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Feb 11

VANILLA ICE – “Ice Ice Baby”

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#654, 1st December 1990

It seems to me that in America there’s been a teensy bit of media revisionism around “Ice Ice Baby”. Unlike most revisionism though, the idea isn’t that the track was a lost classic. No, the point is to suggest it was extreme in its badness, superhumanly awful, one of the worst records ever – it shows up on lists of same and at the culmination of one Vanilla Ice himself arrived and staged a burning of the master tape. “Ice Ice Baby” was so terrible it had to be put beyond use – wiped out like smallpox, to use a simile you can imagine the man himself rapping, in that jabby monotone of his.

The effect is to suggest that Vanilla Ice’s career was a collective moment of madness, a huge “What were we thinking?”, and to cover over the fact that Occam’s Razor had it right the first time. Vanilla wasn’t promoted as a novelty, wasn’t sold as one, wasn’t really bought as one. The thing that made him different to most of the lame MCs around at the time – and pretty much all the good ones – was the thing he helpfully pointed out in his name.

And as everyone said at the time, 25 years after Elvis the biz still needed a white guy to sell a black sound. This was a little unfair, and not just to Elvis: rap was mainstream with or without Vanilla Ice, and his album replaced MC Hammer at the top of the US charts. More telling, though, was that “Ice Ice Baby” was the first hip-hop Billboard #1 single – a position determined by airplay as well as sales, so one more reflective of tastemaker conservatism. The wider industry was comfortable with the notion of a white rap superstar, and never mind that he was no good.

There were elements of that attitude in his UK success too. But over here, more credible hip-hop tracks never had much chance of reaching #1 – from the mid-80s you’d find rap singles bouncing around the lower 20s, but it was always the gimmicky stuff that sold, and in a UK context Vanilla Ice really was just another novelty. In fact “Ice Ice Baby” seems like a kind of culmination of all the Euro-rap, pseudo-rap, gimmick movie tie-in rap – some good, some not – we’ve seen feature in Popular through 1990.

That doesn’t make it anything other than a feeble record. But it’s not an all-time stinker. It rests on a very strong idea – nicking the “Under Pressure” bassline and placing it under dessicated beats creates a mesh of malevolence a good storyteller could make a lot of. It’s such a strong idea that with half an ear – heard in snatches on the radio or on the Chart Show – you might think Vanilla Ice is that storyteller. And then you listen a bit closer.

The Iceman ruins the record in three different ways. There’s his flow – all those big end of line stresses are fine when he hits on the occasional decent image (“like a pound of BACON”) but they gum up his storytelling and make it hard to follow. So the track is rhythmically monotonous, and then his tone is unvarying too: he has a constant undertone of weaselly aggression. “Ice Ice Baby” is mostly brag with a side order of narrative, but even the bragging needs some kind of charm and variety to work – and the tone makes his party and gun talk rote and unengaging too. And then there’s the most serious issue – Ice just doesn’t seem in control of his words. He’s careless with metaphors – “flow like a harpoon daily and nightly”; “my style’s like a chemical spill” – wait, how is that good? By the third verse he’s rhyming poet and know it, drawing attention to it with those bloody line-ends, and any goodwill created by his sample choice is long, long gone. Though to be honest you could have given up at the very start – what on earth is “collaborate” doing aside from fill up syllable space?

So what were we thinking? Vanilla Ice sounds like a man who likes hip-hop but can’t do it very well, and the track’s success here isn’t just down to his race. “Ice Ice Baby”‘s very clumsiness is what makes it accessible – a big friendly sample, an easy to imitate flow, no great technical skill. It comes at the start of a period that’s the pop equivalent of the public’s switch from beer to wine in the 70s. Some oenophiles knew what they were doing and bought accordingly, but the mass market for wine was built on the likes of Blue Nun and Black Tower – Dubonnet at a pinch – and from there began a gradual climb to relative sophistication. Similarly, there would come a time when hip-hop – or at least, records that would have been impossible without hip-hop – would dominate the UK charts. But not at once, and not without a lot of education. Vanilla Ice is part of that – his unpleasant white whine is pop’s Liebfraumilch.

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  1. 151
    koganbot on 20 Feb 2011 #

    What Scott says makes sense: the only other Vanilla Ice song I own is “It’s A Party,” which is like the more club-oriented hip-hop of the time, w/ interpolated diva hooks, “It Takes Two” type shouts, and so forth. So yes, dance music. (Not that most hip-hop isn’t dance music, but it doesn’t get classified in the broad genre “dance music”; of course, the south, where Ice grew up, wasn’t going along with that division to the extent that New York did. [According to Wikip, he spent time in both Dallas and Miami growing up, traveling between his step-dad and his mom, they being divorced.])

