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Rap Gets Soft (Really)

Grammy nominee Coolio and like-minded rappers are moving the music away from so much bombast to a form that presents reality with a beating heart.

February 25, 1996|Cheo Hodari Coker | Cheo Hodari Coker writes about pop music for Calendar

'Excuse me, are you Coolio?"

A young girl, the junior-high equivalent of the teen queen portrayed by Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless," thinks she recognizes the man with the distinctive spiked braids and easygoing demeanor as the guy she's seen countless times on MTV.

She stands next to him eagerly until he replies that he indeed is the hard-core rapper whose "Gangsta's Paradise" was the biggest single record of 1995, selling an estimated 2.5 million copies. Her nearby gal-pals watch, giggling nervously, as she asks for an autograph.

"Do you have a pen?" Coolio, 32, asks, nonchalantly, as he stands this Saturday afternoon at La Cienega and Third, across from the Beverly Center. Handed one, he signs "Coolio 96," underlining his name before handing the sheet of paper to the excited fan. He then nods matter-of-factly and walks to the building on Third Street that houses his management company, Crowbar.

There's a reason why that scene is remarkable.

There was a time, as recent as the early '90s, when the only rappers that "Clueless"-types might recognize, much less feel safe to approach, would be the fluffy, G-rated performers such as Hammer, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and Vanilla Ice.

But that's changed dramatically today, when the "G" in G-rated stands for "gangsta."

While many politicians and parent groups still attack hard-core rappers as thugs who poison the minds of impressionable youths, rap is proving that it does not express just angry, violent sentiments. Like all vital art forms, even the hardest segment of rap has evolved musically and thematically.

Several of the most successful rap singles of recent years have begun to demonstrate a more sensitive side. In response, the music community has started viewing rappers with increasing respect--a point that will be underscored at Wednesday's Grammy Awards ceremony.

Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," the key track on the smash "Dangerous Minds" soundtrack album, is the first hard-core rap single ever nominated for record of the year. It will compete against more conventional mainstream fare such as Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" and the Mariah Carey duet with Boyz II Men on "One Sweet Day."

In addition, 2Pac, whose "Dear Mama" is one of the most tender pop hits in years, is nominated for two Grammys: best rap album and best rap solo performance ("Dear Mama" competes against "Gangsta's Paradise" in the latter).

Other songs--from Warren G's "Regulate" to 2Pac's recent "California Love"--also show just how much gangsta rap has changed. Both songs illustrate how rappers have been able to downplay profanity and use smoother beats and still get their point across in ways that don't destroy their credibility.

"If you spit out, 'I'll kill anyone' all the time, you'll soon become a caricature, and after a while you're not going to be creditable as an artist," says Russell Simmons, the CEO of Def Jam Recordings and the New York businessman who helped launch rap as a commercial force.

"Coolio comes from the gangster's side that's more sensitive. He doesn't have to tell you, 'I'm a murderer,' 100 times to prove that he's tough. He's an artist who wants to focus sometimes on the sad reality of living in a gangsta's paradise, but also wants to focus on having a good time."

The melancholy "Gangsta's Paradise," which borrows liberally from Stevie Wonder's 1976 composition "Pastime Paradise," asks the question:


Tell me why are we so blind to see

That the ones we hurt are you and me?


"My song is depressing as hell," Coolio says. "I had no idea that it would be so successful. It shows you what's on the mind of people in the world today. They have no hope, and they found hope in that song. It's a spiritual, straight-up. That's why people's grandmothers can relate to it. Everybody likes spirituals."


When gangsta rap first became part of the pop consciousness in the late-'80s through such volatile albums as N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" and Boogie Down Productions' "Criminal Minded," there was little room for sensitivity.

Unlike the party-minded nature of the rap hits of the early and middle '80s, N.W.A. in Los Angeles, Boogie Down Productions in New York and the Geto Boys in Houston used music to convey the bitter alienation of street life. The images were shocking--tales of drive-by shootings, police hostility and the fruits of the criminal life.

This music, which was also widely criticized for misogynistic tendencies, was so startling that many observers, especially parents, never saw past the nihilism. Baby boomers, who in their youth had celebrated rebellion and anti-authority attitudes, were frankly scared when their teenagers began coming home with baggy pants, baseball caps turned backward and albums whose music and covers were filled with violent, terrifying themes.

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