- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Anything Less Than the Best is a Felony

If it’s the final Friday of the month, then it’s the fourth installment of the special Top 10 Songs of All-Time [1] edition of Flashback Friday [2] at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

In early September 1990, I didn’t know two things that would be quite clear to everybody else by late October 1990.

1) Buddy Harrelson’s boys — Julio Valera, Kevin Baez, Tommy Herr — didn’t have what it would take to capture our third division title in five years. They would come up short against the surging Pirates of Bonds and Bonilla and Van Slyke. I was mighty disappointed if not completely stunned.

2) Vanilla Ice was a tool.

Who knew?

The artist eventually known as Robert Van Winkle was one of the most embarrassing acts to ever come down the pop pike for reasons that became obvious and myriad the second the world sought to learn more about him.

But by late October 1990 that information didn’t matter to me, because in early September 1990, I heard “Ice Ice Baby” and I was, as Vanilla Ice’s debut album was initially to be called, hooked.

All objective criteria about Vanilla Ice, how he created a ludicrous identity for himself, how he refused to give credit (artistic or financial) where credit was due, how he really couldn’t rap — which is tough if your profession involves rapping — was immaterial to me that autumn. “Ice Ice Baby” was, through whoever’s doing, the catchiest son of a bitch I ever heard. I walked around humming it for half the decade to follow.

That’s all I need to know in order to declare something nobody else seems to like the No. 7 Song of All-Time. Others can dismiss “Ice Ice Baby” for any reason they like. For me not to acknowledge how much I love that record, how much it got under my skin and never left, how much I still hum it about once a week…it’s like the man said: anything less than the best is a felony. For me circa September and October 1990, “Ice Ice Baby” was practically the best song I ever heard.

So sue me for questionable taste.

I just cued up “Ice Ice Baby” to revisit it for this writeup. Vanilla Ice is not a talented MC. He executes rhymes shakily and his cadence is all off. He doesn’t have much of a voice. The imagery he unfurls from start to finish is pointless. In the same year that Seinfeld first aired on a semi-regular basis, it is fair to say this song was also about nothing.

But I never noticed that. It was just so freaking catchy! The lyrics are inane, practically nonsense words no matter how much they’re intended to mimic the genuine hip-hop lingo of the day, but where I can make them out clearly, several tumble out as memorable phrases. Silly but memorable. There’s a tense bass line that repeats over and over and over (as I imagine one would from digesting one of Ice’s poisonous mushrooms) that makes for an outstanding hook. There’s that slight little cymbal action at the beginning, that clever refrain that twins “yo I’ll solve it” and “DJ revolves it” and that ever so famous riff Ice borrowed or ripped off or ever so slightly altered from two musical legends.

It works. That’s all I knew in 1990, that’s all I know in 2007. The first time I heard it, driving home from work the night after Labor Day, I heard the sample from “Under Pressure” and was like “wow, this is great!” Understand I never particularly cared one way or another for that song (at least until it was used to dramatic effect in the pilot for Studio 60, a show that went south a lot faster than Vanilla Ice’s career in my book). I know all the rock people were up in arms over its use in a lame rap song, but it didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me about this song.

Maybe I’m naïve, but when I heard the name of the artist on the radio, Vanilla Ice, I didn’t put one and zero together and realize this was a white guy in a predominantly black field. I suppose that was part of the marketing, an Elvis for the hip-hop generation. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. All I heard was the bass line and the “Under Pressure” sample and, if not dope rhymes, then dopey lines like “to the extreme/I rock a mic like a vandal” and “take heed/’cause I’m a lyrical poet” and they just implanted themselves in my head for the rest of eternity.

How much did I love this song? In 1990, there were three stations in New York that ran nightly countdowns: top 10 at 10, top 5 at 9, that sort of thing. I practically timed my drives home on the Northern State and Meadowbrook parkways so I could be guaranteed of hearing “Ice Ice Baby” on Z-100 and Power 95 and Hot 97 every night when I knew it was going to air. It was one of the first cassingles I ever owned (the album wasn’t out yet and I had to have the song immediately). No picture of the artist was on the cover. Soon enough, he had a CD and a video and the first rap song to ever reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Deals were in place for an autobiography and a movie.

On his followup single, a remake of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” Vanilla Ice boasted “1991 is my year.” Yet he barely made it out of 1990. First he was a tough guy from Miami (“my town/that created all the bass sound”) and a Motocross champ and running with gangs. No wait, he was from Dallas and just some average schmo. The more he talked, the less authentic he got. He came off badly in interviews, impressing neither the budding gangsta set nor the music cognoscenti. His lamest moment came in explaining why his sampling of “Under Pressure” wasn’t really straight-out theft.

Theirs goes, “Ding ding ding dingy ding-ding.” Ours goes, “Ding ding ding ding dingy ding-ding.”

The sad part is I got what he was saying. As I mentioned, I wasn’t a fan of “Under Pressure”. To this day I smirk when I remember it only rose as high as No. 29 on the pop charts. Vanilla Ice and DJ Earthquake derived more out of those seven notes than Queen and David Bowie did their whole song. But, yeah, it was a ripoff. So share the writing credit and share the money and stop making up stuff about yourself.