  2. 152
    Erithian on 21 Feb 2011 #

    Perhaps I was at my most rockist, but I thought the use of the “Under Pressure” bassline was total sacrilege at the time, even though it purloined something from one of the Queen tracks I’m least protective about. Listening to it again now, it’s surprisingly effective, and even when the verses get underway that menacing undertone works extremely well. Maybe the reason we still think of it as a joke is that Van Winkle just looked so stupid and the rap was one long boring big-up for someone whose hair made him look ripe for a take-down. So props for the sampled music and thumbs down for the original element.

    I guess, though it might not stand up to much scrutiny if you analysed the sample-based records I had time for as opposed to those I didn’t, that it’s a matter of how you use the sample – as the main element of the song or as a launch-pad for your own creativity. The example of the latter that springs to mind – and I’d be interested to know if other Populistas loved it as much as I did – was Soho’s witty and wonderful “Hippychick”, which took bits of Johnny Marr and Soul II Soul and created something fabulous in its own right.

    (I’m another who liked “U Can’t Touch This” and wasn’t aware it was a sample, btw…)

  3. 153
    Chuck Eddy on 21 Feb 2011 #

    Pretty sure he had a couple good, propulsive hip-house-style tracks — “It’s A Party” being one, the other being maybe “Cool As Ice (Everybody Get Loose)”? (From his 1991 movie — don’t quote me on that, I could be wrong and haven’t gone back and checked. It charted #81 Stateside; think that’s the one.)

    And yeah, I’ve always been under the impression that the mix on the original Ichiban 12-inch version of “Ice Ice Baby” sounded somehow sharper and more vicious than the one on SBK that eventually hit, too, though I was never sure whether the difference was just something I’d imagined. Never played them
    back-to-back, I don’t think, and I stupidly got rid of the Ichiban single somewhere along the line. May still have that mix on cassette somewhere though.

    Here’s something I wrote about one of his later singles on ILX a couple years ago; never made the connection between the B-side and his indie debut album:

    Vanilla Ice “Road To My Riches”/”Hooked” (SBK West Germany, 1991). Last one. Not sure if this was a single in the States or not; supposedly off his Extremely Live CD. Can’t believe I didn’t hear “Road To My Riches” before (or at least never noticed it) — AC/DC “Back In Black” riff all through, like the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard,” with a Bowie “Let’s Dance” hook or two mixed in like Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.” He throws a wet towel and the girlies go wild, and he talks about his “thigh pole” I think I heard him say once. Kind of love his white urban wannabe street-tough voice introducing the song at the beginning — it’s a voice that goes back at least as far as the Belmonts (or even further, in movies), and really not that far from what House of Pain or even Ice’s nemeses 3rd Bass were doing a couple years later. (I think he also uses the word “nemesis” somewhere.) On the 45 sleeve, he’s sort of lurking in the shadows, flashing a fake gang sign and showing off his rings. Also, says he’s not like Milton Bradley (didn’t catch why) but is “like Charley, I like the good and plenty.” Song is suppposedly live, but doesn’t sound live at all except during Ice’s intro, and when some hypeman comes in a ways into the song to hype up the non-crowd. B-side, which actually sounds slightly more familiar, has a wobbly “Brass Monkey” sort of horn thing going on, and Ice scolding his buddy who is is hung up on some girl who treats him “like a dirty diaper/Use ya once and then tries to wipe you…out!” Recommends his friend visit a shrink — helpful advice, what friends are for!

  4. 154
    Chuck Eddy on 21 Feb 2011 #

    Just dug out from the file cabinet catacombs a review of Extremely Live I wrote for L.A. Weekly in 1991. I don’t know how great a case I make for “Ice Ice Baby” in it, except saying that it doesn’t sound de-energized and de-hookified and self-glorified like most other rap music was sounding to me in the early ’90s. (Not claiming I was right about that.) Some excerpts though:

    “I bought my copy as a 12-inch on Miami’s Ultrax label after hearing it on black radio in Detroit, before SBK picked it up. It was the only new rap record I bought in 1990. And for months, it never occurred to me that Ice might be white.”

    (Ultrax was an Ichiban subsidiary, I think? Something like that.)

    “When those gunshots ring out like a bell, the violence surprises you, mugs you from behind and steals your bubblegum, like in Trickeration’s ‘Western Gangster Town’ or Spoonie Gee. If gangsta life was the whole point, we’d take blood for granted. It’d be impotent.”

    “I’m not saying Vanilla Ice is an especially talented person (and I really don’t see why it should make a difference whether he is — this is a democracy, right?), but I will say I got more of a kick out of watching him on talk shows and award shows last winter than I have out of watching Yo! MTV Raps these last two years. I mean, wow, here was an MC who didn’t drain his corpus of energy by trying so hard to be a cartoon (maybe because he already was a cartoon), what a revelation!”

