Mentioning the name Vanilla Ice usually elicits looks of disgust, mistrust, and runaway cheeseball feelings. But there's a new sheriff in Ice Land and he's laying down tracks that could start to melt even the most skeptical attitude. Vanilla Ice, a.k.a. Rob Van Winkle, has a new CD, Hard to Swallow, hitting stores October 20. While the disc retains a bit of the old Vanilla Ice, it's merely a self-mocking residue, filtered through industrial-strength rap and roll the nearly forgotten star likes to call "Adidas" or "skate" rock. "This is definitely not hip-hop," says Ice during a phone call from his Golden Beach home, "this is a whole new deal."
Believe it or don't, but his new material is different enough that as of press time, his latest single, "Too Cold," is a nine-time-and-counting champ on ZETA's (WZTA-FM 94.9) "Battle Royale," a contest between two new songs with the winner determined by listeners. The song, which ironically features a chorus with Ice screaming, "Ice, ice, baby," reveals the characteristic sound of Hard to Swallow: gouging heavy metal riffs, DJ scratching, and Ice screaming out raps. That's quite a switch from 1990's To the Extreme, the CD that included "Ice, Ice, Baby," a pop-rap tune that spent fifteen weeks at the top of the charts and launched the young white rapper into a world of fame, fortune, and controversy.
Ice earned enough money from that one hit to put stacks of loot in cold storage. He also garnered so much ill press that his reputation will probably be tainted for as long as his bank account is fat. Acrimony toward Vanilla Ice ran rampant in the early Nineties. Probably the most well-known fiasco arose over the Ice camp's reluctance to give credit for a prominent bass line used in "Ice, Ice, Baby." It had clearly been lifted from "Under Pressure," a song by David Bowie and Queen. Worse yet, many rap fans saw Ice -- then only the second white rap act, after the Beastie Boys, to achieve widespread acclaim -- as simply another whitey out to bastardize an African-American art form.
And conflicting stories of Ice's personal life flew faster than a break dancer's feet. The most hotly debated of these myths -- fabricated, it seemed, for no reason other than to confer street credibility and to sell records -- held that he was a gangbanger who grew up in the 'hood. Contradictory reports said this was an out-and-out lie, that he was just a white kid from the suburbs. The heated debates eventually inspired rap group 3rd Bass's song "Pop Goes the Weasel" and a video in which Henry Rollins portrayed Vanilla Ice, the weasel. The tall tales didn't end there: Everything from Ice's alleged motocross skills to his strained relationships with MC Hammer and Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight were exaggerated. According to Ice, none of that was his fault.
He grew up in Dallas, not in Miami. As a teen he got into break dancing and hung out mostly with black friends, but he denies ever being in a gang. He moved to Miami in 1986 and supported himself by performing in clubs and eventually, opening concerts for national acts. He has lived here since.
As for the altercation with Suge Knight, Ice admits there was once some friction between the two, but he says it never went so far as to have Knight dangle him off a hotel balcony, another story that often made the rounds. And he denies any conflicts with MC Hammer. The only truth in his early press related to his enthusiasm for motorcycles: He still races motocross at various Florida tracks.
Ice says all the hype and his oft-criticized public image were purely a product of the fertile minds at SBK, the publicity-hungry label for which he recorded. "I was a puppet for the record company," Ice says nonchalantly. "It worked. It made me rich and sold a bunch of records for them, but they sold me out. They asked if I would wear these baggy clothes, and then they asked if I'd do a slow song like MC Hammer. I was like, 'Man, I don't like slow songs.' Then they asked if I would do it for a million bucks. I was like, 'Hell yeah!'"
Ice's To the Extreme sold more than 13 million copies worldwide and in 1991 spurred two unauthorized biographies -- Ice Ice Ice: The Extraordinary Vanilla Ice Story, by Mark Bego; and MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice: The Hip-Hop Never Stops, by Nancy E. Krulik -- and, perhaps a first, an unauthorized autobiography: Ice by Ice: The Vanilla Ice Story in His Own Words, supposedly by Vanilla Ice. He says that all the books are "complete bullshit," that he had nothing to do with any of them, and that the books were backed by his record company to help fuel record sales and the fabricated stories of his life. But that's all behind him now. He's a new man, and he has a special tattoo to prove it.
Actually, a good portion of his body is covered with ink he received during his "mind-blowin' days," a reference to his heavy drug use during the making of his 1994 rap record Mind Blowin'. "A lot of my friends are tattoo artists," he explains. "That was in my binge days. I didn't even realize how many I was getting, then I got out of those days and I was like, 'Shit.'" Still, he had room for one more. Inked into his stomach is a leaf, symbolic of a new beginning after a heroin overdose in the mid-Nineties. "I was puking and shitting on myself, and man it was ugly," he admits. "People were throwing cold water on me, and when I woke up, I thanked God I was still alive and promised Him I'd turn myself around. Ever since then He's been blessin' me." The near-death experience may have turned Ice on to a higher consciousness, but he's not completely fanatical, "I don't believe in religion. I believe in the Lord and Jesus Christ."
That a tattoo symbolizes his new, more reverent life is somewhat ironic. His new sounds are geared toward the young and rebellious, a crowd that often welcomes the tattoo needle. Ice started searching for a new form of musical expression about three years ago during auditions in a warehouse near the Metrozoo. Unable to find any South Florida musicians capable of creating the sound he was after, he went to California and enlisted the help of producer Ross Robinson, who has worked with punkish acts such as Korn and Limp Bizkit. "Ross is like a mad scientist," Ice says enthusiastically, "He's able to just pull stuff out of me. Making this record with him was a cathartic process."
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To help purge himself further, Ice recruited two bassists (Doug Ardito and Scott Evil), a couple of guitarists (Rob Patterson, who also handles keyboards, and Dave Kushner), drummer Kelly Scott, DJ Zero, and back-up vocalist Rodney Johnson. The conglomeration packs a wallop; the resultant record lands somewhere between Korn and Cypress Hill. Unfortunately for the musicians, no matter how good their playing or how tough the raps, skepticism is sure to follow, simply because the shaky name Vanilla Ice is attached to the product.
But Ice insists this is the real deal, the true Vanilla Ice. "No image, that's my image," he says confidently, "I don't believe in image any more. If I'm wearing shorts and a T-shirt and I feel like doing a show in that, I will." He is equally assured about his new record deal and music style: "I make all the decisions. I'm just expressing myself through my music."
That musical expression leaves his old recordings farther behind than a pair of parachute pants. Ice says he's bored with conventional rap, especially because he's been behind the mic since his teens. He accepts that his reputation is less than honorable, but he thinks Hard to Swallow will change a lot of minds. "People thought they would never see me again. A lot of people will be surprised by me. This will turn everyone's heads back around. I'm sure my past will still haunt me, and I expect it to. I can just do my thing and hope that people will appreciate it. I can't please everyone, and I'm not out to. I'll be happy with whatever happens."
Vanilla Ice performs with local acts Endo and the Groovenics Thursday, October 15, at Button South, 100 Ansin Blvd, Hallandale; 954-454-3301. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15.