COVER STORY : WAR OF THE RAP EGOS : VANILLA ICE : Why Is Everyone Still Fussing About Ice?
What could be more ironic than Vanilla Ice’s performing his rap version of the Rolling Stones’ old "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to 10,000 screaming fans?
In the last six months, Ice--as even his parents call Robert Van Winkle--has sold more than 10 million albums worldwide and gone from the opening slot on an M.C. Hammer tour to headlining his own shows.
The first white solo star in the predominantly black rap genre, Ice has just had his autobiography published by Avon Books (“Ice by Ice”) and signed to star in an upcoming Universal adventure movie (“Cool as Ice”).
And if he ever gets any spare time, Ice can turn to his little black book with 300 phone numbers--90% of them “actual conquests,” he reportedly told Rolling Stone magazine.
Yet he’s been attacked on so many fronts during the same six months that he must identify with the frustration expressed in the Stones’ song.
Vanilla Ice has been savaged by critics who decry his style of rap as homogenized, been called a fake because he appeared to exaggerate his background to appear more “street-wise,” and branded a virtual imperialist who is ripping off black culture.
Can he get satisfaction in the midst of all that?
Ice doesn’t pause to weigh the subtleties of the question: “The only thing I’m thinking when I sing ‘Satisfaction’ is, ‘I’ve got another hit .’ ”
The bravado is part of the outspoken high school dropout’s image.
Accepting an American Music Award in January, he looked into the camera and told a national television audience, “To the people that try to hold me down, kiss my white butt.”
Some viewers thought Ice was referring to M.C. Hammer, who at times has accused the young hotshot of being a crass imitation.
“Naw,” Ice said with a shrug in a hotel room before the concert, sipping some hot tea to soothe an aggravated throat. “I got more things on my mind than Hammer. Besides, he’s OK. We’ve said some things about each other, but it’s only because we were reacting to what we read.
“When we get together, we go, ‘Did you really say that?’ and the other goes, ‘No, that was just the damn media again.’ I don’t know why journalists keep trying to pit us against each other. Maybe they’re just trying to sell papers or magazines. . . . You know, a feud between the two biggest rappers. Whatever it is, we’re friends. We just saw each other at the Grammys. Everything’s cool.”
So who was the remark aimed at?
“I was talking to all those people who said I could never make it . . . the ones that said the public wouldn’t accept a white rapper,” he said.
“I’ve got a serious attitude. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I work twice as hard. So, I was telling all those people who doubted over the years, ‘Well, here I am, getting my American Music Awards . . . Dick Clark, baby. The line forms right here and it’s a long one.’ ”
It isn’t as easy for Ice to kiss off another issue: the racial one.
To anyone aware of how white musicians and merchants wrested rock ‘n’ roll away from the music’s black founders in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it’s only natural for many rappers to wonder whether history is going to repeat itself with rap following Vanilla Ice’s phenomenal success.
Despite the chilly arrogance in most of Ice’s publicity photos, the slender young man with the bolt of blond in his dark hair seemed relatively down-to-earth. On this day, he appeared weary from the months of media scrutiny and troubled by the talk of race and pop carpetbagging.
“I seem to be a prime suspect to be picked on, you know,” he said finally. “I’m setting patterns here for other people to come along, bringing rap music into ears that never heard it before or never even considered buying rap music . . . and I’m white. A lot of people don’t like that because rap music is black. Blacks did originate it, but rap also belongs to the streets and the street is where I came from.
“All those stories that came out about me not really being from the streets are just a lot of crap. If you can’t see I’m from the streets, then you’re blind. How many white people do you know who can dance? How many white people do you know can rap? How many white people you know can beat box? How many white people you know can produce their own rap music?”
The most provocative yet absurd suggestion in the wake of Ice’s success is that Ice is the Elvis Presley of rap. There is no sign that Ice possesses even a trace of Presley’s great musical vision or raw talent.
Yet it’s just the kind of comparison that lends heat to the issue of a white teen idol in rap. The Beastie Boys--the New York trio with the bratty image--stormed the charts in the late ‘80s, but the group was as much punk as rap and its audience was primarily young males. With Ice, the prime demographic is young suburban females.
And the girls were out in force at the Summit here, squealing with delight as a bare-chested Ice wiggled his hips in a way that did remind you of Elvis--or Prince.