    “The beats (on the live album) are thin, and Ice needs to learn to put more details in his stories, yup yup, but the nine-minute ‘Ice Ice Baby’ is as avant as 3rd Bass wanna be — Ice lets his audience (all white girls, sounds like) sing more of his words than any performer ever has in the history of the human race. So in some ways, this isn’t his live LP, its theirs. Word to their mothers — a hell of a concept indeed.”

    I’d also included “Ice Ice Baby” in a singles roundup column I wrote for Creem in 1990 (once the song had hit big), in conjunction with other new rap singles I was liking from Florida at the time by Young & Restless and 2 Live Crew: “The Vanilla Ice hit, top 10 as I write, is of course bubblegum NWA from a white boy, with samples of Queen/Bowie’s “Under Pressure” and a mood out of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines.'”

  5. 155
    Ed on 21 Feb 2011 #

    #152 I loved ‘Hippychick’, too. I seem to remember the album was great, although I lost the cassette a long time ago.

    I agree that it is a great example of taking something that is wonderful in its original context, and making it wonderful again in a completely different context. The life-force of the riff survives the transplant to a new host.

    ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and ‘Under Pressure’ have a similar relationship, although I agree that Mr Ice makes more of it.

    As Jay-Z says: “Yeah I sampled your voice; you was using it wrong.”

  6. 156
    Mark G on 22 Feb 2011 #

    The album was “alright” but nothing was as good as the hit single, which was unfollowuppable…

  7. 157
    Ed on 26 Feb 2011 #

    @152, 156 So I went and listened to ‘Goddess’, the Soho album, and you are right: it is rather “meh”, and a bit of a let-down after the brilliance of ‘Hippychick’.

    In fact, I am pretty sure that what I was thinking of was actually ‘Love and Life’ by Definition of Sound, which really is a great album.

    I remember we bought it solely on the strength of the big hit single:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzKuEefxjaA

    which totally rocks, and we ended up listening to the album non-stop.

    They were not very much like Soho, I suppose, except in a shared sensibility in the Daisy Age / Soul II Soul positivity zeitgeist. Some people found it a bit nauseatingly saccharine; I loved it.

    And like Soho, they had a sort of swirly nu-psychedelic album cover. And both bands’ big hits were based on a sample of a classic guitar riff.

    So in my defence, m’lud, I would suggest the confusion is understandable.

  8. 158

    Oo oo I just found my Dec 1990 review of VI! Will type it up when I have a moment.

  9. 159

    City Limitd Dec 13-20 1990
    TO THE EXTREME
    VANILLA ICE
    (SBK/EMI)

    Matter of taste: matter of cool. He may not quite be black (he looks like Bros cut in half), but Van the Wan went to school with 2 Live Crew’s Luke Skyywalker in Miamii Lakes, Fa., has shared rap-stages with Easy E, Ton Loc and lots lots more, and ‘Ice Ice Babv’ had the slinkiest techno-bassline of anything ever. He’s on it, right?

    No. Strong bright sound, cruising crisp and dry (go for ‘Rosta Man’, a truly neat RoboReggae rap), no filler songs,. better and better basslines, sure: but sonics aside, the Iceman Sucketh. Unlike — for example — one-woman frost-goddess Tairre B, whose attitude and aesthetic roll out unstoppably entwined, who interrupts NWA mid-rant, stands up to their strategically placed open mikes and detonates genuine argument (which is the political theatre they’ve always aimed for anyway), VI is no more than this many perfectly faked moves — brilliantly empty Xerox poses, phrases, rhythms and rhymes, hey, he sounds black! (Hey, didn’t Elvis?)

    So, the same deft theft game the White Man’s been playing for 30 years, by now a well-useless way of thrilling. At least Zeppelin bent the blues into weird shapes before they gave them back: there isn’t even the (classic) serendipity of rockhead misunderstanding here. White chart idols looking more like models than bikers is still daring stateside (it reads fag, a valuable corrective in a country where glam never hit). But sadly Billi Vanilli blows even this, by winning three national championships for Team Honda before he took up Rap. What kind of a rubbish macho role model’s that for youth, hey? Everything he says he is, isn’t so, is all. Good-bad but not evil? ‘Be on the lookout in your vicinity/I’m robbing virgins of their virginity‘ Oh, just fuck off.

  10. 160

    Tairre B!!! I wonder if I’d actually heard anything by her then. Doubt it, probably just read about her: later she went metal, forming Manhole (great name) and Tura Satana (re whom RIP, incidentally).

