Coolio raps for a living, but he’d rather ride dragons. When he’s not onstage or in the studio, he reads and rereads Anne McCaffrey’s series of Pern fantasy novels. “I think it’s her compassion,” he says. “Plus I like the idea of speaking to dragons telepathically.” So today in London, Coolio has cancelled a smorgasbord of phone interviews with Scandinavian journalists so he can restock his Pern library. Once he’s completed his collection, he plans to line them up in order and read them all yet again. Coolio strides into a large Dillon’s bookstore, locates the science-fiction section, and starts snatching McCaffrey’s novels off the shelves. He quickly considers each one before shoving it back on the shelf or tossing it in the pile of keepers at his feet:  Dragonflight, Dragondawn, All the Weyrs of Pern, Firstfall, and Moreta: Dragon Lady of Pern. But he scowls: there’s a glitch. “Where the fuck’s The White Dragon?”

As a child, Coolio remembers with some pride, he stole so many books from the local library that his shelves rivaled theirs. When he was an asthmatic kid growing up in Compton, none of his friends understood why he was reading so much, let alone the Great Brain series by John Fitzgerald. But the idea of a triumphant boy genius appealed strongly to Coolio, even if the books were set in turn-of-the-century Utah. Back then, he was still getting used to the idea that other people wouldn’t understand him. Now he goes through life expecting it.

When he retires from music, Coolio plans to write, probably fantasy novels. But right now he’s too busy making the world’s best hip-hop singles. 1994’s “Fantastic Voyage” was a buoyant fantasy about travelling from the hood to a sunny Shangri-La. And last year’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” was Gothic rap of the highest order, with Coolio declaiming like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction over a hefty chunk of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” It went to number one around the world, which is why Coolio is in London, finishing three weeks of European promotional duty. All he wants is to go home to Los Angeles, lock himself in his new suburban house (“It’s ten minutes from the hood. Not my hood, but a hood”), and see his five children. But until he gets back, he’s going to buy himself the comforts of American culture. Next stop: the Virgin Megastore.

Coolio covets the new Sega John Madden Football game, but it’s not out in England yet. So he heads for the soul CDs, and picks out some Al Green and Marvin Gaye compilations. When he spots a customer checking out the Gangsta’s Paradise album, he sidles up to him and says, “You better buy that Coolio record. That shit is dope.” Fame is a burden for many ‘90s stars (or so they say), but for Coolio, it’s a fascinating new toy. When the whole world is watching, he seizes the opportunity to play class clown on a global scale. Here, with three other people in the soul aisle, he uses his fame as a comedic foil. He can’t really pass himself off as a disinterested consumer, though; for all of Coolio’s best efforts to slouch by unnoticed, his trademark braids are sprouting from his scalp like a well-tended garden of baby dreadlocks.

Once, Coolio was Artis Ivey, one of the four smartest kids in his elementary school class in South Central Los Angeles, and one of the three smallest. He had asthma, which meant that he couldn’t drink milk or play football, but he could get picked on. When Artis was eight, he ran home from school every day, the neighborhood bully a few steps behind him. Those sprints lasted until the day Venita, Artis’s older sister, saw him coming. She locked the door so that Artis would have to turn around and fight. Out of desperation, Artis launched himself off his back steps, and with the element of surprise, toppled his tormentor. Artis chased him all the way home, hitting him and throwing rocks. All that running finally paid off. But none of Coolio’s stories have a simple happy ending; every triumph is short-lived. He was king of the neighborhood for three weeks. Then the family moved–to Compton, where the bullies were twice as tough and ten times as numerous. Artis had to start running again.

