commercials for the film, MCA knew the song would be a hit. And it was.
It would reach No. 1 in countries like the U.S., Australia, Ireland, and the U.K. to name a few, and become certified 2x platinum, selling 2.5 million copies. In Australia, it sat atop of the charts for 14 weeks, a record that would be broken 22 years later by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” The video would also win Best Rap Video at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1996 and as mentioned at the start of this article, it was the first Hip-Hop song to top the year-end charts in 1995.
Coolio continues to make music and tour smaller venues. His latest album release was Nobody’s Foolio in 2019. Although he hasn’t released anything that matches the success of “Gangsta’s Paradise,” the legacy of the song lives on. He would say in 2015 “I still get quite a few people coming up to me and telling me that “Gangsta’s Paradise” got them through some rough times in their life. I think of the song as divine intervention because it doesn’t even have the same meaning that it did in the beginning — it now means whatever you think it means. It has nothing to do with me; it has to do with whatever person is listening to it at the time. It’s all things to all people.”