Vanilla Ice Knows He’s Cool Again

Vanilla Ice is bringing fans back to the '90s with a show at the Statler with Young MC.
Vanilla Ice is bringing fans back to the '90s with a show at the Statler with Young MC. courtesy Vanilla Ice
Everyone wants a do-over. Maybe a second chance to go back and not say that utterly stupid thing we said at the worst possible time — that awkward moment from your past that pops up in your mind to haunt you when you're about to fall asleep. Sorry to bring it up. And then there are those far deeper, bitter regrets. Vanilla Ice, however, is perfectly at peace with his past. In fact, he celebrates it. He also sort of still lives there.

The rapper, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is spreading the '90s-specific cheer with a nationwide party tour. On April 15, he’ll be playing with Young MC at Dallas' Statler Hotel, which will have a “property-wide ‘90s party,” meaning a party at every bar and restaurant in the hotel. The event is an ode to nostalgia, with retro arcade games, a '90s costume contest and themed drink specials.

He may be a longtime Floridian now, but this is still a homecoming for Van Winkle.

"Dallas is always home," he says. "I was born in Baylor Hospital and that's home. You know, I got a big ol' Texas tattoo on my leg."

In his childhood, Van Winkle split his time between Miami and his hometown of Dallas. The day we speak, he's calling from Palm Beach — where he's lived for the past 30 years — as he calls it, "on daddy duty" on the drive home from picking up both his daughter from school and her Happy Meal.

"So I grew up a lot out here in Florida, [but] I always have roots there, my whole family is there in Dallas," he says. "So they’d disown me if, you know, I wasn’t a Cowboys fan."

Years before the word “vanilla” became an interchangeable descriptor for sexually bland, the rapper blew up the world with the still ubiquitous “Ice Ice Baby,” becoming an indisputable icon who danced (in harem pants) so Eminem could run.

There was a time that the whirlwind left him spinning with depression, and in 1994 he attempted suicide by overdosing on drugs. These days, he seems to know well that anyone who’s ever called him a has-been is probably a never-been. And he is not one, at any rate. Ice channeled his fame into a successful run as reality TV star/ home renovator with The Vanilla Ice Project, which aired for nine seasons and is still filming. Plus he’s still touring. Despite his continued success, he's not fond of the new millennium.

"Well, we have a blast," he says of his upcoming shows. "First of all, we show people what it was like to live in the ‘90s, which is a better time. ... I feel sorry for these kids today; it was just a better world when when we were kids."

Van Winkle says those who come to his shows "have a very broad demographic, from 9 to 90s" and are looking to relive the best of the decade: a simpler, more politically neutral, financially naive era — before we became entirely dependent on our devices and looked to social media for validation.

"I get it because it's infectious," he says of the revival of '90s culture. "It was the last great decade before computers ruined the world. I mean, all of our shoes that are sold today, they're from the '90s, the [Nike] Air Force 1, the Air Jordans, the Vans, the shell-toe Adidas, you know, everything. The fashion — the fanny pack is back — and, you know, it's not soccer moms doing it, it's every generation. It's college kids rocking them."

For him, the '90s and late '80s had an "energy that moved people."

"It just has an electrifying magnetism that people are drawn to, and even though we're in 2022, you know, there really hasn't been any fashion or anything that's changed from the '90s at all in 30 years," he says. "It's crazy. We are stuck in the '90s still. If you go in the mall, you see neon colors everywhere, even the bathing suits for the girls are all like the ones they wore in the '90s."

The style comeback is hugely rewarding for Van Winkle. He has achieved what few parents have: His kids think he's cool.

"My kids are early 20s," he says of his eldest, Dusti Rain and Keelee, "and they think I'm cool. They think, like, 'Man, you are the coolest. I love those clothes and all those neon colors.'"

"Even my 3-year-old, which is awesome," he continues, "because I thought all that fashion had ran its course. I look back at it like, 'Oh that was so funny and cheesy, haha' and I kind of laughed at it, like those pictures your grandmother pulls out of you that you don't want to show your friends. Yeah. 'Put those away, Grandma.' I kind of was embarrassed a little bit by some of the Z Cavaricci jeans I wore, and now it's the coolest thing. My daughters are Googling pictures of me going, ‘Dad, look at these pants you used to have, wow.’"

