Vanilla Ice on Almost Dying, Joining the Juggalos, and "Living the American Dream"
Photo by C. Stiles
"Yesterday's history, tomorrow's a mystery."
He spent his teens break-dancing on the streets of Dallas and busting moves in Miami malls. He snagged a string of motocross championships. He learned to beatbox and rhyme.
And then he became the most famous rapping white boy in the world.
He immortalized the phrase, "Ice, Ice baby," reigned atop the Billboard charts for sixteen weeks, and sold 15 million albums. He dated Madonna. He costarred with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And he rocked the most astounding Caucasian flattop in the history of humankind.
He was declared a "has-been" by the age of 27, dabbled in Rastafarianism, and developed a serious weed-smoking habit. He gobbled ecstasy, tooted cocaine, and overdosed on heroin. But he survived, covered his body with tattoos, accepted Jesus Christ, discovered the home-improvement business, started a family, joined the Juggalo Nation, and found another shot at fame as a reality TV star.
So yeah, after 46 years on Planet Earth and a seemingly endless succession of jackknife turns along the path of life, Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle has learned to exist by that zen-like, singsong maxim.
"I don't plan anything, brother," Ice insists. "I take it day by day. I wake up with a smile and try go to bed with a smile. I head out every morning to experience new things, just to see what I like," he says. "I ended up likin' music. And I ended up likin' real estate."
On the set of The Vanilla Ice Project.
Courtesy of Vanilla Ice
At the moment, this rapper, house flipper, and television personality is prepping his next, as-yet-untitled album for release on Insane Clown Posse's Psychopathic Records while hosting the fourth season of his handy-man series, The Vanilla Ice Project. ("It's the number-one show on the DIY Network," he beams, "and I'm really honored that people appreciate it.") He's also dealt with his past, its embarrassments, and the public ridicule that dogged him throughout the '90s and early '00s as he tried to reroute his career.
"You're only who you are because of who you were," Ice philosophizes, paraphrasing his former Surreal Life co-star, the late televangelist Tammy Faye Baker. "All my negatives and all my positives and everything I've done, whether it be in the public eye or not, I don't regret, because I can't go back and change anything.
"My life in the '90s, I love it now. And sure, I hated it for a while," he chuckles, "because it nearly killed me. But I look back at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, doing the running man, shaving lines in my eyebrows, wearing parachute pants -- I laugh at it all, because I'm honored to be who I am today."
Rob jumping a pickup truck, some dudes, and fireballs.
Photo by C. Stiles
Born in 1967, Van Winkle grew up the son of divorced parents, shuttling from Dallas to Miami and back. He rode dirt bikes. He hung out at the shopping center. He studied break-dancing videos. He didn't listen to rock and pop. He preferred hip-hop and funk. But his mother scoffed, "White kids don't rap."
Like any teen, though, Rob ignored mom, practicing his "poetry-writing skills," he says, "and lyrical flow" between biking sessions and trips to the mall.
"I was only 16 when I wrote 'Ice, Ice Baby,'" Van Winkle points out. "And before that song, I was a motocrosser. So I partied, but I didn't party, meaning I didn't do drugs and I didn't even drink, because I was training.
"But I was really hyper and I liked to dance," he laughs. "And I would go break-dancing, make 40 bucks a day, chase the girls, see a movie, and still have some change left over. That's a lot of cash when you're 14 years old. And I was hustlin'."
By the time that he was halfway through high school, Rob went from busting moves for money to freestyling on the mic for fun. But "like always," he shrugs, "my only plan of attack was no plan." He wasn't working on a demo. He wasn't dreaming of a record deal. He was just rapping for the hell of it.
"I'd go and battle kids from other neighborhoods at these underage parties," Van Winkle recalls. "And I never thought that I'd go on to do anything with rap. It was just what I was doing at the time. But then I became good at it.
