Robert Matthew Van Winkle (born October 31, 1967), best known by his stage name Vanilla Ice, is an American rapper. Born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Texas and South Florida, Van Winkle released his debut album, Hooked, in 1989 through Ichiban Records, before signing a contract with SBK Records, which released a reformatted version of the album under the title To the Extreme. Van Winkle's single "Ice Ice Baby" was the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts, and has been credited with helping to diversify hip hop by introducing it to a mainstream white audience.
Although Van Winkle was successful, he later regretted his business arrangements with SBK, which had paid him to adopt a more commercial appearance and had published fabricated biographical information without his knowledge. After surviving a suicide attempt by drug overdose, Van Winkle was inspired to change his musical style and lifestyle. Further albums by Van Winkle, including Hard to Swallow, Bi-Polar and Platinum Underground, featured a less mainstream rock-oriented sound, and did not chart.
Early life and career
Robert Matthew Van Winkle was born on October 31, 1967 in Dallas, Texas, and raised in Texas and South Florida. Van Winkle's stepfather was a car salesman. Between the ages of 13 and 14, Van Winkle practiced breakdancing, which led to his African American friends calling him "Vanilla Ice." Although Van Winkle disliked the nickname, it stuck, and Van Winkle began to rap as Vanilla Ice. Van Winkle wrote "Ice Ice Baby" at the age of 16, basing its lyrics upon his experiences in South Florida. The lyrics describe a drive-by shooting and praise Van Winkle's rhyming skills. While still in high school between 1985 and 1986, Van Winkle, with various DJs including D-Shay, Earthquake, and Rod J, performed for entirely African American audiences and attempted to sign a recording contract. After Earthquake beat up D-Shay, it was determined that D-Shay would not be able to work with Van Winkle, and Earthquake became Van Winkle's DJ.
In 1987, Van Winkle met Tommy Quon at the Dallas night club City Lights, which Quon owned. Because Van Winkle had parked in front of the club's marquee, Quon asked him to move the car, but Van Winkle refused, stating that he intended to enter a talent contest, and did not want his car to be stolen. When Quon saw Van Winkle's performance, he saw commercial potential in his rapping and dancing skills, and offered him a contract with Quon's management company, Ultrax. In 1989, Van Winkle signed a contract with Ichiban Records, and released his debut album, Hooked. "Play That Funky Music" was released as the album's first single, with "Ice Ice Baby" appearing as the B-side. When a disc jockey played "Ice Ice Baby" instead of the single's A-side, the song gained more success than "Play That Funky Music". Quon financed $8000 for the production of a music video for "Ice Ice Baby", which received heavy airplay by The Box, increasing public interest in the song. Van Winkle later opened for EPMD, Ice-T, Stetsasonic and Sir Mix-A-Lot on the Stop the Violence Tour.
Mainstream success (1990?1991)
In 1990, Van Winkle signed a contract with SBK Records, who reissued Hooked under the title To the Extreme. The reissue contained new artwork and music. According to Van Winkle, SBK paid him to adopt a more commercial, conventional appearance. Van Winkle is quoted as saying that "They told me, we want you to wear these baggy pants because the young kids like it and it's all glittery and polished and everything, and I said, 'Fuck no, I'm not wearin' this gay-ass shit,' and they said, 'Well here's a million dollars, man, will you do it?' And I said, 'Fuck yes.' And anybody would have done the same thing if they were given the same chance." Van Winkle later regretted his business agreements with SBK.