Still, life was good at home. Artis’s stepfather worked at the post office; the family could afford a house where Artis and Venita had separate rooms. They made frequent trips to the beach and Disneyland–Artis’s favorite attraction was the Matterhorn. But when Artis turned eleven, the family started to fall apart. First, Venita got sent away to live with some cousins in the LA suburb Modena, so she could escape the violence at her school. Then Artis’s mom and stepdad started arguing all the time; he was cheating on her, even sleeping with her friends. But Mom was tough; when Artis grew up, he would inherit her bluntness. This was how she took care of business: she got her husband’s shotgun and fired on him point-blank. The bullet broke his arm, and shattered the family.

There was one fewer paycheck, and then, when Artis’s mom stopped working and started drinking, there was nothing at all. Mom had always been strict–she’d whip his ass if he skipped washing the dishes. But once he was too big for the asswhippings to hurt, Artis started running on the streets more. Searching for a way to fit in, he played at being a gangster. He was a Baby Crip, wearing a blue bandana and a clip-on earring, even robbing houses when older kids told him to. He was still an outcast who got picked on in school, though–so he thought about how his hero the Great Brain would handle the situation. “I started acting crazy: bring a knife to school, hit you on the head with a bottle, whatever.” And somewhere along the way, he lost track of the difference between pretending to be a mad bomber and actually being one. For years, he had gotten straight As, even thinking that he might end up at Harvard. By the tenth grade, he was showing up just often enough not to get thrown out of school. He thought his clothes looked too shabby for him to go to class.

SOME FACTS: Coolio has a German Shepherd named Fernix. The dog was trained by a  Hungarian, so Coolio has to give Fernix in that language to get him to sit or heel. Coolio worries that the dog misses hearing Hungarian; he’s going to get a phrasebook and start speaking the language around the house. All the evidence suggests that Coolio is thirty-two, born August 1, 1963, but he insists otherwise. “I’m twenty-seven,” he says, “and I’ll stay twenty-seven for the next three years.” When fans get hysterical around him, Coolio just tells them to shut the hell up. He’ll give autographs, but he has no patience for screaming. He collects shake-’em-up snowglobes. He used to take hash and weed across national borders all the time, but after one too many close call at customs, he decided he didn’t need the risk. When he tells me about this, he gets down on all fours and smells my leg to demonstrate his run-in with a drug-sniffing dog. If he could have been in any one movie, it would have been Krush Groove, as himself. He still gets hassled by the police, just for being black. Recently, a cop pulled him over, told him he resembled a murder suspect, and proceeded to search the car. They found Coolio’s gun; he got convicted on a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Coolio says he doesn’t carry firearms anymore: “One more gun charge, I could go to jail for three years.” Coolio roots for any L.A. sports team: the Dodgers, the Angels, the Kings, the Lakers, the Raiders. “Even the Clippers, although they’re wack.” When he and I start trading sports trivia, I’m able to guess the answers to all his questions, simply because I know the answer will be an L.A. star. Coolio has three daughters and two sons by four different mothers. He worries that he’s not around for them, like his father and stepfather weren’t for him. So when he stops touring so much, he wants them all to come live with him. He’ll have one more son to balance the collected family out–“it’ll be just like the Brady Bunch.”

With his periodic denunciations of gang violence and a sense of whimsy that extends right through his hair follicles, it’s easy to peg Coolio as a friendly antidote to gangsta rap. Looked at this way, Coolio’s life becomes the story of a nerdy kid who stands up to the bullies and goes on to have number-one hits that challenge the gangsta status quo. But Coolio thinks this misses the point, or part of the point. “I had a gangsta song and a bitch song on my album,” he points out. “I just didn’t release them as singles.” Every day in Coolio’s life, there is a wrestling match between the kid who got bullied and the older kid who learned how to bully back.

So just as the utopia of “Fantastic Voyage” coexists with the line “pack your gat with the extra clip,” Coolio the asthmatic Anne McCaffrey fan lives in the same skin as a self-proclaimed Crip with a temper. “If you dis me on a record,” declares Coolio, “when I see you, we gotta fight.” After Bronx rapper Tim Dog released the N.W.A dis “Fuck Compton” in 1992, Coolio took it very personally. Every time he came to New York, he would rearm himself as soon as he left the airport. He couldn’t buy a gun over the counter, so he would get two knives and keep one holstered on each hip. He planned to stab Tim Dog the first time he saw him–and says the only thing that ultimately stopped him was the intercession of Treach, the one-man peacekeeping force better known as Naughty by Nature’s leader.

