I actually met Coolio about ten years ago, chillin’ in a random Minneapolis bowling alley in the dead of winter. Strange, right? I first became familiar with Coolio’s music when the Compton-based rapper was a part of WC & The M.A.A.D. Circle (yes, W.C. as in a third of Westside Connection). On their 1991 debut album, Ain’t A Damn Thang Changed (which I had on cassette back in the day and am actively looking for a reasonably priced CD copy), Coolio played Flava Flav to Dub-C’s Chuck D, but with better rhyming ability and more substance than the clock-wearing jester, and at times actually outshined (if not also out rhymed) his leader on the album. Ain’t A Damn Thang Changed failed commercial, which made W.C. temporarily step away from the game, but he encouraged Coolio to pursue a solo career. Coolio would do just that, recording a demo to shop around and soon would land a deal with Tommy Boy Records, where he would release his debut album It Takes A Thief in the summer of 1994.
Coolio would recruit his homie Dobbs The Wino (which is a hi-larious moniker) to produce most of the album, with help from a few others, including Coolio’s old M.A.A.D. circle bredrin, DJ Crazy Toones (rip). Thanks in large part to the hit single “Fantastic Voyage” (more on that in a bit), It Takes A Thief would earn Coolio a platinum plaque and spark his run of commercial success in the mid-nineties.
I found a copy of It Takes A Thief a few years back in the dollar bins, and have not listened to it in its entirety until now, but I do remember some of the singles and videos from the album. Hopefully, some of the hunger Coolio showed during his M.A.A.D. Circle days was still present in the mist of his newly found crossover success. Let’s find out.
Fantastic Voyage – It Takes A Thief opens with, what I’ll call, the second biggest hit in Coolio’s catalog. Dobbs The Wino loops up Lakeside’s classic of the same name, while Coolio raps about a place free of drama, worry, poverty and violence (which is a bit confusing, considering in his opening bars he instructs the homies to “grab your gat with the extra clip” to take on this “peaceful” voyage). The Lakeside jacking was kind of lazy (and even though the liner notes doesn’t credit it, I swear Dobbs also uses a portions of Vaughan Mason & Crew’s “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”), but Coolio’s personality combined with the catchy hook, bouncy backdrop and thick bass line, make this pop hit hard to resist, no matter how hard you try.
County Line – I vaguely remember this song and video back in the day, but I had no idea it was the lead single from It Takes A Thief. Coolio uses this one to comically layout his scheme to scam the system for Government assistance at the county office, even though he’s a recognizable rapper with a record out (people are asking him for his autograph while he waits in line). Coolio’s storyline actually has a few funny moments, but Dobbs skeleton instrumental is too empty to bring his rhymes to life.
Mama, I’m In Love Wit A Gangsta – Apparently this was the fourth and final single released from It Takes A Thief, but I’ve never heard it before today. Coolio plays an incarcerated murderer going back and fourth with his baby mama (played by LeShaun) through phone calls and letters, as they struggle to keep their family together, but LeShaun’s undying love (no pun intended) for Coolio will give her the strength she needs to wait on her locked down lover. The song opens with a loop from Roy Ayers “Mystic Voyage” (that FP & Jazzy Jeff’ used on “Just Kickin’ It” from the Code Red album, and J Rock’s “Don’t Sleep On Me” from his lone release, Streetwize), which I thought for sure would morph into another loop from the same song (like the two previous songs mentioned), but when the beat drops, Dobbs uses a dope Isley Brothers loop instead, and it’s a masterful thing of beauty.
Hand On My Nutsac – Dobbs hooks up a smooth mid-tempo bop for our host to talk his shit on. It took me a few listens to get it, but Coolio and Dobbs (on the production) do their thing on this one.
Ghetto Cartoon (Includes Cleo’s Mood) – Coolio borrows Ice Cube’s “A Gangsta’s Fairytale” blueprint, but instead of using nursey rhyme characters, he uses cartoon characters. Unfortunately, Coolio’s version isn’t anywhere near as entertaining as Cube’s, and Dobb’s instrumental sounds like a Bomb Squad dud.
Smokin’ Stix – Coolio dedicates this one to the drug he affectionately calls stix, which is embalming fluid mixed with sherm. Dobbs’ builds a solid instrumental around a loop from BT Express’ “You Got It, I Want It” (it could have been super dope if he would have incorporated the break he brings in at the end of the song throughout the rest of the song, but whatever), but I wasn’t crazy about this song.
Can-O-Corn – Our host relives his humble beginnings on this one, recalling the days of his childhood when he was so poor all he had to eat was a can of corn. Dobbs loops up a portion of Rufus’ “An Everlasting Love” and Joe Blow (which is a great alias for a percussionist) adds live horns, creating the perfect instrumental for Coolio’s sad heartfelt testimony. Side note: a portion of Coolio’s verse was used in Poetic Justice, as part of Lucky’s (played by 2pac) cousin, Khalil’s demo tape. Speaking of Poetic Justice, rest in peace to John Singleton, the writer and director of that movie and several other black cinema classics.
