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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. 91
    Andrew F on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Been thinking about my surprise at my contrarian position. One of the things that it does underline is that I’ve always had a tin ear for ‘flow’, never really understood what makes one rapper technically better than another. VI says the words in the right order and with the right emphasis – that’s pretty much all I’m looking for.

    Also of course one of the reasons that I’ve become more fond of this recently was its appearance on one of the first editions of SingStar with the ‘Rap Meter’, which was a bonus for those of us who are generally lacking in proper singing chops. This meant that I got quite well acquainted with it, and came to associate it with being both good fun for all concerned, and really bloody difficult – he may not be up to MC Tunes’ speed, but I assume that it was a staple Karaoke Trap for years.

  2. 92
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #91 re. flow: at the risk of sounding like one of Those Academics Who Get Into Rap, can you tell the difference between someone reading Shakespeare badly and well? Often the bad Shakespearian – I’m an example – gets seduced by the metre and whatever has been written comes out as purely iambic pentameter, the rhythms and stresses falling very regularly. But a good shakespearean will shape the verse so it brings out the meaning – this is v much not doing it ‘naturally’, but conjuring up a kind of unnaturalness which is a collaboration between the language, the metre and the performer.

    And I think that’s what flow is too – I think of it as the way the rapping negotiates with the beat and the meaning. VI, on this, gets kind of trampled by the beat and loses the meaning. There’s lots of other ways a rapper can be good of course but yeah flow is v important!

  3. 93
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    & it’s a function of your own accent, background, what you’re used to hearing, etc – some US rap heads seem to hear grime as really clunky and weak in ways that UK listeners can’t usually process

  4. 94
    Al Ewing on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Re: the film career of V. Ice:

    Has anyone apart from me seen Vanilla Ice’s astonishing and possibly straight-to-VHS movie Cool As Ice? It’s a fascinating look at what rap and biker culture in the 1990s was almost certainly not like, as well as a slightly blatant homage to Footloose.

    Points of note: Superman’s Dad as an artist putting up Ice and his chums in the massive art installation he shares with his wife. I’d have liked to see a film with those two shaking up a small conservative town rather than Mr. Ice, but it was not to be.

    Also, Vanilla Ice says “Drop the zero and get with the hero”.

    (Vanilla Ice also played a vital role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret Of The Ooze.)

  5. 95
    Cumbrian on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Very quick word of praise for John Deacon – Tom says himself that nicking the Under Pressure bassline is the main weapon that IIB has in its arsenal.

    The guy wrote at least two absolutely indelible basslines and was an under-rated songwriter. I happened to be listening to A Day At The Races last night and it’s clear from The Millionaire Waltz alone that he was also bloody good at his instrument – capable of great dexterity but also knows when to sit back and let the rest of the band take over, not intruding on anyone else’s space.

    It’s a shame that the Under Pressure bassline is perhaps beyond redemption for usage by another artist. Whenever it comes on, people are going to think of IIB, particularly if someone starts rapping over it (being 9 when IIB came out, I still even think of it when I listen to Under Pressure – and I like Queen – so there is something to be said for formative influences I guess). There is undoubtedly a great hip-hop track waiting to be made using this line – and its unlikely to happen.

  6. 96
    MikeMCSG on 15 Feb 2011 #

    # 92 Of course some of us out there hold out for the idea that there are no ways a rapper can be good :-}

  7. 97
    Lex on 15 Feb 2011 #

    #96 are you serious?

    #83 yeah let’s talk Madonna!

    It was around this time that I first became aware of her – my introduction to her was “Crazy For You” (checking now, it seems to have been re-released after “Justify My Love” for no apparent reason). I didn’t really realise I was a fan until the Bedtime Stories era, the first album of hers I owned, although I loved all the Erotica singles (and 20 years on I think it’s her best album).

    I didn’t really have any idea of who she was or what she’d done in the ’80s, apart from that she was Very Famous and a Big Deal. She was also the first pop star I’d encountered that I felt I was actually forbidden to like (in a specific sense rather than all-pop-music-is-bad-for-you) – I got the definite impression she was a thoroughly immoral Whore of Babylon (and when I acquired Bedtime Stories, felt I had to hide or at least play down that I enjoyed Madonna’s music). Sex and Erotica seemed to be examples of this rather than the causes of it.

    I didn’t see what was embarrassing about any of it though! Possibly because I liked the music so much (and never saw, only read about the book), but also because around this time I perceived a real mystique around her – I didn’t know why she was doing any of this, especially when it was met with such disapprobation, but she seemed so definite about the way she went about it: This is what I do, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off. And even though, at the age of 9, I didn’t really know what sex was, I didn’t understand how it made her beyond the pale.

    (Didn’t hear “Justify My Love” until years later. Think it’s one of her best. “Tuneless” my ass! It’s genuinely sexy and sultry and the beat is DEEP and who gives a fuck whether your mum can sing along to it on the radio. And the Beast Within mix is one of the mostmental things I’ve ever heard, and so disturbing but so RIGHT to listen to at eg 6am afterparties in “altered states”, shall we say.)

  8. 98
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    The Beast Within mix is AMAZING.