Coolio doesn’t like to dress up when he goes out to clubs, and when he does style himself, he prefers to get pimped out. So at the Details photo shoot, he eyes a four-button black suit warily: “This is some corny shit–butter and salt.” But when he puts it on, he pulls his necktie into a flawless Windsor knot. He wore a tie every day he showed up senior year of high school, so he would look fresh. The stylist wants to put some wire in Coolio’s braids to give them greater altitude, but he cuts her down with a cold stare. “I’m a Crip,” he says. “We don’t do that.” The menace he wants to convey is somewhat blunted by the British stylist’s never having heard of the Crips or the Bloods. Coolio tries to explain the L.A. gangs to her, but she doesn’t quite get it: for the rest of the day, she refers to the Crips and the Spuds.

Coolio consents to be strung up by that perfect Windsor knot, symbolizing the wholesale death of young black men in the hood today. Even with a noose throwing his posture awry, Coolio still looks like he is in command of the situation. His sunglasses low on his nose, he glares around the studio, a poster boy for defiant self-destruction. He thinks one-quarter of the problems in the ghetto are due to outside influences like TV, while the rest are self-inflicted problems like drug dealing and gang violence. Still, he bristles when I suggest gangsta rap might glamorize that criminal element. “When you’re a kid in the hood, there’s nothing glamorous but the Crips,” he insists. “It’s so much better than anything else in your life that you learn to love it.”

Later on, I ask Coolio when he joined the Crips. Although he’s described himself as a Crip several times over the last few days, he says he was never actually inducted as a member; it’s just that when you grow up in a Crip neighborhood, you’ve got to be down so you don’t get beaten down. At Christmas, if you wear a Santa suit, you make sure it’s tailored from blue fabric. You call yourself a Crip. Whatever it takes.

“Some people think I’m hard, crazy, a wild-style gangsta,” Coolio says. “Some people know that I’m really just a good a person. I don’t play the hard role no more.” But hardly anyone thinks of him as a wild-style gangsta; he sounds more hopeful than anything else when he describes himself that way. Coolio intertwines West Coast themes and his bookworm past, but in his mind, being hard has always gone with the job. Now that he’s a star, he gets to be the most popular kid in the grade, carrying guns, making offhand misogynist remarks, smoking a lot of blunts. If he were riding a dragon, he’d wave around a broadsword.

COOLIO’S PLAN FOR AN INFOMERCIAL: “My own do-it-yourself drug treatment. Part one, Rock Cocaine. The first book in a series written by the world-famous rapper Coolio, who will take you step by step through the cocaine abuse and addiction. Videotape $29.95, along with the book for another ten dollars.”

New York City’s Sheraton Park hotel, 10 A.M.: I knock on Coolio’s door for my appointment. There’s no answer, but I know it must be Coolio’s room because I can hear “Gangsta’s Paradise” blasting–a tape of his rehearsal with Stevie Wonder for the Billboard Music Awards. I knock again, somewhat louder. Coolio opens the door, wearing only white boxer shorts with turquoise triangles. He leans on the doorframe, bleary-eyed. His right arm has a tattoo on it dating back to the eighth grade: a smoking Playboy Bunny with Coolio’s childhood nickname BOO underneath. His hair needs rebraiding; it’s disappointingly flat this morning. His stomach is taut and muscular. “Give me thirty minutes, cuz,” he says.

