Vanilla Ice, the white boy who recorded the first rap single to hit Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart, was controversial from the moment he arrived on the music scene. Accused of inventing his image as an urban rapper, the Iceman, whose real name is Robby Van Winkle, lowered his pants on Rick Dees’s TV show to display scars he claims he received in a knife fight. He informed his critics in his acceptance speech as favorite new artist at the 1991 American Music Awards Ceremony that they could kiss his white posterior. With a hit single, “Ice, Ice Baby,” that catapulted sales of his first album, To The Extreme, to five million in three months, Vanilla Ice is a hot new performer who seems to defy categorization. “So who is he,” questioned People, among others, “fibber or phenom, street kid or star…?” Ice answered them all in Newsweek: “I’m 100 percent original.”
Robert Matthew Van Winkle was born on Halloween in 1967 in Miami, Florida. His father left his mother, Beth Mino, a music teacher and classical pianist, while she was pregnant with Van Winkle. “I will not say anything about my father. Period, “Ice told People. “I don’t have a dad.” His mother raised him and an older half-brother in culturally and ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Miami. When Van Winkle was five years old he became interested in music and dance. “I picked up the dance steps from what I saw the black kids doing in the streets,” he related in his autobiography Ice By Ice. “The streets of Miami—that was my dance school.” As a youngster Van Winkle shunned formal music lessons, never learning to play an instrument. His childhood dream was to become a motocross champion. Eventually he won a few amateur regional motocross titles; at one point in late adolescence he broke his ankles in a race.
Van Winkle was a difficult child, moody and temperamental, who used to play truant from grade school. His mother tried in vain to modify his behavior by seeking counseling and changing addresses frequently. When Van Winkle was eight his mother married Ecuadorean Byron Mino, whom she met when he sold her a car. Although family economics improved, the marriage broke up after three years. The couple got back together for a time after the divorce, but did not remarry. In his teens Van Winkle moved with his family, which now included a younger sister, to a middle-class suburb of Dallas where Mino had landed a better auto sales position. Van Winkle continued to rap and dance; he was also hanging out on weekends with gang members who took joy rides and picked fights. At a hospital after one skirmish in which he was stabbed several times,
For the Record…
Born Robert Matthew Van Winkle, October 31, 1967 (one source says 1968), in Miami, FL; son of Beth Mino (a music teacher and classical pianist). Education: Attended R. L. Turner High School; received high school diploma through correspondence course from the American School.
Discovered in 1987 at the City Lights Talent Show, Dallas, TX; opened for City Lights opening acts, including Tone-Loc, Public Enemy, and Paula Abdul; City Lights owner Tommy Quon became his talent manager in 1988; formed Vanilla Ice Posse (VIP) with City Lights disc jockey Earthquake (Floyd Brown) and dancers Hi-Tec (Jay Huffman), E-Rock (Everett Fitzgerald), and Juice (Marc Grinage). Recording artist and touring performer; film appearances include cameo role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Green Ooze; television appearances include Into the Night with Rick Dees, Friday Night Videos, Saturday Morning Videos, MTV’s Hot Seat, Saturday Night Live, American Music Awards, The Arsenio Hall Show, and MTV Tailgate Party for the Superbowl; has made endorsements for Nike and Coke.
Awards: Favorite new artist award from the American Music Awards, 1991.
Addresses: Record company —SBK Records (distributed by CEMA), 1750 North Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028. Fan Club— Vanilla Ice Fan Club, P.O. Box 261117, Plano, TX 75026-1117.
Van Winkle found God and gave up gang life. Dropping out of suburban R. L. Turner High School in his second year, he worked as a lot attendant at the car dealership where his stepfather was employed.
An IROC Camaro Z28 became Van Winkle’s next obsession. When he parked his car under the marquee one evening in 1987 at City Lights, a 2,000-seat club in Dallas, the owner of the club, Tommy Quon, went out to tell Van Winkle to park elsewhere. “He looked like a rich white kid—and he looked like a star,” Quon told Dave Handelman in Rolling Stone. After Van Winkle convinced Quon to let him keep his parking place, he won the club’s talent show. Quon confessed to Handelman, “He wasn’t that great as a rapper, but he had that charisma, style.” Quon signed him to a contract at City Lights where he performed before the club’s opening acts, which included rap and pop acts Tone-Loc, Public Enemy, and Paula Abdul. When Quon became the rapper’s talent agent in 1988 he backed Van Winkle with all black, male dancers to make him stand out. Dubbed “Vanilla” in seventh grade because he was the only white boy around rapping with blacks, Van Winkle became Vanilla Ice—purportedly because he was smooth as ice—and named his back-up group VIP, or Vanilla Ice Posse.
The group included Ice, writer-DJ Earthquake (Floyd Brown), and dancers Hi-Tec (Jay Huffman), E-Rock (Everett Fitzgerald), and Juice (Marc Grinage). When Quon could not interest record companies, he independently made the album Hooked, which featured “Ice, Ice Baby.” To promote the group Quon released the single “Play That Funky Music” with “Ice, Ice Baby” on the B-side. DJ Darrell Jaye in Columbus, Georgia, meant to air Ice’s “Play That Funky Music” when he flipped the record over accidentally. Overnight the song went to Number One on Southern channels and became a top request on pay-per-view Video Jukebox. Consequently the album was remixed and reissued by SBK Records in October of 1990 under its new title, To the Extreme. Ice had unprecedented success with the single “Ice, Ice Baby.” When the song topped Billboard’s pop chart, SBK executives made the single available only on the album. The strategy worked; To the Extreme was the first album to reach all five certification levels in one month, and Ice was handed gold, platinum, double-platinum, and triple-platinum album awards on November 19, 1990. The next day he received a quadruple-platinum award, and subsequently, a multi-fold persona problem with his SBK bio.
