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"I kind of sold out," he admits. "I grew up playing in black clubs; I never even thought I'd play for a white audience. I used to wear fat gold ropes around my neck. But they decided that they wanted me to cross over to the pop market, so they said, 'Wear these baggy pants and this glitter.' And when I said, 'No, no, no,' they said, 'Here's a million dollars.' And to a guy who never really had anything, that persuaded me really good.
"I look back on it and think, I shouldn't have done that. But to anybody who was coming up in my position, I bet they would have done the same damn thing. Money talks, bullshit walks. I was like a puppet on a string, and by doing what they did, they made me seem like I was a novelty. It kind of put me in the New Kids With Snot category, and I wasn't like that; I was really dedicated to my music. But it made me money, so I guess it wasn't all bad."
The profits that To the Extreme generated were certainly mammoth, but according to Van Winkle, they would have been even more substantial if Marion "Suge" Knight hadn't thrust himself into the picture. As co-founder and CEO of Death Row Records, an imprint known for launching the careers of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg, Knight was riding high until 1997, when he was tossed into a California prison for violating probation on a previous assault conviction. As a result of this and other setbacks, the Death Row empire is crumbling--but Van Winkle says it wouldn't have been built in the first place if Knight hadn't strong-armed him into handing over some of his royalties.
"What went down was, I came up to my hotel room in L.A., and Suge had a bunch of people in the room," recounts Van Winkle, who first shared his story with Diane Sawyer on an episode of the ABC newsmagazine program Prime Time. "And these guys slapped around my bodyguards, showed them that they had a pistol and scared the hell out of them--and they were big guys, as big as a football team. Then they took me out to the balcony--we were way up high, on the twentieth floor or something--and Suge said, 'You're going to sign these papers I've got here, or something's going to happen.' And I got the picture really fast. Basically, I signed the papers, which gave him some points off of my music--millions of dollars' worth of points. And that was the money that started Death Row. Snoop Dogg, Tupac and all that wouldn't have happened like it did without my money."
Knight has denied these assertions, but Van Winkle continues to stick by them. As for Knight's current plight, Ice does his best not to gloat. "I guess there's some satisfaction over Suge's deal, but not with the artists," he says. "Because they can't be blamed for him. I like Tupac and all the acts that were on Death Row, and I figure they got manipulated just like me. I'm sure it was pretty scary for them, too."
Equally frightening for Van Winkle was the rapidity with which his immense fame vanished. The popularity of "Ice Ice Baby," which found the Vanilla One rapping lines like "I'm killing your brains like a poisonous mushroom" over a track borrowed from the David Bowie and Queen collaboration "Under Pressure," helped lift a second single, "Play That Funky Music," to hit status. (The latter, a variation on the 1976 one-shot by Wild Cherry, contained the memorable chant "Go, white boy! Go, white boy!") But attempts to establish Van Winkle as a film star pretty much ended with the 1991 box-office ca-tastrophe Cool as Ice and a cameo in the cinematic landmark Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. Likewise, his second platter, 1991's Extremely Live, fell off the charts after only four weeks. Van Winkle tried to reinvent himself as a hardcore rapper with the 1994 disc Mind Blowin', but the public yawned.
Ice seemed to be heading for the horizon on the Obscurity Express until last year, when his long-silent phone began ringing again. "People started calling me, wanting me to do shows, and the response has been unbelievable," he declares. "At first I was kind of iffy. I didn't really know what to expect, but I just figured I'd go after it and tackle it and whatever happens, happens. But the Lord has blessed me. He really has."
Inspired by his success in concert, Van Winkle decided to go back into the studio again. He doesn't have any label support for his recording sessions--by his own choice, he asserts: "I didn't want anybody telling me what to do, so I'm putting my own money into it and executive-producing it myself." He adds that he's getting vocal assistance on the offering from the Bloodhound Gang, who invited Ice to rap on "Boom," a cut from the band's last release.
A few years ago Van Winkle was pleading poverty, but he now insists that he's set for life as a result of his debut album's mega-sales and revenues from To the Extreme, a Miami sporting-goods store that he owns. "It's not about the money for me anymore," he says. "It's about the fulfillment I get from the crowd. There's nothing like it."