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."

His success battling hillsides in flames ultimately convinced Coolio that he'd be able to return to Los Angeles without returning to drooling junkiedom. Back home, he got a deal to cut another single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." About the contract, and the middling success of the recording in general, he says succinctly, "I got dicked again." He subsequently hooked up with another group, WC and the MAAD Circle, which recorded a disc for Priority Records. He still considers himself a member of that act, but he's found more success on his own. With the assistance of a DJ named Wino, he cut It Takes a Thief for Tommy Boy and watched it lift him from obscurity in a few short months. The first single, "County Line," is an autobiographical blast that draws on Coolio's crack years--he sings about being asked for an autograph while waiting to get his welfare check--without sounding the slightest bit self-pitying. "Fantastic Voyage" is even better, a summertime anthem that uses a generous sample from the 1980 Lakeside groovefest of the same name to subtly subvert the gangsta mentality. At a time when Ice Cube and Snoop were using old-school funk samples as the backdrops for ghetto revenge fantasies, Coolio found a way to recapture the simple fun the music exuded in the first place. Later, on "Mama I'm in Love With a Gangsta" (a quasi-duet with feisty vocalist LeShaun), Coolio plays the part of a jailed felon who fears his lover is being unfaithful to him while he's behind bars. This is a potentially serious subject, and in dealing with it, Coolio uses profane language that pulls no punches. Still, the basic warmth of the rapper shines through, transforming the track into something slightly comic and undeniably charming. Even when he tries to talk tough, he remains a spaced-out, warmhearted guy.

Of course, admitting this in the current rap climate isn't good for the longevity of artists' careers--which in hip-hop aren't very lengthy in the first place. Thus, Coolio isn't about to concede that Thief works so well because of its lighter moments. "The last album was really personal, and some of the songs on it were really dark," he insists. "And some of it was really street, too."

But Coolio seems to understand his strengths better than he at first lets on. He describes his upcoming album, due in September, as having "better production than the last album. And the songs overall are more in the mode of being entertaining. They're meant to give you a more positive feeling than the last ones." His choice for the inaugural single from the disc, he elaborates, is "Too Hot," built atop a sample from Kool and the Gang's identically titled 1980 smash. "It's a sexual-awareness song, and kind of an AIDS-awareness song, too. But even though it's a song people can listen to and learn from, it's also something people will get some enjoyment out of."

The rapper's just as certain that the reconfigured hip-hop and funk in which he specializes hasn't run its course, in spite of suggestions by New York rappers such as Nine that the style has beaten itself to death. He swears that there are no Parliament-Funkadelic samples on his new platter, and while many of the other songs he's used as source material (by Smokey Robinson and Sly & the Family Stone among them) are from the same general era, he feels he's been able to give them a fresh twist. "Besides, there are enough people out there who like this kind of music and who aren't tired of it," he says. "I try not to get into the whole West Coast-East Coast thing, anyhow. I don't really comment on people's little qualms and pet peeves because, really, it's a jealousy-type thing."

Coolio admits to feeling envious himself when he was booked to play this year's Lollapalooza on the second stage, even though Thief has sold far more copies than nearly every album released by the main acts on the bill. "It did bother me at first," he says. "It was basically an ego thing, but my ego has been shattered into thousands of pieces so many times that it's easy to put it together again. I'm just happy to have the opportunity to tour and to have my shit be heard. Because I still remember when the only person hearing me was me, and when I was having to steal just to eat.

"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, but, shit, a lot of people do. And I haven't done anything that stops me from sleeping at night."

Lollapalooza '95--Second Stage, featuring Coolio. 1 p.m. Saturday, July 8, Fiddler's Green, $28, 830-TIXS; Coolio. 8 p.m. Sunday, July 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $15.75, 447-0095 or 830-

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