Though ultimately credited with carrying the West Coast rap musical subgenre into the mainstream, rapper and hip-hop artist extraordinaire Coolio (born Artis Leon Ivey Jr.) endured a decidedly shaky and obstacle-laden road to success. Born in South Central Los Angeles in 1963, Coolio grew up in the ghetto during the '60s and '70s. During his adolescence, he lived out the myth of the young urban "gangsta," flirting dangerously with hardcore crimes that included gang violence, larceny, concealed weapons, and crack cocaine addiction. After cleaning up his life with extensive drug rehabilitation and "straight" jobs as a fireman in the Pacific Northwest and a security guard at LAX airport, Coolio launched himself as a rap performer.
Initially, Coolio struggled (with several singles that accomplished little of note) before his breakthrough arrived -- via "guesting" on WC and the Maad Circle's 1991 album Ain't a Damn Thing Changed. One turn led to another, and as a product of his association with WC and Maad, Coolio caught the attention of Tommy Boy Records. This association produced a series of multi-platinum albums -- notably, the seminal late-1995 release Gangsta's Paradise; the title track (spun off of a 1976 Stevie Wonder tune) became something of a musical phenomenon and a cultural landmark. Thanks to Tommy Boy's efforts, the single gained initial notoriety by appearing on the soundtrack to the Michelle Pfeiffer juvenile delinquency drama Dangerous Minds.
Musically, however, that represented Coolio's highest commercial peak for many years, and his subsequent albums sold fewer copies. Perhaps foreseeing this decline, he began branching away from recording and into acting around 1996, which was a wise turn, to say the least; it compensated for ongoing legal trouble and decreased record sales in the years to follow. In terms of contributions to filmed entertainment, Coolio began on the small screen, as an extension of his rap work, by recording the theme song to the popular Nickelodeon children's series Kenan & Kel; he then extended this into a kind of goofy, family-friendly comic persona, with trademark wild dreadlocks, ever-present on both Nick and on the revival of the '70s game show Hollywood Squares.
The rapper's on-camera cinematic roles began inauspiciously, with turns in such lackluster motion pictures as Phat Beach and Dear God, but he scored his first part in a Hollywood A-list movie the following year, as the banker in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin. The film qualified as a critical disaster (though not a commercial one). The onscreen exposure of Batman doubtless helped Coolio's image and lifted his stature, though not to the degree that one might expect. After 1997, he consistently turned up in low-brow fare that attracted little attention -- such as the 2000 inner-city opus Dope Case Pending (opposite Kid Frost) and Darrell James Roodt's little-seen sci-fi horror outing Dracula.3000 (2004). In 2005, Coolio teamed with Class of 1984 director Mark L. Lester for the direct-to-video sci-fi action opus Pterodactyl.