Remember remember 24th of November: Vanilla Ice gets Under Pressure, baby

My sister Stella became of age at the end of 1990. Sitting atop of the British charts at the time of her 18th birthday party in Willen, one of the ancient villages that the new town of Milton Keynes was built around, was Ice Ice Baby, a much mocked track but one that probably defined 1990 more than any other.

At some point in the evening I bounded up to the hired disc jockey and asked him if he had any Bowie choons he could spin. I wasn’t usually the type to pester DJs, but as I was resplendent in a new Sound + Vision-inspired piece of bespoke tailoring (the first suit I owned; a belated 21st birthday present from mum and dad), and the man himself had just played two huge outdoor shows at Milton Keynes Bowl, I was certain my request was topical and relevant.

“David Bowie? Nah, mate, sorry.”

Disheartened but not defeated, I reluctantly figured a way to get me some Bowie by stealth: “Well, er, have you got Vanilla Ice then?” I asked though gritted teeth. My supplication was successful but rarely have I been more embarrassed.

Vanilla Ice’s debut hit, Ice Ice Baby, was the first bona fide hip-hop track to reach Number One on the American Billboard charts. It repeated the feat in the UK, where it entered the singles chart at No.3 on November 24 (neatly marking the start of Freddie Mercury’s final year on planet earth), then rose and stayed on top for four weeks, doubling the time at the summit that Under Pressure, Queen’s sparring duet between David and Freddie the Vanilla slice is based on, could manage exactly nine years previously.

Performed by a not-so-squeaky-clean white man of Dutch descent, and sampling an acknowledged classic, Ice Ice Baby was always likely to ruffle a few feathers, be it the scandalised hip-hop community or outraged classic rock fans. And yet, the public lapped it up…and continue to do so to this day. It is one of the single most important hip-hop tracks ever recorded due to the simple fact it massively broadened the appeal of the genre, and, by breaking the idea that hip-hop was a purely black form of music, paved the way for the likes of Eminem et al.

Robert Van Winkle (Ice) and collaborator DJ Earthquake originally sampled the funky bassline and piano chords from Under Pressure to create Ice Ice Baby way back in 1985. It languished as an album track on Vanilla’s first album To The Extreme before being used as a B-side to an oh-so-obvious cover of Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. It soon became clear that IIB was the more popular track and one quick re-release later, Van Winkle had a mammoth world-wide smash on his hands, reaching the top in several countries, including Australia, The Netherlands and yes, Ireland. Hell, Jedward weren’t even born! And if you watch this that is four minutes of your life you will never, ever get back…

Ice Ice Baby is a perfect example of successful sampling and track construction, and uses its origins to its advantage; keeping that insistent John Deacon bass high in the mix throughout most of the song, whilst riffing on it to provide a dirty synth bassline. The drum programming is pretty basic, to be honest, but then it doesn’t need to be anything else. The piano chords and synth atmospherics add layers which are reflected in the breathy backing vocals. Over this, Vanilla’s rap is boastful and self-aggrandising (one of the major flaws of a lot of hip-hop to follow) but the boy could certainly rap, albeit in the slightly stilted style that even the best rappers had at this time. Tall and athletic, of square jaw and even squarer shoulders, he was, despite the cartoonish persona, pretty fly for a white guy.

Incongruously, it’s the last thirty seconds or so of the song that are many people’s favourite; all the Queen-isms drop away to reveal the killer synth bass that underpins the entire song. Like a lot of Bowie followers at the time, I was dubious at best about this. It was danceable certainly, if rather silly, fun. But Ice really didn’t do himself any favours in trying to pass Ice Ice Baby off as a completely new composition, deliberately failing to credit the writers of Under Pressure until a copyright infringement lawsuit from the Bowie and Queen camps was threatened and the credits were hastily amended.

You have to remember that back in 1990 people were listening to Public Enemy and NWA, which gave many a taste for the genre which this watered down commercial pap simply could not satisfy. I have to say I had no strong feelings regards the ‘white musician appropriating black music’ issue, and still don’t. Yet, in many ways, Ice Ice Baby has proven to have more staying power than most of the songs by Ice’s contemporary hip-hop artists, certainly in the minds of the general public. As his appearance on a recent series of Dancing On Ice (ha!) testified, people are still intrigued by and have some affection for all things Vanilla.

Indeed, reading up on him for this piece has given me a sort of begrudging respect for the man; his life since this track made him a star has not been easy, yet he seems to have come through his travails and brushes with the law (more MC Slammer than MC Hammer) with humour and good nature. Impossible to take seriously at the time, difficult to hate now, it seems churlish then to slag this track off too much, even if I personally don’t particularly like it. Ice Ice Baby has given an awful lot of people a heck of an amount of pleasure, and will probably continue to do so for many years to come. It’s just a shame Van Winkle’s chosen to keep his biggest talent firmly out of the public eye, insisting his jeans stay on in Madonna’s soft porn Sex book, despite his then paramour’s protestations. Spoilsport.

Steve Pafford

My exclusive interview with George Michael talking about Under Pressure is here