"So every day, I'd skip lunch at school to jump in my buddy's Volkswagen van and we'd crack on each other's mama," he cackles. "It was all about yo' mama jokes. And if I got demolished that day, I'd have to go home and think up something for the next day.
"Then we got into Egyptian Lover and picked up 2 Live Crew, wondering, How can they cuss like that on a record? But that was always the great thing about music -- there were no limits.
"And you know, I'm not some white guy that does hip-hop, because music doesn't recognize color. People who compare me and Eminem are just small-minded."
Even 25 years after he was derided as an albino MC Hammer and mocked for his parachute pants, Van Winkle's voice still crackles with anger when he thinks about the petty critics, the backbiters, the naysayers who dismissed him as that ridiculous cracker who raps. Somewhat ironically, though, the teenage Rob became known as Vanilla Ice precisely because he was the lone Caucasian kid in his crew.
"It was a break-dancing nickname. I hated it. And it was really 'Vanilla,' because all my friends in Dallas were black or Mexican and I was the only white guy on the scene.
"Anyway," he sighs with a snicker, "I told them, 'Stop callin' me that! Why you callin' me that!' But since it irritated me, they just kept goin' and it stuck.
"Then, because I had a move called ice, all my boys were like, 'Yo, Vanilla! Do that ice! Do that ice!' So it turned into Vanilla Ice. And now I love it."
Photo by C. Stiles
Of course, there have been times in the life of Rob Van Winkle when embracing his stage name and singing, "Play that funky music, white boy," was merely about defying the haters. In the late '90s, he refused to swap his old moniker for a new handle, even though his next album was chockablock with Limp Bizkit-style, self-described "skate rock." He just had zero interest in rejecting himself.
Over the last decade and a half, he's finally reconciled the Vanilla Ice of yesterday with the Vanilla Ice of today, and "quit worrying," he declares, "about tomorrow." He got married. He became a father. He wormed his way into the world of reality TV. And he even found a second family in the Insane Clown Posse, a trio of crackers who rap, just like him.
"They're badasses from Detroit. And I've known those guys throughout the years," Van Winkle says. "I was a fan; then we started hanging out. And now ICP leader Violent Jay is a good friend of mine. So I became a Juggalo, which is the fam.
"It's deep and it's hard to describe, because being a Juggalo cannot be explained over the course of a conversation. We all have a profound understanding of who we are, but it's one of those lifestyle things that you have to live to understand.
"Most outsiders cringe and look at Juggalos like they're kinda scary, because we're all sorta scared of clowns," he jokes. "But the movement is also real. We're bigger than any college fraternity. We have secret handshakes. We have secret languages. We have secret everything.
"We're like our own lil' Freemasons," he laughs. "We are all in unison and connection with each other. We're everywhere, and that's why I don't need bodyguards with me, because there's always ninjas, if anything went down.
"It's a good, comfortable feeling to know that you belong to a family. And they're all good people. Everything you've heard is just people trying to fill in the gaps without knowing anything about the subculture. We're very misunderstood. Totally."
Though often judged, condemned, and caricatured, Vanilla Ice and the Juggalos, he suggests, are exactly like all Americans -- simply seizing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And naturally, he offers up a real estate metaphor to illustrate the shared wishes and wants of average U.S. citizens, 46-year-old rappers-slash-celebrity-handymen, and Insane Clown Posses.
"We're all searching for the same things," Ice muses. "After being beaten down and listening to negative, negative, negative stuff, we get fed up, and it's like, 'I'm going to do my own thing. I'm going to buy my own house. I'm going to fix my own kitchen. I'm going to raise a family here. I'm just going to be living the American dream.'"
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Vanilla Ice. As part of Brew at the Zoo. Presented by Miami New Times. Saturday, May 3. Zoo Miami, 12400 SW 152nd St., Miami. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $40 to $75 plus fees via ticketfly.com. Ages 21 and up. Visit NewTimesBrewAtTheZoo.com.
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