(November 21, 2020). For decades, many music historians and hip-hop heads have made 1990s rapper Vanilla Ice a perennial punching bag for the many things considered wrong with early ‘90s hip-
hop-pop and, more specifically, the white man’s foray into it.
But few people know that, before shooting to international fame with hip-hop’s first No. 1 Hot 100 hit “Ice Ice Baby” and the multi-platinum album containing it, the Dallas-born rapper named Robert Van Winkle was actually a well-respected up-and-comer who had the early backing of such bicoastal hip-hop royalty as Chuck D (of Public Enemy) and Ice-T.
In fact, pre-fame Vanilla Ice was a well-known dancer and sometimes rapper who – by his own accounts – had toured with the likes of Public Enemy, Ice-T, N.W.A. and E.P.M.D. during P.E.’s classic 1988 “Bring The Noise” tour.
According to interview stories like this one, the ever-woke Chuck D even stumped for Van Winkle to sign with the legendary hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings before a last-minute, hard-to-refuse offer from fledgling label SBK Records altered the course of history and set Vanilla Ice down a path that would have him sell millions of records over the next six months, while nabbing that first No. 1 hip-hop Hot 100 hit in the process.
The notion that a new, one-year-old label like SBK was able to offer an even newer, unproven rapper like Vanilla Ice a seven-figure signing advance (reportedly $1.5M) before his first single was released is a story in itself, made possible by the label’s own huge success earlier in 1990 courtesy of acts like Technotronic (“Pump Up The Jam”) and Wilson Phillips (“Hold On,” “Release Me”), both of whose hits had made the label flush with cash as the year progressed.
The $1.5M gamble paid off, and with the late-summer release and November 1990 ascension of “Ice Ice Baby” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Vanilla Ice instantly became the biggest act on an SBK label whose previous two biggest artists were the ‘90s yacht-rock female equivalent of the ‘80s snail-male band Air Supply, and a Belgian electro-house music outfit.
The success of “Ice Ice Baby” was so huge that SBK took another gamble after the song reached No. 1 and stopped production of the single, betting that people would instead buy the entire album and expand the label’s profit margin even further. It worked, and parent album To The Extreme shot to No. 1 the week after “Ice Ice Baby” did and remained there into 1991, selling 15 million copies worldwide in the process.
That it took Vanilla Ice to finally push hip-hop to No. 1 on the singles list, just as it had taken a white group to give hip-hop its first chart-topping album a few years earlier (Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill was rap’s first No. 1 LP in 1987), was not lost on music industry watchers who marveled at how an untested, yet charismatic rapper from Dallas, TX could turn the industry on its heels in ways that cultural icons like LL Cool J and Run-DMC, and even pop-leaning acts like Fresh Prince and Hammer, had failed before.
“Ice Ice Baby,” whose title was an interpolation of the Black national fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.’s famous chant, had been an unquestionable smash, selling over a million copies (combined sales of vinyl, cassette and CD singles), getting play on multiple radio and video formats, and appealing to fans across many color and generational lines.
Follow-up single “Play That Funky Music” (an all-too-obvious and unimaginatively predictable rip of the old 1976 Wild Cherry hit) had kept Vanilla Ice in the spotlight.
With his great American white-boy persona in tow and patriotic costumes to match, Ice became an ambassador for the safe, pop-leaning fare that he and MC Hammer had translated into the two biggest-selling hip-hop albums up to that point. To wit, both Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em (from July to November) and Ice’s To The Extreme (November and December) were the only records to occupy the Billboard No. 1 slot during the second half of 1990.
Ice rode the wave into 1991, keeping To The Extreme at No. 1 for the first two months of the year before finally giving way to Mariah Carey’s debut album in March.
That’s when things began to go downhill for the gregarious, photogenic dancer-turned-rapper.
The next hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 LP chart – just three months after Ice had relinquished the chart crown – was N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4Life), a feat made possible by Billboard’s switch to a more accurate, point-of-sale chart methodology, in which actual barcode-infused metrics replaced ranked call-in reports by various store accounts.
Efil4Zaggin’s milestone signaled the rising popularity of the much harder-hitting gangsta rap; while goofier, nonsensical styles of artists like Vanilla Ice was burning out fast (quick: make some sense of the opening line “stop, collaborate and listen!”).
Both Ice and Hammer became regular punching bags for “over-commercializing” a genre whose goal was to be commercial but which had theretofore prided itself on also having street-cred and authenticity. Even interracial groups like 3rd Bass took swipes at Ice with the song “Pop Goes the Weasel,” the video of which featured then-popular musician/actor/comedian Henry Rollins as Vanilla Ice in an unflattering light.
