For many musicians who found success with young audiences in the late 1980s and early 1990s, transitioning through the remainder of the decade was an insurmountable feat. Rather than grace with age while making records they believed in, artists tripped all over themselves as they raced on a never ending treadmill towards the approval and relevance of yesteryear.
If anybody knows just how fast and hard the changing seasons can get, it’s Robert Van Winkle, better known by his stage name: Vanilla Ice.
Responsible for the fastest selling hip-hop record of all time with To The Extreme in 1990, Van Winkle’s success came at a high price. Naive to the more cynical aspects of the music industry, the rapper agreed to let his label, SBK Records, shape his image and career from top to bottom. This led to convoluted posturing, critical derision, and overexposure.
As Van Winkle faded from public consciousness, he got really into weed and grew dreadlocks. His second studio album, Mind Blowin’, was a critical and commercial failure. He slipped into depression and drug addiction, attempting suicide by heroin overdose on July 4th, 1994. As part of his recovery process, he decided to take a break from music in 1995. Van Winkle found subsequent success in motocross and jet skiing (where he was ranked 6th in the world), and began a career in real estate.
It seemed like Vanilla Ice was done with music for good, but the writing was on the wall when he started a grunge band, Pickin Scabz.
After signing to Universal Republic Records in 1996, Van Winkle struck up an unlikely friendship with luminary nü-metal producer Ross Robinson. In a 1998 interview with Iowa State Daily, Vanilla Ice said of his developing musical interests, “I wanted to express myself in a very intense way, and there was no way that was going to happen with a drum machine. Basically I’m bored with drum machines and samples and stuff. With a band, they can build that energy around me.”
Speaking on meeting Robinson, Van Winkle said, “Ross walks in and sees my motocross trophy and he’s a motocross racer himself,” he said. “We were clicking right off of the bat, we had something in common. He was like ‘Yeah man, I’d really love to do your record.’. I flew to LA right away and within a month and a half we had the album finished, completed.”
Although the pairing was readily advantageous for Vanilla Ice, friends of Robinson expressed concern at the creative union. In an interview with the New York Times, he said of the situation, “People kept saying to me ‘It might hurt your name, it might hurt your reputation’. I said, ‘I’m doing it then.’ It’s the most punk rock thing you could do.”
As the pair explored creative avenues, Robinson actively encouraged Van Winkle to use his deepest traumas for lyrical inspiration. Speaking to CNN about his early success and the toll it took on him, he said, “I was like Jerry Maguire back then. I was like, show me the money. That’s over now. A lot of the criticism led to very bad depression, but I learned that life is not about material things or how many records you sell.”
In regards to the new record, Van Winkle continued, “It wasn’t intended to be so dark. I opened up to Ross and I told him a lot of things that happened to me in the past, it was like, really deep conversation, and he was like, ‘You should write about that.’ And I was like, ‘dude!’, I didn’t want people to judge me for that. But he was right. This record was like total therapy. I had to tap into these fucked up moments in my life, I’m free now.”
Although he claimed to be largely ignorant of the nü-metal movement, Van Winkle was eager to embrace his newfound musical identity. He explained, “I wanted to make the record as real as I possibly could and do it my way. I’m not trying to be like any Korn or anything like that. In fact, I didn’t even listen to them or any of them. I knew who they were before I made this record. It’s just we have the same producer, and some of the guitars between that and Limp Bizkit are gonna sound similar. That’s what happens when you’ve got the same guy producing them.”
Robinson assembled a reputable backing band for Vanilla Ice, including Amen and Godsmack drummer Shannon Larkin, guitarist Sonny Mayo, Scott Borland (brother of Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland) on keyboards, and Doug Ardito (who would later find success in Puddle Of Mudd) on bass. In a 2006 interview with Modern Drummer, Larkin would tell the publication that he was “Proud of that one. That was a killer record. Producer Ross Robinson is very demanding when it comes to drums in the studio. Everything had to be 110% for that guy, and I love him for that.”
Vanilla Ice had found a new audience with the Hot Topic sect and prospective success for the new album seemed plausible. Speaking of his audience in 1998 to the LA Times, Van Winkle said they were “not the crowd I played before. A lot of young girls still come out to the shows, but they probably wished I’d made another pop record because this may be a little too hard for them. Now my crowd is the body-piercing and tattoo crowd. A lot of people are buying the new record and showing up to the shows, and it’s good to see so many enjoying the music.”
Success was not in the cards this time around, after all. Hard To Swallow, the long-anticipated new Vanilla Ice record, was released in October of 1998. It failed to chart in any country and was met by a tidal wave of critical disgust. In a particularly scathing review, Los Angeles publication New Times magazine said it was “Stupid, exploitative, derivative rap metal by the man who once did nearly irreparable damage to hip hop.”
Although the record was a commercial failure and he never worked with Ross Robinson again, Van Winkle nonetheless established himself as a fixture in the rap-metal adjacent world of the Insane Clown Posse. He has collaborated with the fringe hip hop icons and appeared at their annual Gathering of the Jullalos.