For those who have never been there, envisioning Little Rock, Arkansas, as a major metropolis is quite difficult. And rightly so, considering the misconceptions Hollywood has created over the years. Between the goings on in Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Dukes of Hazzard, one would think the South was still Old Dixie: a redneck-governed reservation for millions of cotton-and-tobacco pickin’, Jim-Crow-abidin’, not-knowin’-slavery-is-over-ass n***as. Perhaps this is still the case in places like the backwoods of Louisiana’s Bayou country or Kentucky’s Ozark, but Little Rock is pretty much like any other American city.
Riding through the downtown business district, you’ll see concrete, high-rise towers sporting the familiar logos of IBM, Home Savings of America and AT&T. A few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the corporate machine, the West Side provides the expected down-home rural atmosphere. In these residential neighborhoods, Black folks sit on the porch, kids do yard work and young males, Nerf footballs in hand, play endless games of touch football. And of course, liquor stores and churches vie for location space on every other corner.
Though many of the Black business on the West Side have been hit by both the recession and the competition from the malls, stores like Soul Brother’s Records and Ugly Mike’s Records have been neighborhood fixtures for over 20 years. While they might look like some old-time candy stores on the outside, inside is a DJ’s heaven. Stacks of Vinyl plates from dusty artists like Donald Byrd, Mandrill, The Watts Poets and the Sylvers share rack space with the latest in R&B and hip-hop.
Make no mistake, Little Rock is alive with music, especially hip-hop.
The culture filtered into the streets the same way it did in every other city outside of New York. “Rapper’s Delight” achieved a foothold; Run-D.M.C. kicked the door in. While New York-style graffiti never really caught on as an art form, the disciplines of breakdancing and rapping were taken up by many. In 1994, Little Rock’s devotion to hip-hop is as loyal and coastally unbiased as one could ask for, with every facet of rap having earned its personal niche. The car culture is the domain of gangsta rap, the clubs are dominated by bass and popular hits, and the lyrics riddles of the East Coast live in the Walkmans of many. Little Rock has also become an important stop for rappers during their promotional tours. In one week alone in this past summer, fans have been able to see the likes of MC Breed, Domino and 12 Gauge up-close and personal.
But hip-hop is not all that Little Rock has in common with the rest of the country. Not far from Ugly Mike’s, an all-too-familiar slogan slammes its way across a Virginia Slims billboard: 7-2 Hoover Crew York LA gangs have a foothold in the hometown of President Clinton. As a matter of fact, some citizens of the Natural State have gotten caught up in the rapture of gang life that they inspired a recent HBO-produced documentary entitled Gang War: Bangin’ In Little Rock. Little Rock is just like Compton.
Broadway Joe Booker of the city’s number one radio station, KIPR Power 92 Jams, has promoted and sponsored numerous “Peace ND Streets” campaigns over the years. The events are aimed at giving the youth something to do on a Saturday night other than get into trouble. It is this week’s celebrity basketball game/concert at Hall high against Memphis station KJMS Jams 101(another participant in the Peace ND Streets program) that has brought one of rap’s fastest rising starts to town–Coolio.
During a casual lunchtime planning session (at the local Bennigan’s) for the night’s events, Broadway Joe and various members of the KIPR family and Coolio and his family (Manager Spoon, DJ Dobbs the Wino and Lead MC of the Forty Thieves, Billy Boy) get to know one another. Minutes later Coolio gets a taste of what it’s like to be a famous rap star.
“Hey, Coolio,” shouts a young man as he approaches the table. “Man, they bumpin’ your sh*t hard down here. I like your sh*t. What’s the single out now? ‘County Line’?”
A little surprised, Coolio answers the question in a friendly manner.
“New,” he smiles. “‘County Line’ was the first single from the album. The current single is ‘Fantastic Voyage’.”
It’s hard to earn your props in rap. Even if your engaging personality has catapulted you into the role of MTV hip-hop poster boy of the minute. Even if you have a hit video in constant rotation on BET. Even if your debut album is about to ship gold. Even if your platinum single is #3 with a bullet; and even if you wear your hair in such a manner that you have become the most recognizable rap tar since Snoop Doggy Dogg. None of this will stop people from missing the boat most of the time.
