Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vanilla Ice

Sound Familiar?
“Ice Ice Baby"

Who Is He?
The butt of every white rapper joke known to man and the poster boy of early ‘90s cheese.

Yo, VIP, let’s kick it! Robert Van Winkle thrived on hip-hop as a young boy in Dallas. At the tender age of 13, he began breakdancing and earned the nickname “Vanilla” among his core group of chums, because (you guessed it) he was the only white boy in the bunch. Rob hated the nickname, but it stuck.

When he started rapping at parties, he became MC Vanilla. But as a member of a breakdance troupe, Rob adopted the stage name we all know today, Vanilla Ice (the “Ice” part of it came from the name of one of his signature dance moves).

At 16, Rob penned what would later become one of the biggest songs of the ‘90s: the one, the only “Ice Ice Baby” (but we’ll get to that later).

Rob got really into motocross in 1985, but an ankle injury prevented him from racing professionally. Instead, Rob concentrated on perfecting his beatboxing and breakdancing skills as a street performer at local malls. One fine evening at City Lights (a South Dallas night club), Rob went onstage for Open Mic and won over the crowd. As a result, he was able to open for such acts as N.W.A., Pubic Enemy, and 2 Live Crew. He and his buddies played until the name The Vanilla Ice Posse (or The VIP for short).

In January 1987, after being stabbed five times outside City Lights during a scuffle, Rob signed a contract with the owner of City Lights during his recovery in the hospital.

Vanilla Ice’s debut album Hooked was released in 1989…and nobody really cared. Tommy Quon (owner of City Lights and at this point, Rob’s soul) personally sent out copies of the first single, “Play That Funky Music,” to radio stations around the US, but they seldom played it. It wasn’t until a DJ in Georgia accidentally played the single’s B-side, “Ice Ice Baby,” that Vanilla Ice hit it big.

Unfortunately, not everyone liked a white boy from Dallas with a rap career. Record producer and generally intimidating dude Suge Knight harassed Rob on numerous occasions, eventually showing up at Rob’s hotel suite threatening to throw him off the balcony if he didn’t sign the publishing rights to “Ice Ice Baby” over to him. (Suge later used Ice’s money to help fund Death Row Records.)

Rob signed with SBK Records in 1990 and rerecorded Hooked under the title To the Extreme. The album became the fastest-selling hip-hop record of all time, reaching #1 on the Billboard 200. To the Extreme went 11x platinum, but the reviews were mixed.

Ice reached the height of his popularity in 1991, appearing in such cinematic masterpieces as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze and the iconic Cool as Ice. (Fun fact: Cool as Ice is so incredibly awful, it holds both a Golden Raspberry Award and an 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. All this without the aid of Pauly Shore.)

By 1994, the Vanilla Ice craze had run out of steam. Rob got into the Rastafari movement, became a vegetarian, grew dreadlocks and released an album (mostly) about smoking weed. Not so surprisingly, Mind Blowin’ failed to impress anyone and the record label that had built up Vanilla Ice’s career went bankrupt.

At this time, Rob began using ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. After a suicide attempt in July 1994, Ice decided it was time to clean up his act and start fresh. He joined a grunge band (the aptly-named Pickin’ Scabz), got married and opened up a Miami-based Extreme sports store.

Ice developed a friendship with producer Ross Robinson, and in 1997, Ross helped him release his third studio album Hard to Swallow. The record’s darker sound attracted a whole new fan base (mostly Juggalos) and Rob finally got the fresh start he’d been searching for.

Where Is He Now?
Still releasing music independently and starring in various reality TV train wrecks.

In 2002, after reuniting with his former manager Tommy Quon, Rob appeared in several reality and game shows, including Celebrity Boxing and Hollywood Squares. His most famous TV appearance was in VH1’s The Surreal Life in 2004, which he cited as being a “therapeutic experience” (though much of it was staged).

After releasing a few more albums, Ice started his own reality show called The Vanilla Ice Project in 2010, which focused on Ice renovating a house in Palm Beach.

Rob has performed at The Gathering of the Juggalos on a few occasions and recently signed to Psychopathic Records. He’s happily married with two daughters and knows how to take the occasional “Ice Ice Baby” joke.

But Why Vanilla Ice?
Because you can’t have a ‘90s blog without mentioning this guy. He’s relevant because he’s still alive making music. What more could you want?

What Does Sam Think?
Okay, I’m not going to try to say Vanilla Ice is a master wordsmith or anything. He was a novelty act. “Ice Ice Baby” isn’t a particularly influential song, but it’s damn catchy. And contrary to popular belief, he didn’t sully the name of all of the white rappers of the world. If anything, he paved the way for them to accomplish bigger and better things. After Ice, we got Eminem. Cool, right?

But Vanilla Ice wasn’t the first white rapper in history (Beastie Boys, anyone?). He was just the first one to achieve ridiculous mainstream success based on an image. They made Vanilla Ice dolls, for God’s sake. That’s when you know you’ve gotten too big.

Like I’ve said before, I’m not a hip-hop expert; I’m just a humble nostalgia expert. Through the nostalgic lens, we usually perceive the ‘90s as a flawless wonderland of unique and inspiring trends. Someone plays “Ice Ice Baby” at a party nowadays and all of sudden, everyone claims that music in the ‘90s was so much better than music today. While there was some fantastic music that came out of the decade, the ‘90s still had awful pop music.

Now, “Ice Ice Baby” isn’t the worst song on the planet. But being an iconic ‘90s song doesn’t make it great in a critical sense. Take off the rose-colored glasses and listen to it now. Does it still make you want to dance? Probably. Does it still make it on to your list of the greatest songs of all time? Doubtful.

But who am I to tell you what’s good or not? If you genuinely like “Ice Ice Baby” (or any of Vanilla Ice’s recent endeavors), then you go, Glen Coco! Bask in the nostalgia.

But back to Mr. Van Winkle. He hasn’t let his cartoonish image of a past decade control his life. He’s accepted his past and gone in a totally different direction. From ‘90s novelty to reality show regular to mild-mannered Juggalo, Vanilla Ice has officially gone through every phase of the one-hit-wonder (almost) entirely unscathed. Now that’s impressive. Word to your mother.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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