PLAYING IT COOLIO

HOW DO YOU GO FROM BEING A JUNKIE TO A RAP STAR? COOLIO KNOWS.

Gangsta-rap performers who've led lives of crime have a leg up in the street credibility game. Snoop Doggy Dogg (soon to be tried for murder) and Tupac Shakur (in stir for offenses including sexual assault) have ridden their recent fights with the law to sales nirvana, while reportedly reformed bad boys such as the Notorious B.I.G., to the delight of their accountants, have made tales of vice a major part of their public personas.

Compton native and rising hip-hop star Coolio, whose Tommy Boy CD It Takes a Thief and its lead single, "Fantastic Voyage," constituted two of 1994's best and most unexpected hits, knows how to play the thug card, too. When he's asked about the riots that led to the partial torching of South Central Los Angeles several years ago, he unhesitatingly declares, "I was out there, man. I was out there looting and all that. You'd be surprised at some of the people who were out there, but I wasn't surprised at myself--being a thief and all." But Coolio also makes an admission that sets him apart from his rap peers. You see, he was a crack addict.

"Yeah, I was fucked up from about 1984 to 1986," he acknowledges. "See, when crack first came out, I wasn't living in L.A.--I was living in Northern California with my dad. And what I mostly did up there was smoke marijuana, which was cool. But then in the summer of '84, after school was out, I went back to L.A. And what happened was, there was a shortage of weed on the streets, but there wasn't a shortage of cocaine. So one of my friends got some, and we rolled it in some weed and smoked it--and I liked it. I liked it a lot. I liked it so much I started smoking it straight, and the next thing you know, I was hooked. I didn't know it at the time, but I just kind of got caught up."

The timing of this romance with narcotics was particularly bad for Coolio; had he been able to focus on his music, he could have become one of the first Comptonites to attract national attention to his hometown--an achievement ultimately attained by gangsta-rap pioneers N.W.A. Coolio had been on the periphery of the burgeoning rap scene in this impoverished area since the late Seventies, and he issued a clever twelve-inch single, "Whatcha Gonna Do," in 1983. The tune got radio airplay in Los Angeles, but before the singer could capitalize on its popularity, he fell into his pipe and had one hell of a time escaping.

"When crack first came out, everybody was doing it, and it was accepted," he claims. "Nobody really knew what it did. We thought it was like weed or alcohol--you could just do it whenever you wanted, and it would be okay. But when it started making people quit their jobs and everybody started going crazy, people didn't have respect for you anymore if you did it. That's why I was kind of a private smoker. Just a handful of people knew that I was doing it, and I never got as crazy as some people I knew. But, you know, I was stealing shit to pay for it the whole time. And when I got to the point where I would have gotten crazy, I stopped."

Since kicking his habit at the Betty Ford Clinic wasn't an option for Coolio in those days, he devised his own two-step program for ridding himself of his crack craving. The first entailed returning to Northern California, where crack was not nearly as prevalent as in L.A. "I didn't know for sure that was the case, but I got lucky," he notes. "When I got to San Jose, which was where I stayed, none of my friends were doing it. So I just kind of got out of that life."

The second phase of Coolio's cure was more dramatic. "I got a job working at the airport up there, and while I was there, I heard about this firefighting job--fighting fires in the forests, right? Now, I'm an asthmatic--there's no way I should have been fighting fires. But I lied on my application, and they let me in. I think it was God who made it happen. It was God helping me to help myself."

It doesn't take much to get Coolio rhapsodizing about his year-plus on the fire line. "The camaraderie and the teamwork aspect of it was like being on a football team. It made me feel human. It made me feel like a man. It made me feel like I was making a difference." He concedes that the risks involved in the work were part of the appeal for him, but he says he was never reckless--as he assumes the firefighters who lost their lives last year on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, must have been. "My crew was one of the top five crews in the state, and we followed the rules," he boasts. "Your captain had to be able to make decisions quickly when a situation was getting dangerous, and our captain was able to do that."

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