Vanilla Ice released "Ice Ice Baby," the first rap single to hit number one on the pop charts, in 1990. His debut album, To The Extreme, sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, and that fame led to a movie deal (Cool As Ice came out in 1991), an appearance in Madonna's 1992 Sex book, and a backlash the likes of which you only find once or twice in a decade. Critics and rappers assailed him, saying he falsified his biography (which played up a life on the streets that was inconsistent with the white Dallas suburb in which he grew up) and co-opted and trivialized a black art form, capitalizing on white-friendly rap that couldn't be further from the genre's roots. Of course, the end was swift and brutal: His movie—a cheesy rebel-outlaw story so out-of-date it might as well have been made 40 years ago on another planet—barely lasted a week in theaters. His 1994 follow-up to To The Extreme, the gangsta-leaning, pot-celebrating Mind Blowin', didn't crack the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. But in 1998, Vanilla Ice, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, has mounted a successful comeback tour, selling out mid-sized venues throughout the Midwest. He just signed a record deal with a major label; he's married and has a daughter; he says he's kicked a drug problem; and his new album is coming soon. Van Winkle recently spoke to The Onion about rap's future, drugs, posing nude with Madonna, being menaced by Death Row Records' Suge Knight, finding God, and coming back as a reinvented Vanilla Ice.
The Onion: What material are you covering in these new shows?
Rob Van Winkle: On these shows, I'm playing some old-school stuff, some new stuff that we've been working on for the new record, and some stuff from '94, from an album I did called Mind Blowin'. Every night is different; we don't have a set program. We do different songs, and just randomly pick them as we're going. It makes it more fun for all of us, so we don't have to program every night the same way.
O: Do you still have to do "Ice Ice Baby"?
RV: Oh, yeah, but I do that because I want to do it, you know? Besides, I'd get hell if I didn't do that one. I enjoy playing it still, you know? It's my number-one hit.
O: What's this new album going to be like?
RV: High-energy, stage-diving, mosh-pitting hip hop.
O: Is it like a rap/rock kind of thing?
RV: Yeah, you could say something like that. It's not really rock—it's more alternative, I guess—but they're kind of bleeding together right now. 'Cause the word "alternative" actually used to mean "alternative to [what's on the] radio," like, too hard for radio. That's where the word alternative came in. Now, they've got alternative radio. It's kind of blurred together right now.
O: Do you have a label yet?
RV: Yeah, Universal. We just signed a phat deal.
O: That's a big label.
RV: Yeah, it is. They're really strong right now. We're collaborating on the album with a group called Korn, so you might be able to imagine a picture of what it might be like: Korn with The Iceman. We're also doing some stuff with Lenny Kravitz and The Bloodhound Gang. I did a couple tracks on [The Bloodhound Gang's] last record [1996's One Fierce Beer Coaster], and the response has been good, so in return they're gonna do some tracks on my record. And also I've got some Iceman tracks, of course.
O: Is Vanilla Ice a character you're playing, or is that really you?
RV: Well, I mean, that's me, but I respond to Ice, Vanilla, Rob… Most people just call me Rob, but Vanilla Ice has been with me so long—since my breakdancing days—that I still respond to it.
O: How many records have you sold?
RV: Of every record that I've made? Over 20 million.
O: And how many did To The Extreme sell?
RV: Uh, 15 million of it. [Laughs.]
O: I know you're doing sort of a grass-roots thing now. How do you feel about the idea of recapturing that mega-fame?
RV: Well, for me, I hope it doesn't happen like that, because it wasn't what I expected anyway, in the beginning. With the mega-fame came the mega-downfall—you know, with the press and everything—and at a young age, it was very stressful to me. I never really got to enjoy any of the fame part of it, you know? I guess I kept my head on. I don't walk around like my shit don't stink. I race motorcycles and stuff. I don't walk around with bodyguards, and I have a real recognizable face. So everywhere I go, people know me, and it seems like everybody trips out on the fact that I don't think I'm better than anybody else, or anything like that. A lot of people… You know how celebrities can be. I don't even mix with that crowd, man. That's not even me. I had tremendous success, but at the same time, it was being taken away. So I guess I stayed on the same level, you know? Which is good: I guess it's kind of paying off now, because what I'm doing now kind of fits that whole format anyway. I look out at my crowd, and I see a bunch of body-piercings and tattooed people going crazy, you know? That's basically the crowd I'm catering to; I guess they were the crowd that was in high school when "Ice Ice Baby" was big. I turned a lot of people in white America—and not just white America, but middle-class America—into hip-hoppers, you know? That hip-hop influence has kind of carried over into some different rock bands and stuff, like Rage Against The Machine. Now you have rap mixed with the rock. So that's the crowd I'm basically catering to right now, you know?
