(This is the first installment of a sometime series in which I attempt to defend the culturally indefensible, inasmuch as I can. You’re welcome.)
I know what you think of Vanilla Ice. You consider him a pampered, idiotic douchebag, a co-opter of black culture, a shameless opportunist refusing to acknowledge his own cultural nothingness, a one-hit blunder from the early ’90s, the Pat Boone of rap. And you know what? You’re absolutely right. Robert Matthew Van Winkle, a/k/a Vanilla Ice, absolutely deserves his place in the pantheon of pop-culture punchlines.
Except that one hit song? It’s actually pretty tight. And while that’s not something I can prove, per se, I can show you that he came by that hit honestly; that even though he started smelling his own farts immediately after becoming a sensation, the song that got him there was good enough to set anyone’s career off.
For one thing, Ice was already a local hero in Miami when he made “Ice Ice Baby.” Mostly for dancing at local clubs, sure, and he was radiating doucheyness even back then, but he could rap. He did. On stage at a place called City Lights. And in 1989, a white rapper was still more or less a novelty; the Beastie Boys had moved three million units of Licensed to Ill three years earlier, but then they made the mistake of growing as artists, and Paul’s Boutique didn’t have that many guitars on it, leading a number of trend-chasing mouth-breathers to prematurely write them off as a novelty act.
No, seriously, that happened.
Ice got some notice at City Lights, opening for established hip-hop and R&B stars; he was no Rakim, or even LL Cool J, but he could rap better than some other black folks, like, say, MC Hammer, who’d just broken through big, winning the dance-rap sweepstakes with Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. That was a monster that kicked off the dance-rap genre and, oh yeah, toppled Licensed to Ill as the best-selling rap album to that time. The stage was set for someone to follow up, although Van Winkle probably didn’t think he’d be the one when he cut “Ice Ice Baby,” a song he’d written with local black turntablist DJ Earthquake. Earthquake was the one who came up with the lyrical hook — it was taken from a fraternity chant. A black frat.
It was supposedly Ice himself who rifled through his brother’s rock record collection to find the Queen/David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure,” the opening bass line of which drives “Ice Ice Baby.” Most whites at the time weren’t aware of the practice of sampling records for beats, and so when Ice (on the advice of his manager), held off crediting Queen/Bowie with the riff, denying them royalties until the song was already rocketing up the Top 10, the backlash was already beginning. It didn’t help, when he was confronted with this fact, that he offered the lamest excuse ever. (@ 1:50)
Back to the backstory. Ice made the 12″ of the song, but only as a b-side to a “cover” of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.” Here’s where the legitimacy kicks in: the single flopped until DJ Darrell Jaye of Columbus, GA accidentally flipped it over and started playing “Ice Ice Baby” for his listeners. The lines lit up, mostly with people who thought Ice was black. He was, it seemed, too good to be white. Ice responded by making his now-famous video for the song, costing a cool eight thousand dollars. But MTV didn’t break it. The Box did.
The Box (out of Miami!) was the video channel that played videos too black for MTV. In the late Eighties, it broadcast itself into urban outlets using regular, old-school UHF signals, and made its money by flashing a pay 900 number that would let you make requests. It was purely democratic, and purely black: you had to live in the inner city and spend your money to hear the song. And they did. MTV took notice.
Ice’s manager, City Lights owner Tommy Quon, noticed that the rapper’s cultural impact was very similar to Elvis Presley’s, and so the ad campaign was to market Vanilla as the “Elvis of Rap.” Unlike the King, however, Ice had no range, nothing to say, no songwriters, zero street cred, and a smug personality that put people off almost immediately. The song itself was perfect — a solid hook, a big beat, and lyrics that were above the norm for dance-rap — and the accompanying album, To The Extreme, sold a cool seven million. (Mainly because the record label refused to issue a 45; if you wanted the single, you had to buy the whole album.)
Unfortunately, Ice’s asshole personality, the mountain of hype, and whites’ ingrained resistance to rap meant he was doomed almost immediately; he wasn’t street enough to be taken seriously as a hip-hop artist, didn’t have the attitude to become an all-around mainstream entertainer, and didn’t have the hooks to last on the dance floor. “Play That Funky Music” was the followup single, and it flopped yet again, proving just how superior “Ice Ice Baby” was to the rest of his material. Soon, he was out.
That didn’t stop the execs who smelled blood, however. Vanilla had dropped his single six months after Hammer’s juggernaut; that December, this was unleashed upon the world:
Now that is a bad one-hit wonder.
Despite the fact that he was clearly fucking awful, the music business wanted so badly to hit white-rap gold that they suckered George Clinton, of all people, into Gerardo’s next video in order to give him funk cred. It didn’t work. Six months later, the excellent Delicious Vinyl label, which had done more than its share to get pop into the mainstream, tried to hit the frat-rap jackpot with a white kid named Jesse Jaymes. The result, produced by the Dust Brothers, was almost as good as the brothers’ Delicious Vinyl productions for Tone Loc (“Wild Thing,” “Funky Cold Medina”) and Young MC (“Bust A Move”):
At the same time, however, Snow, a white kid from the projects of Toronto, made the charts with his one hit, which tried to sell him as the white Shabba Ranks:
It didn’t work, even though he had a black Jamaican producer. Because white people didn’t know there were projects in Toronto. Actually, what probably shut Snow’s career down was a little record that dropped just as the hit, “Informer,” was falling off the charts. That album was called The Chronic, and as you probably know, it changed everything forever. Suddenly, a black man (or men, rather) could sell real hip-hop to whites.
The douche-rap, frat-rap, dance-rap phenomenon was over. But rockers who had been listening to real hip-hop soon got into the game, leading to the milestone that was the Judgment Night soundtrack, and also leading to Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, and other things best not thought about. The white-rap phenomenon would have to wait a few years for someone with unassailable flow and cred, some kid from Detroit named Marshall Mathers. Whatever happened to him, anyway? He was pretty good.
I’ll let Ice, or rather his handlers, have the final say and sum up the era with a quote from Ice Ice Ice, a paperback book rushed out to capitalize on his 15 minutes, and one which he obviously didn’t have a thing to do with. Here is a culturally tone-deaf (paraphrased) excerpt from something called “Ice’s Def Dictionary,” in which the author explains those funny terms black folks use:
Word To Your Mother: A phrase meaning “that’s cool” or “that’s def.”* Usually, it’s said as “Word to the mother,” but Ice always says “Word to your Mother,” which means “Always listen to your mother.”