Over 300 years ago, Johann Sebastian Bach composed a little piece for piano or lute that went by the title, “Prelude in C minor”. Of all of the music he composed over the course of his lifetime, the “Prelude in C minor” is well-regarded and is regularly included in lists of the best preludes Bach composed. Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer, lived on until the 1750s but his music lives on forever. Proof of this is the fact that Bach’s prelude is the opening link in a chain of musical and personal connections that bring us to today’s song, Gangsta’s Paradise” by rapper Coolio. Let’s connect the dots, shall we?
Two hundred and fifty years after “Prelude in C minor” was created by Bach, another unbelievably talented young man was searching for inspiration for a new album he was putting together. In the mid-1970s, Stevie Wonder was arguably the most talented and prolific musician in the world. From his early days at Motown as “Little Stevie Wonder” who would headline the Motown Reviews along with Motown’s stable of other stars, Stevie Wonder’s musical career had evolved right before our eyes. By the time the middle of the decade rolled around, Stevie Wonder was enjoying a string of success not seen since Elvis and The Beatles hit the stage. By 1975, Wonder had had four consecutive strong albums, three of which reached #1 (Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale plus, Music of my Mind, which reached #4). At this point, Stevie Wonder engaged in contract negotiations with Motown. He was threatening to quit music altogether and become a missionary in Africa. Motown buckled. Wonder was given a contract valued at close to 37 million dollars and, just as importantly, he won the right to exercise full creative control over what appeared on his albums. After the acrimony of the contract negotiations, Wonder asked for a year off to recharge and reorient his passions. As the year went on, Wonder began writing again. His vision for his career was as an ambassador for the downtrodden, the weak, the lonely, the unloved and those pushed to the margins of society. At the end of that sabbatical year, Stevie Wonder returned with an album that critics have hailed as one of the most magnificent albums ever recorded in the whole history of modern music…Songs In The Key Of Life. While songs such as “Sir Duke”, “Knocks Me Off My Feet” and “Isn’t She Lovely?” emerged as the hit singles from this album, there was another song that was inspired by a piece of music that was two and a half centuries old. “Pastime Paradise” borrows the chord structure of the opening eight notes of Bach’s “Prelude in C minor” but, instead of piano, Wonder used a synthesizer to mimic a full orchestra of violin players. It was the first use of a synthesizer in this manner. Normally, a song uses a drum beat to establish the rhythm or beat of a song. For Stevie Wonder, he used the synthesizer to create the beat. Nestled amid a selection of songs that spoke to social justice, “Pastime Paradise” speaks to the importance of a positive attitude and a strong work ethic in achieving goals that might lift someone out of poverty, for example. The song denigrates those who champion materialism and possessiveness. Songs in the Key of Life may be rated as Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece but it wasn’t his last work. Wonder wrote many more albums in the 40 plus years that have followed and is still a respected and revered figure in the world of music and in life, in general.
While Stevie Wonder was putting the finishing touches on Songs in the Key of Life, a lady named LouAnne Johnson was enlisting in the US military. Johnson was posted to Clark Air Force Base in The Philippines. While there, Johnson took university level courses and ended up with an Honours degree in Psychology. Upon leaving the military, Johnson decided to become a teacher. Much to her surprise, her very first application was accepted and she was given a job in a high school in California. Unbeknownst to Johnson at the time, this high school was located in an inner city neighbourhood known for gang violence, drug use, rape, teenage pregnancies, poverty and much more. When Johnson showed up for her first teaching gig, she understood why her application had been accepted so quickly by school board officials. Finding teachers who were willing to work in this school had been a challenge. FInding teachers who would stay was an even bigger challenge. Well, not only did LouAnne Johnson fulfill the terms of her teaching contract, her students thrived. She wrote about her experiences in a book called, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. This book was a hit and ended up being turned into a movie called, Dangerous Minds. Michele Pfeiffer played Johnson in the film. Dangerous Minds grossed almost $200 million dollars during its run but much of what drove the success of the movie came from the soundtrack and, in particular, a song called “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio ft. L.V.
In the links below, I will have a spot for you to listen to Stevie Wonder’s song, “Pastime Paradise”. I encourage you to give it a listen, even if you only do so for the opening thirty seconds or so. If you do give “Pastime Paradise” a listen and then give Coolio’s song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” a similar airing, you will see that Coolio basically sampled the core of Wonder’s synthesized rhythm track. The two songs have an almost identical musical structure. So similar are the songs that Stevie Wonder was given a song writing credit on “Gangsta’s Paradise”. As a further condition of allowing Coolio to sample his work, Wonder put down a clause that was important to him…no profanity allowed! Thus, “Gangsta’s Paradise” is one of the very few hit Hip Hop songs that uses lyrics that are completely clean. The fact that profanity is absent does not detract from the power of the message contained within this song nor does it impact Coolio’s powerful oration. He raps his way through “Gangsta’s Paradise” with passion and emotion, almost as if his life depended on him getting these lyrics said aloud. Coolio has stated that he was well aware of the song’s historical connections, with Stevie Wonder, as well as with the gospel-tinged nature of the music that gives it a religious fervor. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the #1 selling song in the US the year it was released in 1995. It won the Grammy award for Best Rap Solo Performance, as well as a host of other awards.
From Johann Sebastian Bach to Stevie Wonder’s seminal album, Songs in the Key of Life to 1995’s Song of the Year, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, the musical dots are connected. It is amazing to think of how an eight chord progression created almost three centuries ago would be the catalyst for a hit Hip Hop song in 1995 that was created as a result of the life story of one of America’s first female marines, LouAnne Johnson that was made into a hit movie starring Michele Pfeiffer. But, that’s how it all lined up. Historical dominos do not always fall quickly but, in the end, fall they do.
The link to the video for the song, “Prelude in C minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Pastime Paradise” by Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio, ft. L.V., as sung on the Billboard Music Awards show with Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” sung a capella by Coolio and L.V. on the Howard Stern Radio Show can be found here. ***For what it is worth, I think this is an awesome live version. What a voice Collio had! This is a home run performance for sure. ***Lyrics version of “Gangsta’s Paradise” can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie, Dangerous Minds can be found here.
The link to the official website for Stevie Wonder can be found here.
The link to the official website for LouAnne Johnson can be found here.
The link to the official website for Coolio can be found here.
***FYI: Coolio passed away just recently. This post was created in his memory. #RIP
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