    I think I only looked through Sex once. There were layers of controversy around it viz:

    – This is porn and will corrupt our children.
    – This is porn and Madonna is a bad feminist.
    – I don’t mind porn but this is too kinky*
    – This is pretentious, whether it’s porn or not.
    – This is bad art, whether it’s porn or not.
    – This is a rip-off, whether it’s porn or not.
    – If she put as much effort into her music… **
    – This is just a publicity stunt.
    – This is lame porn.***

    *Mostly centred on one shot which could be vaguely interpreted as a rape fantasy, IIRC.

    **particularly annoying!

    ***I feel like this has become a more common criticism, I didn’t hear it at the time.

  9. 99
    Tom on 15 Feb 2011 #

    (The “bad art” one is the one that sticks most, I suspect)

  10. 100

    The cover is made of fairly serious metal — it would be a noisy and unhandy tome to sneak into a quiet corner with, should you have reason to consider so doing. Which I imagine is entirely part of the conceptual gag.

  11. 101
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Re 90: Pretty sure The Observer had Martin Amis writing about Sex – two slightly past their sell-by date ’80s figures is what I thought at the time. Justify My Love is probably the last Madonna song I truly enjoyed, and for all is a fairly silly record that takes itself ridiculously seriously.

    Select had the Vanilla Ice pic and one other in their end of year (’92) issue, I’m almost certain.

  12. 102
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Re 101: the difference being, obv, that Madonna was once properly ace and Martin A was always terrible.

  13. 103
    Mark M on 15 Feb 2011 #

    Great job by Tom in the piece itself trying to pinpoint what makes Ice’s rapping so bad. Dodgy rapping is so much easier to spot aurally than it is to explain (and before anyone gets too relativist, there definitely is bad rapping as opposed to just rapping one doesn’t like – for instance, I know Lil Wayne isn’t remotely a poor rapper, but I can’t abide him or anyone else who says ‘thurrrr’). But while it might assume bad rapping is defined by inept lyrics, there are a number of powerful in the business but hugely clumsy or weak voiced MCs who had their talented mates write the words for them.

  14. 104
    swanstep on 16 Feb 2011 #

    A couple of points about Madonna’s Sex book.
    1. At least in the US it was kind of bound up with the right/left culture wars. Artsy nudes from Robert Mapplethorpe faced big obscenity trials in 1990, and the Sex book was sort of pushing in that direction.
    2. I’d been with Mad. from the beginning, but by the time of Sex and Erotica I was pretty sick of her. A whole ‘Madonna studies’ industry had sprung up in universities, and she had been literally everywhere in the media for years by 1991. (I sound a little bit like Nik Cohn whining about the Beatles in ’68 here!) She was overexposed and then Sex and Erotica seemed to make that overexposure literal. Bleech I thought (Erotica’s since grown on me). At any rate, even Madonna seemed to realize that she needed to dial things back a bit content-wise and to just go away for a while/give the culture a breather from her royal highness-ness. Grunge/riot grrl stuff was a good circuit-breaker for her (at least in the US) and M. returned scrubbed up and almost like a breath of fresh air in 94/95 w/ the excellent Bedtime Stories, happy to cede the notoriety market to Courtney Love (see the famous madonna/courtney mtv showdown here). I’m surprised to hear that so many people don’t *really* like or rate Ray of Light/Music era M. – that stuff’s among her v. best in my view.

  15. 105
    Steve Mannion on 16 Feb 2011 #

    On an episode of The Word one time they did a thing about ‘Justify My Love’ apparently containing Satanic worship messages when played backwards (maybe The Beast Within mix specifically). It creeped me out so much I couldn’t hear the song again for a long time after. Serves me right for watching The Word I guess.

  16. 106
    swanstep on 16 Feb 2011 #

    @102. Martin Amis was always terrible? He’s always been obnoxious/arrogant and has always had limits as a writer, but he’s got plenty of runs on the board surely (no one reads The Rachel Papers, Money, London Fields etc. and thinks that they’re literally terrible). Perhaps you mean just that he’s never been quite as good as he’s thought he is or as the hype about him suggested (he’d have to be Dickens at least to measure up to all that I suppose, and it’s true that he’s not nearly *that* good or important).

  17. 107
    Ed on 16 Feb 2011 #

    @102, @106 ‘Money’ *owns* the eighties, partly because it *is* the eighties.

    It is more eighties than a Charles and Di Rubik’s cube. That plays ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’. And is sitting on Margaret Thatcher’s desk, next to a picture of Arthur Scargill wearing a “Frankie Say” T-shirt.

    Really, if any young person wants to understand the collective madness that took control of Britain between the Falklands War and Black Monday, ‘Money’ is what they need to read.

  18. 108
    Mark M on 16 Feb 2011 #

    Re 107: you do appear to be comparing Money to a lot of surface noise… If I gave Money to my nephew, would it help him to understand what I or pretty much anyone I know that can think of experienced of the ’80s? Not really. My feeling on Amis is 1) he’s an emblematic writer of his time, but so was his father, and I would recommend that anyone read KA, either and 2) he good a lot of mileage out of being “daringly unpleasant”, which after a couple of his books I decided was just “unpleasant” and there was nowt brave about it.

