By Noah Hubbell
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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.
"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."
With this kind of acclaim, can critical revisionism be far behind? Maybe not. After all, Vanilla Ice was originally ripped for putting new raps to old songs--but producer Sean "Puffy" Combs is presently earning widespread praise and Grammy awards for doing exactly the same thing. Van Winkle is amused by the suggestion that he may be Puff Daddy's secret role model, but he doesn't feel that he deserves the credit for influencing Combs's style.
"That's been done since before I came along, but the artists who did it back then really didn't sell too many records," he says. "Middle-stream America really didn't know anything about hip-hop until they heard me. I pretty much put hip-hop in front of their ears. And when I did, some of them went, 'Wait a minute. That sounds like somebody else's song. He stole that song! That's Queen!' But that's just a part of hip-hop--and Puffy and I know it."
The Ice Man also understands that the love that's coming his way could evaporate in an instant, so he plans to soak it up while he can. He maintains that several companies are eager to put out Hard to Swallow as soon as it's completed, but rather than waiting to tour until that fine day comes, he's appearing at every venue that will have him. "I'm not a gangsta rapper," he says. "I'm a performer rapper, and I've been doing it for fourteen years. And hopefully there are people out there who can really appreciate the skills that I've got. And if there aren't, well, I've got a family waiting for me. And that makes all the difference.