U Know Hoo! – Coolio reunites with WC and Crazy Toones, as they rep for their crew and the west coast. Coolio and Dub-C sound decent enough, but Crazy Toones’ instrumental lacks the energy needed to make their verses pop.
It Takes A Thief – This title track takes the album down a dark road, as Coolio pivots from charismatic clown to a cold calculated criminal that will do what it takes, including kill you, to survive. Dobb’s dark and emotional backdrop serves as the perfect canvas for Coolio’s menacing rhymes that are bound to leave you feeling uneasy and wanting to invest in a gun to protect you and yours. Great song.
Bring Back Somethin Fo Da Hood – This one did nothing for me.
N Da Closet – Dobbs builds this emotional backdrop around a loop of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” that our host uses to discuss his bout with coke and crack. In a genre that does a lot of “macho man” posturing, its always refreshing to hear an emcee being honest and vulnerable about his life struggles. Well done, Coolio.
On My Way To Harlem – I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out the meaning and purpose of this one. This is clearly filler material that could have been scrapped and not a soul alive would have missed it.
Sticky Fingers – Sticking to the album’s theme, our host uses this one to boast about his gift to gaffle. Coolio’s rhymes aren’t nearly as “pearl-clutching” as his bars on “It Takes A Thief” (at one point he raps “I stole a link from my auntie and sold it to my uncle”), and Dobbs’ bouncy backdrop gives the song a much more playful feel than the title track. Side note: a portion of this song was also used in Poetic Justice as part of Lucky’s cousin, Khalil’s demo.
Thought You Knew – Dobbs loops up Malcom McLaren’s “Hobo Scratch”, creating the perfect West Coast backdrop for our host and a few of his homeboys, PS and Billy Boy, to rhyme over. Coolio easily out rhymes his sup par buddies and spits some of the hardest bars I’ve heard him spit to date: “You aint nothing but a pistol, that’s fuckin’ with a missile, I chew your ass like grizzle, til the ref blow the whistle”. It’s not a great song, but decent.
Ugly Bitches – Coolio gets playful on this one as he pokes fun at all the ugly girls he’s banged out, hi-lariously claiming “the best pussy” he ever had came from “ugly bitches” on a portion of the hook. The laughs stop during the final verse when Coolio spins a tale about his homeboy who gets an ugly chick pregnant and then kills her because the baby comes out looking like an insect (Don’t feel bad, I laughed too…the shits funny, but it ain’t funny). Dobbs (with a co-production credit going to Doug Rasheed) builds the instrumental around a loop from Delegation’s “Oh Honey”, which is also where Coolio got his inspiration for the hook. In my mind, this loop will always belong to 3 Times Dope’s “Funky Dividends”, but this song made me laugh, so I’ll give Coolio and Dobbs a pass for using it.
I Remember – The final song on It Takes A Thief finds Coolio along with Billy Boy and J-Ro from Tha Alkaholiks, reminiscing about their childhood experiences. Each party involved spits a verse, but Billy Boy (who sounds a lot like Coolio on this one) bats second and surprisingly steals the show with a strong verse detailing his life changing experience of moving from Monessen, PA to Compton, CA at the age of nine, where he had to quickly learn the law of the land in order to survive (“Compton California where the killers grow, forced to live a life that I didn’t know, wore the wrong colors cause I didn’t know the facts, caught a bitch, caught a case, caught a slug in my back…but I adapted quickly. suckas try to get me, now the fools better run cause this is drive-by Billy”). Gary “G-Luv” Herd loops up an ill Al Green sample for the instrumental, and an uncredited male vocalist belts rough heartfelt vocals on the hook, creating the perfect soulful canvas for Coolio and his buddies to paint on. Great way to end the album.
It Takes A Thief will go down in the annuals of hip-hop as the “Fantastic Voyage” album, as that single would become a big crossover hit for Coolio. But that assessment would only be made if you skim through the album instead of listening to it and fully digesting it. If you take some time with It Takes A Thief, you’ll find that Coolio is much more than the animated character that the album’s first few singles and videos painted him to be. Throughout It Takes A Thief‘s 16 tracks, Coolio proves that he’s multi-dimensional, showing vulnerability, humility, anger, fear, pain and a sense of humor. Dobbs The Wino does a pretty solid job of crafting an even blend of East and West Coast flavored instrumentals for our host to rhyme over, and while not all the production, or Coolio’s verses, work, two-third’s of It Takes A Thief‘ does, with a handful of great records and spectacular production moments mixed into the that count. It Takes A Thief is far from a classic, but it deserves more respect than being labeled the “Fantastic Voyage” album.