    I rather think a better starting point would be some of the stuff on here: Rosie’s autobiographical snippets, or the discussions about football in British society in the ’80s, for instance.

  19. 109
    MikeMCSG on 16 Feb 2011 #

    # 97 Well, halfway Lex. My record collection isn’t entirely rap-free and I do concede that an artform which has lasted over thirty years now has validity and good/bad practitioners that fans like Tom (and perhaps yourself)can seperate. To me and some others of my age and older they all sound like thugs shouting over stolen music and it’s just incomprehensible. But still part of life’s rich tapestry of course.

  20. 110
    Chelovek na lune on 16 Feb 2011 #

    IM(nv)HO “London Fields” towers above the rest of M.A.’s fiction, but its still only a medium rise block. A master of style rather than of substance, mostly.

  21. 111
    Matthew H on 16 Feb 2011 #

    #97 I think Crazy For You was reissued to promote The Immaculate Collection. Just a guess though.

    Obviously we all treated VI as a joke, but Ice Ice Baby was great to dance to, after a skinful of 80p lagers down the Studio in Bristol. I’m sure I looked fantastic.

  22. 112
    swanstep on 16 Feb 2011 #

    I tend to think of Money as a counterpart to High Hopes & Life Is Sweet-period Mike Leigh whereas London Fields corresponds v. specifically for me to Naked. I resonate a little with Mark M., 108’s complaint about Amis’s unpleasantness/crampedness (some people feel that way about Leigh too) but think the first few Amis’s one reads that isn’t a problem, so my conclusion is that he’s worth reading a bit of! (It does make me wonder tho’, assuming we’re typical, who if anyone is reading Amis’s recent books?)

  23. 113
    the pinefox on 16 Feb 2011 #

    Bizarre to find MA being discussed here. Money is his greatest work by many air miles, and is a major feat of writing full stop:.

    I do think London Fields is literally terrible.

  24. 114
    Andrew F on 16 Feb 2011 #

    #92: I think this might fall down at the bit where I haven’t as far as I know heard anyone reading Shakespearian verse.

    #108: I think it would be difficult to engage with the 80s without a considerable amount of surface noise! And indeed the erasure from a then-forming (and now shattered) cultural record of a lot of people _and_ all the people they knew is also a part of the story of the 80s.

  25. 115
    wichita lineman on 16 Feb 2011 #

    Re 110: agreed. “Pub hair” has become part of my everyday language.

  26. 116
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 16 Feb 2011 #

    I like the pinefoxian formula “full stop:.”

  27. 117
    Ed on 16 Feb 2011 #

    @108 Fair enough; I was joking about the surface noise, really. What I mean is that the greed, the cynicism, the aggression and the anti-intellectualism that I remember as the defining characteristics of England in the 1980s – the south-east of England, anyway, which was where the power was – are all there in ‘Money’, to dazzling effect. It is all the more impressive in that Amis caught it so early, in 1984.

    That is not to say that his later output isn’t worthless, of course. ‘Sex’ is a better book than anything Amis has written since about 1986.

  28. 118
    pink champale on 16 Feb 2011 #

    i think a lot of the problem with MA is that he is (or at least was) an incomparable prose stylist who is actually a bit stupid. so when his books were style over substance (rachel papers) or style is substance (money) they were pretty great, but since he’s started to try and say something profound (the rot seemed to have set in with einsteins monsters, wherein he realises that nuclear weapons are a Bad Thing) he’s really struggled against the fact that he really doesn’t have anything profound (or even not actively laughable) to say. (see ‘the second plane’ for truly shocking lack of grip).

    ‘ice ice baby’ on the other hand is pretty good, i think. I like the minimal, dirgy, melancholic side to it, heightened by the brilliant bits in the video where him and his oddly dressed mates do the strange dance in a poorly lit room, looking for all the world like a goodfella’s outtake. and vanilla himself isn’t that terrible a rapper – i’d put his flow above dre’s for one. (though i guess, what with being the single most important figure in the history of hip hop and making a whole ton of great records, dre’s horrible bark deserves a bit of slack)

  29. 119
    Chelovek na lune on 16 Feb 2011 #

    I once read the whole of “Times Arrow”, having just borrowed it from the library, while waiting for a 145 at a bus stop in Ilford.

    The bus services are definitely better now.

    It may well have been the last MA book I bothered – or could be bothered – to read all the way through.

    Although I think that the imposition of a relatively short word limit, which forces “Mark Asprey”to reign in his self-reverential excesses, at least a bit make some of his forays into the realm of journalistic essays…at least bearable, sometimes even (because of his mastery of style) a pleasure to read, at least as much as something simialr by Julian Barnes would be. Dealing with serious themes at greater length (as indeed, first demonstrated, after a fashion, by “Times Arrow”) really doesn’t suit him though.

  30. 120
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 16 Feb 2011 #

    I really really find it hard to concede he has a “mastery of style” in non-fiction: I think he has a total tin ear for prose rhythm, so that even his (rare) good sentences seem more a product of luck than judgment. I am happy to conclude this is because he never read children’s books as a kid.

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