They stream in and out, all day and all night, one after the other: band members, producers, business associates, friends, family, strangers, hangers-on who stare at the familiar face made infamous long ago. The tour bus, this parked sanctuary where he can roll his joints and drink his bottled Starbucks frappucinos and watch his motocross home videos, is never quiet and never empty for long. Occasionally, he will rise to lock its doors by pressing a button on the steering wheel, but more often than not the peeps come and go and come and go--from 5 in the evening till way past 2 in the morning, especially in the dude's hometown, when all his bros come to pay their respects. Even more will wait outside, in the parking lot of the Bronco Bowl's Canyon Club, where he's performing tonight and into the next day's early morning. After all these years--after all the ridicule and scorn and shame, after all that time in celebrity exile--still they come to hang with Vanilla Ice. A star may lose his shine but never his gravitational pull. Not even after he got his ass kicked on national television. By Diff'rent Strokes' Willis.
"There is no shame in my game, not even getting beat by Todd Bridges," says Ice, known around the hallways of R.L. Turner High School in the mid-1980s as Robert Van Winkle. The tour bus is quiet for a change. Beneath a black ball cap emblazoned with the word "Independent," wearing a black T-shirt announcing he's "Tattooed 4 Life" and baggy shorts and Adidas sandals, Ice nurses a stoner's buzz. Weed makes most people mellow, languid. Not Ice. Pot fuels him, energizes him. We talk for hours, mostly about the high price of fame and how, in the end, being a celebrity ain't worth a nickel.
The subject, at this moment, is why Ice agreed to participate in Fox's Celebrity Boxing in March, in which three pairs of has-beens and yellowed headlines faced off in the squared circle: Tonya Harding and Paula Jones, Danny Bonaduce and Barry "Greg Brady" Williams, Ice and Bridges. The show pulled down big numbers, precisely because it was the ultimate freak show--the mindless watching the shameless beat each other senseless.
"But there's no shame in my game, bro," he says again. "You gotta understand, I let my balls hang. I got the balls to get in there and do it. You know what I mean? It was staged for TV. But, you know, it was fun. I had fun doing it, man. I'd do it again in a minute. I'm trying to fight Eminem right now. He's turned me down twice. We have the same attorney in New York, and we've tried to talk him into doing it, man, and he won't do it. I think I got him by 80 pounds, you know."
It figures Ice would wanna fight Eminem. They're kindred spirits, sort of, white boys making mad money doing black music. Only Eminem gets respect, sells millions, tops critics' lists and pop charts. Vanilla Ice? He's joke and punch line, victim and villain. That he's still around at all, flogging a late-2001 CD The Dallas Morning News only last week referred to as "forthcoming," is nothing short of astonishing. He should have vanished a long, long time ago, crawled into his South Florida mansion with his wife and two young daughters (ages 2 and 4) and dirt bikes and platinum albums and pet kangaroo and disappeared for good. But he didn't, couldn't, wouldn't. Ice couldn't even bring himself to follow through with a suicide attempt in 1994. What don't kill you, it seems, only makes you Vanilla Ice.
He won't even change his name, go by something other than Vanilla Ice, a mere mention of which elicits "no-seriously" chuckles from those who remember the days when he was busting moves with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and getting spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Kevin Bacon. His recent release Bi-Polar, split evenly with Adidas-rockers (à la Korn and Slipknot) and hip-hop tunes, says it's by "V*Ice," but he's still Vanilla, down to the chocolaty center.
Now 33, Robert Van Winkle will never let you forget who he was, what he was--a phenomenon, a chart-topper, a pinup. "A trailblazer," he likes to say, and he's not far off. In 1991, he was only the second white rapper to make the pop charts, after the Beastie Boys, only they didn't sell 17 million copies of their debut. He did, back when he was To the Extreme.
"If you really understood the whole story, you'd give it a lot more credit," he says. "You would. You'd give me a lot more respect and everything. I'm a true pioneer of hip-hop, the top-selling rap artist of all time. Can't deny it, man. In hip-hop in general, not just for white rappers. Just for rappers, period. I'm the first one ever to cross a rap song to a pop station. And now look at it, see? Jay-Z, all of them owe me. Puff Daddy. But in reality, truly, I'm the one who did open those doors. I'm the one who put hip-hop in front of people's ears who've never considered listening to it."
He insists his is a music-biz cautionary tale; he refers to himself as "an ambassador of the fucking, piece-of-shit music industry." He won the lottery, then tossed the ticket. Or maybe it tossed him. Ice is nothing but contradictions, a mixed signal. He likes to say humility is his company, that he's been humbled, shamed. But he also demands his piece of music history, to be recognized in the same breath as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, his ex-squeeze Madonna.