To the Extreme became the fastest selling hip hop album of all time, peaking at #1 on the Billboard 200. The album spent 16 weeks on the charts, and sold eleven million copies. To the Extreme was the best selling hip hop album up until that time." Ice Ice Baby" has been credited for helping diversify hip hop by introducing it to a mainstream, white audience. Reviews of To the Extreme were mixed. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Mim Udovitch gave the album a B, citing "Ice Ice Baby", "Play That Funky Music", "Dancin'" and "It's a Party" as the album's highlights. Robert Christgau gave the album a C? rating, writing that Van Winkle's "suave sexism, fashionably male supremacist rather than dangerously obscene, is no worse than his suave beats". Criticizing the technique and style of Vanilla Ice, Allmusic reviewer Steve Huey wrote:
"Ice's mic technique is actually stronger and more nimble than MC Hammer's, and he really tries earnestly to show off the skills he does have. Unfortunately, even if he can keep a mid-tempo pace, his flow is rhythmically stiff, and his voice has an odd timbre; plus, he never seems sure of the proper accent to adopt. He's able to overcome those flaws somewhat in isolated moments, but they become all too apparent over the course of an entire album."
Following the success of "Ice Ice Baby", California rapper Mario "Chocolate" Johnson, an associate of record producer Suge Knight, claimed that he had written and produced the song, but had not received credit or royalties for the song. Knight and two bodyguards arrived at The Palm in West Hollywood, where Van Winkle was eating. After shoving Van Winkle's bodyguards aside, Knight and his own bodyguards sat down in front of Van Winkle, staring at him before finally asking "How you doin'?" Similar incidents were repeated on several occasions. Eventually, Knight showed up at Van Winkle's hotel suite on the fifteenth floor of the Bel Age Hotel, accompanied by Johnson and a member of the Oakland Raiders. According to Van Winkle, Knight took him out on the balcony by himself, and implied that he would throw him off the balcony unless he signed the rights to the song over to Knight.
In late 1990, Van Winkle began an eight-month relationship with Madonna, and appeared in photographs for her book, Sex. While on tour in 1991, Van Winkle found out that SBK had instigated the publication of a book, Ice by Ice: The Vanilla Ice Story in His Own Words, written by Quon and attributed to Van Winkle, which detailed false biographical information, including claims that he had attended school with Luther Campbell, and that Van Winkle had grown up in the ghettos of Miami. According to Van Winkle, "I was paid to have this label on it, 'authorized,' because there was like 6 or 7 books out before that says unauthorized right on the cover, meaning that it's bullshit right away. And so they paid me, I believe it was like $850,000 just to have that label and they printed the book. And it's full of shit. I read the book myself and I'm like 'God, how could you fucking do that to me?'" After hiring investigators to find out who was involved in the book's publication, he found out that Quon and promoter Elaine Shock had been involved in publishing and promoting the fabricated biographical elements.
Van Winkle's second major release was the live album Extremely Live, released in March 1991. It peaked at #30 on the Billboard 200. Reviews of the album were negative, with Entertainment Weekly reviewer David Browne calling it "one of the most ridiculous albums ever released", comparing it to The Best of Marcel Marceau, an album which consisted of two sides of silence opened by brief applause. According to Browne, Extremely Live "affords you the chance to hear inane stage patter and unaccompanied drumming, during which, one assumes, Ice and his posse are onstage dancing." Van Winkle branched out into the film industry, making an appearance in the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and beginning to film Cool as Ice in April 1991.
On June 3, 1991, Van Winkle was arrested in Los Angeles on firearm charges, after threatening a homeless man, James N. Gregory, with a pistol. Gregory had approached Van Winkle's car outside of a supermarket and attempted to sell him a silver chain. Van Winkle and his bodyguard were charged with three weapons offenses. Van Winkle pleaded no contest. Cool as Ice opened on October 18, 1991 in 393 theaters in the United States, grossing $638,000, ranking at #14 among the week's new releases. Reviews of the film were negative. Film website Rotten Tomatoes, which compiles reviews from a wide range of critics, gives the film a score of 8%. Van Winkle received a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst New Star.
During this period, Van Winkle received criticism from other hip hop musicians. In 1991, 3rd Bass released a single called "Pop Goes the Weasel", comparing Van Winkle unfavorably to Elvis Presley. The song's music video featured Henry Rollins as Van Winkle, who is depicted as being assaulted by 3rd Bass. Del tha Funkee Homosapien referred to Van Winkle as mocking hip hop in the lyrics of "Pissin' on Your Steps", which appeared on his 1991 debut album I Wish My Brother George Was Here.
