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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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Comments

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  1. 1
    thefatgit on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Oh yeah, Vanilla Ice stabs at the very heart of the notion of “keeping it real”…with a spoon.

  2. 2
    Pete on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Correction corner:
    a) “flow like a harpoon daily and nightly”; “my style’s like a chemical spill” are surely similes! Not saying they aren’t rubbish.
    b) Dubonnet isn’t strictly a wine, its one of those apertif’s which is fortified wine with gubbins in it.
    c) “his unpleasant white whine is pop’s Liebfraumilch” – I don’t get to say this very often but, IN THE BIN TOM. (Bin end)

  3. 3
    Alan Connot on 14 Feb 2011 #

    For me, the “Worst Record EVAH” canard overlaps with contemporaneous movie “white dad rappin'” reactionary comedy bits: haha he’s trying to be intimidating and is going on about guns, when he’s clearly not even BLACK.

  4. 4
    flahr on 14 Feb 2011 #

    About two months ago I witnessed a karoake performance of this that was… interesting to say the least. They had the first line down pat, and the “check out the hook” bit, but the rest just didn’t work. You could say much the same thing about the original song I guess.

    Anyway this is missing the point which is that I went up next and did a version of “I Want To Know What Love Is” which retroactively obliterated all previous versions from history

    PS was “Rapture” the first american hiphop #1 or am i displaying shameful cultural ignorance

  5. 5
    snoball on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Well done for not mentioning Jedward…

  6. 6

    I have the whole LP somewhere — I reviewed it for City Limits. I must relisten!

    Mr Xhuxk Eddy, for it is he, is more fond of V.Ice than many iirc. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read his justification of this position.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Jesus God, there’s *four whole minutes* of this dull stuff. I remembered that Vanilla Ice’s lyrics were unedifying and that his style was unengaging, but I was hoping for something in the way of musical variation as the thing carries on and on…

    I can report that Vanilla Ice was treated with complete derision in my South London comprehensive by all and sundry at the time. I always liked the story about touts outside his Wembley Arena show failing to sell tickets for 10p in early 1991.

  8. 8
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    #2 Watch: A week of Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’. Sizzling!

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Vanilla Ice performed ‘Ice Ice Baby’ on the Top Of The Pops transmitted on December 6 1990. Also in the studio that week were; Twenty 4 Seven Featuring Captain Hollywood, The Farm and Cliff Richard. Mark Goodier was the host. This was the 1400th edition.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Three UK TV appearances of Vanilla Ice are listed;

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Jason Donovan, Phillip Schofield, Craig Maclachan, Betty Boo, Partners In Kryme, Monie Love, Snap, Roxette, The Boys, Vanilla Ice (1990)

    WOGAN: with Jeff Goldblum, Vanilla Ice, Molly Parkin (1990)

    WOGAN: with Vanilla Ice, Nesta Wyn Ellis, Helen Mirren (1991)

  11. 11
    Doctor Casino on 14 Feb 2011 #

    “Worst song ever” meme also has to be kind of a knee-jerk crowd-pleaser joke that just works generationally – – this song was huUUUUUUuuuuge in the US at exactly the right time (in terms of demographic generation-bubbles) for millions of people to be cutesily embarassed about it later. I was of the age where this was performed on stage at elementary-school talent shows and it was, at least for about four seconds, seen as genuinely “cool” in my peer group. I was a couple years too young to really get that rappers were “supposed” to be black but I think Alan Connot @ #3 is dead-on when he says that this is a big part of the song’s punchline quality.

    The funny thing to me is the comparitive erasure of “U Can’t Touch This,” which I *never* hear, or even hear *discussed*, despite being seemingly as ubiquitous at the time and considerably more enjoyable as a recording. Hammer’s fashion gets a shoutout from time to time but that’s it. I guess it kind of still helps to be a white rapper, even if the mechanism of that help has sort of inverted itself.

    Would definitely rather hear “U Can’t Touch This” than “Ice Ice Baby,” but as I’ve said way back when on this site, I’d rather hear “Ice Ice Baby” than “Under Pressure” so who knows…

  12. 12
    Steve Mannion on 14 Feb 2011 #

    re #8 but can Madonna ever justify her (brief) love for Rob Van Winkle (call him by his real name)?

    VI was quite charmless and clunky but somehow this was always a fun rap-along both then (certainly big in my playground) and now (its persistence as a meme, still turning up in adverts etc.). The cuteness of the sample seems to have saved it for me to the extent that I might even double Tom’s score but its recent rather unwelcome and unnecessary revival knocks it back to a 5. I wonder tho if he was the first rapper to wear a suit (albeit without the jacket) in his video?

  13. 13
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Another problem w/it is that despite being built on (a facsimile of) one of the most iconic basslines ever the bass on it is PUNY – and he’s from Miami isn’t he? Shame on him. But I didn’t want to mention this in case it was just bad MP3-itis. Has anyone heard it on something relatively boomin’ lately?

  14. 14
    tonya on 14 Feb 2011 #

    I guess it’s defend Hammer day. #12 Was Vanilla Ice the the first rapper to wear a suit? No, Hammer dressed as a gangster in the Turn this Mutha Out video in 1988, and I’m sure Big Daddy Kane’s leather suits predate it also. And #11 I guess you don’t go to Oakland Athletics games, they still play U Can’t Touch This.