10:30 A.M.: Coolio is shaving. I let myself in and try to find a seat amid the clutter: boots with the tags still on, sheets of lyrics-in-progress, his asthma inhaler. Coolio pulls on a Colgate University Earth Day t-shirt, and sits on an exercise bike for 45 seconds before the pedaling bores him. He lights up an early-morning joint and boots up his Sony PlayStation–already plugged into the hotel TV. But when we start talking about his youth, he puts down the controller. With a half-hour and a little weed, he’s fully woken up. He starts pacing the cramped room like a comic on a nightclub stage, jumping up and down at his stories’ climactic moments. He can be sullen when questions bore him, but right now he glows with charisma and life.

In eleventh grade, Coolio rapped in public for the first time at a school dance. “It was just some bragging. ‘I’m Coolio this, I’m Coolio that.’ Rapping was so new that people were appreciative.” He had always wanted to be a singer, but he didn’t have the voice. Early singles by UTFO and Run-DMC made him realize that he could rhyme too, just on weekends, as a lark. He finished high school (in five years because of all the classes he cut), and while he figured out what he wanted to do with his life, rapped around the hood–at friends’ weddings, even at the grand opening of a Church’s Chicken.

By his early twenties, the glamour of the criminal lifestyle caught up with him. When a friend robbed a woman at knifepoint, he got Coolio to cash the money order in her purse. As a result, the police paid a visit to Coolio’s house. He confessed and spent six months in jail, enough time to know he never wanted to be behind bars again. Upon his release, he moved to San Jose for a while, to escape the hood. When he came back to Compton for a visit, an old friend let him have a hit off a joint. “Man, this shit tastes good!” said Coolio.

It was a primo, explained the friend. The latest thing–a joint laced with rock cocaine. Coolio, a satisfied consumer, bought a couple more right away. Nobody had heard of crack yet; all they knew was that primos were tasty, cheap, and abundant.

By 1985, Coolio was a preboarding screening technician at Los Angeles International Airport, meaning that he ran people through the metal detector, urged them to drop their keys in the basket, and examined their bags on the X-ray machine. The only problem: he was now completely addicted to crack. He suspects that some passengers probably brought knives on board, and maybe even a gun or a bomb–he wasn’t really paying attention. He was always focussed on his next break, when he could go light up another primo.

Eventually, he got transferred to luggage duty by the main doors, which he preferred, because he got an extra quarter every time he put a cart back in the machine. It also put him in position to steal unclaimed suitcases. He needed extra money; the weed supply had dried up, and Coolio was buying straight crack, which had gotten a lot more expensive. After two years, he quit the LAX job. “I stopped going in because it was taking too much time away from the pipe,” he remembers, unapologetic. “The pipe was my girl. She said, ‘You don’t need to go to work, just kick it with me.’ She was lying like a motherfucker.”

Coolio worked a series of other jobs: a Taco Bell, where he learned how to rig the cash register; a Jack-in-the-Box where he figured out how to fish fifty-dollar bills out of the dropbox, and finally, back to San Jose, where he joined a firefighting squad. One day he looked in a mirror and saw an addict. He never entered a program–if he had learned anything in his life, it was that he couldn’t count on anybody but himself. Painfully, and with some relapses, he weaned himself off the pipe.

In 1988, N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton, and suddenly, some guys from Coolio’s neighborhood had a multiplatinum album. West Coast hip-hop was instantly hot; Coolio realized that he might be able to make a living out of his weekend hobby. Coolio joined a series of groups–Low Profile, the MAAD Circle–that never quite made it. It didn’t matter–he was obsessed. He started thinking seriously about what he wanted to say in his raps beyond advertising his greatness. For the first time, the poverty and the criminal life that had stopped him from going to Harvard began to feel like assets, giving him more material for songwriting. Five years of pushing and making connections led to a solo deal with Tommy Boy.

