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In 1990, when he was riding high in the charts with his hit “Ice Ice Baby”, Miami rapper Vanilla Ice was visited in his Beverly Hills hotel suite by would-be music mogul Suge Knight and several associates. They were there to discuss songwriting credits on “Ice Ice Baby” — a discussion, legend has it, that involved Knight, a 6ft 4in former American footballer, dangling a terrified Ice over the 15th-floor balcony until he agreed to hand over royalty rights.
Ice insists the story is embellished. Negotiations did take place on the balcony but there was no dangling. “He had me look over the edge, showing me how high up I was up there,” the rapper later said. The chat, which he remembered as “nice”, centred on the role allegedly played by one of Knight’s associates in co-writing “Ice Ice Baby”.
Whatever the exact form of the persuasion, Knight walked away with a chunk of the profits. The money helped bankroll his record label Death Row Records, which he set up the following year. With a roster including Dr Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, Death Row came to dominate 1990s hip-hop, a key promoter of the highly controversial “gangsta rap” genre. And behind it all lay “Ice Ice Baby”.
Nowadays the song is treated as a joke. The final nail in its coffin was when novelty duo Jedward covered it in a 2010 UK hit: Vanilla Ice, by then desperately draining the dregs of Z-list celebrity, joined the absurd twins with an undignified guest rap. Yet, in 1990, when “Ice Ice Baby” first came out, the situation was different.
Although white, a rarity in rap, Ice’s back story stressed his authenticity. There was talk of gangs and run-ins with the police. It was suggested he had gone to school with members of 2 Live Crew, a provocative Miami rap crew. He could actually rap properly, unlike fellow white rappers the Beastie Boys. The insanely catchy “Ice Ice Baby” portrayed him cruising the streets in his badass Ford Mustang 5.0, getting caught up in gunplay with “dope fiends”. Compared with pop-rap contemporary MC Hammer, Ice was gangsta.
The problems started with the single’s huge success (it was rap’s first Billboard number one). Reporters dug into Ice’s background and discovered inconsistencies. It turned out he had grown up in a Dallas suburb, not inner-city Miami, and that his real name, carefully withheld by his record label, was Robert Van Winkle. Suddenly his lyrical boasts (“I’m killing your brain like a poisonous mushroom”) and street talk (“Yo, word to your mother”) inspired guffaws.
Another problem arose with the source of the song’s catchiness, a bassline lifted from the David Bowie and Queen hit “Under Pressure”. Queen’s guitarist Brian May heard it by chance (“I just thought, ‘Interesting, but no one will ever buy it because it’s crap’ ”). Soon lawyers were subjecting Ice to the legal version of Suge Knight’s shakedown, with the same result: Bowie and Queen were assigned royalties. “Ice Ice Baby” is a chapter in rap’s lawless past, before it became a multibillion-dollar industry. Ice’s unlicensed use of “Under Pressure” was common practice, a carefree approach to copyright that ended when the rapper Biz Markie lost a landmark court case in 1991. Meanwhile, Death Row Records, partly set up with Ice’s seed money, played a leading role in the violent rivalries that plagued hip-hop in the 1990s.
Neither Ice nor Knight have prospered. The rapper sold 15m copies of his debut album but then his career fell off a cliff. Last month he was arrested in Florida on suspicion of burglary and grand theft. Knight is currently in a California jail on a murder charge that he denies. Both men are relics of rap’s wild west.
Photograph: Paul Natkin/Getty Images; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
To hear a podcast with clips of the songs, visit ft.com/culturecast