"Fantastic Voyage" has been quite a trip for Coolio, carrying him from the heart of the L.A. rap scene to the top of the national sales chart. But he almost got lost before he even started, thanks to a wrong turn he made when putting the single together.
It all started with the old funk hit "Fantastic Voyage," which Lakeside cut back in 1981. "I always liked the song, and my producer, Wino, came with the track. He said, 'You should use this.' "
So Coolio wrote some rhymes, and the two cut the track. Coolio describes that first version of the single as being mostly about life in the 'hood. "It was cool," he says. "I had some catchy phrases in there, and it was funny, too."
But Ian Steaman, Coolio's contact at Tommy Boy Records, thought the single could still use some work.
"He said: 'This is a good record, man. This could be a big record. I think you ought to think about your lyrical content, and maybe think about taking it somewhere else.' I was asking him, like, 'What do you mean?' But he didn't really specify. He said, 'I don't know. Just write something else.'
"Now, when Ian told me this, I was tripping. 'Content change? I'm not listening to you. I'm the rapper here.' You know what I'm saying?
"Then one day, we were listening to some oldies, and this Staple Singers song came on, 'I'll Take You There.' Right away, soon as I heard it, I said, 'That's what I can write it like.' And I wrote it in about two hours."
What Coolio got from "I'll Take You There" was the twist that
made "Fantastic Voyage" so fantastic -- the idea that we should put our differences aside and all go to a place where things like race, class and gang affiliation didn't matter. Suddenly, what started out as a solid party tune took on an additional dimension, a sense of depth that gave listeners something to think about as they grooved to the beat.
It makes a welcome change from the usual shallowness of commercialized rap -- a change Coolio thinks is long overdue.
"I been tired for a long time of superficial, fake, made-up rap that ain't coming from the heart," he says. "It's all for money and shock value. I ain't with that, man. When I wrote my album, I wasn't really aiming for anything but making the kind of album I wanted to make. That was what was most important to me, being able to do exactly what I wanted to do. And [Tommy Boy] let me."
Of course, it helped that Coolio had a respectable, though not exactly profitable, track record behind him. He was one of the first L.A. rappers to make it onto wax, cutting "Whatcha Gonna Do" in the early '80s. But he never got anywhere with it, thanks in part to a cocaine problem not unlike the one he describes in the rap "N Da Closet."
Eventually, he cleaned up his act and recorded an album with the groundbreaking group WC and the MAAD Circle. "That album was deep, man," he says. "We got a lot of respect and props for it, but we didn't get any compensation."
The success of Coolio's own album, "It Takes a Thief," should make up for that; "Fantastic Voyage" is already a million-seller and shows no sign of slowing. But Coolio seems less concerned with success at this point than with self-expression.
In fact, he thinks one reason his sound is blowing up right now is that it's far more personal than other stuff out there.
"Most rappers, they only talk about one side of their personality," he says. "If they're a gangsta rapper, then that's all they talk about. Or if they're a lover, that's all they talk about.
"I just tried to show all sides of my personality, that's all. Just so it could be more real. I just wanted to make it well-rounded."
To hear excerpts from Coolio's album "It Takes a Thief," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6118 after you hear the greeting.
Coolio in concert
When: Wednesday, Aug. 3, 9 p.m.
CALL: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410) 659-7625 for information