  15. 15
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    “U Can’t Touch This” is from memory very fine pop-rap. Would have thoroughly enjoyed it at #1 I think.

  16. 16
    thefatgit on 14 Feb 2011 #

    The white rap issue is a thorny one, when many consider that white artists rode on the coat-tails of their black contemporaries. But this is a common misunderstanding, when in reality white rappers skip over the non-newtonian fluid of black culture, that is if they stand still too long, they tend to sink without trace, but if they keep running and stay ahead of the pace, they succeed. So the Vanilla Ices and Everlasts are literally swallowed up, but the Eminems and Beastie Boys endure, by not trying too hard to be “blacker than thou”. Maybe even this is being oversimplistic, but the core of white rap’s credibility is the question of authenticity. It was the biggest problem I had with rap, as a genre in the 90’s and going forward.

  17. 17
    MBI on 14 Feb 2011 #

    So many great lines to choose from. If his rhyme was a drug, he’d sell it by the gram! As opposed to the kiloliter or something!

  18. 18
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    #16 problem being too much concern with authenticity?

  19. 19
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    #17 IDK by the pill or ounce or he’d offer it on prescription maybe?

    I was struck the other day listening to the first Ultramagnetic MCs album by the thought that maybe he was trying to sound a bit like Kool Keith? Except KK’s line endings are generally really effective, often dummying the listener, whereas Vanilla just comes over as a pedant: “I go crazy when I hear a CYMBAL / And a hi-hat.”

  20. 20
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    The chart for December 1 1990 reveals that ‘Ice Ice Baby’ was one of 12 rap singles (perhaps stretching the definition in places) in the Top 100 that week;

    13. Dream Warriors – My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style
    21. Dimples D – Sucker MC
    31. Monie Love – Down To Earth
    32. Betty Boo – 24 Hours
    41. LL Cool J – Mama Said Knock You Out
    48. Run DMC – What’s It All About?
    67. MC Tunes – Primary Rhyming
    71. Tairrie B – Murder She Wrote
    81. World’s Famous Supreme Team – Operaa House
    88. Hi-Tek 3 featuring MC Shamrock – Come On & Dance
    90. Rebel MC – Comin’ On Strong

    In any just world, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ would have been number one for four weeks.

  21. 21
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    I seem to have forgotten MC Shamrock.

  22. 22
    MikeMCSG on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Tom you are joking aren’t you ? – “cooking MCs like a pound of bacon” is rightly derided as one of pop’s worst lyrics along with Desree’s “I’d rather have a piece of toast”.

    I seem to remember Ian Dury wore a suit of sorts for “Reasons To Be Cheerful Part 3”

    #10 Billy, didn’t this take off on the back of the Smash Hits Poll show after being around for a while ? An indication that exposure on other shows was becoming more important than TOTP.

  23. 23
    MBI on 14 Feb 2011 #

    I would be remiss if I didn’t include a proper link to Trotters’ remix, “Ice Ice Bacon.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6C0ai74Xo4&feature=related

  24. 24
    Tom on 14 Feb 2011 #

    #22 no it’s good! maybe i mean memorable image rather than ‘decent’, but it’s also about the only time in the whole song he actually extends a simile (sorry pete) beyond one line!

  25. 25
    anto on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Hhmm he’s good bad but he’s not evil.

  26. 26
    lockedintheattic on 14 Feb 2011 #

    2 British female rappers in the top 40 20 years ago – not sure there’s been that many at once since….where are the current lot then? how long are we going to have to wait before we get a chart topping female equivalent to all the current pop-grime lot?

  27. 27
    thefatgit on 14 Feb 2011 #

    @ 18 Yes, it’s a worrying blindspot of mine. I’d love to accept “Ice Ice Baby” as a harmless bit of pop fun, albeit rather clumsily delivered by Mr Van Winkle, but it smacks of exploitation in the crudest sense. He comes across as a pawn in a much greater game (if the Suge Knight story is to be believed), and how his record label attempted to weave a street-savvy backstory around him, as if it was necessary for him to be accepted within rap as a whole. He supported MC Hammer on tour and was on the Stop The Violence roster. However, his relationship with his label broke down as soon as the press found inaccuracies in his concocted biography. This must have been a factor in his attempted suicide, after his acting career stalled. I genuinely feel sorry for the guy, when so many have tried to make him appear to be something he wasn’t.

  28. 28
    Billy Smart on 14 Feb 2011 #

    #22. The single had been released in America in August, was top of the Billboard chart by the beginning of November and was released in the UK at the end of November. Increasing British public awareness of the Vanilla Ice phenomenon rocketed the single to enter the chart straight in at number three, followed by a month at the top. So it might have been around for a couple of months, but by the time it was commercially available it was already a big hit.

  29. 29
    lonepilgrim on 14 Feb 2011 #

    I find it hard to get excited by this – or to work up much hatred either. Vanilla Ice seems like an apt description.

  30. 30
    hardtogethits on 14 Feb 2011 #

    Tom – 35 years since Elvis, surely.

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