Robert Van Winkle, better known throughout the world as "Vanilla Ice," was born on October 31, 1968 in Orlando, Florida. Van Winkle would later become the first rap artist to score a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 when Ice Ice Baby topped the charts in 1990. Van Winkle was on top of the world and was the most popular thing in music from late 1990 through early 1991 at which point he unexpectedly flamed out as the public completely turned on him when it was discovered that he had faked his own biography in an ill-advised effort to gain street credibility (a.k.a. "street cred").
I. Rise to Stardom
Van Winkle grew up in Carrollton, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He also spent some time in Miami, Florida and attended high schools are various times in Carrollton and Miami. In 1987 Van Winkle was "discovered" by Tommy Quon, owner of City Lights, a Dallas club. Quon saw Van Winkle's white Camaro IROC parked in front of his marquee. When Quon asked Van Winkle to move the car, the brash Van Winkle said he was coming inside to enter a talent contest and that he didn't want his car to be stolen. After Quon witnessed Van Winkle’s performance in the talent contest he signed Van Winkle that night. Quon saw that Van Winkle was a decent rapper was great charisma and excellent dance skills.
Quon later surrounded Van Winkle with black dancers and let Van Winkle open for City Lights headliners such as Tone Loc, Paula Abdul, and Public Enemy. Quon also dressed Van Winkle up in flashy clothes. Van Winkle recorded some demos and showed them to several record companies. Unfortunately, the record companies who heard the demos were not interested. Still convinced he had something special, Quon decided to release the recordings himself.
Van Winkle's recordings were released on a two-sided tape. The "A" side included "Play That Funky Music," a rap reworking of Wild Cherry's 1976 song of the same title. The "B" side included Ice Ice Baby, a song which incorporated a chant by the black college fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha and the bass line from Under Pressure, a song recorded by Queen and David Bowie in 1980.
A disc jockey in Georgia initially started playing the "A" side of Van Winkle’s tape. However, when he flipped the tape over and played Ice Ice Baby he was blown away and played it. The song soon topped the station's playlist. Shortly thereafter a station in Chattanooga, Tennessee, added it and then some Dallas stations gave Ice Ice Baby some airplay. Quon subsequently financed a video that quickly became the most requested video on Video Jukebox, a short-lived music video channel where viewers could play a fee to request that a particular music video be played.
Atlantic Records was close to signing Van Winkle to a contract when the founder of SBK records, Charles Koppelman, heard Ice Ice Baby and was so impressed that he signed Van Winkle the next day. Ice Ice Baby entered the Billboard Hot 100 on September 8, 1990 and peaked at #1 eight weeks later. Van Winkle was the first rap artist with a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.* Ice Ice Baby stayed in the #1 position for one week but almost certainly would have remained at #1 for much longer if SBK hadn't deleted the single, forcing fans to purchase the entire album To The Extreme to acquire the Ice Ice Baby song.
Commentators often deride Van Winkle as a "one hit wonder." However, this is not true, as Van Winkle's second biggest hit, Play That Funky Music, reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1991.
II. Van Winkle's Downfall
In the late 1980s/early 1990s there was a school of thought that held that rap artists needed street cred to be popular. Van Winkle grew up in a middle class family and he and his manager believed he lacked the requisite street cred and decided to invent street cred. When Van Winkle's Ice Ice Baby first hit the airwaves he was known only as Vanilla Ice and a biography issued by Van Winkle and his manager contained many outright lies. First, the bio indicated that he attended an all-black high school in Miami and learned to rap from the black kids in his school when he was walking home. The bio also indicated that he attended school with 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell even though Campbell is much older than Van Winkle.
Some black rap artists and many others in the black community hated Van Winkle for his unbelievable success as a rap artist. When some newspaper reporters did some digging and discovered Van Winkle’s true roots, they were unforgiving. The negative press was relentless and the public turned on him, deriding him as nothing more than a novelty act.
Van Winkle also caught a lot of grief for using the bass lien from Under Pressure in Ice Ice Baby. Van Winkle didn't help his own cause by going on MTV and denying that he copied the bass line. In reality he did use the bass line and eventually settled a lawsuit with Queen over this matter. He also settled copyright infringement allegations with Wild Cherry over his version of Play That Funky Music.
Van Winkle's next album with new songs was "Mind Blowin'," released in 1994. The album's sales were terrible. Van Winkle eventually remade himself as hard rock artist and still performs to this day at clubs across America while singing Ice Ice Baby in addition to his new hard rock songs.
III. Van Winkle's Movie Career
When he was a huge star Van Winkle would do practically anything for money. He starred in the movie Cool As Ice, made a cameo appearance in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.
Cool As Ice was released in 1991 and was supposed to be a drama even though it is impossible to watch the movie without laughing numerous times. Cool As Ice was based loosely on Rebel Without A Cause. Van Winkle played Johnny Van Owen, a motorcycle-riding musician who travels from town to town performing in clubs with his band. One day while traveling on motorcycles to a new town a motorcycle driven by member in Johnny Van Owen's band breaks town so that entire band stops and stays in town while the bike is being repaired.
Johnny Van Owen eventually meets Kathy Winslow, the daughter of Gordon Winslow (played by Family Ties' Michael Gross) who is in the Witness Protection Program to hide from mobsters. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but rest assured that Van Owen saves the Winslow family from the mobsters and beats up several people who get in his way.
