Actor/writer/producer/director Frank Licari returned to 360°Sound to talk about his documentary on rapper Vanilla Ice entitled Ice Ice Baby: The Truth. Licari spoke with us back in April about his other new documentary film, José Feliciano: Behind This Guitar.
Ice Ice Baby: The Truth will not be a puff piece about Vanilla Ice (real name: Rob Van Winkle), Licari said, rather, it will present the full story of his meteoric rise, sudden fall, and current resurgence. The film is in the final stages of post-production and is expected to be completed within the next month.
360°: Please start by telling me about your relationship with Rob Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, and how the idea for the documentary came about.
Licari: I met Rob about six years ago in Palm Beach County, Florida. For the past 13 years, I have been the producer, director and host of the Palm Beaches Student Showcase of Films, a statewide film festival in Florida honoring college and high school film students. Rob was gracious enough to present the music video award at the festival, and we subsequently named it the Vanilla Ice Music Video Award after him.
He and I became friends in the course of hosting the show. A few years ago, I mentioned to him that someone should do a film on his life and he told me that many people had approached him, but no one had ever followed through. I told him that I would make it happen and we verbally agreed on it. I immediately contacted my friend, Helen Murphy, who has a long-standing executive-level career in the music business and asked her to partner on it with me. About six months later, we were making the film.
Without giving away all the film’s revelations, what are a few aspects of Ice’s story the film covers that have never been told, or at least not accurately?
There’s so much that has been written and talked about and, of course, embellished and sometimes twisted over the years. I would say that some has even been forgotten about. The goal was to get the facts by asking the people who lived it — his family, his posse and the record executives. We dig into the actual construction of how [“Ice Ice Baby”] was written and who was really responsible, and there’s a huge revelation there. We also cover the influence his breakthrough had on a global scale in terms of rap and hip-hop.
Vanilla Ice shot to stardom in 1990 with “Ice Ice Baby,” the first rap song to hit #1, and his album To The Extreme went 7x platinum in a matter of months. But his superstardom was short-lived. What do you believe were the major reasons for his fall?
So much about the music and entertainment business is political. We believe that Rob was mismanaged; we believe that Rob was too young for the fame and didn’t handle it well. I also believe that when you get that big that quickly, the entire industry, and even the fans, eventually want to see you fall from grace. It’s the nature of humanity; we love the underdog until they’re no longer the underdog. We generally don’t like it when someone is on top for too long. However, I think that if the industry executives had done more for Rob than just take advantage of him and exploit him, perhaps taken their time to truly develop and progress his career, he’d be regarded in a much better light today in terms of the music side.
After Ice’s music career floundered he got back into motocross, in which he won championships as a teen. He also battled drugs and depression and even attempted suicide in 1994. He turned his life around and has had a home renovation show, The Vanilla Ice Project, the last 10 years. Does the film cover Ice’s life and pursuits after his early ‘90s superstardom?
We cover his entire life’s trajectory. It’s part of The Truth. What happened after his superstardom is covered extensively through interviews with not only him but his family, his manager and his friends. What we really reveal here is that Rob is truly a Renaissance man who has succeeded at every facet of life. It shows us that no matter what this guy would have chosen to pursue, he was going to become a success at it. His hard work, charisma and determination are truly unsurpassed.
“Ice Ice Baby” samples the bass line to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Perhaps the most infamous interview clip of Ice is him explaining that there’s a difference in the original and his song – an extra beat. How does the doc cover the sampling controversy?
The sampling controversy is one of the biggest chunks of the documentary. We really wanted to cement for the audience how Ice became the poster child for this part of the music business. He really set the benchmark for how sampling was going to be dealt with and looked at for the next 30 years. If it wasn’t for “Ice Ice Baby,” sampling would be a completely a different game right now.
A story has circulated for years that Suge Knight hung Vanilla Ice by his ankles over a hotel balcony and forced him to sign over publishing rights, which in turn helped Knight finance Death Row Records. Did that actually happen?
Without revealing the actual facts, I can assure you that we have the actual story of what truly happened in that hotel room from the people that were there, and we set the record straight on Suge and Death Row. Thanks to my partner, Helen Murphy, who has extensive executive-level experience as a CFO in the business, we were able to extrapolate the money splits that changed once Suge Knight got involved in the business of “Ice Ice Baby.”
It’s evident that Vanilla Ice being white played a role in his success. He also received backlash from hip-hop fans. Some labeled him the “Elvis of rap” because of how he capitalized on a black art form. How does the film address the impact of whiteness on Ice’s career?
I would say that the doc focuses on this as much as the sampling controversy. It’s really all part of an incredibly impactful three or four years of Ice’s early career. He set the world on fire and the backlash was widespread and caused by many factors, and his race was a major component of that. We talk to Vin Rock from Naughty by Nature, Downtown Julie Brown, Christopher “Kid” Reid from Kid ‘n Play and The V.I.P. [The Vanilla Ice Posse] to discuss that portion of the story.
The truth is, Rob and “Ice Ice Baby” helped break down barriers for these other artists into white America and Europe. Just as Elvis did for rhythm & blues, Rob did for rap and hip-hop. The trajectory and timeline would have been completely different if Rob hadn’t come along when he did.
I’m very interested in seeing the film, but I don’t know how much interest the general public has in Vanilla Ice. How do you plan to market the doc?
I believe that the interest from the general public is going to be a mixed bag of 80 and 90s nostalgia seekers, fans of hip-hop in general, fans of his new life in cable TV and people who like a good rise, fall and rise again story. I think there will definitely be people that want to laugh at Rob but will come out of this documentary with a newfound respect for the man and what he went through. At an early age being thrust into the spotlight before he was mature enough to handle it and then being misguided and mismanaged by the people within his organization – including the creation of the song, the stolen hook, etc. – and him being left holding the bag for all of it. I think you’ll be surprised at the feeling that you get by the time it’s all over.
The marketing comes in exactly as you describe it. “Who the hell cares about Vanilla Ice? What more do I need to know?” And then, “Wait, they made a movie on Vanilla Ice?” “Why did they make a movie on Vanilla Ice? “Man, I gotta see that!” “It’ll be a train wreck!” “It’ll be epic!” “You know what, Vanilla Ice got a bad rap.” And on and on and on. This is the rhetoric that I hear, but eventually, I believe that people will be drawn to it. I hope.