Survival of the phattest – Old school rap returns (part II)

Corey Moss

Vanilla Ice has a confession to make.

“I sold out,” he says candidly. “I take the blame. I took the money.”

He pauses to clear his throat, still sore from a gig the night before at the famed New York punk club CBGBs.

“I was like a puppet, man. They crossed me over and wanted me to wear these baggy pants and this crazy hairdo and clean up my image. ‘And we want you to do a slow song because M.C. Hammer has one on the charts.’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ And they were like, ‘Will you do it for a million bucks?'”

And so he did, only he made a little more than a million bucks.

Vanilla Ice’s breakthrough single, “Ice Ice Baby,” spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard, propelling “To the Extreme” to sell more than 13 million copies, more than any rap album to date.

Was it worth it?

“There’s some good things that came from the first record, and there’s some bad things,” Ice says. “Financially, I’m set for the rest of my life.”

Musically, well, it couldn’t be more opposite.

Before he had time to say “Cool as Ice,” Vanilla went from totally sheik to totally geek.

His movie bombed, as did the soundtrack, which spent less time on the charts than “To the Extreme” spent at No. 1.

Vanilla was a flavor of the month. But damn, did he taste good.

His clever rhymes and smooth dance moves were skills the world hadn’t seen from a white boy.

“Ice Ice Baby,” which sampled David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” along with “Play the Funky Music,” a remake of the Sly and the Family Stone classic, carved a window that sinister sampler Sean “Puffy” Combs would jump through nearly a decade later.

Ice was the first rapper to be marketed, and the only one to pose nude with Madonna. Like Hammer before him, and Fresh Prince after him, Vanilla Ice made rap the mainstream phenomenon it is today.

“With the success of my record, whether people want to admit it or not, I put rap music in front of people’s ears who never really considered listening to it,” Ice says.

But as it happens so often in the music industry, the expectations were too much to handle. Like Elvis and Cobain and so many others, Vanilla turned to drugs.

“I couldn’t handle the pressures of everybody rippin’ away the success I was gettin’,” he explains.

In 1994, Ice released “Mind Blowin’,” a pot-hyping record much in common with Cypress Hill’s sound at the time.

Again, Vanilla bombed. Only this time he was so crushed, he nearly took his own life. A near fatal overdose sent a wake-up call to the Iceman: He was better than that.

Ice cleaned up his act and went back to his teenage hobby of motorcross. He eased back into music with a Miami punk band called Picking Scabs, got married and became a father to a girl he named Dusti Rain.

Last spring, Vanilla played two month’s worth of club shows in the Midwest and Canada, enough to get motivated to return to the studio.

Not wanting to sink back into his confusing rap image, he chose an upcoming genre known as skate rock and enlisted founding producer Ross Robinson to help him.

“I wanted to express myself in a very intense way, and there was no way it was going to happen with a drum machine,” he says. “Basically, I’m bored with drum machines and samples and stuff. With a band, they can build the energy around me.”

Ice was introduced to Robinson, whose producing credits include Korn, Sepultura and Limp Bizkit, through a friend and former executive at SBK, the label that released “To the Extreme.”

“Ross flew to Miami and it just so happens that he’s a motorcross racer too,” Vanilla says. “So we kinda clicked off the bat. It was totally a good vibe right away. We flew to California and started rollin’ tape the minute I got there.”

One month and several Robinson-trained musicians later, “Hard to Swallow” was finished. As brutally honest and angry as “To the Extreme” was catchy, it was just what the Iceman ordered.

Encouraged by Robinson, the street-raised Vanilla opened up for the first time about his abusive childhood on “Scars” and his terrifying drug experiences on “Zig Zag Stories.”

“Ross was like, ‘Yo man, you’ll be free.’ He was so right,” Ice says. “There’s a part in ‘Scars’ where a robot voice goes, ‘I am free.’ So that’s what we’re talking about. It’s like it’s been trapped in me forever, and now I’ve let it out. It feels great.”

Perhaps even more truthful is “Fuck Me,” a self-mutilating satire on Ice’s “Extreme” days of selling out.

“I wrote ‘Fuck Me’ ’cause I know how I’ve been perceived,” he says. “I can look back at the whole Vanilla Ice thing, and it was played way out. It was just an image thing. I was always real to the music.

“But it built a huge hurdle for me to get over musically. A lot of people didn’t even want to admit they bought a Vanilla Ice record.”

Those who did admit to owning “To the Extreme” will be interested to hear Ice’s hard-core version of “Ice Ice Baby,” “Too Cold.” Originally intended to be a hidden track or b-side, the shocking cover made it onto “Hard to Swallow” and accidentally became a radio hit in some markets.

At ZETA, Ice’s home station in Miami, “Too Cold” has been No. 1 for several weeks, ousting new singles from Robinson’s Korn and Marilyn Manson.

“I wanted to let people know that I’m not running from anything,” Vanilla says about his decision to remake the song. “This is me. This is what I’m about. I think the music speaks for itself. If the music was whack, nobody’d even care to hear anything about no Vanilla Ice.

“I just think the music is so strong people are kinda comin’ out of the closet. It’s like, ‘You know, hey, I bought it back in the day, and the new stuff is slammin’.’ I think there’s some hip-hop influenced, stage-diving, body piercing, tattooed white boys out there who are embracing this new sound.”

As simple as he makes it sound, digging “Hard to Swallow” out of the hole it started in is not going to be easy. Hearing the man who once played the hero in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie rap “I got more pricks than a motherfuckin’ porcupine,” is — precisely — hard to swallow.

Already, the record has been savagely assaulted by media. A reviewer for the New Times in Los Angeles called it, “Stupid, exploitive, derivative rap-metal by the man who once did nearly irreparable damage to hip-hop.”

Even Robinson’s cronies were hard on the record at first.

“I expected that,” Ice says casually. “No hard feelings here at all. They kinda joined the ‘I wanna diss Vanilla Ice’ bandwagon at first. But, it’s just ’cause the name. They came around after they heard the record.”

Whether others will embrace “Hard to Swallow” in a similar manner is as unclear as the distorted childhood of its creator. It is important to note, however, that skate rock has become the buzz on MTV, with help from potent singles by Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit.

“A lot of people think I’m satanic now that they’ve heard the record, and it’s so dark,” Ice says. “But that’s not true. It just comes out dark because that’s the way I feel I’ve been treated. It’s just real, man, that’s all I can say about it. There’s no strings attached.”

Apparently Vanilla Ice’s puppet days are over.