Yet for all his cockiness--his arrogance, if you must, and you must--and for all his talk about not giving a damn about ever winding up on radio or in the arenas again, one gets the sense that Ice does want to reclaim a slice of the pie, however small. That's why he's on the road plugging Bi-Polar, even though multinational BMG, which distributed the disc, considers it less a release than a rumor. And, more important, it's why he's back in the care of the very man who made him and made him over, only to get tossed from the tour bus just as things were getting good before going very, very bad.
The man allowing access into the inner sanctum is the last man anyone ever expected to see again working alongside Ice. Tommy Quon was there when the kid topped the pops and popped the tops of those who loathed the white boy for making mad millions in black face. But Quon was long ago banished from the Ice empire, fired when both were still in ascension--Ice as the best-selling rap artist in history, Quon as the manager who discovered and delivered him. Up until two years ago, they hadn't spoken since September 1991 and never thought they would talk again. Too much damage had been done then, and too much baggage had accrued since. Ice blamed Quon for the bad without thanking him for the good. And Quon took it, even as his own empire crumbled.
In the grand scheme of things, the reunion of Vanilla Ice and Tommy Quon barely registers; it's a shower in a desert, an earthquake on Pluto. But to those who've followed Ice's career at all in recent years--or just tuned in to watch VH1's Behind the Music about Ice, among the highest-rated in that show's history--it would seem inexplicable, as likely as Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat sitting down for a nosh of bagels and lox.
Van Winkle spent almost the entirety of the 1990s blaming Quon for both his success and his downfall, for manufacturing his image (the baggy pants, the Gaultier shirt, the flat-top fade, the gold chains meant to dazzle little white girls) and his past. Van Winkle has always insisted it was Quon, not he, who fabricated the Ice mythology--the stories about growing up dirt-poor in Miami, about attending the same high school as 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, about getting stabbed by rival gangstas. Though Van Winkle would have no problem recounting those tall tales to journalists in 1990 and letting Morrow/Avon publish his "autobiography" Ice by Ice in 1991, he would later insist he had nothing at all to do with the lying, that he was actually out of the country when the book was published and that all of it was solely Quon's idea and execution. "And that's why Tommy Quon's not my manager anymore," he said in 1998, spitting out his then-former manager's name as though it were an epithet.
Yet here they are a mere four years later, once more riding the tour bus from gig to gig. The size of the venues and crowds isn't the same. The arenas have shrunk down to the size of clubs; the tens of thousands have thinned to a few hundred. The little girls have grown up, and what few women remain in the audience dress like Britney Spears' backup strippers--bare midriffs, hip-huggers, belly rings. Mostly, it's dudes who pump their fists to Ice's rawk, who don't feel guilty shouting along to "Too Cold," his nü-metal version of "Ice Ice Baby" that appeared on 1998's Hard to Swallow.
And the album sales are a fraction of what they once were: Where To the Extreme topped the Billboard charts on November 10, 1990, and went on to sell some 15 million copies, Bi-Polar, which was released on the tiny Liquid 8 imprint, has moved only 10,645 copies since its release on October 23--or a little more than double the back-catalog sales of To the Extreme since the beginning of this year. (According to SoundScan, 4,356 copies of Ice's debut have been sold in 2002.) Still, sales of Bi-Polar are "not bad...for Vanilla Ice," says one BMG exec. "That's pretty respectable. Seriously." Especially when you consider that Liquid 8 did almost no promotion for the album.
Quon and Ice are together again for reasons personal and practical--because, maybe, they had no other options than to once more chain themselves to each other and head out for the open road. They're each other's last, best hopes of recapturing just a bit of the spark and magic they created more than a decade ago, when they made each other, and made each other filthy rich.
Vanilla Ice and Tommy Quon's reconciliation was prompted by the most unlikely of circumstances and players--Tommy's son and Ice's stepfather. Ice was playing Arlington two years ago, and Matthew Quon asked his father if he could go to the show. His dad said sure but wanted to know why. Matthew told him the kids at his high school still listened to "Ice Ice Baby." Perhaps they did so because they were too young to know Ice as one-hit blunder. Maybe they actually liked it.
At the club, Matthew ran into Ice's stepfather, Byron Mino, who asked the kid if maybe his old man would be interested in working with Rob again. Matthew went home and relayed the message, which shocked and, yeah, even delighted Tommy. Two years ago, he was all but out of the music business--a pariah in exile, if that. His Plano-based label, Ultrax, was essentially litigated out of business, the victim of legal paperwork and court-ordered payoffs. Most of the sums were relatively small--$42,000, say, to a local tape manufacturer--but in 1993, Quon was ordered to fork over more than a million dollars to John Bush, who convinced a Dallas jury he helped Quon discover and manage Ice during the pair's heyday. (Mediation knocked down the sum to $300,000.) By the end of the '90s, he was working with Tejano artists and "enjoying time with my family"--another way of saying he had nothing to work on in the music business. A door was opening, just as it looked as though he had been padlocked out of the biz.
