God help him

Vanilla Ice, hip-hop's trivia answer, wants to prove he's still cool--but was he ever?

Jimmy Hoffa seems like a more plausible candidate for a comeback than Vanilla Ice. The once and former Robert Van Winkle briefly ruled the world in 1990 with "Ice Ice Baby," the most successful rap single of all time to that point. 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 would. After all, he was a punch line when he was famous, a laughingstock even when he ruled Paradise.

But Ice, born and bred right here, is like a Texas cockroach you can never quite kill. The former R.L. Turner student, now 29, is back once more, valiantly trying to make his second comeback in four years; on March 11, he came through town and played the Groovy Mule, which is an appropriately named venue for a jackass. Difficult as it is to believe, the kid who used to sell beer out of his trunk on Forest Lane hasn't disappeared into the night like a bad dream. The proof exists: The music-biz trade magazine Pollstar, which compiles a roster of the top 40 tours as judged by requests for itinerary information registered at its Internet site, reported that 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 or a sick fascination with the dead: At a time when white leisure suits are back in vogue in certain circles, the second (or is that third?) 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. Instead of lying through his shiny whites, he spins a tale of woe and, God help us, rebirth.

"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, he claims, was part of his 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--always has been, always will be. 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 claimed to have come of age in low-income Miami, where he was stabbed by rival gang members, and to have attended high school with 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell--but he actually spent the majority of his teen years in Carrollton, where the most severe cut he ever got was a paper cut. 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, who has long stopped talking about his days with the Iceman.

"There was some really different stuff that they wanted me to be that really wasn't me," Van Winkle 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.

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