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Feb 11

VANILLA ICE – “Ice Ice Baby”

Popular180 comments • 9,440 views

#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. 61
    Lex on 15 Feb 2011 #

    OMG the last line of this review. OMG.

    I have absolutely no memories of the verses of this – and I’m not going to rectify this – all it is to me is the bassline and “ice, ice, baby”, which is actually fine in my head because it’s a great bassline and this allows me to enjoy it without having to endure Queen. Is there an instrumental version?

    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

    “Ice Ice Baby”‘s very clumsiness is what makes it accessible – a big friendly sample, an easy to imitate flow, no great technical skill

    PLUS ÇA FUCKING CHANGE :(

    (yeah I know things are better than they were in 1990, although the past couple of years have seen a regression, but…that still pretty much applies.)

  2. 62
    punctum on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Although it wasn’t quite the last number one of 1990, “Ice, Ice Baby” ensured that the year more or less ended as it began, with a mild-mannered white kid trying to be a hard man. As the subsequent litigation and out-of-court settlement concerning the record’s uncredited and extensive samples from “Under Pressure” confirmed, Vanilla Ice was anything but hard; and it is rather depressing that the first hip hop number one single in Britain should be by a white artist. Didn’t the Beastie Boys and Eminem deserve a better missing link (Kurt Cobain or Tupac Shakur – take your pick)?

    As a backing track “Ice, Ice Baby” isn’t too bad, all clenched knuckles of darkness, crouching in a cobwebbed corner, alternating between “Under Pressure” finger snaps and furtive Miami Vice synth bass, but the Iceman’s wan attempts at rapping, like Richie Cunningham practising with the aid of a theoretical Rap In A Day With Ice-T instruction booklet (since Ice-T is unsurprisingly whom Vanilla Ice sounds like most), are atrociously feeble (“I’m trying to get away before the jackers jack,” “Wax a chump like a candle,” “Feasible rhymes that you can vision and feel”), and as the final “chorus” (“Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it”) confirms, his timing is so off he would have done better to wave some huge red flags from somewhere in the Rockies, or at least could have landed a role in Santa Barbara. In addition, “Ice, Ice Baby” fails to dislodge the Walker Brothers’ “Orpheus” from its status as the most creative use of the word “harpoon” in a pop song. It is indeed “a hell of a concept,” but not in the way he thinks.

  3. 63
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #57 welcome to commentland Tim!

    #60 I think V Ice’s specific contributions to nu metal are well up for further exploration here!

    #62 “Feasible rhymes that you can vision and feel” achieves a kind of awful greatness in that it sounds uncannily like something you’d hear on a particularly bad corporate training course. Probably w/the word “strategies” replacing “rhymes”. Maybe the suit went deeper than we thought.

  4. 64
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Dubonnet was the late Queen Mum’s favourite tipple, wasn’t it? Mama said knock you out, indeed…

    But, my goodness, this is tedious rubbish. Although perhaps marginally less embarrasing than his follow-up singles. “Rollin’ in My 5.0” – well, Derek B did that better on “Good Groove”, and he is far from the apogee of good rap. And as for his take on “Satisfaction”, the less said the better…

    Dimples D’s “Sucker DJ”, however – that was fun, vaguely gimmicky, but joyous rap – maybe geared up for Christmas parties, but it still sounds OK. It’s not as if it has pretentions of getting above its (perfectly fine) station. And as for MC Hammer, well “Do Not Pass Me By”, with its gospel undertoe, was he only single of his that I could stomach, let alone stand…

    The thing that struck me greatly about “Ice Ice Baby” at the time (and which strikes me still) was how intensely melancholic it was – most untypically so for a big pop hit of its time. I still think it is a strange sound – closer in spirit, almost, to, dare I say it, shoegazing music of the time to mainstream pop.

    Dare I posit that fans of Chapterhouse and Spiritualized, not to mention Slowdive, were responsible for making this a hit, by rushing out in droves to buy something they regarded as poppy?

    I still don’t understand its success, today.

  5. 65
    Matt DC on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Pretty sure Vanilla Ice would sound like Rakim when compared to most nu-metal rapping.

