Four years ago, he was a car-lot attendant in Carrollton, Texas, with a passion for rap and a knack for breakdancing. He won a talent show at a local club, got a manager and concocted a look. Pompadoured, dirty-blond brush cut, chiseled cheekbones, red, white and blue jumpsuit. Kind of an Aryan Evel Knievel.
Then he cut a single. On one side was a remake of "Play That Funky Music," on the flip was a number called "Ice Ice Baby." A deejay in Columbus, Georgia, decided he liked the B side better, and soon it was No. 1 at the station. After other cities picked up on it, Ice and his manager threw together a video to go with it.
In July of 90, Ice released a do-it-yourself album titled Hooked. A month later, a big shot at SBK Records picked up on the snowballing Ice Man and bought the whole package. He retitled the album To the Extreme, and by Halloween--Ice's 22nd birthday--he was at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
Extreme sold 15 million copies.
Ice made a film, Cool As Ice, Ice toured the world and Ice got very rich. Very fast.
Ice Ice Baby.
He also got slagged by the press for being a talentless phony and encountered particular resentment from the hard-core hip-hop cognoscenti. He was mocked on TV's In Living Color, and The Source--an influential rap magazine--wrote, "Vanilla Ice? Our worst fucking nightmare."
@body:Reconsider Vanilla Ice.
That's what he wants you to do, anyway, for Ice wants a chance to prove he's not a sellout, that he isn't just a one-rap wonder, to show that his roots are authentic. Forget about the fame, forget about the money; like a certain fat, sweaty comedian, all Vanilla Ice wants is respect.
This month the Dallas native is releasing a harder-edged new album, Mind Blowin'--chock-full of sex and dope references--and he's traded in the jumpsuit and buzz cut for sleeveless tee shirts, tattoos and dreadlocks. Calculated, yes, but this time around, Ice is doing the thinking. Gone is his manager Tommy Quon, who Ice claims was the manipulative catalyst for virtually all of his problems.
"The manager that I fired put me in a place that I didn't want to be," says Ice from his home--one of his homes, this one in Miami. "Tommy Quon answered a lot of questions for me, stuff still shows up in print that I never said. He even wrote a book called Ice by Ice that was never written by me. That fuckin' book was written by Tommy Quon." From shady business deals to image pandering to downright theft, Ice accuses Quon of doing it all. "I didn't agree with any of it and that's part of the reason I got rid of him."
Evil or not, Quon did one thing for Vanilla Ice that many aspiring artists would die for: He made him famous. But guess what? Ice didn't even want that. "In terms of being a celebrity, I hate being a celebrity and all this star-type stuff," sniffs the Ice Man. "That all goes with selling 15 million records, and I never wanted to sell that many records."
Huh? You don't get into the ultrahip world of contemporary rap and work your ass off promoting yourself if you want to live a simple Mayberry existence.
But the fame and material wealth weren't that bad, and, according to Ice, "I spent all my money. Now I'm pretty much broke, but I think I'm happier because the more money I had, the more problems I had."
His real problem is where all that overnight success left him, credibility-wise. Which is nowhere.
"My music crossed over to the pop radio stations and in the hip-hop community if you cross over, you're considered a sellout," says Ice. "I never wanted to sell out, that was my record company and, more so, my manager."
He may have never wanted to sell out, but now Vanilla Ice absolutely wants to sell back in. "I don't want to match the success of my first album at all, I do not want that to happen," he says, a sentiment his record label may not share. "I don't want to be called a sellout, and one of the hurdles that I have to jump over is to be accepted in the hip-hop community. That's where I grew up, that's where my heart's at, that's what I listen to, that's where I came from."
Like the rest of us, Ice actually came from a mom and dad, only one of whom he knew. "Somebody came along and got my mother pregnant, she had me and I don't know his name and neither did she," Ice explains flatly. "I had to accept another name, an adoption name, of a person that didn't last with my mother very long, either, so I don't really feel like that name is very much mine." That name was Robbie Van Winkle. "I'm never Robbie Van Winkle. I don't even know who that name is."
Whoever Robbie was, however, used to breakdance at malls for spare change and he "had this dance called The Ice where it looked like I'm on ice, sliding across some cardboard." Hence the second half of his moniker. "Vanilla came pretty much from my complexion."
He wasn't much of a student and attended a series of schools before dropping out in 11th grade. Ice says he was introduced to the music that would become his life by his African American chums, many of whom he is still tight with. Yet the black/white, authentic/poseur problem is one that has hounded him from the start.
"That's bullshit," says the man. "I grew up around blacks, my best friends in the world are pretty much all black. I hate racism, I hate the whole deal, but I can't make everybody happy. I am a white guy in an all-black market and I'm gonna cater to the ones who do lend me an ear and if they don't like it, they don't have to buy it. So I'm not really worried about what certain people may think."
And cater he does. Way back in the early days, the clean-image Ice told the New York Times that "in rap you have all these underground people talking about drugs and the street scene. They're not very good leaders for the younger generation." Now that he's enjoyed a few years of living off the younger generation's support, Ice is embracing the image he claimed to have disdained.
"A lot of people are not going to like my new album," Ice offers, "especially parents, because it's speaking about marijuana and a lot of harder stuff. I did that on purpose."
The album's first single (and video) is "Roll 'em Up," an ode to dope. "I Go Down" provides a forum for Ice to titillate the ladies with images from his sexual bag o' tricks, and in "Fame," he uses samplings from the Bowie-Lennon composition to tell everyone things like "I never changed even though I got fame."
So. Was Vanilla Ice just a mixed-up kid, a whore-puppet controlled by an evil, dollar-mad manager? Is the real Ice ready to emerge, the Ice of the streets, the Ice who raps the words of the common man?
Tough call. On the phone, he seems sincere, seems to believe his new image as much as he wants you to. Ice leads a quiet life these days. He's got new management, a few close friends, and a new steady girl who happens to be a professional jet-ski racer.
Hardly the same jet-setting rap deity who dated a status entity like Madonna. Yes, hold out your plate, Ice is more than happy to dish. "I went out with her for about eight months," he says with a snort. "She's nothing like her image portrays her to be at all, not even close. It's hard to believe, but she's this shy little girl, this real person."
That sounds like a familiar description. What could possibly have gone wrong? "The thing with her is she changes like a fucking chameleon. One day she could be real nice and sweet, a real digable girl. The next day she could be real mean for no reason, and the next day she'd act like a complete other person. You just don't know what to expect, and I know if I'm going to be serious with a girl, I gotta know what to expect. In your relationship, you gotta know what to expect from your chick, so I had to get rid of that."
Hard to argue with that kind of regular-guy logic, and Vanilla Ice appears to be just that, after all. Hip-hop is everything, says Ice, no more "pop rap, music made for the radio," and definitely no more acting.
"I never did like Hollywood. I didn't like shooting that movie [Cool As Ice]. I don't give a shit about it, actually; that was another manipulating moment for me." He proceeds with a parable that sums up the nature of his whole career, more or less.
"I was sitting in an office and they were telling me about this movie they wanted me to shoot. I was like, 'Man, I don't shoot movies. I'm not a fuckin' actor.' Tommy pulls me over and says, 'You sign your name on that line and they're going to give you a million dollars right now. In ten minutes, you'll have a million dollars in your pocket.'
"I was like, 'Man, I can't act!' And they go, 'It doesn't matter. Just go over there and sign that motherfucker.' I went over there and signed it and got my million dollars. I don't give a shit about Hollywood, man, the hip-hop community is what I'm all about. My music is my life, it's what got me here, it's what I'm staying true to.