A skeptical press hooted at the discrepancies in his stories—especially over those concerning the loss of half his blood when he was stabbed five times and resultant religious conviction. When they discovered that Ice had given three different locales for the incident, they intimated that the singer—with his Z28 and home in a Texan suburb—was a rich kid who fibbed. Critics of To the Extreme wrote scathing reviews accusing the model-handsome rapper of creating a streetwise background to more effectively appropriate a black art form. “Rap lite,” Newsweek called Ice’s work, summing up reviewers’response to the lack of profanity and political substance in his lyrics. The magazine questioned whether a black rapper “with little vocal technique or rhythmic sense, largely inarticulate and devoid of wit” could sell millions of records, unless like Ice, he had “the right clothes, the right look and the right moves, and the right recycled hits to rap to.” People reported that the album “mostly thumps on mindlessly,” but John Rockwell defended “the looker with attitude” in the New York Times. Interpreting To the Extreme as a new mainstream musical style, Rockwell called the album “a triumph for Vanilla Ice a triumph for rap.” Proof of Ice’s “street” past and some vindication came with the warrant issued for his arrest in 1991 by Dallas police—which dated back to a 1988 unpaid fine for a parking lot incident where Ice had maced a kid and beat him over the head—and the publication of his autobiography Ice By Ice.
Despite that legal entanglement, the future is bright for the star who maintains that he allowed the press to be misled to protect his family’s privacy. His cameo role in the sequel to the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has led to a film project about a motorcycle gang, entitled Cool as Ice. Though he opened the M. C. Hammer 1990 fall tour, he went solo on his own world tour in 1991. A new album, Ice Capades, is in the works for the bad-boy-turned-role-model, who will be endorsing Coke and Nike. “I always set new goals,” Vanilla Ice told Sanders, emphasizing that his success is no novelty, “and that’s my new goal, to be here, keep it goin’! The media can try and break me all they want, but the bottom line is it’s up … to … me.”
Ice by Ice, Avon, 1991.
To the Extreme, SBK Records, 1990.
Extremely Live, SBK Records, 1991.
Billboard, November 3, 1990; December 15, 1990; December 22, 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, March 15, 1991.
Newsweek, December 3, 1990.
New York Times, November 18, 1990.
People, November 26, 1990; December 3, 1990.
Rolling Stone, January 10, 1991.
Variety, November 12, 1990.
Best-selling album since 1990: To the Extreme (1990)
Hit songs since 1990: "Ice Ice Baby," "Play That Funky Music"
In the late 1980s Miami-born and Dallas-raised Robert Van Winkle emerged from obscurity with his hit "Ice Ice Baby" (1990). One of hip-hop's first "great white hopes," his success on the pop charts and his meteoric rise later compromised his credibility in the hip-hop community.
"Ice Ice Baby"—which originated as a B-side of his debut single, "Play That Funky Music" (1990)—was a surprise runaway hit throughout the South. Re-released by SBK records, Ice's single rose rapidly on the charts. Built on his cool delivery and an obvious sample of David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" (for which he was later sued), the single spent sixteen weeks at number one and helped his debut album, To the Extreme, sell more than 7 million copies. Though the Beastie Boys had already established a fledgling place for white rappers in the mid-1980s, what made Ice unique was his apparent street credibility as a troubled youth who had dabbled with gang life as a teen.
Despite his play for class authenticity, Ice's soft raps and unimpressive beats were savaged by hip-hop's hard-core fan base. Critics accused him of repackaging an African-American musical style for safe consumption by suburban white audiences, the same sort of number that Elvis Presley had done on R&B four decades prior. Worse yet, accusations swirled that Ice's hardscrabble childhood had been a fabrication. This last point was a contentious one, with Ice insisting he had experienced the trials of a fatherless household and a childhood spent in the streets of Miami and Dallas.
Although Ice's sketchy background did not lead directly to his downfall, it contributed to the overexposure that led to the demise of the great white hype. In early 1991 Ice released Extremely Live, an obvious ploy to capitalize on his sudden fame with a hastily arranged set of live hits. That year he also appeared in two films, first in a cameo role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (to which he contributed the soundtrack cut, "Ninja Rap") and then in his own star vehicle, Cool as Ice. By the time Cool as Ice debuted, it was clear that Ice's moment had passed; the soundtrack barely cracked the charts.
Rather than fading into obscurity, Ice spent the remainder of the 1990s trying unsuccessfully to reinvent himself, first as a loping, marijuana-obsessed rapper in the image of Cypress Hill, later as a hardcore gangsta, and still later as a rap-rock specialist fusing heavy metal's sonic aggression with his own angst-riddled lyricism. As the pop ambassador marshalling hip-hop's early-1990s rise through the commercial charts, Ice was a ubiquitous if ephemeral presence. By the late 1990s his career was spoken of mainly in the past tense when it was mentioned at all.
Hooked (Ichiban, 1990); To the Extreme (SBK, 1990); Extremely Live (SBK, 1991); Cool as Ice (SBK, 1991); Mind Blowin' (SBK, 1994); Hard to Swallow (Republic, 1998); Bipolar (Liquid, 2001).