I’m still trying to figure out how songs that reach No. 1 are so often dismissed by everybody, even the hoi polloi. For example, I love “We Built This City” by Starship (including…no, especially the fake traffic report part that every station in every city remade as their own). It went to No. 1 on Billboard and it ranks as No. 55 on my Top 500 [3]. But I’ve not only never met anybody who likes it, I’ve yet to meet anybody who doesn’t hate it — not that it much comes up in conversation these days. VH-1 did one of those snarky Everything Sucks countdowns a couple of years ago that never fail to give me a headache and named “We Built This City” the lamest song ever. How can that be? Shouldn’t a song that stalls way down the chart be worse? Or is that like picking on Mario Diaz for a low batting average (.136 in 1990) and overlooking that he only had 22 any at-bats?

I think I’m digressing here. The point is that whenever I present my list to another musically inclined soul, “Ice Ice Baby” is the STOP sign in the middle of the Top 10, and not in an “all right stop/collaborate and listen” sense. The word “sucks” usually follows shortly thereafter.

Is it so impossible that a fairly sane and rational 27-year-old person would have heard this on his car radio when it came out and thought it was, if not as Cool as Ice [4], then…I dunno…good? Fun? Enjoyable?

That’s it! I enjoy this song! I get more pleasure out of this than all but six songs in the world by my reckoning. I can’t hear the cliché about somebody being “on a roll,” without being compelled to add if nobody’s around, “it’s time to go solo.” (I think Stephanie finally called me on it by about 1992.) I can’t hear a helicopter reporter relay that the Southern State is “bumper to bumper” without reflexively adding to myself “the avenue’s packed/I’m trying to get away/before the jackers jack.” It’s Pavlovian by now.

So would you call this a guilty pleasure? I wouldn’t. What’s to feel guilty about? I didn’t steal my copy of “Ice Ice Baby”. I didn’t break any laws. I didn’t cause harm to anybody with it — didn’t even blast it from my 5.0 with my ragtop down so my hair could blow. The concept of “guilty pleasure” should be deleted from the language. Like what you want, people. Don’t hide your crap.

That said, let me stress this is about the song, not the artist. Vanilla Ice was a human cringe during his time at the top. Rolling Stone ran a lengthy profile of him in early 1991 when he was still seen as viable, when he and MC Hammer loomed as the two biggest stars in music. Hammer had already done a deal with Pepsi. Would Ice go do Coke?

Nah man, Ice said — I don’t even like Coke. I guess that was supposed to demonstrate he wasn’t as commercial as people thought he was, that he had (and I hate this phrase, too) street cred. But then Ice must have thought about ticking off his corporate handlers because he corrected himself: Wait, I like Sprite! That’s a Coca-Cola product!

If Vanilla Ice ever got a beverage endorsement deal, I missed it.

I suppose Vanilla Ice’s whiteness was an advantage at the moment he hit, that his skin color got him over with a lot of non-urban youth that wasn’t quite as tuned into hip-hop as they would be down the road. Suddenly he became The First White Rapper and his coming was treated as Significant. Shouldn’t have gone down that way. Nobody needed to see what he looked like or learn anything about him. We never should have delved into how goofy or grating this guy was.

He should have been an Ohio Express, bubble-gum type act. We all might have enjoyed what was essentially a catchy, catchy, damn catchy novelty hit and never asked too many questions. You could have drawn a straight line from “Yummy Yummy Yummy/I’ve got love in my tummy” to “Ice Ice Baby/too cold too cold” and nobody would have blinked.

Instead we were forced to consider taking this fellow seriously and he disintegrated on contact.

At his peak, Ice and his group (which, if his lyrics were to be believed, included somebody named Shay, which is almost neat) played Saturday Night Live and really put on a good show. Lots of choreography, respectable rapping, nonthreatening…and you could have heard a pin drop. I didn’t know if a New York audience was just too dang sophisticated, but I actually felt bad as Ice pointed and clapped and tried to get some accompaniment from the crowd only to receive no love, no like, no nothin’. It was his fate that the strongest sketch-comedy program impression Mr. Van Winkle made was via Jim Carrey’s awesome rendition of “White, White Baby” on In Living Color.

I laughed my head off. I found Ice a joke like everybody else did. But it doesn’t take away from the way I felt about that song in the fall of 1990 and continue to in the spring of 2007. In its own unfortunate way, it just kicks ass. It slices like a ninja, it cuts like a razor blade and if no DJ will say it, I will:

Damn. If this song was a drug, I’d buy it by the gram.

In 2002, during one of his many desperate reinventions that continue to this reality-show era day (he once appeared on MTV to literally destroy his own video only to scare the likes of Jon Stewart and Denis Leary silent), he was asked how he viewed his signature hit. Many artists with much greater “cred” recoil from their blockbuster smashes of long ago. For example, Jim Kerr of Simple Minds is always disavowing “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” which I find dismaying since it’s No. 261 on my Top 500. But not Vanilla Ice. He told Salon:

Fuckin’ turn it up. It feels great. That’s a great song. It’s timeless. It holds a space in history and you can’t take it away. You just own that piece of time. Everybody loves that song. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t.

Funny. I didn’t know I was Vanilla Ice’s only acquaintance.

The No. 8 Song of All-Time [5] was heard at the end of March. The No. 6 [6] record will be played at the end of May.

Next Friday [7]: Almost imperceptibly, the start of something big.