“IIIIIIIIICCE . . . IIIIIIIIIICCE . . . IIIIIIIIICCE, we l-o-v-e you,” rows of young girls screamed during, before and after almost every song.
Ice’s music may be “PG” by hard-core standards, but raps like “Life Is a Fantasy” are pretty steamy stuff for 12- and 14-year-olds:
Come on baby and let me be your toy
I’ll let you do as you wish just to give you joy
And get down, I know you wanna get loose
Let’s do it like a train and I’ll be the caboose
Or better yet, I’ll take you higher, I think that it’s time
To make love to you baby on cloud number nine.
The word most often mentioned by starry-eyed fans when asked why they like Vanilla Ice is sexy . While bland by rap standards, his music is catchy enough by Top 40 radio standards to catch your ear and the videos and photos do the rest.
“He’s so-o-o-o sexy,” said Linda Herman, 16, setting off a trail of squeals from the three girl friends who were at the Summit two hours before the doors opened in hopes of getting a glimpse of Vanilla Ice when he arrived for a sound check.
Besides the good looks, Vanilla Ice gives the young fans a vicarious association with rap.
Hard-core rap, with its steel-eyed politics on one end and raunchy humor on the other, may be a bit too radical for young fans. Ice’s--and Hammer’s--tamer, pasteurized style enables the fans to relate more easily to the rap movement, which they see as hipper and more exotic than the timid mainstream pop.
But rappers fear that Vanilla Ice--on the heels of Hammer’s commercial breakthrough--will encourage record companies to concentrate on more mainstream artists who can get the radio airplay that is crucial to mass marketing, at the expense of the genre’s more creative but hard-to-market rappers.
Though rap’s street energy and style has been co-opted by advertising, fashion and the pop mainstream for years, the music’s creative heart remained remarkably pure--blossoming in the late ‘80s with the black awareness messages of groups such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, as well as the raw social realism of such West Coast recording artists as N.W.A. and Ice Cube.
Yet M.C. Hammer dwarfed them all in sales with his “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” album, which was No. 1 on the pop charts for a remarkable 21 weeks last year though it was widely dismissed as rap pabulum.
And if the rap community was split over Hammer, imagine the uproar over Vanilla Ice’s “To the Extreme.” Here was a white rapper whose music was also far from the creative intensity of the most compelling rap. Yet Ice’s collection took over the No. 1 spot on the pop charts from “Please” in November and stayed there for four months.
Writing about the success of Hammer and Ice recently in the New York rap magazine the Source, Dan Charnas said, “Many of us die-hard New York hip-hop heads have been having a lot of sleepless nights lately. Hammer’s been a nuisance, but Vanilla Ice? Our worst . . . nightmare. No. 1 pop single, No. 1 pop album . . . and I’m hearing this . . . pumping out of jeeps. . . .
“To those folks who think of themselves as guardians of ‘real’ hip-hop culture, that (record) sounded like rap’s death knell.”
Jon Shecter, editor of the Source, was even more pointed in an interview.
“Vanilla Ice is a cultural, musical and artistic crime,” he said. “He has no talent. He lacks rap skills and his music is mostly poor. Yet he is probably going to sell more with one record than someone like (Boogie Down Productions’) KRS-One, who has making so many incredible musical and political statements for years, will do in his lifetime. There is a lot of frustration and anger over that in the hip-hop community.”
Tommy Quon, a Dallas-based manager and former club owner who discovered Ice in a talent show in 1987 and now oversees his career, dismisses the Ice detractors.
“Ice is just part of an evolution,” he said backstage at the Summit. “Hammer took rap, cleaned it up and smoothed it out to where it was acceptable to a general audience and Ice took it from there. He added his own thing. He didn’t steal anything from anybody.
“Personally I got tired of a lot of that hard-core rap, all the politics and 2 Live Crew shouting suck this and suck that. If that is what those artists and their fans want, fine, but they shouldn’t expect the rest of America to buy stuff like that. Ice in turn has brought rap to Middle America.”
Ice scoffed at the idea of a “white” takeover of rap.
“Now, they’re talking about a whole flood of new white rappers, but they’re wrong,” he said. “You can’t do rap unless you really live it.”
He halted and smiled.
“You know what they say about the majority of white people not having rhythm? It’s true. I see it with my own eyes when I look out at the audience and see people trying to follow the music. But that has nothing to do with (race). To me, dancing and rapping is something cultural. It’s easy for me, because I grew up with it on the streets, and it’d probably be easy for you if you grew up like I did.”
G rowing up. That leads to the second controversy surrounding Vanilla Ice.
Many of the young rapper’s image problems can be traced back to his first press biography, which suggested that he grew up in Miami, went to high school with 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and was a national motocross champion.
He also spoke in interviews last fall about running with street gangs and nearly being stabbed to death in a fight. He even refused to reveal his real name, claiming he wanted to protect his family’s privacy.
When his album started streaking up the charts, reporters in Miami and in Dallas--where Ice’s career was launched four years ago--checked into the rapper’s background. They discovered his real name and that he didn’t go to high school with Campbell, had no ties with the American Motocross Assn. and appeared to have come from a relatively middle-class background.
Because this all surfaced around the time of the Milli Vanilli lip-sync scandal, Ice had all the makings of another pop fraud.
In interviews after the reports and in his new autobiography, he argued that there was a germ of truth in everything he had said. He maintained that he was raised on the mean streets of Miami (and later Dallas), attended a high school that Campbell had earlier attended and that he won trophies while racing for the Grand National Championships, a rival, regional motocross group. And, most important, he stuck by his “street-wise” upbringing and the story of the stabbing, which made him turn toward God and away from gangs.
“I have no reason to lie about anything in order to be accepted by a rap audience because I had already sold 3 or 4 million records before anybody knew anything about me,” he said insistently before the Summit concert. “Most people didn’t know if I was black or white.
“The only reason I didn’t want my real name to come out was to protect my parents. I had to spend a lot of money to move my mother because we were getting threats. I don’t know if it was from the old gang members or from new gang things . . . but once you’ve been around gangs, you learn to take precautions. I’ve got death threats out there now, the last one was from the Stockton area. But I’m not worried. I’ve got enough security to handle it.”
Ice answered the questions, but without much enthusiasm. Where M.C. Hammer handles the press with the ease of a dance step on stage, Ice is more hesitant. For one thing, he’s not naturally glib. After months of a media siege, he also seems wary of reporters.
The interview had been scheduled for 1:30 p.m., but his custom pink and silver bus reached Houston two hours late because of heavy traffic on the two-lane roads leading out of Alexandria, La., where he had performed the night before.
He then pushed the interview back two more hours so that he and a buddy could ride the motorbikes that they haul around in a trailer attached to his bus.
“This is Ice’s recess time,” said John Bush, the rapper’s road, manager and formerly the manager of the City Lights disco in Dallas, where Tommy Quon first spotted Ice. “He and the guys take a couple hours every day and ride the bikes or play some basketball. Today, it’s the bikes.
“He needs the relaxation because he’s been working nonstop since last April, never more than one or two days off. In fact, he’ll get his first week off in a year next month--just before he starts the new movie.”
Ice posed obligingly for a photographer when he returned from the bike ride. Though his two bodyguards tried to make him laugh, he stuck to the cold, icy stare found on the album cover--a look he finds “sexy and mysterious.” Once the interview started, however, his expression warmed as he spoke about music and his childhood.
Ice said he danced around the house to James Brown records and lip-synced to Elvis Presley as a youngster. But rap became his real passion. He hung out with black kids who were into rap, leading to the nickname “Vanilla” in junior high school, he says.
“I remember being alone a lot as a kid because I went to so many different schools,” Ice said. “I would always be the new jack and everybody’s eyes would be on me, so I eventually decided to give them something to look at. I’d fix my hair and wear things that made me stand out. And I got into the rapping and the break-dancing and beat-boxing.”
He also got into a lot of trouble, he said, running with gangs, getting into fights, stealing cars--enough to make his mother send him to a psychologist at one point and enroll him in a school for troubled boys.
Ice’s stepfather, Byron Mino, was at the concert here and backs Ice’s tales of gang activity. Yet Mino, a car salesman in Dallas, likes to emphasize the positive.
“One of the things that impressed me most about Ice was his determination,” he said backstage at the Summit. “He was always thinking about being famous or being rich. He wasn’t the best of students . . . just a regular kid with a lot of dreams and a lot of fantasies.
“We used to pray for him all the time . . . that he wouldn’t get hurt. We were so relieved when he gave up motocross (after an accident in which he broke both ankles) and turned to music.”
Like any parent, Mino is hurt by the hostility aimed at his son. Mino--who married Ice’s mother when the boy was 8 and remains close to the family even though the marriage only lasted a couple of years--wants the world to see Ice through a father’s eyes.
“All people know about Vanilla Ice is the millions of records he has sold and the face on the posters,” Mino said. “They don’t know Vanilla Ice as the loving and tender, endearing young man that he is.”
Reminded about the spitfire side of him shown on the American Music Awards, Mino said, “That was the human side. Most people don’t understand we are dealing with a 23-year-old young man. He cannot be perfect. Take a 40-year-old person, a 50-year-old person and put $10 million in his pocket, put $20 million in his pocket . . . put him on the front cover of 10 magazines and see what happens.”
The path to stardom for Vanilla Ice began on stage at the City Lights, a Dallas disco owned by Tommy Quon, who also managed a few music acts.
Quon saw Ice--then known as Vanilla M.C.--in a City Lights talent contest and was so impressed that he signed the young rapper to a contract the next day. Quon changed his name to Vanilla Ice and arranged for him to open for various name rap acts, including Public Enemy, that toured the region.
But Quon had no luck in interesting a record company in a white rapper. So he released Ice’s debut album, “Hooked,” on his own label and reportedly borrowed $8,000 to have a video made of one of the tracks, “Ice Ice Baby.”
The album and video stirred enough regional interest for SBK Records to take a chance on Ice. The company released a revised version of the “Hooked” album--retitled “To the Extreme"--last September and Ice landed the opening spot on the red-hot M.C. Hammer tour.
Though Ice downplays any feud with Hammer, Quon says there were tensions on the tour as Ice’s album started challenging Hammer’s on the charts. “By the end, we were selling as many T-shirts as Hammer at the shows and I think that bothered them. They didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening.”
Even Ice couldn’t help but express some youthful glee when his album finally bumped Hammer out of the No. 1 position.
In one of the quotes that may have tripped the hammer, Ice said, “For almost six months, Hammer was No. 1, singing, ‘You can’t touch this.’ Well, I touched it .”
Though Ice had played the Summit a few months earlier on the Hammer tour, business was brisk for his return as the headliner. Promoters had anticipated a crowd of 5,000, but the turnout was double that.
At the end of the concert, a long line of girls in tight dresses and jeans waited backstage to meet Ice, who signed autographs and shook hands with them. There were even more girls at the backstage door.
More names for the little black book?
“I do have a book of numbers, but all that stuff about ‘conquests’ isn’t true,” Ice said, suddenly serious. “I’m not a whore. I watch myself. I’m very, very clean. I do not have sex every night like it would seem, like people write about me.
“I feel it’s important to set a positive image and that’s a problem I have when I talk about my past because there is a lot of me that isn’t very positive. I’m not proud of a lot of the things I’ve done, but I want to show people that you can make something of yourself and that God is more important than stuff like drugs.”
Ice usually spends a half hour or more after shows meeting fans backstage, so the arena seats are empty by the time he returns to the dressing room. On some nights in the quiet of the hall, he must reflect on how dramatically things have changed since a year ago when he was sometimes playing shows for free just for the exposure.
He seems vulnerable in such moments--the ego in check. For all his talk of about life on the streets, he seems a young 23 and it’s only natural to worry about what is to come--whether he will be able to prove the detractors wrong by coming up with another hit album and by finally getting respect from the rap community.
When asked about the future challenges, Ice considered the question, as if this time weighing the subtleties. In the end, the fighter in him resurfaced and he took comfort in the roar of the crowd.
“To me, the best record is the record that sells the most,” he said. “That’s how you measure it. It goes back to when you are battling other rappers on the street and you want to get the crowd to respond. That’s how you tell the winner, the one who gets the most response.
“Me and Hammer ain’t destroying rap. We’re making it better. I could come up with (tough street) rhymes that would impress all the critics and the other rappers, but I would rather turn on the whole world rather than half a million people. If that’s wrong, I’m guilty. But I don’t think I’m wrong. Did you hear that crowd tonight?”