By Juan Barquin
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They stream in and out, all day and all night, one after the other: band members, producers, business associates, friends, family, strangers, hangers-on who stare at the familiar face made infamous long ago. The tour bus, this parked sanctuary where he can roll his joints and drink his bottled Starbucks frappucinos and watch his motocross home videos, is never quiet and never empty for long. Occasionally, he will rise to lock its doors by pressing a button on the steering wheel, but more often than not the peeps come and go and come and go--from 5 in the evening till way past 2 in the morning, especially in the dude's hometown, when all his bros come to pay their respects. Even more will wait outside, in the parking lot of the Bronco Bowl's Canyon Club, where he's performing tonight and into the next day's early morning. After all these years--after all the ridicule and scorn and shame, after all that time in celebrity exile--still they come to hang with Vanilla Ice. A star may lose his shine but never his gravitational pull. Not even after he got his ass kicked on national television. By Diff'rent Strokes' Willis.
"There is no shame in my game, not even getting beat by Todd Bridges," says Ice, known around the hallways of R.L. Turner High School in the mid-1980s as Robert Van Winkle. The tour bus is quiet for a change. Beneath a black ball cap emblazoned with the word "Independent," wearing a black T-shirt announcing he's "Tattooed 4 Life" and baggy shorts and Adidas sandals, Ice nurses a stoner's buzz. Weed makes most people mellow, languid. Not Ice. Pot fuels him, energizes him. We talk for hours, mostly about the high price of fame and how, in the end, being a celebrity ain't worth a nickel.
The subject, at this moment, is why Ice agreed to participate in Fox's Celebrity Boxingin March, in which three pairs of has-beens and yellowed headlines faced off in the squared circle: Tonya Harding and Paula Jones, Danny Bonaduce and Barry "Greg Brady" Williams, Ice and Bridges. The show pulled down big numbers, precisely because it was the ultimate freak show--the mindless watching the shameless beat each other senseless.
"But there's no shame in my game, bro," he says again. "You gotta understand, I let my balls hang. I got the balls to get in there and do it. You know what I mean? It was staged for TV. But, you know, it was fun. I had fun doing it, man. I'd do it again in a minute. I'm trying to fight Eminem right now. He's turned me down twice. We have the same attorney in New York, and we've tried to talk him into doing it, man, and he won't do it. I think I got him by 80 pounds, you know."
It figures Ice would wanna fight Eminem. They're kindred spirits, sort of, white boys making mad money doing black music. Only Eminem gets respect, sells millions, tops critics' lists and pop charts. Vanilla Ice? He's joke and punch line, victim and villain. That he's still around at all, flogging a late-2001 CD The Dallas Morning News only last week referred to as "forthcoming," is nothing short of astonishing. He should have vanished a long, long time ago, crawled into his South Florida mansion with his wife and two young daughters (ages 2 and 4) and dirt bikes and platinum albums and pet kangaroo and disappeared for good. But he didn't, couldn't, wouldn't. Ice couldn't even bring himself to follow through with a suicide attempt in 1994. What don't kill you, it seems, only makes you Vanilla Ice.
He won't even change his name, go by something other than Vanilla Ice, a mere mention of which elicits "no-seriously" chuckles from those who remember the days when he was busting moves with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and getting spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Kevin Bacon. His recent release Bi-Polar, split evenly with Adidas-rockers (à la Korn and Slipknot) and hip-hop tunes, says it's by "V*Ice," but he's still Vanilla, down to the chocolaty center.
Now 33, Robert Van Winkle will never let you forget who he was, what he was--a phenomenon, a chart-topper, a pinup. "A trailblazer," he likes to say, and he's not far off. In 1991, he was only the second white rapper to make the pop charts, after the Beastie Boys, only they didn't sell 17 million copies of their debut. He did, back when he was To the Extreme.
"If you really understood the whole story, you'd give it a lot more credit," he says. "You would. You'd give me a lot more respect and everything. I'm a true pioneer of hip-hop, the top-selling rap artist of all time. Can't deny it, man. In hip-hop in general, not just for white rappers. Just for rappers, period. I'm the first one ever to cross a rap song to a pop station. And now look at it, see? Jay-Z, all of them owe me. Puff Daddy. But in reality, truly, I'm the one who did open those doors. I'm the one who put hip-hop in front of people's ears who've never considered listening to it."