"I was really looking for something, so it came at a good time," says Quon, whose wife, a schoolteacher, was bringing in the family money. "Basically, it was good timing for me: I was looking for something to sink my teeth into, and I think that he probably needed someone to help."
Shortly after Matthew broached the subject with his father, Mino and Quon were on the phone feeling each other out, wondering if old wounds had yet healed. Quon insisted he had no hard feelings, that he understood why he and Ice parted company just as To the Extreme was topping the pop charts. "He was a young man, you know," Quon says. "And young people, they get weird at times when they make money like that." Mino says the first time he talked to Quon, the manager told him he never thought a reconciliation with Ice was even possible.
But Mino wanted them together, and for simple, explicable reasons: "Their success," he says, as we stand outside the crowded tour bus. "The charisma, the chemistry that the two of them have is the mixture for success, is the ingredient that each one of them needed. Rob needed Tom, Tom needed Rob. Tommy created Rob to become Vanilla Ice, and Rob helped Tommy have a big name in the music business. So, I said, these guys, they got to get together."
After Quon and Mino decided that, yeah, a cease-fire made sound business sense, Mino called his son and told him he had spoken with Tommy and asked how he felt about getting back into business with his ex-manager. Mino was surprised by what Ice said: "I thought about it." Mino took Quon to one of Ice's shows, and it was, by all accounts, an emotional reunion. As Mino likes to say, it was as though a father were greeting an estranged son.
Ice recalls things a little differently. It's a few hours before the show, and he and Quon sit alongside each other in the bus, explaining this unlikely reunion. It becomes clear this is not the same relationship it was a decade ago. Ice is no longer a kid easily molded into someone else's image, and Quon is no longer the kingmaker swaggering up the golden ladder with the prince of pop by his side. They've been beaten up, betrayed and abandoned by an industry for whom they made a fortune a decade ago. They meet each other once more on the bottom rung, only this time with different priorities.
Ice insists he no longer needs to make music, that he's only doing it for grins and thrills. He talks about his lucrative business selling spec homes in South Florida for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He's in the real-estate biz and swears he isn't interested in making a comeback, though he is quick to mention his cameo as a Sam Goody's clerk in the film The New Guy, which opened in May, and his part in an upcoming PlayStation 2 motocross game. Quon, on the other hand, is still trying to get Ice on the radio. He's making deals with all comers, including Jillian's, a chain of restaurant-bars throughout the East Coast and Midwest. Ice will play some two dozen Jillian's locations through the beginning of September, and in return for the sponsorship deal, the eatery will use two rap songs from Bi-Polar, "Get Your Ass Up" and "Hot Sex," in its radio spots. Quon hopes people will hear those tracks in the ads and rush out to buy the album. Ice says he couldn't care less.
"Byron convinced me to have an open mind about working with Tommy again, because at first, he was like, 'What do you think about working with Tommy again?' and I laughed at him," Ice says. "I was like, 'God, you've got to be kidding me! No way!'" He turns to Quon, sitting on his left. "No offense, it's honest."
Quon, still boyish beneath a head of graying hair, smiles. "Hey," he says, "it's all right."
"'Cause I never expected it," Ice says. "We were apart for eight years; we hadn't even talked or seen each other. I mean, what do you expect, someone at that point, you know? So, Byron had a way of not persuading me, not convincing me, but showing me a different way to look at it--with an open mind instead of a bitter mind, you know? It was a let's-clean-the-slate type of thing. And so far, it's worked, man. It's worked out great. We're doing good, we're kicking ass, we're on the incline. We're doing damn good."
"I think we're making progress," Quon says.
It's clear now that Ice makes the choices, steers the tour bus. Quon's along for the ride--there, as Ice says, to put the hooks in the water to see what bites. Sometimes, you get the sense he hopes it won't be Ice snapping back.
At one point, the Dallas Observer's photographer gets the two to pose together. Quon and I had been in the back of the bus, conducting an interview. Ice wants to know what Quon said about him, what kinda smack Tommy was saying behind his back. Quon told Van Winkle he dished the dirt, unfurled all the soiled laundry. He was kidding. Ice didn't wanna hear it, even if he was joking.
"You better not'a said no shit about me," he says, his voice raising, his temperature rising. What had been, just seconds before, a friendly conversation between two old friends and a journalist suddenly crackles with tension. "I ain't even playin' now. I'm serious."
Quon smiles and shoots me that help-a-brother-out look. I tell Ice he was just screwing around--no big deal, dude. A few minutes later, they're cooled out, posing for a photographer. For the last shot, Ice wraps his hands around Quon's neck.
