VANILLA ICE: RAPPER OR RIP-OFF? Many black fans feel he's exploiting their music

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Go white boy, go white boy, go!

--"Play That Funky Music," by Vanilla Ice

Sometimes it seems as if Vanilla Ice just can't keep out of trouble.

First, there was the dust-up over his past. Ice's record company biography claimed that the blond- haired, blue-eyed rapper was a product of the Miami ghetto, that he even went to the same high school as 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell.

Not so, said the Miami Herald. Robbie Van Winkle -- Ice's real name -- actually graduated from a high school in suburban South Dallas.

Then there was the feud with M. C. Hammer. Ice got a lot of valuable exposure when he was allowed to open Hammer's fall tour, but when Ice's "To the Extreme" began outselling "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em," the young rapper began to boast that he'd smashed the Hammer -- something Hammer's black fans saw as an insulting display of disrespect.

Those two bits of trouble have since been swept away. Ice has pretty much proven that he's not the "suburban Twinkie" the press imagined, and Hammer has said the two have buried the hatchet. But no sooner were those controversies settled than another clamor started up.

This time, though, the complaints were coming from the rap community, and it doesn't look as if this problem will be so easily resolved.

Why? Because Vanilla Ice, they say, isn't a real rapper but a cheap rip-off. His success isn't the result of talent, but good looks and white skin. It's insulting to see his record atop the charts, to watch him be named the American Music Awards' best new rap artist.

Vanilla Ice, they say, is hurting rap music.

"Folks are angry about the Vanilla Ice situation," wrote rhythm and blues columnist Janine McAdams a few weeks ago in Billboard. Complaining that "others have begged, borrowed and stolen [rap's] funky beats and dope rhymes and broken them down to the lowest common denominator for mass consumption," McAdams pointed out that many in the rap audience see Vanilla Ice as an outsider and usurper.

Even so, she added, "it is hardly surprising that America has fallen hook, line and sinker for a blond, blue-eyed, tough-talking artist who attempts to demystify and translate urban America's most potent form of musical communication and claim it as his own."

Ice, naturally, thinks that's nonsense. "A lot of rappers do respect me," he huffed to Entertainment Weekly. "I've been out on the road with them, done shows with them, and they know where I'm coming from.

"But the ones who don't know where I'm coming from, they think I'm some suburban kid trying to rap or something. The bottom line is they're jealous 'cause they're not selling as many records as me and they think they're better."

Maybe so, but the rise of Vanilla Ice has made some rap fans hostile toward the very idea of white rap. Rap, says ATA, a DJ with the group Young Black Teenagers, is "the strongest form of black music that's out, you know what I'm saying? And they're not afraid to express that. They stand strong behind that."

Despite the group's name, none of the Young Black Teenagers are of African-American descent, something which ATA says "hasn't been that much" trouble for the rappers. But he has definitely noticed a change in rap's racial attitudes since the emergence of Vanilla Ice.

"I think there would always have been a slight resistance toward a white person who would try to get into rap, even if Vanilla Ice wasn't here," he says. "But, I do think he has really hurt a lot of rap. Afro-Americans really feel offended by the whole situation now. And now any white rapper that's coming in is going to be looked at as a perpetrator."

On this issue, too, Ice has argued that he's getting a bum rap. "Rap is definitely a black music form," he said in an interview with Musician. "The reason you don't see as many white people in it is because rap comes from the streets. White people can't dance. They got no rhythm, no connection to the streets.

"I know when I'm onstage, I feel the same way as black people feel."

Race has always been a potentially explosive issue in rap, but never more so than today.

On the one hand, rap has become a strong force in the resurgence of black pride, thanks to Afrocentric rap acts like Boogie Down Productions, the Jungle Brothers and Brand Nubian. But that can sometimes lead to prickly situations, as when white rappers 3rd Bass offended some fans at an Apollo Theatre show by asking them to cheer if they were "proud to be black."

Or take the militant rap movement. Spearheaded by performers like Poor Righteous Teachers, Movement Ex and King Sun, these groups preach the black Muslim beliefs of the Five Percent Nation and have been known to refer to whites as "Caucasoid devil dogs." Yet that hasn't stopped Poor Righteous Teachers or King Sun from working with producer Tony D., whose ethnicity is not African-American, but Italian-American.

Perhaps the one place the issue seems clearest is in the marketplace. To put it bluntly, many black rap acts feel that the music industry works to keep them out of the pop mainstream. That may seem a bit paranoid, but there's strong evidence to back up that argument. After all, the first rap album to top the Billboard charts was "Licensed to Ill," by the white rap group the Beastie Boys. And the first rap single to top the charts was "Ice Ice Baby" by -- who else? -- Vanilla Ice.

Moreover, many of the radio stations that won't play rap records by other artists will play Vanilla Ice.

"I don't even see skin colors," writes Vanilla Ice in "Ice By Ice," his autobiography. "I wish the whole world was colorblind." And though there's no reason to believe that Ice isn't appalled by racism, it's hard to deny that he hasn't inadvertently benefited from it.

"He has an image, a fantasy image for teeny-boppers, and America loves that," explains ATA. As he sees it, the mainstream media "tried to kill rap for 10 years, because they didn't want it in existence. It survived, and they began to get afraid. So what then they said was, 'We'll allow a certain image to go to our children, and we'll push this as rap for them.' And that was Vanilla Ice.

"You've got to understand that middle America does not know what life is on the streets," he adds. "All they have is images they see on TV, or hear on the radio. So when radio and video swarms you with a character like him, you think, 'That's rap music. Wow! That's dope, man.' That whole thing.

"[The suburban kids] want to be a part of it, but they're only swamped with that character. They got nothing else to cling to."

Vanilla Ice

Where: The Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.

When: 7:30 tonight.

Tickets: $21.50.

Call: 481-6000 for tickets, 347-2010 for information.

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