WHO’S HOT : Ex-Firefighter Sets Off Rap Inferno


Coolio, the Compton rapper whose “Fantastic Voyage” is the nation’s No. 1 single, jokes that his life has been something of a fantastic voyage itself.

“I’ve been up, down . . . this way, that way . . . every which way,” he quips wearily. “Sometimes I still don’t know how I got where I am.”

Where he is right now, thanks to the hit single, is reigning over the rap community, with “It Takes a Thief,” his album of glib, comical, funky, gangsta-fringe songs that was just released by Tommy Boy Records. (See review, Page 65.)


Where he has been is in depths of the drug scene.

“Up to the mid-’80s, I was into cocaine,” he recalls with hardly an emotion. “I was a wild man then--real crazy. I had a reputation for doing crazy things--like hitting people over the head with bottles and stuff like that. That happens when you grow up in Compton . . . you survive how you can. Drugs are just one of the pitfalls. I fell in . . . deep.”

But he dug his way out and in the process became probably the only star rapper to ever have been a firefighter--working for crews in the San Jose area.

“I wasn’t looking for a career, I was looking for a way to clean up--a way to escape the drug thing,” he explains. “It was going to kill me and I knew I had to stop. In firefighting training was discipline I needed. We ran every day. I wasn’t drinking or smoking or doing the stuff I usually did.”

Coolio, whose real name is Artis Ivey, proudly says he has been drug-free for about eight years. When he quit the dope scene, he resumed his rap career, which began in the early ‘80s. “The first time I really tried to rap, I was about 15,” recalls Coolio, at 31 one of the oldest of the major rappers. “I wrote a rap in about 15 minutes. It sounded good. It was natural for me because I used to write poetry and short stories.”

He slowly built a name in the local underground over the years with songs like “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and two albums recorded with a group called MAAD Circle. He was long considered one of the top rappers in Southern California. The consensus was that, with a major label, he’d become a star. After some record deals went sour, he finally scored last year, signing with Tommy Boy.

He refers to his first solo album, “It Takes a Thief,” which was largely produced by his pal Wino, as autobiographical because it draws so heavily on his own life. For instance, the grimly comical “County Line,” about being on welfare, isn’t some fiction. “I’ve been there,” he recalls.


Explaining what separates him from the rap pack, Coolio says, “I try to be real in my raps and try to enlighten people with humor and observations about life. Commercialism is sucking the life out of rap and I stay away from it as much as I can. You can’t stay away from it completely because this is a business, but you can avoid some of that real ugly, obvious commercial stuff.”

The single, “Fantastic Voyage,” launched his mainstream career, partly riveting fans because it’s based on a 1981 hit by Lakeside--one of the biggest funk groups of that era--and partly because it’s a cozy trip to a fantasy land.

“I create this world where everything is safe and people are living well and it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” says Coolio, who still lives in Compton. “I use the lyrical structure of the Staple Singers’ ‘I’ll Take You There.’ In a way I’m telling everybody I’ll take you there--to that place. People like to hear that.”