Photo Credit: Karppinen
When singer and songwriter Vanilla Ice released Ice Ice Baby, it was the first rap song to reach the coveted number one spot in the American Billboard Hot 100 chart back in 1990.
This brought the 23-year-old rapper instant fame, which soon turned into notoriety – when he had to pay royalties to British rock legends David Bowie and Queen for using the bass riff from their 1981 hit, Under Pressure, without their permission.
The song was also number one in the UK and New Zealand and made the top five across much of Europe – but Ice fell victim to its success when his career was beset by problems in the aftermath.
Despite its super-cool image when first released, Ice Ice Baby was forever consigned to the realms of the ridiculous in later years, when first Alvin and the Chipmunks released a cover version in 1991, followed by another cover version by X-Factor rejects, Jedward, in 2010.
How it began
Vanilla Ice was born Robert Matthew Van Winkle in 1967 and was brought up in Dallas and Miami by his mother and step-father. He loved hip-hop music from an early age and when he was 13, he began teaching himself breakdancing. His friends, who were all black, nicknamed him Vanilla.
In an interview, he said that he didn’t even like the name at first, so his friends called it him all the more. He explained, “When your friends see you don’t like something, it sticks.”
The “Ice” part was added when he joined a breakdancing crew, based on one of his moves, The Ice. He felt it was a better stage name than Van Winkle.
He began song writing in his teens, after he had dropped out of R L Turner High School in Texas, preferring to spend his time as a dancer and street performer with his band, The Vanilla Ice Posse.
As well as being a street performer, he also learned how to ride a motorbike and became interested in motocross. Had he not been a rap star, he could have made a career out of motocross.
In 1985, at the age of 18, he was doing very well in racing professionally and went on to win three championships. However, he broke his ankle during a race and was unable to ride his motorbike for some time.
While his ankle was healing, he spent his time thinking up new dance moves and practicing as soon as his ankle was able to support his weight again. His love of performing exceeded his love of motocross and he gave up the sport.
Ice Ice Baby
Ice entered an open mike contest at City Lights nightclub in Dallas and brought the house down, earning a regular spot there, performing with the resident DJ, Earthquake. He would also open for many of the top acts of the day, including Public Enemy, NWA, Tone Lōc, 2 Live Crew and MC Hammer.
He later said he had written Ice Ice Baby at around this time, thinking up the lyrics in around 30 minutes. He said they were based on fact, describing him driving around in his Mustang and cruising along A1A Beachfront Avenue. It was a “weekend experience that turned into an amazing song”, he added.
However, as soon as the song was released and rocketed to the top of the charts, things started to turn a little sour. Ice and DJ Earthquake were credited with writing the song, but a few other recording artists had other ideas.
It was reported that Mario “Chocolate” Johnson, a rapper with Death Row Records, claimed to have co-written the song and visited Ice with label boss Suge Knight to demand royalties from the sales. Rumours circulated that Ice had been dangled over a 15th-floor balcony to persuade him to hand over royalty rights.
Ice denied this had happened and claimed the reports were greatly exaggerated, saying that negotiations had taken place on the balcony, but that he had never been dangled over the edge. It was reported in the press that Ice had agreed to hand over some of the money to Knight and Johnson, which had helped fund Death Row Records.
In the words of the song, Ice was further “under pressure” when Bowie and Queen accused him of sampling the bass riff from their hit song without their permission.
Ironically, Queen’s guitarist, Brian May, had reportedly heard Ice Ice Baby when it was first released. On recognising the bass guitar, he thought it was “interesting”, but didn’t give it much thought, as he didn’t like the song and didn’t expect it would go anywhere.
When Ice hit the big time with Ice Ice Baby, lawyers for Bowie and Queen pursued him for royalties, citing copyright infringement. The matter was eventually settled out of court, with Ice paying compensation to the artists. Subsequently, their names appeared on the song writing credits too.
Later, in an interview, Ice admitted he had come up with the idea of sampling Under Pressure after going through his older brother’s records. He found a copy of Under Pressure and said putting the sounds of rock with hip-hop had achieved a “great” result.
The other snag that Ice encountered after Ice Ice Baby’s massive success was the loss of his reputation, to a degree, as the bad boy of hip-hop. The press began delving into his past once he hit the big time, as they wanted to know more about this newcomer on the rap scene.
Undoubtedly, he could rap properly and the image of the song was pretty cool as he cruised the streets in his Ford Mustang 5.0, with talk of run-ins with the police and gangs.
However, after the press unearthed that he had been brought up in a rather pleasant Dallas suburb, rather than the inner city (and that his real name was Robert Van Winkle), his “street talk” such as, “Yo, word to your mother,” suddenly seemed less authentic.
Despite the fallout from his hit single, Ice had no regrets and was proud of the fact he had become the first rapper to cross over into the mainstream pop market.
He believed the criticism he took for the misuse of sampling, using other people’s music without their permission, brought the use of sampling into mainstream music, allowing it to become acceptable in hip-hop.
Following the fallout over Ice Ice Baby, Vanilla Ice went on to enjoy a successful pop career, helped by his good looks and dance moves. He released a number of hit singles that charted in the US and the UK, including I Love You in 1989, Cool as Ice (Everybody Get Loose) in 1991, followed by Rollin’ in My 5.0 and Satisfaction the same year.
His album, To The Extreme, was a number one hit in the US in 1990 and peaked at number four in the UK. It was a hit all over the world and was certified multiple platinum in Canada, platinum in Australia and gold in New Zealand.
He also branched out into acting, appearing in the film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, in 1991.
His most recent album to date was WTF (Wisdom, Tenacity and Focus) in August 2011. He has also made guest appearances on other artist’s records, the most recent being providing vocals on Vanilla Sprite Remix by Rick Ross in 2017.
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