’90s No. 1s Revisited: “Gangsta’s Paradise”
The ninety-second No. 1 song of the 1990s was “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, featuring L.V., from the soundtrack to the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds. This track was Coolio’s only chart-topper, as well as L.V.’s, and was the No. 1 single of the year. After spending one week waiting on deck at No. 2, it spent three weeks on top, followed by eight weeks held up at No. 2 behind Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.”
Coolio had debuted a year earlier with the smash “Fantastic Voyage” (peak: 3), and after “Paradise” he would go on to have a few more hits, the biggest being 1996’s “1, 2, 3, 4 (Sumpin’ New)” (peak: 5) and 1997’s “C U When U Get There” featuring 40 Thevs (peak: 12). He hasn’t charted since 1997. L.V.’s only Hot 100 appearance outside “Gangsta’s Paradise” was 1996’s “Throw Your Hands Up” (peak: 63). He has sporadically released material that’s been largely ignored.
Like all of Coolio’s hits, “Gangsta’s Paradise” relies liberally on re-purposing other material, in this case “Pastime Paradise,” a 1976 recording by Stevie Wonder, who shares a writing credit on “Gangsta’s Paradise” with Coolio, L.V. and producer Doug Rasheed. “Gangsta’s Paradise” has a haunting, Halloween-like sound, with Psycho-inspired strings and ghostly background vocals that sound lifted from the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. The lyrics discuss how the pressures and temptations of living in a high-crime area corrupt the residents. Coolio’s delivery comes off as both a complaint and a warning to someone ignorant of his circumstances.
Let’s listen again to “Gangsta’s Paradise”:
Although Coolio’s hair and other music suggest he’s a lighthearted party boy, on “Gangsta’s Paradise” he seems surprisingly comfortable expressing serious sentiments with the gravitas of someone speaking from experience. He does great vocal work here, and in fact won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance for this effort (his only Grammy to date).
We’d argue that “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the first “serious” Hip-Hop song by a black artist to top the Hot 100. Prior to “Gangsta’s Paradise,” rap songs that had reached the summit were very lighthearted: “Jump,” “Good Vibrations” and “Baby Got Back” among them. But on this track, Coolio was addressing very real issues, and critics and audiences appreciated it. The track was nominated for Record of the Year, becoming only the second Hip-Hop song to be in the running for that honor (following “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer five years prior). We’d argue that this was palatable to mainstream Americans because of its association with Dangerous Minds; it came off as a musical interpretation of the film’s themes, allowing the listener to disassociate with the content and dismiss it as fiction. But nevertheless, it was a foreshadowing of the more serious Hip-Hop that would dominate the charts in 1996-1997.
Does it hold up? “Gangsta’s Paradise” is one of the pivotal classic Hip-Hop songs of the ’90s. It got a new audience and second wind when “Weird Al” Yankovic lampooned it on “Amish Paradise,” one of his best-known hits. But the track bears little to no resemblance to the hard-on-these-ears Hip-Hop of today, so in that sense it may not hold up too well. A song about gangstas today would be considered retro, if not played out.
Dopeness: 3 out of 5 Birkenstocks
’90s No. 1s Revisited is a regular feature on “Was It Dope?” where we walk through every No. 1 song of the 1990s on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in order, give it another listen, and answer two critical questions: Was it dope? And does it hold up?