  6. 66
    Rory on 15 Feb 2011 #

    @64 Dare I posit that fans of Chapterhouse and Spiritualized, not to mention Slowdive, were responsible for making this a hit, by rushing out in droves to buy something they regarded as poppy?

    Pistols at dawn, sir! As a (subsequent) fan of the first two, though not so much Slowdive, I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot hammer.

  7. 67
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Feb 2011 #

    @66 I quite like Slowdive, but not the other two so much….

    but if their aim was to discredit the concept of “rap music”…?

    Well, Mr Bond, I think they had a little degree of success.

  8. 68
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 15 Feb 2011 #

    When I played this last night I was struck by how very obvious VI’s ineptness nowappears, not so much of flow as of non-mushmouth diction: he sounds like he’s tripping over his own tongue half the time. As I say, I reviewed the LP for City Limits at the time, and I’m fairly sure I *didn’t* so much notice this aspect then. Which I guess says that the intervening 20 years of listening to rap has given me at least a bit of an ear for the skills involved — and of course it’s given everyone else this ear too, so that even fairly downlist rappers these days are way better at this aspect. The genre’s basic required technical talents are today long bedded in. (The derisive review he got in Village Voice I recall as mainly being about how mockably bad the words were…)

    And probably they were in 1990 too, but I don’t think I knew how to hear them then. I’ll see if I can dig out the review!

    (My all-time favourite hopeless white rapper is Dick van Dyke in Diagnosis Murder…)

  9. 69
    Rory on 15 Feb 2011 #

    “Ice Ice Baby” marked pretty much the end of my paying attention to what made number one on the Australian charts; I was only sporadically aware of them from here on. I’d like to say that the reason was the one-two blow of seven weeks of “Unchained Melody” at number one followed by three weeks of this, but the real reason was that at the end of Vanilla Ice’s reign in January 1991 I moved interstate, and that kind of upheaval plays havoc with TV viewing, which had been my main way of keeping track of the charts. The Australian equivalent of TOTP, Countdown, had made a slight return in 1990 as Countdown Revolution, which had meant I was reasonably aware of the charts during my honours year, but that was cancelled in December. But only two of Australia’s number ones of 1990 had made it into my own collection anyway (Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and Faith No More’s “Epic”), so the time was right to leave the charts behind, or so it seemed.

    But not before Vanilla left his icy mark. My brother was keen on the track, but I wasn’t: as a dedicated fan of the Australian version of Queen’s Greatest Hits, which included “Under Pressure”, I felt his use of that iconic bassline was little short of theft, and took offence on John Deacon’s behalf. Strange, really, because I was never that big a fan of “Under Pressure”, but it was the principle of it. Lucky, also, that I’d never heard “Super Freak”, or I might have taken equal offence at “U Can’t Touch This” instead of enjoying its five-week run as an Australian Number one in mid-1990. All that was really happening was that “Ice Ice Baby” was the first major hit whose blatant appropriation of another song’s hook was obvious to me. But that was enough.

    What also rankled was that the media at the time – chiefly the Australian Rolling Stone, in my case as reader – were touting Vanilla Ice as the Elvis of rap, which seemed a pretty weak claim on the basis of a single song built around a pinched bassline. I don’t remember the song being pitched or received as a novelty: people seriously expected Vanilla to be huge, as if the collective unconscious was willing Eminem into existence before Marshall Mathers was ready.

    How do I feel about it now? Compared to some of the stuff we’ve encountered in 1989-90 it’s relatively harmless, but it still feels pretty weak. 3 on a bad day, 4 on a good day.

    One abiding memory of this is that it was riding high in the Australian charts at the exact moment that the bombs rained down on Baghdad in the Gulf War: my first memory of round-the-clock news coverage, and possibly my last chance to watch such coverage; the last long summer’s day I can remember doing nothing except watch television. Zip, flash, boom, doo do-do-doo do-do-doo-do.

  10. 70
    Rory on 15 Feb 2011 #

    @67 If singles had been pennies each in 1990 you might be onto something there, but what dedicated shoegazer would have thrown serious coin at this when there were so many Ride EPs to collect?