O: Where do you think rap should go from here?
RV: Oh, man, it's ventured off into so many different categories that you really can't pinpoint what's going to happen tomorrow. But you've got Puff Daddy doing the same stuff I did in the early '90s. And then you've got some different stuff… Like I said, Rage Against The Machine, which is rap—not really so much hip hop, but rap—mixed with a live band. And then you've got the raw, raw, Redman type of stuff, East Coast, West Coast, commercial… You've got all this stuff. Alternative hip hop is basically what it is, I guess.
O: You have a tattoo of "A New Leaf" on your stomach. What does that represent?
RV: Well, I turned over a new leaf about three years ago. Back in the early days, in '90, with the success and the story I was just telling you about having all my fame given to me and taken away at the same time… It was very stressful to me, and I turned to drugs as an escape route. It's one of my regrets, but at least I can say it with a smile on my face, because something good has come out of it, and that's the fact that I've found God. I found myself on the floor with an overdose one night; my friend was dumping buckets of cold water over me, trying to keep me alive. He thought I was dead, because I overdosed really bad. I woke up the next morning and realized that God had given me a second chance to live, but he said, basically, "If you fuck this one up, that's it." So I made a promise to God, right then and there, that I would never turn around and go back to those days. It's really, really strange, but God has been blessing me tremendously for the past three years—like, instantly, you know? I've got a beautiful wife and a baby girl who's seven months old, and things just couldn't be better for me right now. The album… The past nine months, we've been going around, and all the concerts have been sold out. It's been off-the-hook, and like I said, God's been blessing me tremendously.
O: You've always done well overseas. Are you planning to tour there?
RV: I hope so. I haven't been there in a while, but we're getting calls from everywhere—South Africa, even. Like I said, response has just been unreal since I started touring again. Everybody wants to do a gig, and all the shows have been sold out. I think I'm like number five on Pollstar right now, which I'm really amazed at. I don't even have a record out.
O: How has the spiritual awakening changed your music?
RV: Well, I'm not a preacher or anything. I'm a Christian, but I don't believe in religion or anything like that. I'm not a preacher: I do my music; I still smoke a little green bud, but I don't do any other drugs or anything like that.
O: So you can still rap "Roll 'Em Up" [a pro-pot anthem from Mind Blowin'], and not…
RV: Exactly, you know what I'm sayin'? I still roll 'em up, but there's no hardcore drugs goin' on in my life, or anything like that. I thank God for that. As far as my music goes, my music's still hardcore—you know, the new music, at least, is pretty hard-edged. It's going to be a shock for people to see me like this, because it's definitely a swing to a different side of what you'd expect. Definitely. Even with the show we're performing now… We're not traveling with a band right now, just my DJ [Zero] and Rod J and guys that have been with me forever. The show is just so tremendously different; it's like, every time we leave, the words everyone is saying are, like, "God, he shocked the shit out of me. It's not what I expected. It's awesome." That's really fueled me to keep going and doing what I'm doing now, and that's making this new record.
O: Is it true that you were in a grunge band for a while?
RV: Yeah, yeah. I still have it. It's called Picking Scabs. [Laughs.] They're pretty rough, man. I've been into this mosh-pit, stage-diving scene for about the past five years. I developed a band… I have a studio out here by the Metro Zoo in Miami, and we just go down there and record stuff and put it all together. It sounds tight. I play the guitar, drums, keyboards.
O: Are you ever going to put out a record with that band?
RV: Yeah, actually I am. We're working on it right now. We've got it pretty much finished; we've just gotta go in and master it down. Hopefully, we can get it out… If we do this next tour—I'd like to get out and tour with The Bloodhound Gang and Korn—I'd like to maybe have Picking Scabs as the opening act.
O: What's the new Vanilla Ice record going to be called?
RV: Hard To Swallow. It's going to be so hard to swallow for people to see it. You know, with the band and everything, it's going to be completely different. It should come out in the next couple months; I don't have an exact release date yet, but it should be out in the next couple months for sure. We've got to go to Malibu and do a few mastering things, and that's about it.
