When I was in kindergarten, Ethan, my best friend, introduced me to a lot of popular music. He had an older brother, and parents slightly more permissive than my own, so he had access to the good stuff. On my little Playskool cassette player (the one with the microphone for recording your own songs and radio plays) we listened to New Kids on the Block and (ever so slightly) edgier fare like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.
Now, lots of people have made jokes at the expense of these three artists. And I’m not necessarily here to bury Vanilla Ice; I’m hopefully here to praise him. Because to me, “Ice Ice Baby” along with “The Right Stuff” and “U Can’t Touch This” were the pinnacle of recorded music. I could not listen to it enough. I begged Ethan to let me borrow the cassette. I’d been raised on Raffi and the Grateful Dead, and Vanilla Ice, to my young ears, was a totally different sonic experience. And let’s not forget that the song was immensely popular. It was, according to the gospel of Wikipedia, the first hip hop song to top the Billboard charts. Then it all went south.
In terms of aging gracefully, Vanilla Ice’s career is the opposite of Dick Clark’s face. Its disintegration happened quickly and brutally, with its triple nadirs of his dubious explanation of his sampling technique (“Theirs is ‘Dun dun dun dada dun dun.’ Ours is ‘Dun dun dun dad dun dun tsss.’”), his embarrassing metal reboot of the Ice franchise, and a cathartic/ terrifying smashing of his music video (and an MTV set) with a baseball bat during a countdown show.
Now people bring his name up almost exclusively as a punch line. But there was a time where his hit song was ubiquitous and he influenced hairstyles (shaved horizontal stripes, anyone?) across the nation. V-Ice even made an appearance in Secret of the Ooze, the second and best of the Ninja Turtles films.
What went wrong? Was it that Vanilla Ice was the Harper Lee of early nineties bubblegum hip-hop and only had one classic in him? Or did the public catch on that the emperor had no clothes (besides the American flag windbreaker, obviously)? I re-listened to “Ice Ice Baby” to try and figure out what went wrong. Over four minutes, I experienced the entire range of human emotion and finally came to some conclusions. Here’s a second-by-second breakdown.
00:05 – Five seconds of a lightly percussive shaker. Could be anything. Easy to ignore. No real thoughts or feelings attached.
00:06 – Weird chipmunk-esque “Yo, Vanilla! Kick it one time, boyeeeeeee!” Followed immediate acquiescence to kicking it. This is where the signature bass line kicks in, too. If you’re in a crowded bar, the bass can actually kick in louder than the vocals, posing an interesting question: What song am I hearing? Is it “Ice Ice Baby” or is it “Under Pressure?” At this point, I am mostly intrigued. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, I’m going to be happy with the results. It’s like when I hear a movie is “Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman” or “Narrated by Morgan Freeman.”
00:17 – The oddly sensual whisper of “Ice, Ice baby,” begins. I feel a giddy rush of a childhood sense memory. Do I remember all the lyrics?
00:21 – “All right, stop! Collaborate and listen!” I do! At this point, I am rapping out loud. Everything is right with the world.
00:35 – Vanilla steps up his flow to cram in all the syllables to fit “To the extreme, I rock a mic like a vandal/ Light up the stage and wax a chump like a candle,” into the bar structure. Five-year-old Josh (the song got its national release in 1990) was pretty dazzled by the lyricism. Twenty-six-year-old Josh still thinks… Not bad, Vanilla.
00:40 – I wonder whether the background guys who shout “DANCE!” are the same guys from Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.”
00:52 – “If there was a problem, yo I’ll solve it/ Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.” What a catchy lead-in to the chorus. If it’s worth anything, when this song comes on in public, Caucasian people age 25-35 will invariably rap that couplet at the end of each verse. Of course, those same people would also sing the entire Saved By The Bell theme song if that happened to be playing.
01:14 – “JUMPIN’!” “PUMPIN’!” “FAKIN’!” “BACON!” Maybe these backup guys should interject more sparingly. Although, growing up with Jewish parents, I had a hard time convincing them to include bacon in our breakfast repertoire. So when I got to have it, I also felt like shouting. You get a free pass on “BACON!” backup guys.
01:53 – Okay, we jump back into the narrative where Ice and his friend Jay are driving through Miami. There are hot girls and guys in expensive cars. Then Vanilla raps: “Jay with the gauge and Vanilla with the nine,” as in 9mm assault weapon. Here’s where the wheels start coming off (of Vanilla’s 5.0). If your nickname is “Vanilla,” and you are carrying a gun, you are asking to be murdered on principle. As a kid, there’s a little danger and excitement when an older friend explains what he’s talking about. As an adult, you’re like: “I don’t buy it, Vanilla.” Also, there are “chumps” hanging out, and they are on cocaine. Someone is shooting a gun, inexplicably.
02:12 – “Police are on the scene, you know what I mean?/ They passed me up, confronted all the dope fiends.” Jeez, Vanilla. Can you make a stronger case for the blithe acceptance of institutionalized classism? Yes, the cokeheads shooting at each other should probably be broken up by law enforcement, but what about the white dude speeding away from the scene of the crime in a sports car while CARRYING A CONCEALED WEAPON? You are a criminal, Vanilla Ice! Or a liar. Because I still don’t think you have a gun. Either way, not cool, Vanilla. Not cool. I trusted you.
Also, no rapper has ever told a wimpier story than: “There was gunfire. I dove on the ground and made my way to my expensive car. I got stuck in traffic fleeing the location. The police arrested the perpetrators.” An analogy: Vanilla Ice : NWA :: Cap’n Crunch : Crack Cocaine.
02:18 – Here comes the chorus again. Quick point of contention. Clearly there was a problem, and you did not solve it. You fled while the police cleared up the disturbance. Okay, I’ll still check out the hook while your DJ revolves it.
02:36 – Wait, there’s another verse? Maybe I don’t know all the words after all. I had been so certain not three minutes ago. Who am I? What is happening to me? I think of my great-grandmother, who I only knew in the late stages of her Alzheimer’s. I am now acutely aware of my own mortality.
02:59 – “If rhyme was a drug, I’d sell it by the gram.” Would you? Or would you run away while the guy selling this odd rhyme-drug was being arrested. You make me sick.
3:09-4:27 – Extended fade-out of “Ice Ice, Baby, too cold” and then just a synth line over the shaker. “Ice Ice Baby” ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. It slinks back into the past and out of your consciousness until the next moment you come face to face with it.
After a strong start, “Ice Ice Baby” spirals out of control. It’s a catchy hook with not much to say beyond that, but there’s still a pretense of gutty first-person urban journalism. I honestly believe that the earworm chorus and beat would land it in the commercial of a children’s movie based on a comic strip character if it came out today. But the second and third verses are unnecessary. If the current musical landscape values singles over albums, Vanilla Ice was ahead of his time in creating a song that is only interesting and pleasurable for the duration of a single chorus-verse-chorus cycle.
“Ice Ice Baby” gets a lot of crap for being inauthentic, which goes against the fundamental tenet of realness in hip-hop. That said, there’s a reason the song was so popular. It’s the same reason why vanilla ice cream is the best-selling flavor in North America. It’s pleasant, and it doesn’t aggravate nut allergies. So I’m always happy to hear Vanilla Ice kick it one time, but don’t be surprised if I’m ready to move on to the next song when he tries to kick it once more.