His first album, It Takes a Thief, featured memories of hard times in the hood, played both for journalistic value and for laughs, all over solid West Coast beats. The new record, Gangsta’s Paradise, goes heavier on the message raps, with Coolio even proclaiming he’s got “a whole generation of lost niggers to save.” But the best track is “Kinda High, Kinda Drunk,” a funky first-person tale where Coolio sits at a bar, waiting for his friends, sucking down beers. When he hits on a girl, he ends up vomiting on her chest.

Coolio’s once-smooth relationship with Tommy Boy has developed some lumps. “They don’t listen,” he complains. When he wanted to distribute dental dams to promote his safe-sex remake of Kool and the Gang’s “Too Hot,” they balked. They also rejected his idea for the Gangsta’s Paradise album cover: A pimp-style jail cell, with a zebra-skin rug, a thirty-five-inch color TV, an old-style English telephone, and Coolio reclining in a silk robe on a four-poster bed–behind bars. He’s also incensed that his album debuted at number eleven; with proper promotion, he says, it should have been top-five. He’s considering going on the offensive. “I should start doing some crazy shit like Treach. He bought a bag of rats, a bag of snakes, opened them up in [Tommy Boy president] Monica Lynch’s office, got in his car, and drove back to Jersey.”

Perhaps what bothers him the most is the history of “Gangsta’s Paradise.” When he first played it for Tommy Boy, Coolio says, he believed in it fervently, but they were sour on it–which why they let MCA use it on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. Coolio first heard the track at a party thrown by his manager. The portly crooner L.V. (for Large Variety) was playing a demo of a song he was working on; he had already worked out the chorus. Coolio insisted that he had to rap on it. He wrote his rhymes–about a young criminal trying to stare down death (and failing)–in two hours; after another two hours, he and L.V. had a finished demo. He played it over and over, fifty times that night, unable to believe that he had distilled his childhood world into three verses, that these words had really come from his brain.

COOLIO ON RACE RELATIONS: “When I made ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ I said, ‘It really don’t matter if you’re white or black.’ I believe that–to a certain degree. I believe that it don’t matter in music. But I think people thought I meant something else, and they gave me a real warm reception because of that. That one line might be the most important line I’ve ever written. Without it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel the world and find out what it meant. Because it’s true—outside of America.”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust/In my motherfucking self I trust,” raps Coolio in “The Revolution.” Despite this sentiment, when he arrives in Washington, DC for a concert at George Washington University, he is joined by two employees of his company Crowbar Management, three rappers from his proteges the 40 Thievz, and DJ Fatbox. They sit on the long benches in the men’s locker room, cracking jokes (Coolio: “Your mama’s so stupid, she bought a TV dinner and waited for it to get cable”) and imagining how sex would be different if men and women had their genitalia in the middle of their chests, or under their armpits. Coolio eats his mesquite-chicken dinner with a large white towel tucked into his white baseball jersey to protect it.

The show is woefully undersold; the student promoters have drawn only three hundred people to the cavernous basketball court, where the stage is set up underneath the banners celebrating the GWU Colonials’ trips to the NCAA and NIT tournaments. As Coolio and the 40 Thievz head up the staircase to the court, they punch imaginary timecards, checking in for another day’s work.

Despite the size of the crowd, Coolio puts on the best live hip-hop show I’ve ever seen. The 40 Thievz burst onto the stage, one even doing backflips, and only get more energetic from there. The four rappers command the entire gym, trading off lines, weaving around each other. When they perform “Fantastic Voyage,” they do a little slide-slide-slippity-slide dance, looking like Compton’s own Four Tops. After “Too Hot,” Coolio leads the women in the audience in a chant of “If he don’t got a condom, he don’t get none” before adding the tagline–“And if he’s got a condom, he still might get none.”