    ‘Rosta man’ now seems to be named ‘Rasta Man’ everywhere — I wonder f that was just a typo on the incredibly sloppily put-together sleeve?

  11. 161
    Ed on 26 Feb 2011 #

    @154, 159 etc Thanks for all of those. It is fascinating to see how important Vanilla Ice was in all sorts of arguments over race, class, sex, taste, authenticity etc etc.

    Those were the days….

  12. 162
    Mark M on 6 Mar 2011 #

    Re Amis and chums (from about 100 onwards): someone (Rose Tremain?) last night on BBC2 was talking about the famous Granta 1983 young British novelist list and saying that on the bus to the photo shoot (I think), Amis and McEwan were at the front of the bus giggling together and everyone else was sitting about five rows behind, knowing their place.

  13. 163
    wichita lineman on 5 Apr 2011 #

    Can I nominate the Halifax “ISA ISA Baby” commercial as the weakest ‘joke’ ever put forward by an ad agency? This is a major client! Who thought of it? Who accepted it? Who would find it funny? It makes Hale & Pace look like Galton & Simpson.

    I’d seriously thinking of changing banks just because of it… if only I didn’t owe my soul to the company store.

  14. 164
    Steve Mannion on 5 Apr 2011 #

    As bad as the Halifax ad is, the worst ever use of a #1 single in a commercial goes to Confused.com and their dreadful ‘Somebody To Love’ and especially ‘Chain Reaction efforts. Crudely drawn characters but with a ridiculous amount of time and effort spent on animating various dancing ladies bosoms. It’s a disgrace!

  15. 165
    Mark G on 5 Apr 2011 #

    I’d give their “Chain Reaction” one extra point for not being a song about being lonely as performed by the mass union of cartoon characters all coming together as one in a spirit of unity and fraternity.

  16. 166
    Tom on 5 Apr 2011 #

    I would rather hear a hundred Halifax or even Confused ads than endure that faux-folk “from me to you” cover again.

  17. 167
    vinylscot on 6 Apr 2011 #

    I wonder how the actress who does the “ISA ISA Baby” bit can show her face in public. Not only is it a terrible pun, but the nauseating look on her face when she sings the line…… god it’s bad…. is she meant to be “teasing” the guy? is it meant to be “sexy”?

    Absolutely horrific and many times worse than Vanilla Ice himself.

  18. 168

    The bit in the confuseddotcom ad that i always enjoy is when the stripey-jumpered logolady with her “confused” hair stops smiling and dancing with one and all, and returns to the logo in the closing moments: her cheer is once more wiped from her face, and she is alone again, bug-eyed and insane. This creates quite a poor impression of the effectiveness of the product.

  19. 169
    Mark G on 6 Apr 2011 #

    #167, I’m fairly sure these are not actors/actresses, but are actually ‘young employees’ picked for their resemblance to Sybil Ruscoe ability to scrub up alright.

  20. 170
    vinylscot on 6 Apr 2011 #

    The ads started out using real bank employees like Howard, but they are now using actors. The pretty blonde in the “Lucky You” ad is Sarah Applewood – if you Google her, you’ll find she’s been in loads of commercials etc.

    A quick Google shows that the actress in the excruciating Isa Isa Baby ad is one Fliss Walton, who I trust is suitably embarassed.

  21. 171
    Steve Mannion on 6 Apr 2011 #

    I say she’s doing the best she can with some pretty weak material.

    The blonde guy in it appeared in other ads, “notably” those stupid “Friend-chips” Doritos ones from a few years back.

  22. 172
    Cumbrian on 6 Apr 2011 #

    @168 My current favourite mixed message ad campaign is the First Direct one which starts out with the young girl getting bollocked in class for talking. The message appears to be “fuck around at school, wind up working in a call centre”.

  23. 174
    thefatgit on 6 Apr 2011 #

    #173, if I picture that image in my head every time I fancy a Whopper meal, I’ll be running* to the nearest Maccy D’s!

    *Ok, waddling.

  24. 175

    […] whether you prefer stunning virtuosity or blunter energy, song-specific ephemera and annoyances (at Popular, Tom Ewing criticizes Ice’s metaphor choices, among other things) — but you’ll […]

  25. 176
    Patrick Mexico on 9 Apr 2013 #

    Q. Why did this guy drown in his jacuzzi today?
    A. Because Thatcher wasn’t around to soft-scoop Vanilla Ice out of the tub.

    I thank you.

  26. 177
    Cumbrian on 26 Jul 2013 #

    Whilst we’re talking about rap:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxCKw3VbU54

  27. 178
    hollister co. on 26 Feb 2016 #

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  28. 179
    Erithian on 26 Feb 2016 #

    #178 There you go Vanilla, try rapping that…

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