Imagine you’re on top of the world. You’re a platinum-selling artist multiple times over, you’re dating the hottest female pop star in the world, people want to make movies about you and dolls of you, and you have your choice of any American-flag leather jacket or motocross bike you please. This was the life of Rob Van Winkle, better known to you as Vanilla Ice, when his debut album, To the Extreme, was officially released. But, despite the success of the album, his career was a perfect storm of shortcuts and backdoor deals that was bound to explode right from the start.
Initially released under the name Hooked on an independent label, To the Extreme was essentially the brainchild of SBK Records (a smaller company owned by music heavyweight EMI). Vanilla Ice was a 22-year-old kid who bounced between Dallas and South Florida and was actually, legitimately in the hip-hop game for a few years breakdancing and rapping, opening for legendary acts like EPMD and Ice-T. Oddly enough, even Public Enemy tried to get Vanilla Ice to sign to Def Jam when he was jumping ship from being independent, according to Ice.
But all of this momentum and goodwill would be rightfully sucked out the window once Ice signed to SBK Records. In a genre which prides itself on integrity and realness, doubly so for white artists who wanted to perform in a largely black artform, Vanilla Ice was caught out there several times being dishonest, much of it by his label’s doing. SBK Records constantly would flood press releases with false backstories about Ice’s “supposedly” hard life and also engaged in payola with “Ice Ice Baby” with hip-hop media specifically to boost his cred. From the revealing book about the network’s history, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution:
Ed Lover [from Yo! MTV Raps]: I’ll tell you right now who tried to bribe us. Somebody from Vanilla Ice’s label offered a couple hundred thousand dollars, cash, to play “Ice Ice Baby” regularly. I refused. I hated Vanilla Ice.
After the feel-good year or so that To the Extreme brought, things went south pretty quickly. Ice signed over the “Ice Ice Baby” writing/production credits to Suge Knight after he supposedly hung him over a balcony. He also released a live album that tanked, a Rebel Without a Cause-esque movie, Cool As Ice, that bombed, and embarked on tours that dwindled in attendance. He became a Rastafarian and went off the map, only to be continued to be mocked upon his return on the infamous 25 Lame, where he destroyed a set and frightened Jon Stewart, Chris Kattan, Denis Leary, and Janeane Garofalo. That’s a ’90s sentence if there ever was one.
Now, Vanilla Ice is in a better place, living the Juggalo life and fixing up homes on the DIY network. But I wanted to go back to the origins and be totally objective in asking: How bad is the seven-times platinum To the Extreme, really? It’s a fair question to ask of one of the top 15 highest-selling rap albums ever. Having listened to it a few times this week, I can honestly say… it’s not good, but not absolutely terrible?
The origins of rapping were essentially centered around two things, storytelling or braggadocio. The majority of To the Extreme is the latter, and his mic skills, while vacillating from one accent to another, are at least mediocre. Most of the album is Vanilla Ice talking about his sexual prowess and how amazing he is, which, while hilarious and disgusting, is a fair thing for him to rap about, as opposed to “Ice Ice Baby,” for example, which is a tale about a drug deal gone wrong, a life he knew far less about. At least on most of the album, he was rhyming about something he *thought* he knew about.