Stylistic changes (1994?1999)
By 1994, Van Winkle became isolated from the public spotlight, and had grown dreadlocks and began smoking cannabis. On March 22, 1994, Van Winkle released his second studio album, Mind Blowin. Reviews were unfavorable. Entertainment Weekly reviewer James Bernard called the album "more clunky than funky". Rolling Stone reviewer Danyel Smith praised the song "Get Loose" as "snappy", writing that although the lyrics are "inane", "the song is a thumping party, one of the few places where Ice loosens up. He sounds solid at the beginning of 'The Wrath' as well In 'Now and Forever,' a wet dream kind of song, Ice goes back to goofy lyrics." Allmusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that "There isn't a single moment that establishes a distinct musical identity, and the whole thing is rather embarrassing." Primus bassist Les Claypool stated in response to Van Winkle's cannabis-oriented lyrics: "That's all fine and dandy and cute, but it could be misconstrued and manipulated by the wrong people."
Van Winkle began using ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. During periods of heavy drug use, Van Winkle received many tattoos from artist acquaintances. According to Van Winkle, "That was in my binge days. I didn't even realize how many I was getting". Van Winkle attempted suicide with a heroin overdose. After being revived, Van Winkle decided that it was time to change his lifestyle. As a symbol of his attempt to begin anew, he got a tattoo of a leaf on his stomach.
In 1995, Van Winkle set up a recording studio in Miami, and joined a grunge band, Picking Scabs. Van Winkle expressed an interest in performing hip hop-influenced rock music, but found that the band was unable to produce the sound which he was looking for. In 1997, Van Winkle married Laura, whom he had met at a party. Van Winkle later developed a friendship with producer Ross Robinson, who had become known for producing music by Deftones, Korn, Limp Bizkit and Sepultura. Robinson and Van Winkle shared an interest in motocross racing. According to Robinson, others had attempted to persuade him not to work with Van Winkle, feeling that it might hurt his reputation. Encouraged by this fear, Robinson agreed to work with Van Winkle. In an interview, Robinson stated "It's the most punk-rock thing you could do."
Van Winkle's third studio album, Hard to Swallow, featured a darker sound and lyrics than Van Winkle's previous work. Reviews of the album were generally negative. Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote that "If history is any guide, Vanilla Ice's adoption of rap-metal means that hard rock is about to move on." Richard Torres of Rolling Stone gave the album two out of five stars, writing that while "nothing, however, can redeem Ice's wack boasting," the album "isn't half-bad." In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Rob Kemp gave the album three out of five stars, writing that it contained Van Winkle's "most convincing music". In 1999, the music video for "Ice Ice Baby" was "retired" on the MTV special 25 Lame, in which Van Winkle himself appeared to destroy the video's master tape. When Van Winkle was given a baseball bat, he ended up destroying the show's set.
Independent releases (2000 onward)
Vanilla Ice appearing at the Tex-Mex Grill in Baltimore, Maryland.
Having attracted a following outside of his former mainstream audience, Van Winkle began recording independently. In May 2000, Van Winkle made an appearance at a wrestling match promoted by Juggalo Championship Wrestling, then known as Juggalo Championshit Wrestling, filling in for Insane Clown Posse member Joseph Utsler, who had been injured during a match. It was reported that Insane Clown Posse would make an appearance on Van Winkle's next album, tentatively titled Bomb Tha System. In October 2000, it was announced that Van Winkle's next album would be titled Skabz, and that Chuck D was confirmed to appear on the album. It was initially planned as a double album featuring a disc containing rock-oriented material and a disc of hip hop songs.
In January 2001, Van Winkle was arrested by police in Davie, Florida for assaulting Laura. According to the criminal complaint, Van Winkle and his wife argued as they drove on Interstate 595. Van Winkle admitted to pulling hair from her head to prevent her from jumping out of the truck's window. He pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct four months later, and was sentenced to probation and ordered to attend family therapy sessions. In July 2001, Van Winkle performed at the second Gathering of the Juggalos. On October 23, 2001, Skabz and Bomb Tha System were released as a single album, Bi-Polar. Bradley Torreano of Allmusic disliked the album, criticizing it as "wildly uneven and at times hilariously bad". In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide, Rob Kemp gave the album one out of five stars, calling the album "utterly listless".
