From gangbanger, juvenile offender and crack addict to international rap star, these days the textbook ghetto-boy-made-good is more likely to be hanging out at the 19th hole than on the street
He's probably the biggest rap artist on the planet and he owes it all to his mum. "My mother was the shit," coos Coolio. And this is a good thing. "She taught me every board game and every fucking card game you could think of. When I was ten years old, she'd invite people over to play dominoes and she was hustling `em. She let `em win, and then she'd say: "You sorry motherfuckers, you come here and me and my ten-year-old son'll whip your ass." She bet them $50. And I come in and we kicked they ass, man."

Sitting in a luxurious hotel suite, dressed in immaculate designer overalls, flicking his trademark Medusa braids, Coolio is every inch the international hip-hop star. And he has the requisite celebrity entourage. In the bedroom next door, Kylie, his PR, and the 40 Thevz, his pair of assistant rappers, are lolling on the kingsize duvet watching MTV. Coolio is a textbook ghetto-boy-made-good. "The way we was raised in our neighbourhood," he reflects, "and the things we was taught, the things that we saw, and were programmed to do... Man, I should be dead, in jail or on dope." He was a teenage gangbanger, juvenile offender and crack addict, but managed to kick the habit by becoming a volunteer firefighter and pursuing his passionate interest in hip-hop. In 1995, "Gangsta's Paradise", a melancholy reworking of a Stevie Wonder song, sold 4 million copies and earned him a mantelpiece full of awards. His latest album, My Soul, is released tomorrow, though you will already know one of the tracks, "CU When U Get There", soulful hip-hop moulded around Pachebel's "Canon in D", currently riding high in the charts.

Ironically, he's making rap a mainstream success at a time when the brutal murders of fellow artists 2Pac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. have increased middle-class suspicion of the form. "Gangsta rap is a derogatory label," he insists. "We was rapping about our reality. They should have been calling it Reality Rap, or Street Rap, Inner City Rap. They just chose to call it gangsta rap to make people afraid of it. I don't consider myself a gangsta rapper. But I'm probably more qualified to be a gangsta rapper than people who call themselves that. I've been through that life." Some of his peers, he suggests, are being disingenuous when they brag about their supposed experience of gangs, guns and drugs. "Most of the people that do the real serious gangsta rap, they don't know shit."

Coolio is happy to swim in the mainstream. He's even keen to follow MC Hammer's route and undergo a transformation into an animated TV character. "But," he insists, "I'd have a dope cartoon series." And the scenario? "`It'd be Coolio and the 40 Thevz in the tour bus on their way to a concert and they get ran off the road and crash into a nuclear waste dump. Instead of killing them, the nuclear waste alters their molecular structure and changes them into these super-beings that can fly and all kind of shit." Holy Sellafield. "I love cartoons," he admits. "I'm just a big kid."

Coolio was born Artis Ivey, the name by which his wife and seven children know him. "Most of my family calls me Artis," he explains. "But I've become Coolio to some of my family members and I wouldn't trust them with the shit. They don't love Artis anymore, they love Coolio. And I ain't gonna be Coolio for ever. They all caught up in the hype. I'm not. I don't believe the hype. I don't think I'm the shit. I know I'm just one man trying to do one thing, and the next day is not promised to any man. I'm very humble."

Coolio's got plenty of strong ideas about his future. He's declined numerous requests to write his autobiography. He's turned down a host of movie roles ("bullshit gangsta parts", he explains) and is about to sign a deal for a film project he's conceived himself ("I can't tell you what it's about, because it's so dope that if you print it, someone'd steal the idea"). He's also planning to open a burger restaurant, although discussing this causes a moment of consternation: when I ask if he does much cooking, he recoils in outrage, thinking I've just asked if he does much cocaine. We ride the moment and move onto his new, all-consuming passion - golf. "I used to think it was a white man's sport. I used to say, fuck that shit, until I played it one time in a celebrity tournament, and I've been going once a week ever since. I just love it, it's so relaxing, man."

Forewarned of this conversion, I've brought along a copy of Golf Monthly for him. Does he know that in Britain, it's a sport played by ageing comedians? "Well, I heard in England it's not a very big sport. But maybe I'm gonna make it cool." He's determined to find time to tour some Scottish and Irish courses. "I got a lot a lot of respect for Ireland and Scotland, because the way they've been treated over the years, they are like the niggas of England." We discuss this one for a bit, as Coolio moves from his take-away to the fruit bowl. I mention that the warning notice "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs" was not an unusual sight in Sixties London. He downs his strawberry in amazement and calls to the 40 Thevz. "You hear what brother just said?"

"What?" responds one of the Thevz. Coolio reiterates: "Homie right here just said in the Sixties, it wasn't shit to walk round and see a muthafucking sign that said `No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'." As they consider this unpalatable bit of English heritage in stunned silence, I can only sit there thinking: Wow, Coolio called me a homie. It seems a good point to give him the copy of Golf Monthly. He seems genuinely pleased, especially with the Slazenger ball taped to the cover. "I'll use this tonight,"' he promises. And he's off to play a round in Hampstead. With my golf ball. Cool...