Vanilla on Ice

The hip-hop trivia question wants to prove that he's still cool.

Jimmy Hoffa seems like a more plausible candidate for a comeback than Vanilla Ice. The once and former Robert Van Winkle briefly ruled the pop-music galaxy thanks to the across-the-board success of the 1990 smash "Ice Ice Baby," but the vicious backlash that struck him shortly thereafter was of the career-killing variety. He was viewed as a hip-hop embarrassment--a white kid who made a bundle stealing black kids' music. If shame didn't prevent him from seeking out the spotlight again, observers assumed, the more sophisticated tastes of the rap community circa 1998 would.

They were wrong. Today Van Winkle, who's 29, is on the road again, and he's playing for capacity crowds everywhere he goes. Some minor surgery has put him on the shelf for a few weeks; he's postponed several upcoming dates, including an appearance set for the Fox Theatre on April 4. But in other respects, he seems to be building, not losing, momentum. Pollstar, a trade publication for the music industry, regularly compiles a roster of the top forty tours as judged by requests for itinerary information registered at its Internet site. For the week of March 9, Vanilla Ice was in 22nd place, directly behind Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and ahead of Puff Daddy & the Family, Shawn Colvin, Fiona Apple and Aerosmith.

In all likelihood, this response can be chalked up to nostalgia: At a time when white leisure suits are back in vogue in certain circles, the second coming of Vanilla Ice doesn't seem entirely preposterous. But Van Winkle isn't questioning his audience's motives. After spending most of the decade in celebrity exile, he's simply glad to be back in the game. The cockiness that was such a key part of his persona is gone, replaced by a disarming earnestness. He's apologetic about past mistakes but upbeat about his forthcoming CD, his growing family and his new life. Although Oprah Winfrey hasn't yet booked him to guest on her show, his tale of woe and rebirth ensures that it's only a matter of time before she does.

"One thing I've done is, I've lived and learned," Van Winkle says. "I went through a little drug phase back in the days when 'Ice Ice Baby' was out, but I've been sober for three years. And I've got a beautiful wife who I married last Easter and a beautiful little baby girl who's five months old."

Religion was also part of Van Winkle's personal transformation: "I found God three years ago, and I made a promise to him that I wouldn't turn around and do wrong things again. So he gave me a chance to live, and he's blessed me ever since."

Ice's conversation is peppered with such references; on occasion he sounds like a youth minister trolling for recruits. But he has stopped short of turning his music into an evangelistic tool. His next CD, which he hopes will be available in late April or early May, is called Hard to Swallow, and the title doesn't refer to communion wafers. "I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ," he affirms, "but my new stuff is crazy--high-energy, stage-diving, mosh-pit hip-hop. I'm an entertainer, man."

A lot of folks also believe that Van Winkle's a phony. During his heyday, his publicity material and the for-fans-only book Ice by Ice made a number of disputatious claims. For instance, Van Winkle was said to have come of age in low-income Miami and to have attended high school with 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell--but he actually spent the majority of his teen years on the not-very-mean streets of suburban Dallas. Van Winkle swears that he wasn't privy to these prevarications and places the blame for propagating them on the head of former manager Tommy Quon.

"There was some really different stuff that they wanted me to be that really wasn't me," he emphasizes. "And then I'm having to answer about these bios, and it's making me look like this big liar. See, I'd been out of the country when all of this happened, and I came back to the United States and I found all this out, and people were asking me these questions, like, 'Why'd you lie about this?' And I was like, 'I didn't lie about nothin'. What is this?' But then I did some research myself, and I finally found out what was going on. And that's why Tommy Quon is my ex-manager."

Van Winkle sometimes plays fast and loose with the facts, too--for instance, he says "Ice Ice Baby" was issued by SBK Records when he was 19, but he was 21 at the time of its release. To his credit, though, he acknowledges that he was a willing participant in much of the marketing that caused his first full-length, To the Extreme, to sell a staggering 15 million copies. He dismisses suggestions that he was an overnight sensation, noting that he had been opening for acts like Sir Mix-A-Lot and EPMD for three years before his record broke. (He also moved 48,000 copies of his long-player via independent distributor Ichiban before being picked up by SBK.) When Quon and company decided to remake him as a pretty boy, however, he didn't exactly put his foot down.

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