Vanilla Ice is also a hit with other people's kids, he says, who learn about him after watching The Vanilla Ice Project or through parents introducing the rapper to their children via YouTube clips.

"I play a lot of colleges," he says. "A lot of kids that were not born during 'Ice Ice Baby,' so I have very broad demographics. It doesn't cater to the obvious."

Thanks to his constant presence on TV, Van Winkle is still easily recognizable, even if we best remember him for his signature pompadour and '90s flair.

"A lot of people come up to me that are younger and they go ‘Go ninja, go ninja, go," he says with a near-maniacal laugh, "'cuz I'm a big part of the, you know, the Ninja Turtles."

Vanilla Ice performed the song "Ninja Rap" in a scene for the 1991 film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.

"I play all the comic cons and stuff and the Ninja Turtles outsell everything," he says, "even Spider-Man, Superman. Like every superhero out there, times 10, just the memory of their memorabilia of the Ninja Turtles is unbelievable. And it's still going. I mean, you can go into Walmart today and they have their own row of toys of Ninja Turtles."

Of everything he's done, without question, this is, to him, the pinnacle of his professional career.

"Ninja Turtles — I'm covered with [their]  tattoos head to toe, right?" he says. "I've sold for over $480 million [in] records, 48 million records worldwide, and other than my kids being the greatest accomplishment of my entire life by far, when you look at career-wise, I am serious as I can be when I say my greatest accomplishment is the Ninja Turtles."

His favorite, he says, is "Raphael probably. Michelangelo, Raphael. Yeah. Now isn't it funny? We have our favorite song turtle to identify your character, right?

"I'm a fanatic. I have the hugest collection of Ninja Turtle stuff back from '84 — from cassettes to all kinds of VHS stuff to, you know, even the cereal bowl with the straw in it that you can soup the milk up. I told everybody, I said that I would remove every tattoo on my whole body, except for my Ninja Turtle tattoos."

Fashion is an important element for Van Winkle. It's not just a way to retroactively impress his children, but an easy way to identify kinship, especially among those who like the same kind of music.

"Pop culture was a real thing and that's where you could identify how people dressed in the fashion with what kind of music they listen to," he says. "You can easily spot the punk rockers wearing the leather jackets and the Mohawks and the guyliner. You knew they were listening to Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols. You could tell the stoners over there, they were listening to Motley Crue and all that stuff. And then you've got the jocks and stuff, you can easily tell how they were dressed what they were listening to, and the hip-hoppers, which is me. The fashion for hip-hop was huge."

Van Winkle does not care for smartphones, computers or any screen outside of the one for which you used a remote to turn on MTV. He refers to the pre-internet era as "before the time we ruined the world." There is hardly anything useful he finds in modern technology and nothing he would take back with him.

"I would leave all the apps and smartphones and 'Snapcraps' and computer screens, I would leave all that and never bring that back to the ‘90s," he says. "I wouldn't want an electric car in the '90s. I wouldn't want a Tesla. I'd rather burn rubber and put in a louder exhaust."

He remembers his days cruising down Forest Lane, when kids carried around screwdrivers so they could take out their car's back seats to put in a subwoofer box, "You know, because you could pop the trunk and dance — anywhere. A parking lot could now turn into a dancing lot. That's the '90s; everybody wanted to dance."

Van Winkle says happiness is the key to success, and that dancing is the key to happiness.

"I just say to everybody, 'Look, keep dancing,'" he says. "Let me tell you why. As long as you dance, you're happy. My mom, it was the greatest advice anybody could ever give me, just whatever you do try to keep dancing because if you surround yourself with people that are dancing, you're going to be happy. Because think about it. You cannot physically dance if you're miserable. You can't.

"It's infectious. And the more you dance, the happier you are. Dance through life, dance through all your problems dance through everything until the wheels fall off. That's the greatest advice I can give you. That's the Ice advice."

Before he found worldwide fame as a rapper, Van Winkle was a motocross champion. These days there aren't many other parallel careers he wants to attempt. Though he says he has "all kinds of ideas and stuff," he's busy enough with real estate and touring.

"It's overwhelming during the week," he says. "During the weekend, I get to be the oldest teenager in town, and I'll dance and that's why I'm still in great shape. And then I still dance on Monday, but it's basically being a lousy adult and accepting responsibilities and paying bills.

"I just ride this ride, the wave of life, and I enjoy it all," he says. "But as long as I get to spend time with my kids, my family, and my little 3-year-old, it's just, you know, the greatest thing ever."

Van Winkle still has another business venture, his own energy drink, which is about to hit Walmart, called, yup, "Vanilla Ice."

And though he's all over the world spreading nostalgia, he's most inspired at home.

"Dance through life, dance through all your problems dance through everything until the wheels fall off. That's the greatest advice I can give you. That's the Ice advice." – Vanilla Ice

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"It makes me feel alive," he says. "I like it. I wake up and I have an agenda. I have a purpose. I have some meaning, and I have drive and ambition, which it takes to make all this happen."

But it's not just the fashion that has changed (or not changed) in hip-hop. It's not much of a dance genre anymore, Van Winkle says.

"Well hip-hop is still hip-hop, no matter what," he says. "It's definitely changed. It's gotten more melodic, you know, there's been big, big artists that come in like these rap superstars like Dre and stuff. They kind of change the R&B-ness of hip-hop and kind of worked out a bunch of different ways to have kind of more of a cruising kind of a hip-hop, a slower melodic hip-hop, you know, but it was different because the energy. You don't dance too much of the hip-hop today."

He may hate the internet and the "snapcraps," but Van Winkle is up to date. He likes Future, Drake and Kodak Black. He says he watches tons of dance videos on TikTok and he likes to see how moves have evolved since his days as a breakdancer (which earned him his nickname, since he was white).

"The difference is hip-hop is still here, but the culture of it, the pop culture of it is not, which means the fashion," he says. "I mean, even the new hip-hoppers today are wearing skinny jeans now, you know, that's what we started off with and the '90s, you know, before we went to the saggy crotch so that we could dance and do the splits more."

"At least they're not sagging them to the to their ankles anymore," he says with his huge laugh.

"Ice, Ice, Baby" is not his favorite song.

"I just let the fans decide what they like and they gravitate towards this or that," he says. "Yeah, we can't pick our fans, they pick us. We can't pick the songs, they pick themselves. You just do what you do, but you know, it's just amazing. There's so many things that just spawned off of the success of the music and the impact. But you know, it really does define one of the greatest generations ever. And I'm just honored to be a part of it."

He sees kids these days chasing carrots that are "dangling in every direction."

"This social media stuff, just the over-information stuff, got them confused," he says. "I see my kids, man. I try to I try to tell them. Listen, you just need to experience the ‘90s to understand where all this came from, because your generation, the millennials, did not invent the computer. We did, we invented it, but we didn't grow up with it, but now we're watching our kids that grew up with it and the effect from it. So I have to tell them, you know, watch out. Don't full-on follow everything, the Kardashians do you know?"

But Van Winkle is not blind to the economic freedoms afforded by social media.

"I think everybody's just gotten smarter and more educated towards the art of persuasion," he says, "and they've all got a salesman pitch, and everybody's basically kind of turning into a bunch of car salesmen to generate views on their TikTok or their Instagram, or whatever they're doing. They're trying to build their funnel and that's a good thing to do because I see a lot of people making money at home on TikTok and different ways to monetize all the views and stuff.

"But you know, the way it works is we all go to sleep and we wake up the same way, you know, we get a cup of coffee, we yawn, we stretch whatever right? And it's not that — it's what you do during the day that makes a difference. You know, we got an option: We can either sit there and twiddle our thumbs or we can go out and follow our dreams and make them come true to reality. Or you can play Fortnite all day, whatever you want."

He also has specific advice for Dallasites.

"Check us out this weekend in Dallas because it's going to be an epic time," he says. "It's my hometown. I got tons of friends that come out, tons of new friends that I've met over the years. Come out and bring your fanny pack. Dress up like a Ninja Turtle."
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Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio