If you think Compton is nothing more than a wasteland of juiced-up hustlers and pimps, a breeding ground for the latest batch of gun-boasting, ho-smackin' gangsta rappers, you're dead wrong.

Coolio is proof. With his chart-topping debut album, It Takes a Thief, Coolio takes listeners on a streetwise trip that's more about comedy than killing. His stories of unemployment, welfare, homelessness and addiction to crack cocaine are all part of Coolio's survival. He refuses to let no-win situations extinguish his artistic spirit or sense of humor.

Though Coolio's massive success may seem overnight (these days, his popularity is second only to that of Snoop Doggy Dogg), the late-twentysomething rapper has been rhyming for nearly a decade. He's learned what he preaches the hard way, and he was as open during a recent phone call from his L.A. office as he is over a microphone. New Times: What is Coolio all about?

Coolio: Coolio is all about being himself and knowing that life is only what you see. Life is reality, and I thrive on that.

NT: So are your lyrics tales from your reality?
Coolio: Sometimes it's somebody else's reality or sometimes it's a reality that I've created. But it's music; it's different than life. This particular album is pretty personal. I don't know if I'll be able to say that about the next one.

NT: You call yourself an emcee and a rapper. What's the difference?
Coolio: It's a big difference. Rap is rap, and that's all it is. Rappers are mostly trained for studio. That's where they learn how to rap, and that's what their careers thrive on. But as for me, I learned how to rap on the stage live. When I first started rapping, we didn't even have home studios.

NT: So that means you were just freestyling and throwing lyrics off of the top of your head?

Coolio: Sort of. We write songs, though, and performed to people's music.
NT: How were you introduced to crack cocaine?
Coolio: By somebody that was supposed to be a friend. I wasn't living in L.A. at the time, and I just happened to go by his house, and they smoked a joint with me and it had cocaine in it.

NT: Did you know the joint had cocaine in it?
Coolio: Kind of, sort of. I didn't really know. Nah, nah. . . . Not the first time. He didn't tell me, and I was like, "Daaaamn, what is this? This shit is good!" I didn't think it could hurt you. We didn't know the effect it would have on us. That was '83, '84, something like that.

NT: At what point did you realize you had a drug problem and needed to get help?

Coolio: It was the morning after being up about ten hours smoking and shit. I walked past a mirror and I saw myself. And I was like, "Daaaamn! Who is that? That nigga look crazy as a muthafucka." That was the turning point right there. So I still did it a little after that, but, you know, I started to wean myself like a puppy.

NT: Did that episode inspire you to move to San Jose with your dad?
Coolio: Yeah. It was cool, but I was a grown man at the time when I moved in with my father. So he sometimes was a little overbearing. He tried to treat me like a kid. I didn't stay there that long because we were both too set in our ways.

NT: Now that you are in the limelight and exposed to drugs, how do you deal with the temptation of picking up the pipe again?

Coolio: It's been so long, and my mind is so strong, and I got it goin' on that I got to leave it alone. I hate to rhyme, but I do it all the time! I was born a poet, and my moms didn't even know it! But on a serious tip, that's why. It's just been so long, and my mind is so strong, I'm not susceptible to it. You know, I can't even smell it anymore. It makes me regurgitate. I mean throw up, spit up, all that shit. Like your mind is stronger than your body. My mind controls my body enough not to let me pick up the pipe, put a lighter in my hand, light it, put some cocaine on it and smoke it. It's all in the mind, because cocaine is not a physical addiction. It's mental; you just want it. You don't get the shakes, you don't get the sweats, you don't be passin' out and shit like that. You just want that shit. It's your mind, and once you smoke it, that's it.

NT: You were committing armed robberies while you were signed to a record label. How did you get wrapped up in something like that, just when everything good was going for you?

Coolio: This was when I was with my group, M.A.A.D. Circle, because we wasn't makin' no money. But that was like five years ago.

NT: So you're using your youth as an excuse?
Coolio: It wasn't that I was a kid. It was just that I was broke. Shit, we had to eat.

NT: Speaking about eating, "Can-O-Corn," one of your raps that talks about having only one can of corn to eat, looks like it's going to be a classic anthem.

Coolio: I'm hoping so. I mean, I work hard as fuck; I work hard every day. I take this real seriously. I got respect for hip-hop. I never disrespect it, and I've always been true to it. And I guess that's why I'm doing well now, because I took my time and waited.

NT: The track "Ugly Bitches" is hilarious, but what do you say to people like C. Deloris Tucker and Dionne Warwick who are against misogynist lyrics?