As the lunchtime conversation shifts to more serious social matters, another young OJ warns Coolio not to throw up any gang signs during the game or concert tonight. Little Rock’s East Side is a “big tornado,” he explains. Blood territory, “Man, I ain’t even bangin’,” Coolio retorts, displeased at the young man for assuming that he was a banger. “How these fools bangin’ and killin’ each other down here in the belly of the real redneck cracker? These n***as got a chance to live, man. This sh*t is crazy.”
Until just then, Coolio didn’t even know that there was gang activity in Little Rock, but having been raised in Compton, he is well versed in the trappings of gang life and its limited amount of success stories. He’s seen many of his homies socked up, killed, smoked-out and downright disappear from the hood and the fact that this lifestyle has permeated the South disheartens him. “Man, we gotta break this cycle,” he says sadly. “N***as down here got a chance to live, why do they wanna go and get into some stupid sh*t like that for? They didn’t have to grow up with no Crips and Bloods. Now they’re gonna make it harder for the young ones.” He then shifts the subject to how out-of-hand the gang situation has gotten back home. “There are n***as at the house doing assassinations for $500, fool. You say to them, ‘I want this n***a dead’ and break him off $500, and whoever you want will be dead. That’s how crazy sh*t is gettin’.”
“What happened to the truce?” Broadway Joe asks in reference to the cease-fire among some LA-based gangs following the ’92 rebellion.
“N***as ran out of beer and BBQ,” jokes Dobbs the Wino. Everyone laughs. “But for real though,” he continues. “They’re tryin’, but it’s hard… it’s just hard to explain. I don’t even want to talk about it.” He turns his eyes back to his food in silence.
Coolio moved from South Central to Compton with his mother and sister when he was eight. As time passed on and as school became less and less interesting and the gang scene intensified, Coolio began carrying knives to school and earning his respect with the swiftness of his hands. When Coolio was exposed to hip-hop via the Sugar Hill Gang at the age of 14, it changed his life. Rapping became not only a form of expression but also a means to keep him out of trouble. Hooking up with a brother maned Jazzy D who had just moved to the CPT by way of Brooklyn, NY, Coolio formed his first crew, The Soundmasters. By the time LL Cool J hit the big time, they were making a name for themselves as the NUSKOOL (New Underground Systematically Killin’ Old Lyrics). They were pulling down gigs at house parties, club openings and working with a performing arts program. Then Jazzy D moved back to New York.
With potential gigs still rolling in. Coolio was forced to search for a replacement DJ, which led to a meeting with his current righthand man, Billy Boy. “It was kinda strange ‘cause I had met Bill right after he been shot in the stomach over some gang activity.” Coolio recalls, “We had booked three parties and Billy came over to the pad like this [acting out the scene, holding one arm over where the wound was]. He had just came out of the hospital and the DJed the whole night with one arm, sitting down. After he started doing that Jam Master Jay scratch, I was like, “You’re my DJ.”
After recording numerous demos, Coolio and Billy eventually got picked up by Primo Records, and independent label. It didn’t last long. By that time, Coolio and Billy were doing strong arm robberies. Coolio ended up getting fingered for a robbery that one of his homies had committed and did a bid at the youth camp. He got out just as the local hip-hop scene was starting to take off. He continued to MC but it wasn’t long before he was caught up in the street’s latest craze. “Cocaine came out and we’d rap and do parties and take the money, go buy some rock or some weed and roll up primos and get high,” he remembers. “That’s what we used to do, N***as was wearing Pro Wings, stealing batteries and radiators and during the whole time we didn’t even know we were hooked, it was just a bustic to us.”
The threat of gang violence put a danger on the amount of house parties being thrown. When that source of revenue dried up, Coolio and Billy went their separate ways. To make ends for his cocaine habit, Coolio took a job at the airport. It was the wrong time to be hooked on cocaine. The weed shortage in 1985 helped to make crack the choice of a new generation. “I hit the pipe once and didn’t feel s***t. About two weeks later, I hit the pipe again and felt a head rush. Next thing I know I was hooked,” he says quietly.
At age 22, realizing that his life was leading to a dead end, Coolio quit his job and moved North to San Jose to be with his father and escape his drug and gang-riddled environment. He stayed with his pops for about a year and willed himself off of cocaine before moving back to Compton. “I made myself hate cocaine to the point where if someone was to start smoking some right now, I’d start wratchin’ and throw up everything in my stomach.” He also jumped right back in to the rap game.
