The moment I woke up this morning and heard the news about Coolio’s death, aged just 59, I immediately sent a message to my schoolfriends’ WhatsApp group. “Coolio is dead!” I wrote, with a shocked and sad-face emoji. “You were the first person I thought of when I read it this morning!” Dayna wrote back. Then Sarah chimed in: “I was reading this at 5am and nearly text both of you!”
The conversation moved seamlessly on to the fact that next year, we really needed to go camping again. Why such a natural segue? Well, because Coolio was the mainstay of my 40th birthday, during the pandemic – and news of his death has genuinely startled me and made me sad. Hear me out.
Unable to book a big party or to go out for drinks, as we were nervous and in between lockdowns, my best friends threw me a “mini Glastonbury” – suitably, in Emma’s mum’s back garden. It was, truly, like being 14 again, in 1995: the year “Gangsta’s Paradise” came out, the year it became the biggest-selling single of that year, worldwide, and went to number 1 in at least 19 countries. It was, crucially, also the year we all painstakingly pressed “pause” and “rewind” on our tape recorders to try to learn the lyrics. And oh, we succeeded.
Even today, some 27 years later, I remember them (and I do mean all of them); and we remembered them all, as a group, on my birthday, every single one of us – while camping ridiculously in someone’s mum’s back garden. And we sang. Yes, we sang and we rapped and it was awful and it was cringe and it was beautiful and it was – quite literally – a group of 40-year-old mothers (for we’ve all grown up now since the days we’d sit in the hallways next to the lockers at school in our blazers and tartan school skirts, chewing gum and flicking pens and forcing people to step over our outstretched legs to get past) performing “Gangsta’s Paradise” in perfect synchrony; just like we did then, just like we did in 1995. Coolio, above all else, for children of the 1990s represents one perfect and profound thing: nostalgia.
I remember the movie that caterpaulted the song into collective national consciousness, too: Dangerous Minds came out in 1995, of course, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Wade Dominguez and Courtney B. Vance and George Dzundza. But what I really remember is the song; for it played at our houses after school, in our mum and dad’s living rooms when we had parties we weren’t supposed to have while they were away.
It echoed around the halls, incongruously, at people’s bar mitzvahs (George Michael’s “Jesus to a Child” blared out there too) and at our 16th birthdays. It ricocheted around the cavernous nightclubs in Enfield that hosted “under 18s” discos on a Friday night, the ones where we’d coyly eye up people from rival schools and hope they’d come over and use that uniquitous signal of courtship: the slight head tilt, the eyes on the floor and a mumbled, utterly swoony, “alright?”
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No matter who you were, which social group you belonged to (and at high school, there was nothing more vital or as stark as whether you were “indie” or “sporty” or “pop” or “hip hop” or “alternative”), “Gangsta’s Paradise” was a great leveller – a song everybody knew, no matter what they were into. We all knew all the words, and it makes me wonder if in fact it was the last song of its kind to be like that – do kids and teenagers do that anymore? In a world filled with Spotify and Apple Music and iTunes and a billion other music streaming services and lyrics freely available online (our internet access in 1995, of course, was restricted to a weekly lesson in the school computer room) – do they sit and laboriously press “stop” and “rewind”? Or did that die out with Coolio and the only other song we diligently learned by heart, the theme tune to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air?
If you want to find out how old someone is and are too afraid or too polite to ask them, just inquire as to whether they know the lyrics to “Gangsta’s Paradise”. That’ll tell you all you need to know.
RIP Coolio, you were, truly, the end of an era. Our childhoods go with you.