The label SBK Records appeared to move on from Ice as well. His only other charted singles after “Play That Funky Music” were the ballad “I Love You,” the third single from To The Extreme, which peaked at No. 52 and was later “panned” in one of Beavis and Butt-head’s famous critiques on MTV, and a duet featuring British supermodel Naomi Campbell called “Cool As Ice (Everybody Get Loose),” which petered out at No. 81 in late 1991.
SBK wouldn’t release a proper follow-up album to To The Extreme until 1994 (Mind Blowin’). That album failed to chart altogether.
By his third album, Vanilla Ice had moved on from SBK, and the label itself was also sinking fast. Neither entity would regain the massive success they’d collectively enjoyed in 1990-91. Over the next two decades, Ice released four more albums with four different labels – none of which even charted – and his rap career was essentially over.
After moderate success with a follow-up album by Wilson Phillips, plus one-time successes with acts like Jesus Jones (remember 1991’s “Right Here, Right Now” and “Real, Real, Real”?) and Jon (“Just Another Day”) Secada, SBK became a non-factor in hip-hop and ultimately folded altogether.
All of this begs the question: what if Vanilla Ice had signed with the powerhouse hip-hop label Def Jam as he was originally slated to do before being lured away by SBK, the label for which rap was clearly a novel, quick-money venture?
Def Jam would have its ups and downs over the years, but its commitment to hip-hop was undeniable. Black and white rap artists alike thrived with the label, and few, if any, have ever had problems in the rap credibility department, even if they didn’t always earn it.
And even though Vanilla Ice wasn’t the worst rapper out there, he was SBK’s proverbial cash cow. “Ice Ice Baby” wasn’t a hip-hop masterpiece but the rapper certainly had charisma and his rap flow was more fluid than that of, say, MC Hammer, who managed to continue his commercial success in 1991-92 with the multi platinum follow-up to Dont Hurt Em called Too Legit To Quit.
In fact, looking back, I’d be hard-pressed to explain why Ice didn’t at least deserve as much of a chance in 1992-93 as artists like Kris Kross, House of Pain, Nice & Smooth, Black Sheep, Positive K, Snow, Onyx or Tag Team. With the proper backing from SBK, or better yet a label like Def Jam, surely Ice could’ve killed a song like “Whoomp! There It Is” or “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” with the same ease he did “Ice Ice Baby” three years earlier.
Of course, we could also ponder whether “Ice Ice Baby” would have even made No. 1 on a non-pop-focused (at the time) label like Def Jam, or we could all lend theories to how a song like “Ice Ice Baby” got to be the first No. 1 rap song on the Hot 100 chart, and why it took eleven years after rap made its debut on that chart (“Rapper’s Delight”; Nov. 10, 1979) for it to happen.
But one thing is clear: Ice’s fall from grace was as swift as his meteoric rise, while hip-hop’s popularity has continued to grow to astronomical heights in the 30 years since. It took eleven years for that first No. 1 rap single. Now in 2020, half of the year’s eighteen No. 1 hits (to date) have been hip-hop songs.
Contrary to popular belief, Vanilla Ice wasn’t the white-boy wannabe that everyone portrayed him to be. He honed his dance skills in the rougher areas of Dallas and cut his teeth during his teen years by immersing himself in early hip-hop classics like Beat Street and Breakin’.
Sure, his biggest hit was a case study in unauthorized interpolation (besides the Alpha Phi Alpha-influenced title, “Ice Ice Baby” was practically a straight bass line rip of Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” despite Vanilla’s initial claims to the contrary on a single-note technicality); and some of his rhymes were extremely whack (like this one from “Play That Funky Music’s” second verse: “Stage 2—Yea the one ya’ wanna listen to, it’s off my head so let the beat play through; So I can funk it up and make it sound good, 1-2-3 Yo—Knock on some wood. For good luck, I like my rhymes atrocious, Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious”). Okay, how many other rappers even had the balls to try and rhyme something with “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” or even “atrocious” for that matter?
But on the other hand, how many other rappers also had equally weak rhymes (by later ‘90s standards) during Ice’s brief heyday?
All I’m saying is that had Vanilla Ice signed with a label like Def Jam, whose rap credentials were far greater than SBK, the label whose longest-term priority was a soft pop-rock trio comprised of the daughters of sixties’ legends Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys) and John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), he might not have been the poor prototype for white-boy rappers he was later made out to be.
We’ll never know what might have been, of course, but we can certainly imagine a different fate for a much-maligned rapper who didn’t deserve such an outcome – particularly on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Vanilla Ice’s coronation as the very first rapper to reach No. 1 in Billboard pop singles history…with a song that many of you who were around then know you liked.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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