Coolio was cool with a local hip-hop tailor named Scotty D, who made personalized sweatsuits for LL, Run-DMC and Whodini when they were in town. Scotty D hooked Coolio up with a rapper named WC, who, along with his partner DJ Alladin, had just formed a group called Low Profile. “They wouldn’t let WC tap back then, just beat box. So WC and me used to kick freestyles over the phone. See, everything back then was Old School hip-hop. When all the techno s***t came out in LA, I never got caught up in that because my roots are in New York hip-hop, that’s where it all started and where I learned from.”
In 1990, when Low Profile inked a deal with Priority Records and released the critically acclaimed Payin’ Dues album, they put Coolio down as their front man. But internal conflicts (ego tripping, mismanagement, hook a*s contracts and poor promotion) put an end to the group’s short career.
Still determined to make it in the business, Coolio and WC formed the MAAD Circle, released Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed and once again didn’t blow up. Coolio blamed this on a lack of company support. “When we finished the album, we sat around and listened and was like, ‘This M********a finna go gold, man.’ Then here we go again.” The album ended up selling over 200,000 units, but Coolio questions those numbers. “I know we sold more than that, because I go to record stores now and they’re still reordering Ain’t A Damn Thing.”
Embittered by the failures of both Low Profile and the MAAD Circle, WC stepped away from the rap game and encouraged Coolio to do a solo album. Takig WC’s advice, he went to some well-established homies from Compton to get a deal but was “ruthlessly” played to the left. After hooking up with Dobbs the Wino, who helped him define his sound, Coolio began work on the five-song demo that eventually led to a deal with Tommy Boy. And the rest is history.
Although he seems like and overnight success, Coolio has been making sacrifices to the altar of hip-hop for over 15 years. He considers himself an MC and not just a rapper. He believes that while rappers can go into studio and make records, you have to be an MC to control the crowd, freestyle, write rhymes and still be able to go into the studio and make records. He also thinks that videos should be banned (which is surprising since “Fantastic Voyage” is one of the most popular videos out right now) because they give false impression of an artist being a dope live performer. “If your show is a*s, then your s***t is a*s,” he says. “Every time I listen to your album and think back at your wack performance, it makes me not like your s***t, even if it’s the bomb. It’s all about the music.”
And now that he has his foot for real this time, he is not about to let any of it get away from him either. He keeps up with all of his paperwork and has formed his own management company, Crowbar Management, whose motto is: “We’re getting in one way or another.” “You’ve got to have m********as around you that you can trust,” he asserts. “If you don’t have anyone you can trust, then you need to have somebody you can scare. Fear is a weapon, and it’s been used on us for so long.”
After lunch, Coolio and company decide to forgo the scheduled sound check in order to spend some time exploring the local mall. The sound will just bounce off the gym walls anyway, they reason. Billy has his own reasons for going. “Let us break to thine mall,” he announces in a mock Shakespearean accent. “For it is rats for which I seek.” As Coolio walks through the mall, all eyes are on him— or rather the crazy matrix of braids that leap from his head. A group of males dressed in red observe him from the terrace and wonder if they are really seeing who they think they are seeing. Two young girls know for sure and approach Coolio with the question that the Hip-Hop Nation has been dying to ask: “Why your braids so crazy?” Coolio— who began growing his hair long back during the MAAD Circle days (no members were permitted to cut their hair or beards until the album was completed)— casually replies, “They look crazy because they won’t stay down. I’ve been growing my s***t for a long time, since day one, and I already see m********as bitin’ me.”
With that out of the way, the group heads to the nearest Foot Locker. (Where else Black males go in the mall?) since everyone, with the exception of Tom (the Tommy Boy label rep), is young and Black and with Wino’s Max Julien fro and Coolio’s braids, it doesn’t take long before the posse attracts attention of another sort. Two minutes after stepping into the Foot Locker, the crew is surrounded by two mall securities guards and three city police officers. “Damn! They didn’t waste no time calling you,” Wino remarks. “We haven’t been here three minutes. [Imitating the voice of a white man] “Yeah, Rob, We’ve got five n*****s down here, of course they look suspicious, they’re Black.” Officers Dingler (badge numer; #362) and Adams (badge number; #374) smile and continue to follow the party around the store. Agitated, Tom asks the officers what the problem is. Wino interrupts and suggests that the officers probably thought that they had taken Tom as their hostage. Officer Dingler arrogantly informs them that Who’s “East Side” cap might cause problems in the mall because of the gang situation. “Somebody from the West Side might mistake you for a rival member and it could mean trouble,” he tries to explain.
