This summer, we're looking back at forty years of music history and the songs that soundtracked our summers. Today, Steve Braunias reflects on the ultimate summer anthem, Ice Ice Baby.
Vanilla Ice! God he was lame, we all laughed at him, he was OW, the Original Wigga, a white man making black music who dressed exquisitely badly, even for 1991, when everyone dressed exquisitely badly.
It was quickly revealed that his real name was Robert Van Winkle and no one could doubt it. Everything about him was a joke, phoney, counterfeit – but these were virtues. He made great art out of being a total rip-off. He made "Ice Ice Baby".
It went to number one in the summer of 1991 and everything changed. He was as devastating as Elvis or The Beatles. He didn't invent hip-hop but he picked it up and sold it to the wide white world. "Ice Ice Baby" was the first hip-hop song to go to number one on the Billboard chart; 21st century music ought to call this guy every single day and thank him.
How long does it take anyone to recognise the song? One second, a split-second? Or not even that long, in fact no time at all, because it's already in your head. That bassline! It will sound awesome for as long as there is life on Earth, and it was to Ice's eternal credit that he pinched it. He couldn't play an instrument or write a song to save himself but he had something more important going for him: he had really good taste.
He pinched it from "Under Pressure", by Queen and David Bowie. There is some dispute over who came up with that killer bassline – everyone assumes it was by Queen bass player John Deacon, but Deacon himself gives the credit to Bowie.
Anyway, the song was a smash hit in 1982, and can still sort of be enjoyed today. It's fruity, over-wrought, a bit of throwaway light opera. The one thing about it that can still be absolutely enjoyed is the bassline – because it immediately reminds you of "Ice Ice Baby", which is a superior song in every way.
No one will stand in court and swear that Vanilla Ice is a better rapper than Eminem or Tupac. He's even worse than Kanye. But he had a certain something, and his low muttering self-aggrandizement throughout "Ice Ice Baby" has its charms. "I flow like a harpoon daily and nightly!", he claims, and then asks: "Will it ever stop?"
It stopped. He was really just a one-hit wonder. He hung around for a little while – he posed with Madonna in her Sex book, acted in an incredibly bad movie, had a lame war of words with MC Hammer. His first album To The Extreme was a worldwide smash; his follow-up, Mind Blowin' was a worldwide flop.
"This the wrath of the Iceman!", he raps, but no one cared. It's actually a really good piece of music. His great taste is evident throughout, sampling Parliament, Bowie, James Brown, and a sexy strip-tease guitar lick from 70s disco act Heatwave.
But his legacy will always be "Ice Ice Baby". It marked the blazing dawn of hip-hop, it's the birth of a new artform, it's a cultural artefact that will always sound fresh – there it is on YouTube, 28 million views. It sounds like summer, every summer.