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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Vanilla Ice’s Great White Hype

Making sense of rap’s biggest punching bag with help from Tom Breihan

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 82 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” with help from Tom Breihan, Stereogum scribe and author of The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

Historically, instinctively, barring some sort of dire moral dimension, I try on this show not to be like, Yo, this shit sucks. Right? It’s rude, it’s unhelpful, it’s elitist. I am weaponizing my own hindsight in a transparent attempt to sound smarter and cooler and hotter than I am. You like what you like; 12-year-old me, for all his naive doofiness, he liked what he liked. But as we turn our attention now to the two way-more-famous songs on Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, revisiting it now, I have to live my truth and tell you that “Play That Funky Music” by Vanilla Ice is trash and a half.

There are two major problems here, to my mind, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is for sure the first problem. The fly girl is on her own. She can make her own decisions. The second major problem is the word German.

Now you’re amazed by the VIP posse
Steppin’ so hard like a German Nazi

OK, there are three major problems, and Nazi is the second one, but spare a thought for the desperate, oh-shit-I-need-two-more-syllables grasp for “German.” When he says, “I like my rhymes atrocious,” believe him. I do not care for this song, which is like that bootleg Calvin & Hobbes truck decal where it’s Calvin pissing on something, but here it’s Vanilla Ice pissing on proud Ohio funk band Wild Cherry’s 1975 classic “Play That Funky Music,” and I’m being unnecessarily rude here because I’ve just identified a fourth major problem, which is the phrase “VIP Posse.” VIP stands for Vanilla Ice Posse, so when he says “VIP posse,” he’s saying “Vanilla Ice Posse Posse”; the second posse is redundant. I was in a real bad mood when I revisited this song, man. I had a Proposition Fuck You–type vibe. This has all gotten excessively rude. Let’s let the VIP do some call-and-response while I regroup.

Somebody is going to town on the vibraslap, on that song, I’ll say that. I dig the enthusiasm. “Play That Funky Music” was supposed to be Vanilla Ice’s breakout single, dude. This was the song that was gonna make Vanilla Ice famous, and needless to say Vanilla Ice did not get famous until a couple DJs flipped over the “Play That Funky Music” 12-inch single and discovered, on the B-side, the song that would actually make Vanilla Ice famous. And here, regrettably, it’s time to set aside our clueless childish ways, and stop being blank slates who don’t know shit about shit, and address, however briefly, the Vanilla Ice creation myth. All that David Copperfield kind of crap.

I will try, and probably fail, to be brief. Robert Van Winkle—that’s a tough break, name-wise, for an aspiring superstar rapper—was born on Halloween 1967. If you believe his 1991 quickie semi-autobiography Ice by Ice, he was born in the suburbs of Miami, but he was probably born in the suburbs of Dallas. And yeah, immediately I’m irritated by the vagueness of this origin story. Ice by Ice, by the way, is super out-of-print, but it’s available right now, via Amazon, as a used paperback in good condition for the low, low price of $298.94. Should I have bought that? Should I have tried to expense that? I’m still thinking about expensing that. In the late ’80s, if you were an aspiring superstar rapper, it was way cooler to be from Miami than from Dallas. That’s my overbroad explanation for this confusion. Superstar rappers in 1990, in the popular imagination, were from New York, L.A., or Miami, maybe. That’s overbroad but I’m trying to be brief.

Young Robert grows up between Dallas and Miami, mostly Dallas. Young Robert watches the 1984 breakdancing film Breakin’. You seen this movie, Breakin’? It’s streaming right now, on Hulu. I’m just kidding, it’s not streaming anywhere. If you wanna get any more 1984 than this you’re gonna need a fuckin’ DeLorean.

That’s 1984 for ya. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13. Young Robert likes this movie a whole lot. Young Robert starts break dancing in Dallas-area malls for loose change. Young Robert starts rapping, also. Young Robert boldly ventures into the mythical Dallas nightclub and hip-hop mecca City Lights, where he is often the only white person, maybe. He break-dances quite well. He battle-raps less well but boy is he charming. City Lights takes him in as a star attraction. He opens shows for 2 Live Crew, Rob Base, MC Hammer, and that big Public Enemy/Ice-T tour. He hooks up with a local DJ and producer and City Lights luminary named Earthquake. Earthquake works up some beats. Two of those beats are “Play That Funky Music” and “Ice Ice Baby.” Earthquake gives young Robert cassette tapes of those beats, or, uh, young Robert kinda just takes ’em?

Millions of dollars are at stake. Suge Knight, peripherally but quite vividly, will be getting involved, eventually, in this creation myth. I’ll put it to you like this: Vanilla told Jeff Weiss, in a Ringer piece, that he wrote the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby” in 1988, when he was 20 years old, and living with his mom in Dallas, and he’d just gotten back from a weekend trip to Miami, and he got inspired and he wrote all the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby” in a half hour, between 12:30 and 1 a.m. The specificity of that, the time stamp Vanilla Ice helpfully provides, I’m gonna let you decide whether that makes his overall account of his own origin myth more or less believable. Does that level of detail indicate that he’s not bullshitting, or that he’s, like extra-bullshitting?

Much to consider. The Vanilla Ice songs “Ice Ice Baby” and “Play That Funky Music” now exist; also, Young Robert is now known professionally as Vanilla Ice. Ichiban Records, a respected underground rap label in Atlanta, agrees to release Vanilla Ice’s 1989 debut album, which is called Hooked, and is for sale on Discogs right now in mint condition for $500. Plus five bucks shipping. $505 for an unopened, mint-condition CD. Should I have expensed that?

A couple intrepid DJs flip over the “Play That Funky Music” 12-inch and play “Ice Ice Baby” instead. Good idea. This is a great song. In light of all the rudeness, let me make sure I say that. There is (forgive me) an iciness, an eeriness, an entrancing minimalism to “Ice Ice Baby.” The “Under Pressure” sample is fantastic even if Vanilla Ice insists it’s not the same. This song has, as we have determined, the single greatest opening line to any work of art produced in the 20th century. It makes you stop. It makes you collaborate. It makes you listen. It’s a great origin-story song, it’s a great rap song, it’s a great pop song. Anything less than the best is a felony.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.