The word on Vanilla Ice Despite chilly reception from critics, this white rapper is today's hot property

March 28, 1991|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON — HOUSTON-- WHAT COULD be more ironic than Vanilla Ice performing his rap version of the Rolling Stones' old "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" to 10,000 screaming fans?

In the past six months, Ice -- as even his parents call Robert Van Winkle -- has sold more than 10 million albums worldwide and gone from the opening slot on an M.C. Hammer tour to headlining his own shows. (He will appear at the Baltimore Arena Sunday night at 7:30.)

The first white solo star in the predominantly black rap genre, Ice has recently had his autobiography published by Avon Books ("Ice by Ice") and has signed to star in an upcoming Universal adventure movie ("Cool as Ice"). [He also plays a rapper in the recently released movie "Teenage Mutant Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze."]

Yet he has been attacked on so many fronts during the same six months that he must identify with the frustration expressed in the Stones' song.

Vanilla Ice has been savaged by critics who decry his style of rap as homogenized, called a fake because he appeared to exaggerate his background to appear more "street-wise" and branded a virtual imperialist who is ripping off black culture.

Can he get satisfaction in the midst of all that?

Ice does not pause to weigh the subtleties of the question: "The only thing I'm thinking when I sing 'Satisfaction' is, 'I've got another hit.'"

The bravado is part of the outspoken high school dropout's image.

Accepting an American Music Award in January, he looked into the camera and told a national television audience, "To the people that try to hold me down, kiss my white butt."

Some viewers thought Ice was referring to M.C. Hammer, who at times has accused the young hotshot of being a crass imitation.

"Naw," Ice said with a shrug in a hotel room before a recent Houston concert, sipping hot tea to soothe an aggravated throat. "I got more things on my mind than Hammer. Besides, he's OK. We've said some things about each other, but it's only because we were reacting to what we read.

"When we get together, we go, 'Did you really say that?' and the other goes, 'No, that was just the damn media again.' I don't know why journalists keep trying to pit us against each other. Maybe they're just trying to sell papers or magazines. . . . You know, a feud between the two biggest rappers. Whatever it is, we're friends. We just saw each other at the Grammys. Everything's cool."

So who was the remark aimed at?

"I was talking to all those people who said I could never make it . . . the ones that said the public wouldn't accept a white rapper," he said.

"I've got a serious attitude. If someone tells me I can't do something, I work twice as hard. So, I was telling all those people who doubted over the years, 'Well, here I am, getting my American Music Awards . . . Dick Clark, baby. The line forms right here and it's a long one.'"

It isn't as easy for Ice to kiss off another issue: the racial one.

To anyone aware of how white musicians and merchants wrested rock 'n' roll away from the music's black founders in the '50s and '60s, it's only natural for many rappers to wonder whether history is going to repeat itself with rap following Vanilla Ice's phenomenal success.

Ice paused.

Despite the arrogance in most of Ice's publicity photos, the slender young man with the bolt of blond in his otherwise dark hair seemed down-to-earth. On this day, he appeared weary from the months of media scrutiny and troubled by the talk of race and pop carpetbagging.

"I seem to be a prime suspect to be picked on," he said finally. "I'm setting patterns here for other people to come along, bringing rap music into ears that never heard it before or never even considered buying rap music . . . and I'm white. A lot of people don't like that because rap music is black. Blacks did originate it, but rap also belongs to the streets and the street is where I came from.

"All those stories that came out about me not really being from the streets are just a lot of crap. If you can't see I'm from the streets, then you're blind. How many white people do you know who can dance? How many white people do you know can rap? How many white people you know can beat box? How many white people you know can produce their own rap music?"

The most provocative yet absurd suggestion in the wake of Ice's success is that he is the Elvis of rap.

It's just the kind of comparison that lends heat to the issue of a white teen idol in rap. The Beastie Boys -- the New York trio with the bratty image -- stormed the charts in the late '80s, but the group was as much punk as rap and its audience was primarily young males. With Ice, the prime demographic is young suburban females.

The word most often mentioned by starry-eyed fans when asked why they like Vanilla Ice is sexy. While bland by rap standards, his music is catchy enough by Top 40 radio standards. The videos do the rest.

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