From January to February 2004, Van Winkle appeared on the reality television series The Surreal Life. In November 2004, Van Winkle's pet wallaroo, Bucky, and pet goat, Pancho, escaped from his Port St. Lucie, Florida home. After wandering around local streets for over a week, the animals were caught and returned to Van Winkle. He had to pay a $220 fine for expired pet tags and an undisclosed fine for the escape of the animals. On August 2, 2005, Van Winkle released his fifth studio album, Platinum Underground. Van Winkle stated that the title of the album reflected the fact that he could maintain a fanbase without mainstream airplay. Allmusic reviewer Rob Theakston panned the album, writing that it "has more bad spots in it than most".
On April 10, 2008, Van Winkle was arrested in Palm Beach County on a battery charge for allegedly kicking and hitting Laura. He was released the following day after she declared that her husband had only pushed her. In court, the couple's neighbor, Frank Morales, stated that it was merely a verbal argument. Van Winkle was ordered by a Florida court to stay away from his wife following his arrest, and to communicate with his children only if Morales accompanied him. The judge told Van Winkle that he could only contact his wife via telephone. On April 29, 2008, Van Winkle's lawyers, Bradford Cohen and Joseph LoRusso, were able to get the case dropped after providing the state attorney with evidence that conflicted with what was originally reported.
Van Winkle began following a vegetarian diet. In September 2008, Van Winkle signed a contract with Cleopatra Records, recording the cover album Vanilla Ice Is Back! at the label's request. The album was released on November 4, 2008, and contained covers of songs by Public Enemy, House of Pain, Bob Marley and Cypress Hill. IGN reviewer Spence D. called the album "an embarrassing endeavor that sounds like it should have stayed locked inside Ice's studio (or at the very least leaked on YouTube and passed off as a piss take)." On February 27, 2009, Van Winkle performed as part of a joint performance with MC Hammer in Orem, Utah. In March 2009, Van Winkle participated in a Virgin Mobile advertising campaign titled "Right Music Wrongs", apologizing for his 1990s image. As part of the campaign, Van Winkle was placed on "trial", and was voted innocent by users of the campaign website. In August 2009, Van Winkle announced on his official Twitter account that he had signed a contract with StandBy Records, who will release his sixth studio album, Yesterday Is History, Tomorrow Is A Mystery.
Style and influences
Van Winkle performing in Massachusetts on February 16, 2007
Van Winkle's current live performances feature a mix of newer, rock-influenced material and old school hip hop. Van Winkle performs with a live drummer and DJ, and sometimes sprays his audience with bottled water. Describing his performances, Van Winkle stated "It's high energy, stage diving, pyrotechnics, girls showing their breasts. It's crazy party atmosphere." In promotion of Hard to Swallow, Van Winkle toured with a seven-piece live band which included bassist Scott Shriner. The band opened with rock-oriented material from Hard to Swallow and concluded with older hip hop songs.
Van Winkle stated that his musical style was influenced by underground music, rather than mainstream music, and that his influences included hip hop and funk artists such as Funkadelic, Rick James and Parliament. Van Winkle also stated that he enjoys Rage Against the Machine, Slipknot and System of a Down. Van Winkle sometimes plays bass, drums and keyboards on studio recordings. Rapper G-Child, best known for her appearance on ego trip's The (White) Rapper Show, has credited Van Winkle as being a major influence on her work. After meeting Van Winkle in 2000, G-Child performed freestyle raps at six of Van Winkle's performances, and opened for him four times.
DJ Dirty Chopstix ? turntables and background vocals
Clint Barlow ? drums
DJ DP - turntables and background vocals
D-Shay ? disc jockey
Earthquake ? disc jockey
Rod J ? disc jockey
Zero ? disc jockey
Scott Shriner ? bass