"You watch," he says to no one in particular. "That's the picture they're gonna use."
The Jean-Paul Gaultier shirt Van Winkle wore on the cover of To the Extreme currently resides in the storage facilities of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. It was part of the museum's hip-hop exhibition, accompanied by a placard announcing Ice as "the first commercially successful solo white rapper." If the industry is ashamed to claim him, at least the history books cannot ignore him. The fact is, he was more than just a solo white rapper: To the Extreme remains the best-selling rap album of all time.
It's just as well that shirt remains hidden, out of sight. If Van Winkle had his way, he'd burn that outfit. Pretend it never existed.
"I'd walk in there with a fucking flame and fucking lighter fluid and go..." Van Winkle pretends he's holding a can of lighter fluid. "And woooosh! 'Cause it's not about the image, you know? All the clothes and the hairdo and all that shit was made to cater to that younger image, and it was definitely contradicting the music. I never intended on that, man. You can understand it. I said earlier I was true to the music. That's why I can play 'Ice Ice Baby' right now. I made 'Ice Ice Baby' when it didn't have an image. It was about a studio with no image, about skills and studio, and that's it, you know?"
After spending hours with Ice, it becomes clear he's reasonably sincere when he says he doesn't want radio play, doesn't want to be on MTV. The latter he doesn't have to worry about. On April 30, 1999, Ice was invited to take part in an MTV special called 25 Lame, hosted by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan and Denis Leary. The show was designed to humiliate the very artists the network relied upon a decade earlier: MTV was going to retire the 10 worst videos ever, among them Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" and MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This."
Ice was invited to help destroy a videocassette of "Ice Ice Baby." He ended up taking a baseball bat to the entire set, smashing a table, a mannequin of Debbie Gibson and anything else lying around--including, Garofalo thought, the show's host. "I was genuinely afraid," she told Entertainment Weekly in May 1999. "I thought he was seriously going to get really angry on a channel that embraced him and then turned and mocked him."
But he never had the chance. Before he could turn his bat on the comedians, MTV's security guards hauled him out of the studio, into the lobby and tossed him into the streets. He scared the hell out of the network. Way he figured it, MTV had it coming.
"I did it for a reason, man," he says. "There was a purpose behind everything. My reason was basically to send a message to the industry, which was: Fuck the industry. Fuck y'all, motherfuckers. You made me, now you're going to destroy me. You treat me like I'm a product when I spill blood. I have blood, I'm real, I'm human, not a product. You almost killed me--the same people who embraced me, the same ones who built me up. And I understand the process. I know it better than you, because I lived it."
Earlier that day, during a rare quiet moment, the two of us sat in silence, watching ESPN on mute.
"Yo, what's your favorite movie?" he asks. I tell him Sunset Boulevard. He says he's never heard of it, asks who made it, who's in it, what's it about.
"It's about an aging silent-movie star named Norma Desmond who's been shut out of the industry," I tell him. "She's written a movie she wants to star in, but it's too extravagant, too long, too bad. She's awaiting the comeback that will never come, and it drives her mad." If he notices any parallels to his own story, he doesn't let on. He probably doesn't. Like he says, he isn't trying to make a comeback. Still, I feel lousy for even bringing it up.
Byron Mino likes to say that his boy has a graduate degree from the school of hard knocks, and it's hard to argue, just as it's hard to blame Ice--or Quon--for anything they did 12 years ago. So they lied about a past the kid never had. It wasn't the first time; it won't be the last. When he blamed and bad-mouthed Quon, he was covering his own ass; humility might be his companion, but shame never got a seat on his bus. And it's all behind them now, as the two men travel from town to town, from club to club, looking for a fresh start no one's likely to give them.
"When I got into the music industry, it was better than winning the lottery," Ice says. "A lottery pays you money. Music pays you fame, money and everything that everybody wants in life. It's the ultimate. But it depends on whose shoes you're walking in, man. Suicide was the only way to escape the agony and the pain I was going through. I tried to use the drugs as an escape route, but the consequences that I was paying during that time were just..." He pauses, then begins again.
"People who hate Vanilla Ice are only showing what idiots they are. It's stupid, man, because they would've done the same thing. I would've licked my mother's asshole for a million dollars, and I'm telling you, at 16 years old, anybody in the fucking music industry would've done the same thing, man. So, you can't hate on it, man. You do that, it's sacrilege. Am I trying to reinvent myself? No way. Does it look that way to a lot of people? Sure. All I'm doing is being myself, man."
A little while later, a giant grin spreads across his still-handsome face. "You know what I'm known for?" he asks. It's a question with a bunch of answers, but he lets it hang in the air, like smoke from that joint he's holding.
He answers it. "I'm known for, 'Drop that zero, get with the hero' and 'word to your mother.'"
"I ain't running from nuthin'."