“To the extreme I rock the mike like a vandal,
Light up the stage and wax a chump like a candle…”
One of the more controversial artists to emerge from the 90s, Vanilla Ice (aka: Robert Van Winkle) became a household name with the hit record “Ice, Ice Baby” while simultaneously battling both a copyright infringement lawsuit and a merciless media, who were ruthless in their criticism of the performer after discovering that his biography was more fiction than truth. Regardless, he cried all the way to the bank, selling millions of records and bringing the urban sounds of rap music to the forefront of popular music.
Van Winkle was born in Miami, where he first developed a love for the emerging genre of rap music. Moving to Dallas, Texas as a teenager, he developed his own style in the local clubs and soon found himself opening shows for some of his childhood heroes such as Public Enemy. M.C. Hammer and Tone-Loc. Christening himself Vanilla Ice, he caught the attention of independent label, Ichiban Records, who released his first album, Hooked, in 1989. The first single released was a cover of Wild Cherry’s, “Play That Funky Music” which failed to chart. When a DJ in Atlanta decided to flip the 12” single over and play the flip side, however, a little ode to the Miami street scene called “Ice,Ice Baby,” Vanilla Ice’s star began to rise.
SBK Records signed Vanilla Ice and bought the rights to the Hooked album, remixing it and releasing it as To The Extreme. They made the ingenious decision to limit the release of ‘Ice, Ice Baby” as a single, in order to boost sales of the album. The strategy worked, and within a short time, not only was the album a success, eventually selling over 11-million units, but the single ascended rapidly into the #1 position on the rap charts as well. While Vanilla was assuredly quite pleased with the success, the copyright holders of the song, “Under Pressure,” a collaboration between Queen and David Bowie, were far less impressed. It would seem that the memorable rhythm section of this song was sampled and used verbatim in “Ice, Ice Baby” without permission. A lengthy lawsuit followed, with both parties settling out of court.
Vanilla Ice also earned some unfriendly press in the year that followed, thanks to the biography, Ice by Ice, The Vanilla Ice Story. In the book, it was claimed that Van Winkle was a former gang member in Miami and attended high school at the predominantly black alma mater of fellow rapper’s 2 Live Crew. While this information certainly gave some street credentials to the rapper, there was only one problem – none of it was true. Vanilla Ice grew up in the affluent suburbs, not on the mean streets of Miami.
Loyal fans weren’t phased by the revelations in the least, coming out in droves to purchase his follow-up release, Extremely Live. During the same time, the singer also starred in his first big-screen film, Cool As Ice and penned the song, “Ninja Rap” for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, where he also performed the song on-screen. Following this phase in his career, he took a hiatus in an attempt to re-invent himself and try to combat those who were starting to see his flashy costumes and urban persona as something to parody, rather than applaud.
He returned in 1994 with the release of Mind Blowin, an album which presented a new image of Vanilla Ice, that of a dreadlock-wearing, tattood, hardcore rapper. The public didn’t buy the new image, or the new record for that matter, which failed to chart. Two years later, he made an appearance on a track by the Bloodhound Gang, under his real name, and the song was received favorably. He signed a new contract with SBK Records and released the album, Hard to Swallow in 1998, a radical departure from his earlier recordings, thanks to a new sound that leaned far more towards hard rock than rap. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a gold record.
He would follow up the next year with Bi-Polar, a double album featuring collaborations with such stars as the Insane Clown Posse and Wu-Tang Clan, but this album received little public attention and soon, Vanilla Ice was spending more time on reality TV shows than making new music. Finally, in 2005, he released Platinum Underground, a compilation of old and new material that received mixed reviews, but certainly pleased his longtime fans.
Over the years, Vanilla Ice has received plenty of criticism, some deserved and some not, but the truth of the matter is that he played an instrumental role in bringing the genre of rap into millions of non-urban households and helped propel the genre into the mainstream – even if he occasionally also helped himself to some instrumental tracks from other artists along his journey.
If you caught the Vanilla Ice bug back in the day, or if his music simply exposed you to a previously unexplored genre, we welcome your recollections in our comments section as we look back at this one-of-a-kind performer who made more of an impact than some might like to admit.