Wino begins laughing. “Man, I’m from LA. I’m just shoppin’. Ain’t nobody trippin’ on any Arkansas gangs. Any hat with a logo can represent a gang. Look at those kids over there.” He points towards three separate groups of kids outside the store who are all wearing baseball caps with various logos; Phillies, UNLV, Arkansas. “Why aren’t you harassing them?” he asks. Who is told that if he doesn’t remove
His hat, he will be escorted out of the mall. Wino leaves after purchasing a North Carolina hat (which he didn’t want). Officer Adams shakes his hand and apologizes for any inconvenience.
While waking out towards the van, one of the mall kids swings back and hands Wino a little sack. “I asked that n***a where the weed was at and he gave me his last,” Wino explains. “These n***as is on another level, man. This one fool told me he was from Compton and lived on Tree St. and moved out here. I was like, ‘For real?’ There ain’t no Tree St. N***as is tryin’ so hard to be down. He also told me that some of they Bloods wear green, and the OGs can wear whatever color they want and can go anywhere as long as they tattoo ain’t showin’.” Coolio, sick of the subject, just climbs into the van without saying a word. The ride back to the hotel is short and rather quiet.
The bleachers of Hall high are filled with high school students eager for tonight’s Peace ND Street festivities to begin. Due to the difficulty of determining the ages of many of the young women in attendance, everyone agrees that it is best not to step at all. As the shoot arounds begin, a few mothers take their places, and the men who have put this event together, Broadway Joe Booker of KIPR and Terry Base of KJMS, parlay through the warm-ups. The refs flip a coin to see which team will take Coolio and Spoon, and which team will take MC Breed and his homie.
KJMS looked like the better team–especially with their secret weapon, a 6’7″ NBA-ready DJ with a sharp-shooter’s touch–but the home team, KIPR, was able to control the first quarter. During the first two minutes of the game, MC Breed hit a perimeter jumper, Spoon hit a turn-around jumper and Coolio stopped on a dime and pulled up for a trey that was all net. Unfortunately those were the last points on the court any often saw for the rest of the night. They wouldn’t score with the crowd again until the half-time show.
While performing ‘FantasticVoyage’ in front of the enthusiastic crowd, Coolio takes a few moments to hammer home a point, just before the key verse–”You don’t understand bout runnin’ wit’ a gang/ ‘Cause you don’t gangbang/ And you don’t have to stand on the corner and slang/ ‘Cause you got your own thang”–Coolio approaches the section where six maroon-clad gangbangers are sitting and stands in front of them. They don’t seem the least bit faded by his words, but the point is made, nonetheless.
A father of four, Coolio would rather not see anyone’s children go through some of the things he did, if he could, he would try to stuff them all into the trunk of his ’65 and take them to a better world.
“The whole motivation for this album was really for my kids, man,” he explained later at his hotel room. “I realized that I have a responsibility to my kids. In order to make their life better, I have to break the cycle of hate that we’ve been born in. Look at me, I’m on the road all the time and I don’t get to spend no time with my kids. But when I do see them, I try to make an impression and talk to them like young adults. I don’t baby talk my kids it’s all that ‘ga-ga-goo’ sh*t because that ain’t preparin’ them to the world to come. I’ve already been to the bottom. I cant get any lower than I’ve been, and when you’ve been there the only direction to go is up. I feel good about myself, but whether this album goes platinum, gold or sells a few hundred thousand–I don’t care about me. I just want everything to be right for my kids. I’ve got to break the cycle for them.” He pauses and takes a swig of water. “I don’t know, man… God’s been watching me. I mean by all rights, the way I grew up, all the sh*t that I’ve seen, all the shit I’ve been through… I should be dead or in jail, selling drugs or smoked out some-goddamnwhere. By all rights that’s what was supposed to happen, but God was with me and I broke the cycle. And I’m just tryin’ to break it with my kids.”