Coolio: From Gangsta Rap to 'Ghetto Gourmet'

As his cookbook climbs up the bestseller list, rapper Coolio speaks to Rachel Syme about “Drunk-Ass Chicken,” “Soul Rolls,” and a salad that will “get those panties off.”

12.08.09 10:10 PM ET

If you want an idea of how cool the 46-year-old rapper Coolio (nee Artis Leon Ivey, Jr.) is, look no further than this: He fell asleep during our first interview. While driving on the freeway.

“I’m sorry, I nodded off on you there, could you tell?” he mumbled over the phone, while driving through Los Angeles. “Man, I’m sorry, I had a rough night and I’m sleepy as hell. And I just bought car insurance today too, and I was falling asleep right there with the lady talking in my face. It was actually the funniest sh— in the world.”

“We were watching Food Network, commenting on how boring it was,” he says. “And I thought I could do a cooking show where I’d be clowning on everyone, with more profanity, and better looking girls, and a better house band.”

View Our Gallery of Coolio's Favorite Dishes—and the RecipesCoolio prides himself on three things these days: Bluntness (“I can’t kiss ass anymore. I have simply lost my taste for sh—, if you know what I mean.”), his music career (his single "Gangsta’s Paradise" went quadruple platinum in 1996 and he has been working steadily since), and his cooking. It is the latter that has become the main focus of his late career, and the reason that he is dozing off at the wheel; Coolio has been working around the clock to promote his new cookbook, aptly titled Cookin’ With Coolio: 5 Star Meals at a 4 Star Price. The book, which hit shelves November 17, has already become the best seller in Amazon’s Soul Food category and continues to climb the gastronomy charts with the holidays approaching. Somehow, the ex-convict, ex-gang member, and Compton drug dealer has become a new beacon for intelligent African-American cuisine. Of course, he is doing it his own way.

Cookin’ With Coolio, the book, grew out of Cookin’ With Coolio, the show, a seven-minute online series that began airing on Web network My Damn Channel in March 2008. Produced on a shoestring budget by Coolio himself and his cousin/manager Jerez, the first episode, “Caprese Salad,” features the rapper in his kitchen (after he shows up an hour late to the taping), surrounded by two scantily clad women called the “Sauce Girls.” He is wearing a bedazzled jacket bearing the words “Ghetto Gourmet,” and guarantees that his caprese salad will “get them panties right off.”

Right away, it was clear that Coolio was not going to follow the traditional celebrity-chef model. As television critic Troy Patterson wrote when the show first aired, Coolio’s format was designed to offend, relying heavily on “inner-city minstrelsy.” For example, instead of pulling salt or pepper from bowls or mills, Coolio uses “dime bags” full of spices, the tiny Ziplocs used to transport cocaine or marijuana. He throws out fusion terms of his own design, including “Ghettitalian,” and “Blasian,” and knowing that every television chef must have his catchphrase, constantly uses the term “Shakazulu!” as his Lagasse “Bam!”—a punctuation mark for every action.

“I started out saying mothaf—ker as my phrase, but then my daughter told me I cuss too much. So it became Shakazulu,” he explains. There is little more amusing in the world than watching Coolio try to explain the phrase to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on the Today show—but his status as kind of a circus act as well as a chef is all part of Coolio’s methodology.

“Me and my cousin, we were watching Food Network, commenting on how boring it was,” he says. “And I thought I could do a cooking show where I’d be clowning on everyone, with more profanity, and better looking girls, and a better house band, and it grew into a monster from there.” Within weeks of hatching the idea, the rapper and his cousin inked a deal with My Damn Channel for a season of 10 shows. The pair also revealed to The Daily Beast that they will be returning to the Web network for Season Two early next year; “We’ve had some interest from the major networks in taking it to air,” says the rapper. “And of course I want to turn myself into a brand name, with chef’s jackets, chef’s hats, all that. But it’s rough out there now and I want a big paycheck if I am going to compromise for some network. Our content is a little racy for the mainstream. My swagger is different.”