O: Do you think the media are going to be fair to you?
RV: Um, 50-50. It's been really good so far. I'm not on top or anything right now. If the record does succeed, and it gets up on the charts and stuff, I can surely see a door opening for criticism, and me being a target like I was before. But the difference is that I expect it now, and then, I didn't.
O: You just got slammed in the media.
RV: Well, I was one of the only white kids doing what I did, coming up in hip hop, in an all-black market… I think that had I been black, a lot of the criticism would never even have taken place, you know? But I probably wouldn't have had as much success, either. One hand washes the other. You never know what could have happened; all we know is what happened. They were enjoying taking punches at me, but you know what? I rolled with the punches, and I learned from them, and that's where I'm at right now. You know, no strings, live and learn, and prosper from it.
O: I just saw your movie again. What did you think of all that?
RV: Well, back in the day, man, I was manipulated a lot. My main thing is music; it's what I do. It's my main thing, but back then, I was talked into a lot of different things. It's all in how you look at it, if you really want to look at it as being a success or not: Yes, we sold 15 million records and made a movie, but I was talked into a lot of things, like writing a slow song and wearing baggy pants and crossing over to this teen market, and doing the movie, and doing these little dolls and pins, and just making a novelty out of me, basically. It was my manager just trying to suck any kind of dollar figure he could get out of any type of market. I really didn't intend for any of that to happen, you know? I grew up playing black clubs and stuff like that; I never even played a white club. I played the Stop The Violence Tour as an opening act for Ice-T and Stetsasonic and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Some people know I went out with Hammer and stuff like that, but I had a small record out on Ichiban [Hooked, which was remixed and released as To The Extreme on a bigger label], so I paid my dues. A lot of people think I was an overnight success, but I was an opening act for three or four years, and then I signed my contract with EMI. Then it kind of blew up overnight.
O: What was the deal with Suge Knight?
RV: Ah, Suge Knight… Basically, he started Death Row Records with the money he got from me back in the day. He took some points off my record, To The Extreme. He more or less forced me into that, you know?
O: Was he like a manager, or…?
RV: No, no. I didn't even know the guy; he just came with some papers one day and said, "Sign this," and kind of bullied around my bodyguards, and showed me that we were on the twentysomethingth floor, and that I'd better… I figured it out. I figured out his whole game, you know? He knew where I was at all times, and he wanted to show me that he knew where I was at all times. He showed up at [restaurants]. He showed up backstage at The Arsenio Hall Show, telling me, "All these people pay. If you want to live in my city, you gotta pay!" I was living in L.A., and I paid, I guess. [Laughs.] But you know what? I'm still alive. I didn't go to the police, nothing like that. I didn't get any lawyers, or none of that stuff.
O: Now he's in jail, and you've got a new record coming out.
RV: Hey, exactly what I'm sayin', my man. A lot of people don't associate me with gangsta rap, but that is what sparked it off, in a roundabout way. [Laughs.] Death Row Records. Ain't that a trip?
O: Are you sick of talking about Madonna?
RV: Well, it's just old news. I don't really care. I'll answer any question, to be honest with you.
O: Well, what was the deal there? You were in her book, and you had a relationship…
RV: Well, like I said, there's a lot of things I regret, and that's definitely one of them. What happened with that was really strange, because we were kind of seeing each other at the time, and I just went over to her house on the beach. We were hangin' out by the pool, and all of a sudden she says, "We've got some guys coming over, and they're going to take some pictures. You don't mind, do you?" And I said, "No, not really. It's no big deal, I guess." I wasn't going out with her to look for any public awareness of it, or anything like that. And next thing you know, these guys are over there taking pictures, and she's taking her clothes off, and saying, "Take your shirt off; let's take some cool shots." And I'm just like, "Whatever." I'm going along with it, not thinking it's going to be any big deal. I didn't even sign consent or do anything saying she could use pictures of me. I haven't sued her or done any of that stuff, but… Next thing I know, I see this big-ass fucking book come out with a metal jacket on it, and it's like this big deal, you know? I don't know, man, it just kind of threw me into this slutty package, and I didn't feel like I wanted to be a part of it. That's one of the regrets, you know?
O: How did your new wife respond to that?
RV: Uh… Not a good subject. [Laughs.] Not at all.