  11. 71
    Izzy on 15 Feb 2011 #

    All the way to #48 before we get a dissenting view – I am genuinely shocked, this is an obvious big pop moment and I smell revisionism and (dare I say it) forgetting what Popular‘s usually about here.

    Sure, it’s a little long, he might be a bit clumsy (though who are we comparing him to? 3rd Base were certainly not going to be troubling any #1 slots) and the video looks silly. But jeez – the hooks, the vague menace, and (as I remember it at least) kids genuinely thrilled by the sound of it. 8 from me.

    All that said, though – ‘Justify My Love’ would’ve been an absolute beauty of a #1 and I’m gutted it missed out here. But the way I remember it, it was seen as something of a shark-jumping moment for Madonna, forgetting to include a tune, overdoing the risqué, and letting herself be manipulated by Lenny Kravitz adding up to an abdication. Not here though, it’s always been a most stunning of records.

  12. 72
    nicknick des bois on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Hello ! First time poster.

    I have a hazy, and quite possibly false, recollection of Vanilla Ice being quite favourably reviewed in Hip Hop Connection as a credible underground/regional release, several months before hitting the charts. I’m also fairly sure that arouind the same time (or possibly after VI made US n° 1), I saw a quote from Public Enemy’s Chuck D to the effect that he’d tried to sign Vanilla Ice to his label to ensure that someone black profited from ‘Hip Hop’s Elvis’.

  13. 73
    Rory on 15 Feb 2011 #

    There’s a question for the Popular hive-mind: does anyone have a source showing the changing average price of singles and albums over the years, at least for the UK but possibly elsewhere as well? Early on I got in the habit of peeling off price labels, so my recollection is hazy before 1993 (cough, started recording price of every purchase in personal database, cough). When I started buying them in 1983 it was A$3 for a 7″ single and A$11 for an LP, but there was a fair bit of inflation in the 1980s. By the late 1980s I’d switched to CD albums and very few single purchases, with CDs costing a premium at the time, A$25 or so compared with around A$18-20 for LP/cassette, I think (but wouldn’t swear to it). By late 1993, when I started keeping track, I was forking out A$28-29 for newly release CD albums, but can see some discounted new releases at A$22-24, and CD singles were going for A$7-8 a pop. This was at a time when it was around A$2.20 to the pound.

    So I’m guessing that Vanilla Ice’s number one at the end of 1990 set people back… three quid? Does that sound right?

  14. 74
    flahr on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Oh, #3 watch: “Unbelievable” by EMF. Better rapping than this.

  15. 75
    23 Daves on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #64 – oddly, far more than Chapterhouse or Slowdive, parts of “Ice Ice Baby” remind me of some of the more minimal seventies German electronic music I’ve been listening to recently. However, I hugely doubt that sales from fans of Kraftwerk, Cluster or Neu! would have pushed the track to number one.

  16. 76
    Rory on 15 Feb 2011 #

    @74 Aw, man! Can we talk about that instead? One of the sounds of 1991, for me.

  17. 77
    punctum on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #71: Given twenty years of subsequent life and hindsight it would be difficult not to have changed one’s mind about certain records in the interim but that’s hardly “revisionism.” I didn’t reckon much to “Ice Ice Baby” at the time either for what that’s worth.

    What is Popular usually about, then?

  18. 78
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Feb 2011 #

    @75 Yes, that makes perfect sense. On both counts

    It strikes me (in a year in which even That Petrol Emotion, Primal Scream – or, for that matter, Brother Beyond – submitted their songs to radical dance remixes – with a surprising degree of success – although TPE’s finest pop song of the year, released to limited interest twice, “Sensitize”, wasn’t) that some skilled remixer could have done something entirely different and artistic with the track (on which the rapper would have made no appearance whatsover).