Though Coolio seems like an unlikely candidate for online culinary domination and a bestselling cookbook, he believes that his cooking prowess should shed light on the many children who grow up having to fend for themselves in terms of food. “I started cooking when I was 9,” he says. “My mom worked days in Compton, my stepfather worked nights, and one day I really wanted something hot. So I chopped carrots, peeled potatoes, and used a frying pan. By 12, I could make myself steak and pork chops. Throughout my rapping career I always cooked for myself and anyone I worked with. It’s what actually kept me grounded through those crazy years.”

Coolio’s “crazy years” included almost a year in jail for larceny at age 17, a crack-cocaine addiction in his early 20s, and a meteoric rise in the mid-'90s, when “Gangsta’s Paradise,” his anthemic rap about the ghetto set based on Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” became the biggest single of 1995. The song, which was featured on the Dangerous Minds soundtrack (and not originally on his album, My Soul, discouraged by Tommy Boy record producers as it was a more serious track and not the humorous rhyming he had become modestly known for with his debut, It Takes a Thief), was such a hit that it topped even a Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men collaboration as the year’s hit song, and it propelled Coolio to several more top 10 hits. His Medusa-like braids and West Coast sound have become iconic cultural references for the mid-'90s hip-hop boom.

In 1997, however, Coolio and his entourage were arrested for shoplifting, and in 1998, he was arrested again for driving on the wrong side of the road—with a concealed weapon. Though Coolio recorded six more albums, he never reached the level of success of his first records, and his latest, From the Bottom 2 the Top, has only been released in Europe. “I’m still waiting for someone to pay me to have it come out here,” he explains. It was time for a new schtick.

Coolio’s first foray back into television was a reality show for the Oxygen Network, Coolio’s Rules, in 2008. The show featured his hectic life with six young children (by four different mothers), but went off the air after one season: “My kids didn’t want to do that no more,” he says. He went on to appear on Celebrity Big Brother in the U.K. in January of this year, trapped in a house with the likes of Verne Troyer and La Toya Jackson, ultimately finishing third in the competition. He says that the cooking is, so far, the only path that seems to be lucrative, but he would consider appearing in another reality program. “ I want to do one of those Coolio of Loves, like on VH1,” he says. “Though I’m not looking for love, I’m looking for mothaf—king checks. You think any of them cats is really lookin’ for love?”

Instead, Coolio shares his love through his cooking, a passion that he returned to after his mother’s death. “When my mother first passed away some time ago, I didn’t enjoy food anymore. I just ate to live. My mother had always cooked so well that I didn’t think I could follow her. But now I have my own family, and I wanted to recreate my mother's recipes for them. Minus the colon cancer, minus the high cholesterol. I wanted to make that sh— healthy! And I had an exquisite palate.”

After cooking for his friends and family, Coolio decided that the African-American community could benefit from learning healthier recipes. “The average person on welfare can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables,” he explains. “But in my recipe you’re allowed to use vegetables out of the can, and that’s OK. A lot of African Americans eat the same thing over and over, every night, either chicken or steak. And I had a lot of creative ideas and wanted to push people beyond that, but for no money.”

Thus, the idea of Ghetto Gourmet, or cooking healthily for an urban audience, was born. Coolio’s recipes are solid and well-crafted—but infused with enough humor (with names like “Mozzarella for the Pimpish Fella” and “Drunk-Ass Chicken”) to avoid being intimidating.

Whether his book will actually translate to the community Coolio hopes to reach or sell as a gag gift and pop-culture artifact, time will tell. But for now, Coolio is content to stay cooking, and perhaps charge a fortune for it. “This Christmas I’m going to fry a turkey and a duck. I’m still waiting for someone to call me to cater their wedding. But that’s gonna cost you. If you want my cousin Jerez to play the sax, that’s going to cost you a little more. The sky’s the limit after that. If you want me to do a full-blown concert and cater it, too, that’s going to cost you 100 grand. But I can guarantee you it’s going to be pimp as hell.”

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.

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