By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
He is the walking dead, a corpse who roams the earth long after his time ran out. He has died twice now: first, when the world discovered he was a fraud and a liar and abandoned him to making films with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the second time, when he released an album that went wood, selling so few copies you almost felt sorry for him. Robbie Van Winkle has been allowed more chances to come back than the Messiah himself. By all rights, he should have disappeared in 1991, when Van Winkle--Vanilla Ice, he called himself, stamping his own forehead with a bull's-eye--became the first rapper to hit the top spot on the Billboard charts. He should have taken his one hit, "Ice Ice Baby," and his ridiculous haircut and returned home, wherever that was--the mean streets of Miami, he said, though we all knew it was the soft pillow of Carrollton--to count his counterfeit millions in contented anonymity.
Yet Van Winkle insisted on pressing the point--making films so hysterical they should have come with laugh tracks, releasing a live redux of the debut (the SBK Records-released To the Extreme, which sold more than 13 million copies worldwide), allowing an "autobiography" so phony, it was printed in disappearing ink. And just when it seemed as though the pest problem had been taken care of, he peeked his head out from beneath the refrigerator and scampered across the floor one more time. This time, in 1994, he wore dreadlocks, begged for forgiveness, said he found God, insisted his old management forced him to pocket the loot and proliferate the lies, and swore the new Ice was the Real Ice. His record was called Mind Blowin'; it wasn't--well, except for the fact that it was actually released.
That should have been that. Vanilla Ice, it appeared, was properly disposed of, taken out to the dump and placed on a trash heap with Gerardo and New Kids on the Block and so many other early-'90s idols who stopped selling once their audience members' voices broke; make room for the Backstreet Boys. It was kind of funny when Van Winkle attempted his first comeback, really--the boy had balls, for sure, rearing his ugly head when all anyone wanted to do was shoot it off. During an interview with the Dallas Observer back then, he was so contrite and arrogant, a kid who knew he had sinned but enjoyed it so thoroughly, he grinned through his apology. He talked about the Lord...and said "fuck" a lot. Something about the boy breeds hostility and not a little pity.
So when he calls again, four years later, to discuss his second comeback--this time, as a rap-metal musician with close-cropped hair and tattoos covering so much exposed skin--it's even harder to hate him. He's delusional, yes: Van Winkle genuinely believes his new record, Hard to Swallow (he is the master straight man), is "revolutionary," though it sounds just like Korn and Limp Bizkit and so much other top-of-the-pops "Adidas rock." But what major-label act isn't demented? That's why they sign to major labels. What's the point, really, in hating the guy? Despising Vanilla Van Winkle is a waste of time; he's no more abhorrent than Celine Dion or Shania Twain or most any other prefab superstar, no more contrived than Barenaked Ladies, no more foolish than the Backstreet Boys...or even Korn, who could suck oil out of the ground.
He has a label deal in 1998 precisely because he's such a soft-spot novelty, the Zelig of pop culture who reinvents himself every few years. Hard to Swallow even features an "Ice Ice Baby" redo titled "Too Cold"; same lyrics, only this time the "Under Pressure" sample has been replaced by a goosestep beat and growling vocals. Rap yesterday, metal today--most likely he'll go swing before the millennium is up.
No musician has been vilified so much for having done nothing more than selling a few million records. So he lied about being from Luther Campbell's high school and being stabbed by gang members and winning motocross awards when contest organizers said they never heard of him. So he really went to R.L. Turner, sold beer out of the back of his Camaro on Forest Lane to underage high-schoolers, and proved to be the Pat Boone of hip-hop, using his white face to sell black music. Big deal. Like the man says, "I am not what you need to focus on. You need to focus on the music. This crowd that embraces me is not the pop crowd or the black crowd. It's a college crowd with mosh pits, body-piercing, tattoos--they're crazy white boys. It's great, because that's me. That's fucking me. I am catering to people who do appreciate what I am doing. To the rest, they're not going to buy it, so I don't let it bother me. I accept that role. I will always have critics. You can't please everybody."
Van Winkle is still the same guy he was eight years ago, when I first interviewed the then-21-year-old for the Dallas Times Herald--perhaps a bit more obeisant, but no less unctuous. If anything, he is a bit more open about his life: He talks about having attention deficit disorder (one track on Hard to Swallow is titled "A.D.D."), about how the man he never knew as his father beat his mother while she was pregnant with him (a subject dealt with in the song "Scars"), how he's a manic depressive on medication even as we speak. Perhaps that, too, is a cynical ploy, as contemptuous as concocting a street-tough past to make him seem more credible eight years ago; nothing garners sympathy faster than sad-sack tales of an abusive parent and a near-death experience with drugs.