    EMF = Vanilla Ice for middle-class English NME readers aged under 14. Or a similarly talented remake of The Farm for Southerners…

    @73 As I recall my earliest 7″ singles (1981/82) cost either 99p or £1.25, and by 1988-90 they were more usually £1.49 or £1.75. I seem to recall 12″ singles typically costing £2.99 or £3.29 at that time, and CD singles I guess must have been £3.49 or £3.99. But I bought far more reduced to clear, either from Woollies or the surprisingly good independent record shops in places now entirely devoid of such things (both Barking and Barkingside, for starters)

  19. 79
    Steve Mannion on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Rory I think 12″ singles in 1990 were starting at £3.99. This is around the time I made my first purchases of them – from Oxford Street’s HMV no less, the releases in question being 808 State’s follow-ups to ‘Pacific’ sans MC Tunes (surely better than Vanilla Ice but by priding himself on fastness, in common with many UK hardcore rappers at the time, not as easy to follow). I’m not sure why I bought them on vinyl as opposed to tape – possibly the extra cool points but also the extra third track which many cassingles tended to lack.

  20. 80
    Mark G on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Singles were 50p for as long as I could remember (1972 to 1979?), until I think one of The Saints’ ones went to 99p which seemed extortionate.

    Albums I remember as being £1.99 or £2.99 around that time.

  21. 81
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #71 and #77 – yeah, no revisionism here. I came late to dance music and grossly underrated a lot of its #1s at the time, but I was already – not a hip-hop snob by any means but a casual fan in upstanding NME reader style, going out and buying Fear Of A Black Planet when it came out, worrying over NWA, feeling a bit guilty for liking Hammer, etc etc. So I felt I had a reasonable basis for disliking Vanilla Ice. Also this was the era when most clumsy rapping was FAST and done on big dance records – I would totally have taken MC Tunes over this guy.

    I think it’s true though that when I started Popular this was one of the records I was expecting to quite enjoy! But no.

  22. 82
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #75 my inexpert impression is that there’s lots of minimal electronic stuff in amongst the bass in late 80s Miami rap, which as we’ve ascertained is roughly what VI is shooting for here. Someone more familiar could provide recommendations I hope!

  23. 83
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Also can we rewind back to discussion of Madonna’s SEX, since she won’t be turning up again until well after? This book was published in my first week at University (a couple of years after) and predictably dominated early icebreaker discussions. One bumptious lad introduced himself to me as a big Madonna fan.

    “Oh,” I asked, “Have you got Sex yet?”

    “I’ve HAD IT and I’ve got it!” he said with a horrible leer.

  24. 84
    thefatgit on 15 Feb 2011 #

    I’d stick my hand up for MC Tunes’ delivery as more menacing than most UK rappers (Overlord X included). I’m not sure if “The Only Rhyme That Bites” would have translated well in the states, when “bites” has a negative connotation attatched to it, Stateside. I’m sure certain Americans would have loved to hear the theme from “The Big Country” sample that the song is built around.

  25. 85
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Didn’t Andrew Neil (of all DO NOT WANT presenters) dedicate an entire horribly leering Yentobbish documentary to Sex as media phenom? I own a rather battered copy I got secondhand years later — it is somewhat water-damaged :/ –:0 Xp but in the age of the internet the actual contents are tame to the point of mumsy quaintness.

  26. 86
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    It was always a solid seller when I worked in the second hand bookshop. We would be somewhat cruel to interested customers, putting it up on a high shelf, bagged so they would have to ask us to get it down and open it. Naturally we would loudly confirm their muttered request to be sure we got them the right item.

  27. 87
    Steve Mannion on 15 Feb 2011 #

    “This customer’s asking how much for SEX” etc.

  28. 88
    thefatgit on 15 Feb 2011 #

    My only experience of Miami Rap around that time was 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty As They Wanna Be”, which was just plain filthy. Unfortunately, none of the basslines or samples were particularly memorable, save for that infamous “Full Metal Jacket” lift.

  29. 89
    Russ L on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #72 – You’re not alone, I’m sure I’ve heard/seen/read an interview in which Chuck D said that.

    ***

    I don’t mind this. Where others see awkward lyrics in it, I find them amusingly surreal. I love the “pound of bacon” bit.

    I’d never have guessed it was from 1990, though. I’d have gone for about two or three years later than that, when I was about 12/13.

  30. 90
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2011 #

    I seem to recall reading a piece by Norman Mailer at the time basically complaining that he couldn’t see Madonna’s lady bits in SEX – although he might not have used that phrase.

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