After the show, Coolio’s all hot and bothered. He wants to go to a strip joint. “You know, a motherfucking pop-that-coochie club!” Coolio hires his friends and encourages an atmosphere of camaraderie–we’re all on a mission together–but right now, it’s clear that he’s the boss. Although everyone else is sleepy, we spend an hour and a half driving around the back streets of DC, piloted by the hapless GWU freshmen assigned to shuttle us back to our hotel in university vans. Finally, Coolio declares defeat and we head back to the hotel–where we discover that there was a pop-that-coochie club only one block away. For a moment, Coolio’s eyes narrow, like he might lash into the GWU drivers. But he decides it’s too late for that. We return to the hotel, and he goes up to his room, silent and exhausted.

WHY COOLIO APPEARED AS A DEVIL IN HIS “TOO HOT” VIDEO: “Some of my homies didn’t want me to. But a little red man with a cape and a pitchfork and some horns coming out of his head, that is not the devil. That’s just what motherfuckers have created as one of the symbols for a devil. It used to be a man with a goat head. I’m playing a cartoon character. If you look in the Bible, the devil was one of the most beautiful angels in heaven.”

Coolio speaks a language all his own. He will periodically shout a phrase like “Beeya meeya feeya!” when, say, the guy behind the counter at KFC is rude. This is the language MAAD Circlus, which Coolio has taught his entire crew. Coolio often lapses into it on TV interviews and even on the It Takes a Thief track “U Know Hoo!” He’s both sending out secret messages to his homeboys and making everybody else think he’s gone bonkers. In Coolio’s book, these have both long been desirable goals.

He won’t translate it for me, but after listening to him speak in tongues for a few days, I manage to decode it. Every word ends with “eeya,” so each word stands for the first letter of a common English-language word. “Beeya meeya feeya” (which Coolio would spell “Bi mi fi”) means “bitch motherfucker.” It’s a way to curse out KFC employees with impunity, and it’s a badge among his crew. But when Coolio hollers “Deeya meeya keeya neeya!” across a crowded room (meaning “Did you make the call, nigger?”), he’s not trying to keep a secret. He’s just revelling in his ability to twist the English language into a full-Windsor knot.

HOW COOLIO WANTS HIS BODY DISPOSED OF AFTER HIS DEATH: “I don’t want no tombstone, don’t want no casket–once the spirit leaves the body, your body is nothing! It won’t be me anymore. On the real, I told my family: ‘When I die, don’t even go claim my body. Just let the county burn it up so you don’t have to pay for it. Then take all that insurance money and go buy a car, buy a house, whatever. Have a good-ass time on me.'”

Coolio is at the MTV studios to host two episodes of Most Wanted Jams. In the green room, he meets with the producer of MTV Unplugged. Coolio’s going to unplug, but he wants a rotating stage and the band coming out of jail cells at the back. When he goes on the air, he borrows a cape from the wardrobe department and introduces himself as Count Coolio, the vampire rapper from Comptonvania. He flubs a few takes and occasionally curses accidentally, but staring unblinkingly into the camera lens, he’s got the hypnotic intensity of the best vampires. And he’s a wry natural as a VJ, introducing Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song” by declaring deadpan, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” When two VJs burst on the set with a cake to celebrate “Gangsta’s Paradise” being MTV’s most-requested video of the year, Coolio spontaneously breaks into his Stevie Wonder impression.

Afterward, the camera crew gets some interview footage. Coolio discusses the director’s original concept for the “Gangsta’s Paradise” video (“some beds in the desert”) and tells the story of L.V. playing him the song’s demo one more time. When asked about his future, Coolio begins a standard bit of bluster about how he and his crew will be blowing up and taking over. “I got a crowbar, I got a gun–” he says, and then he stops himself. Maybe he’s remembering his misdemeanor weapons conviction, or maybe he’s just reconsidered the wisdom of boasting about something he preaches against. Or maybe, when it comes right down to it, he knows that the way to handle his darkest urges is to turn them into a joke. When Coolio finishes his threat, this is how it comes out: “But I ain’t got no bullets, so I can’t shoot nobody.”

By Gavin Edwards. Originally published (as “The Rebirth of Coolio”) in the March 1996 issue of Details.