Coolio: Okay. You know, actually that song is all about fun. And it's about ugly. When I say ugly, I use a lot of physical characteristics, but everybody knows that ugly comes from the inside. The people who have sense know that. So really, that's what I meant. And actually, the song came from one of my homies. He was messing with this girl that was just . . . stripped. I mean stripped. She didn't have no extras. She was like a bucket without a mop. She didn't have any brains, she had no common sense, she didn't have anything. She didn't have a body, her face was like . . . she looked like those MTV cartoon characters from Brothers Grunt. She was loud, she drank Cisco and shit--that's crack in a bottle. Really, I hadn't met her yet. Some of my homies was raggin' on her, and I was laughing so hard. Then they made a videotape of them talking about her, and they were so funny. It was like--flash! I said, "I gotta write this song."

NT: Would you consider your music to be gangsta rap?
Coolio: Nah, it's entertainment. I do it for fun. I do it for money, and I do it for love. Not necessarily in that order. I've been rapping for so long, if I didn't get paid for it, I'd do it for free. So since rapping does pay, I must insist I get all my cookies.

NT: Why do you think gangsta rap became so big?
Coolio: 'Cause it's real, and because the music was dope. Simple as that. The lyrics were dope. It's entertainment. That's what people need to realize. Why can't muthafuckas talk about killing and shooting up? Why not? Shit, they do it on TV. But nobody says we got to ban NYPD Blue. Here's one: What's killing people faster than guns? AIDS, right? Sex. So why muthafuckas like R. Kelly [an R&B singer whose music contains heavily sexual lyrics] don't get banned? We got kids around here gettin' hot and shit and wanna do it [have sex], and then they do it and they don't use a condom, they don't use protection, and they get pregnant or catch AIDS or whatever. But ain't nobody banning Prince. Ain't nobody banning Madonna, the porno fucking queen. So it's all entertainment.

NT: Are you a member of a gang?
Coolio: I don't gang bang. I'm a member of M.A.A.D. Circle. I'm with M.A.A.D. Circle for life. I've always been a rapper. I've been an emcee all my life. I mean ever since I was old enough to develop a real personality. Though I've experimented with gang banging, I never actually did anything. I wasn't out there doing drive-bys and shit, wearing colors and hitting muthafuckas everywhere I went. So I wasn't banging. I experimented by banging in the 'hood here and there. We'd go to the malls and have a fight. When I was coming up, it wasn't about shooting and killing. It was just a test of manhood to see who could knock out who. Or who could put the most lumps on the next man. Somebody got stuck or hit with a stick. But it wasn't about guns. When shit started to change and evolved to what it is today, I knew that it was bullshit and it was time for me to stop. That was about 13 years ago.

NT: A lot of people are blaming violence on gangsta rap. What would you blame?

Coolio: I blame violence on the world. Because the world is a violent place. Violence is necessary. Violence is a part of life. Everybody's running around talking about peace. Since the beginning, it's been a struggle between good and evil. And in order to have peace, you must have war. It's been proven over and over again. I don't know why people keep bullshitting and playing themselves. If we want peace, we gotta have war. We need a common cause. Nobody's ever gonna be down with each other unless they have a common cause. Now, being a black man and being that I come from the land of Africa and all my people are dark skin, we have a common bond, and we're supposed to stick together, but we don't.

NT: Why do you think that is?
Coolio: Because we don't have a common enemy. In order to be a people and be strong, we have to have a common enemy. Have you noticed that's why those people in Israel and the true Muslims are so strong and tight? Because they have a common goal. They're always at war. They've been at war for the last 15 years.

NT: You don't believe that African Americans have a common goal?
Coolio: Yeah, we do, but we can't see it. We can't see the forest through the trees. We can't see the ground for the grass. Niggas see the grass and think they're kickin' it. They don't know the grass is gonna turn brown, and then it's going to be dirt. People just don't think. I'm just trying to create an awareness of that. But I don't necessarily try to do it through my music. I'd rather let people read about me saying this or see me speaking about it. I don't use my music as a forum for it. I don't choose to do it that way because I feel that music is about entertainment, and when I got into music, I wasn't being political. I may speak about a political subject here and there, but it's not what I base my concepts on.

NT: Do you speak at public high schools?
Coolio: Actually, I just did my first speaking engagement in Texas.
NT: Was it a fulfilling experience for you?

Coolio: It was real different. It was the first time I ever did anything like that, and I was kind of nervous, but I handled it. I'll get better as I go along.

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