There are many unintentionally hilarious aspects of the film. First, even though it is summer in California, Van Owen is wearing a heavy orange jacket. He also occasionally sports a leather jacket that lists his most popular expressions such as "Down By Law," "Yep Yep," Sex Me Up," and "Oh Yeah." The most talked-about scene in Cool As Ice is the scene where Van Owen interrupts an argument between Kathy and her boyfriend at the time and says the immortal line: "Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero!" That particular scene might represent the pinnacle of American cinema.
Here are links to two websites that have comprehensive (and funny) reviews of Cool As Ice:
Van Winkle also appeared briefly in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. I personally think that his scene was the best one in the entire movie. In his scene, a couple of the turtles were fighting some mutants and they all end up in an underground club where Van Winkle is singing. When Van Winkle sees the turtles he starts signing the Ninja Rap.
IV. Subsequent TV Appearances
Van Winkle has made several appearances on TV shows over the past few years. He has been on The Surreal Life, Celebrity Boxing, Remaking Vanilla Ice, and Hit Me, Baby, One More Time. One of his most talked-about performance was his appearance on The Surreal Life. In one of the shows he and some washed-up celebrities were supposed to work at a Mel's Diner in Hollywood. The producers decided to spice things up by inviting Gary Coleman on the show to be the manager of Mel's Diner for that episode. Van Winkle really wanted Coleman to say his catchphrase "Whatchoo talkin' bout" and was insulted when Coleman refused to say it. So Van Winkle picked up Coleman and threatened to throw Coleman in a deep fryer unless he said that catchphrase. Coleman was shocked by Van Winkle's actions and stormed out of the restaurant saying that he hated Van Winkle.
Van Winkle also appeared on an MTV special entitled "25 Lame" in 1999. The MTV special was hosted by Janeane Garofalo, Chris Kattan, Denis Leary, and Jon Stewart. The purpose of the MTV special was to discuss the 25 lamest videos ever shown on MTV and ban them forever. Van Winkle was invited to discuss his Ice Ice Baby video and destroy a tape of the video. The hosts gave Van Winkle a baseball bat to destroy the tape and Van Winkle went nuts, destroying the tape and then smashing several other props on the set in a rage.
Van Winkle appeared on Celebrity Boxing in 2002 on the FOX network and fought fellow washed-up celebrity Todd Bridges. Bridges pummelled Van Winkle in three rounds on the show.
V. Miscellaneous Interviews
Van Winkle is an interesting personality and is always available for a good quote. He sometimes exaggerates stories in a way that is not believable but is actually kind of funny. Several years ago Van Winkle said that the ex-con founder of Death Row Records, Suge Knight, held him upside down hanging over a hotel balcony and threatened to drop him unless Van Winkle gave him somewhere around $180 million. In recent years, however, Van Winkle has changed his story and now says that the media reported the story incorrectly and that Suge simply talked to him while they were standing on a hotel balcony. (Van Winkle is lying about the media's misreporting of the original story - I saw footage on a VH1 show years ago where he made his original claim.)
Van Winkle has also been rather candid in explaining why he used to dress up in the flashy clothes when he performed in 1990:
I'm enjoyin' myself now for the first time ever. It's hard to understand that, you sell 17 million records it sounds like it's great and gravy and shit, but I didn't enjoy it too much, man. Anyone who hates on Vanilla Ice would have done the same fucking thing, so they can't hate on me. They told me, we want you to wear these baggy pants because the young kids like it because the young kids like it and it's all glittery and polished and everything, and I said, "Fuck no, I'm not wearin' this gay-ass shit," and they said, "Well here's a million dollars, man, will you do it?" And I said, "Fuck yes." And anybody would have done the same thing if they were given the same chance. I'd lick my mother's asshole for a million dollars.
Unlike many of the washed-up celebrities I have profiled on this blog, I think Van Winkle got a raw deal. I personally couldn't have cared less about Van Winkle's false "thug" life story. I thought that his music was fun. He was truly the first rap artist to enjoy wide success throughout mainstream America.
He caught a lot of flak for using the bass line from Under Pressure. So what? Ice Ice Baby was much, much more successful and sold far more albums than Under Presure. Moreover, practically every rap artist does the same thing, yet they still give Van Winkle crap for it to this day 16 years after Ice Ice Baby hit #1. In 1997 Puff Daddy completely ripped off The Police's Every Breath You Take and changed maybe 10 words and released it as I'll Be Missing You; the hypocrites in the music community actually gave Puff Daddy great press for that song.
Despite the fact that Van Winkle was smart with his money and didn't throw it all away like MC Hammer and others, there's no denying the fact that he is one washed-up celebrity!
[UPDATE - 2/11/07 - I originally had youtube links to video clips from the Cool As Ice, Ice Ice Baby, and the MTV 25 Lame special. Unfortunately, youtube deleted those videos today for violating youtube's Terms of Service.]
* Many commentators have written that Ice Ice Baby was the first rap song to hit #1. This is incorrect. Although Vanilla Ice was the first rap artist with a #1 hit, Ice Ice Baby was the second rap song to hit #1. The first rap song to peak at #1 was Rapture by the pop group Blondie, which peaked at #1 on March 28, 1981.
*** Update - April 12, 2008 ***
Vanilla Ice was arrested on April 10, 2008 by Palm Beach County Sherriff's deputies on a charge of domestic battery. His wife called the police after he allegedly pushed her during an argument. His mug shot is shown below: