John M. Phillips in conversation with Vanilla Ice.
In an era where people are quick to generalize about others, it’s easy to place the performer known as Vanilla Ice in certain boxes or judge him based on their own misconceptions. And he’s heard it all. White rapper with an emphasis on “white”? One-hit wonder? People even throw the word “misappropriation” around. But after spending almost 90 minutes on the phone with Rob Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice), I was so surprised by our conversation, it changed the entire angle of the article.
Originally intended to be a fairly simple piece about his April 5th performance at the Clay County Agricultural Fair, it now endeavors to not only challenge how he is viewed by the public but how we oversimplify people in general. Rob, as it turns out, is charismatic, generous and humble. And his work ethic, perseverance and sense of humor blew this article far past the original word count. You cannot deny Rob Van Winkle’s hustle.
From “Ice Ice Baby” becoming hip-hop’s first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart to appearing on the big screen in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze (and as a regular in Adam Sandler films) to hosting his own home reno/house flipping show, The Vanilla Ice Project, on DIY Network, he’s managed to remain relevant since the early ’90s. And at age 53, he’s still performing in front of adoring fans around the world. His personal story is one thing.The origin of Vanilla Ice, however, is quite another––and one that could be studied by anthropologists and historians.
Born in Dallas, he never knew his real father and was given the surname of his stepfather. Over the years, a series of other father figures helped push him through a pretty difficult life in Dallas and Miami, whether it was their being extra hard on him or helping him realize he didn’t want to grow up like them. In his earlier years, Rob experienced more than his share of violence. He witnessed someone get shot in the face multiple times. And at the age of 19, he was stabbed five times outside a Dallas nightclub, losing four pints of blood. For anyone to get out of such a dangerous rut would require incredible vision and passion, as well as opportunity. Fortunately, he found all of it—as well as his break-dancing and rapping alter-ego “Vanilla Ice”—while scraping and crawling his way out. Rob didn’t do everything he did merely because he wanted to, he said. He did it because he had to.
At one point in the conversation, we joked, “Anything less than the best was a felony?” “Or worse,” he responded, “We can always work harder.” At 14 years old, Rob hung out at the local mall near his house in Texas and made about $40 a day breakdancing for crowds. Back then, there were no cell phones or public internet, let alone social media, and TV options were far fewer than today. Kids were more inclined to entertain themselves outside, often finding inspiration in movies of the day. For him, it was the musical/comedy/drama Breakin’ and it became much more than just dancing for dollars. He was dancing for his life. Also inspired by the music of Roger Troutman, Zapp, Parliament- Funkadelic and Rick James, Rob started writing poetry at 15 and would essentially create moments at parties and hanging out with friends to challenge others to rap battles. “We would freestyle and come up with whatever we could, and I would just practice all day and all night,” he said.
At the time, a Dallas club called City Lights was one of the shining stars in the galaxy of hip-hop and rap and attracted legends like Whodini, LL Cool J, Too Short and N.W.A. However, it was a performance by Troutman that would cause young Rob to hustle his way in with a driver’s license he “borrowed” from his older brother.
Before Roger Troutman took the stage, Rob, underage and the only white guy in the club, had the gravitas to approach the club’s DJ Floyd “Earthquake” Brown about performing.
“I noticed this white guy dancing in the crowd. City Lights was all Black, so at first I was like, ‘What does he think he’s doing?’” Earthquake recalled.
Eventually, the DJ gave a very nervous Vanilla Ice a shot called a “Runny Nose” and sent him on stage. It’s quite likely he gave the young white guy a chance to humor the crowd as much as anything, but Vanilla Ice ran with the opportunity.
“I created a fan base right then and there,” Rob recalled. “I had the crowd in the palm of my hand. When I danced, they went berserk.” After that performance, Earthquake brought him back up to the DJ booth, and he was invited back to perform at City Lights and another club owned by Tommy Quon.
That a young white kid was overwhelmingly accepted by the overwhelming Black hip-hop community spoke volumes about his talent (Rob’s own mother even told him, “White boys don’t rap.”). At the same time, his new persona led to his experiencing reverse racism and being ostracized by some in the white community.
“I had to prove myself harder than anybody else who wasn’t white and that caused me to lose a lot of sleep practicing and practicing and practicing,” he recounted, “and that carried over to… I have a purpose here.”
After performing on any stage, sidewalk or party he could, Vanilla Ice became known as “this white boy who can dance his ass off” and a must-see performer. Building on the buzz, Rob distributed flyers and drummed up crowds creating his own following and recruiting customers to clubs—all while still a teenager. Quon ultimately took the reins as Rob’s manager, a role he still plays today.
The legend of Vanilla Ice led to him being recruited as the opening act for acts like 2 Live Crew, Stetsasonic, EPMD and Sir Mix-a-Lot. But his big break came when he performed as “the opening act for the opening act for the opening act for the opener” on the Stop the Violence Tour featuring Public Enemy, Ice-T, N.W.A and Too Short. He was in the 10th grade at the time.
Rob recalled Ice-T watching him set up and practice from the side of the stage. “What the f— is this stupid corny ass shit?” he imagined the rap legend thinking about him at the time. “I can only imagine what was going through his brain.” But for 15 minutes, Ice-T watched the performance—then told Chuck D, leader of Public Enemy he should do the same.
“Chuck D came out and watched us,” he said. “He was so supportive and helped us navigate through a record deal.”
But before we get to Vanilla Ice’s rise to fame, let’s put on our anthropological hat and ask if his path of ascension is based on “cultural appropriation.”
For decades, the phrase was mostly limited to academia, but recently, it has become a part of the social media vernacular, prompting online outrage and the birth of “cancel culture.” Sometimes, the blowback from cultural appropriation is well deserved. It is important, though, to seriously consider someone’s personal experiences or “bubble” before assuming nefariousness and accusing them of doing things for the wrong reasons.
Rob will be the first to admit he was inspired by breakdancing movies, but the movies didn’t do the work for him. Clearly, he was inspired by the rhymes and beats of his hip-hop heroes, but they didn’t write the songs for him. And while most kids were learning how to drive, Rob was driven to succeed—and it was icons of the hip-hop world who helped him get there. However you see it, Vanilla Ice’s meteoric rise would not have occurred without support from the Black community, specifically the very creators of the song “Fight the Power.”
That said, Vanilla Ice released his debut album in 1989 with “Play That Funky Music” as its first single. It received little airplay until a DJ in Georgia started playing the B-side, “Ice Ice Baby.” Before long, “Ice Ice Baby” was everywhere, eventually making it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning Vanilla Ice a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance. Today, “Ice Ice Baby,” which Rob wrote in about 30 minutes with some friends when he was 16, is credited with popularizing hip-hop with mainstream audiences and continues to hold a place in popular culture having been featured on CSI, Big Bang Theory and the popular British soap opera EastEnders.
Given the song’s seemingly eternal relevance, we couldn’t help but borrow a line from the song and ask Rob, “Will it ever stop?” secretly hoping he’d respond, “Yo, I don’t know.” Instead, he responded more truthfully.
“Never,” he said. “I don’t have an ego. I lost it a long time ago … But holy shit, this song! … [It] became an anthem for an entire generation. It brings back memories to everyone. Four hundred million records later, here we have it.”
We couldn’t help but follow up with another question about the song submitted by a Folio reader: “When did you realize ‘A1A Beachfront Avenue’ is the greatest song lyric of all time?” Rob laughed hysterically and then acknowledged he is constantly tagged in random photos up and down the Florida coast on the historic A1A. “[I realized that] the name of the actual avenue will never change. So, even after I am gone, people will be over on A1A from Miami to Jacksonville, tagging me into photos and subconsciously seeing or saying ‘A1A’ and knowing ‘Beachfront Avenue’ is the next subconscious thought.” It’s become Pavlovian.
On a more serious subject, we talked quite a bit about sampling or the reuse of a portion of a sound recording in a separate recording, specifically the legal issues surrounding “Ice Ice Baby.” (Representatives of Queen and David Bowie made claims that it used the bass line from their song “Under Pressure,” which was released in 1981.) Rob explained how much sampling has been, and still is, such an integral part of hip-hop and rap music. But unlike today, he noted, sampled tracks had not yet piqued the interest of music industry lawyers. “Ice Ice Baby” changed that.
It had sold about 3 million copies at that point and a comparison was unavoidable. “It was the first rap record to ever go number one on a pop station on pop radio or in pop record sales,” he explained. “A turntable is part of rap music. That’s how rap music developed. A DJ would spin a record, and you better rap to a good beat or hook.” (He ultimately settled claims related to use of the contagious hook.)
We also asked about some of the references in “Ice Ice Baby” to the fraternal chants and dances of Alpha Phi Alpha, like those depicted in the Spike Lee film SchoolDaze. Rob said it was purely coincidental or, perhaps, subconscious. Initially, the song was called “Vanilla Ice Baby,” but it was a beat short prompting Earthquake to yell into the booth, “Put another ‘ice’ in there.” That and Vanilla Ice was putting his name everywhere—a brand influencer before it was even a thing. It was only after listening to the song about 30 times that they noticed the similarity.
One of the most asked stories he gets is about Suge Knight. He stated emphatically, Suge never hung him over a balcony. Comparing it to his own life, he jests, “Most of the stuff I’ve seen makes Suge Knight as scary as the great Gary Coleman.” Simply put, they had a business dispute that got resolved. He’s never been an enemy of Suge Knight.
Likewise, Eazy–E was a mentor, and one of the people who impressed him the most. The love and attention they gave him provided so much encouragement and support which he credits to this day. His heroes borrowed some of his own dance moves, which he considered an ultimate compliment.
Speaking of misconceptions, Rob received considerable flak last year over his “politics,” specifically performing at President Donald Trump’s New Year’s Eve party at The Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach. He denied any political involvement with Trump and took it a step further saying he thinks celebrities should let people make political decisions for themselves.
By contrast, he described the “unbelievable” honor of being selected by BET executives and others, including legendary singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte, to perform at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015 for the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma and Bloody Sunday.
Paxton Baker, general manager and executive vice president of Centric TV and president of BET Event Productions, explained why. “Vanilla Ice was in the Soul Train Awards two years ago, and he’s a really cool person. …He’s one of the people we call to participate in things with us, and if he can do it, he absolutely will. I sent him a text [about the event], and within two minutes his response was two words: ‘I’m in.’”
Still, cancel culture comments made their way to him. His response? “People always try to put you in a category. White. Black. Democrat. Republican. In the world, I have so many fans in Muslim countries and China and Russia. I do music. It’s universal. It’s made for every ear. I think we should all be just ONE.”
Rob was born into a level of poverty and has experienced the kind of violence most of us will never know. But it’s his mother who made him who he is today. “My mom is the sweetest lady in the world. She is my greatest inspiration in life,” he said. “She can play every instrument like you wouldn’t believe.” (The “word to your mother” line at the end of the “Ice Ice Baby” is an homage to his mom and the dedication of supportive mothers everywhere.)
Vanilla Ice, on other other hand, was born out of the need to escape a bad situation, like taking his dirt bike over to “the rich kids’ side of town and hustle it out” to let kids with more sensible mothers pay per ride.
While Rob admitted he didn’t really like the name “Vanilla Ice” when it was given to him by those who saw him perform, it stuck— kind of like getting stuck in a rut, when all you can see is the rut. He ultimately accepted the moniker as a badge of honor; it became his purpose in life and gave him his drive.
“Without a purpose and a meaning, you are floating around endlessly, and you really don’t have any kind of thing to put your best foot forward towards,” he said. “You are waiting for something, and a lot of people spend their whole life waiting, and it never comes.” Purpose and meaning is what helped get him where he is in life and continues to drive him to hustle, especially to benefit his children. Parenthood, he said—without hesitation—is his number one accomplishment, then mentioning his daughter recently finished law school.
In the end, he is imperfect. We all are. And we all could be placed in boxes where we don’t belong. Humans are complex beings as it is, especially for those who live their lives under a microscope. But after our chat, which was truly refreshing and real, I can attest the man known as Vanilla Ice, as his lyrics go, keeps his composure, and if there’s a problem, yo, he’ll solve it.
As for his appearance at the Clay County Agricultural Fair on April 5, Rob told fans to put their dancing shoes on.
“We are all going to get out of our houses, and we are going to dance, and we are going to enjoy life,” he said. You are going to feel like you left a darn Zumba [class] or something. The music is all of the stuff you’d hear at a good wedding. Everyone from nine to 90 is going to enjoy it. We have such a great show and really have a lot of fun with it.”