By Jacob Katel
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With time, though, the vitriol has worn off. These days, if "Ice Ice Baby" were to come on in a club or at a party, heads would bob, feet would tap, and 30-year-old asses would inevitably shake in every direction. Now, the name Vanilla Ice evokes the sweet charm, the unknowing innocence of another time. In a world of school shootings, mass murders, endless wars, and economic despair, we miss that time.
"These things tend to go in cycles," says Vanilla Ice's manager, Tommy Quon, "and that time in history, the period when Rob was the biggest, seems to be cycling around and getting popular again."
Imagine spending the rest of your life being famous for something you did when you were 16. Back then, did you do anything that, in retrospect, seems a little silly? Did you incur any funny nicknames? Did you, perhaps, do something regrettable with your hair?
As a teenager who grew up bouncing between divorced parents in Dallas and Miami, Rob Van Winkle had hobbies that included riding dirt bikes, break dancing, and listening to hip-hop music, which was, at the time, still relatively new. He had a lot of black friends who would tease him, dubbing him "Vanilla Ice." He hated the nickname, but the more he protested, the more they used it.
In Dallas, he lived with his mother and stepfather. "I used to tell my mom all the time that I was gonna be famous for something," Rob says. "Whether it was for racing motorcycles or rap or whatever. She told me: 'White kids don't rap.'"
But by age 16, he was trying. He spent hours with his friends, writing short rhymes. One day, while going through some of his brother's records, he sampled a riff from the David Bowie/Queen hit "Under Pressure." He recorded some simple lyrics about his rapping prowess — "flow like a harpoon, daily and nightly" — and mixed in South Florida references such as "A1A Beachfront Avenue" and "Miami's on the scene, just in case you didn't know it." He used an old African-American fraternity chant for the hook: "Ice, ice, baby!" The entire thing took only a few hours.
Over the next couple of years, he performed live in small, predominantly black clubs around Dallas and Miami. The crowds were entertained by this young white kid rhyming and dancing all over the stage. When Rob was 19, Tommy Quon, a Dallas nightclub owner, began managing him and put together an independent single, a rap cover of the Wild Cherry classic "Play That Funky Music." But when a DJ in Georgia accidentally played the B-side, that was the song people began requesting on radio stations across the South. By the time Rob was 21, in 1989, the underground single featuring "Ice Ice Baby" had sold 48,000 copies.
"I thought I had it made then," Rob recalls. "I was packing these black clubs. I was opening up for Ice-T, bro. I thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world."
Vanilla Ice debuted around the time that hip-hop acts such as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy began getting national mainstream radio play. Corporate music companies noticed a growing number of middle- and upper-middle-class suburban kids listening to urban music. Each one of those kids represented a tree of cash that could be shaken with every birthday, bar mitzvah, Christmas, and straight-A report card. What the industry needed was a fresh, clean (read: white) face that conservative moms in Topeka, Kansas, and Peoria, Illinois, wouldn't mind bringing home to little Johnny and Jenny in the form of a new "compact disc."
Quon began getting calls about his new client, this white rapper, this "Vanilla Ice." Big music executives knew that Rob, with his smooth cheeks and million-dollar smile, represented the perfect way to sell hip-hop music to America's suburbs.
What kid could resist when executives from SBK Records — one of the biggest labels in music at the time — came knocking with millions of dollars and giant recording contracts? Who wouldn't put on the shiny clothes and sign off on the ridiculous biographies as the money piled up?
When "Ice Ice Baby" dropped, "It was like out of nowhere, more than anyone could imagine," Rob remembers. "I sold 2 million records before we even put out the video. Before people even knew I was white. Then life completely exploded."
Quon put together about $10,000 to shoot a guerrilla-style music video in Dallas. It was a montage of Rob dancing in abandoned warehouses — grabbing his ankle and putting his hand behind his head — and driving his Mustang convertible in slow motion, with the ragtop down so his hair could blow.
The video was an instant staple on MTV. Wal-Mart stores across the nation struggled to keep his album, To the Extreme, on shelves. "Stores were getting truckloads of nothing but Vanilla Ice tapes and CDs and selling out in the same day," Rob recalls. At one point, he was literally selling 1 million records a day. It was the first album ever to go triple-platinum in its first month.
"It sounds like everybody's dream," Rob says. "But it was a nightmare. It sounds funny, but it was like a prison. All of a sudden, I'm surrounded by strangers telling me what to do. I had stylists and publicists telling me where to go all day from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep. I had wardrobe people holding shit up and telling me: 'You're going to wear this when you do this thing and this when you're on this show.' I didn't even know these people's names.