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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.

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Danielle Hollomon

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