The Hammer People Need Towels:
A Live Report from the MC Hammer-Vanilla Ice Concert in Orem, Utah

by brandon alva


February 27, 2009

Jason tells me that MC Hammer’s flight is delayed, ice on the wings in Minneapolis or somewhere. Vanilla Ice got in last night and is promoting the show on local TV and radio. Jason, who never sleeps more than five hours, has been up since eight printing VIP passes, media passes, and all-access passes. He gives me a blue lanyard, an all-access pass with photos of Hammer and Ice on it. The photos are from the early-90s when Hammer and Ice were at their peaks of popularity. Hammer, shirtless, buff, box haircut, is wearing sunglasses and suspenders. Ice is young and has his now oft-mocked haircut: a two-inch wave of hair on top—held up by a lot of goop, I’m sure—with steps shaved into the buzzed sides of his head. Ice’s ‘do is a flashback in itself. It strikes me, in hindsight, as a white kid’s attempt at Hammer’s box-style haircut, which at times also featured steps.
     Jason, my former roommate, along with his business partner Sam, are organizing and promoting this one-time reunion. Jason and I plan to meet around one and drive down to Orem for the show.
     I run errands in the meantime. At some point, I tune into one of Ice’s local radio interviews. The host asks, “Why Utah? Why did you decide to do your only reunion concert with MC Hammer in Utah?”
     Ice responds, “Because they called.”

around noon

There is a video on YouTube of Vanilla Ice on The Arsenio Hall Show. Ice is seated on Arsenio’s funky purple couch. He is wearing a silver, green, and black jumpsuit that glistens in the stage lights. It’s the sort of outfit you might don if you wanted to, say, help Doctor Doom kill Spider-man. In the interview, which originally aired January 29, 1991, Arsenio is asking the Ice Man why a lot of white people never bought a hip-hop album until his “vanilla face” appeared on the cover. Arsenio seems indignant. The crowd boos, and Vanilla Ice responds, “How’s that my fault?” Ice is upset that Arsenio won’t let him bring his friend, black rapper Flavor-Flav, out on the stage with him. “Is that why you brought him [Flavor-Flav] here?” Arsenio asks, “So that you could show the world that you have a black supporter?” Ice responds, “Nah man... He’s my homeboy, and we’re just kickin’ it.” Arsenio flips the subject to a reported feud with MC Hammer. Arsenio says he has heard that Ice said the crowds like him better than Hammer. Ice denies this. The confrontation descends to he-said-she-said.
     Watching the clip in 2009, I wonder if Arsenio and Hammer have dismissed the feud with Vanilla Ice. The velocity with which all three of their stars fell is now infamous [1]. In 1991, Ice and Hammer were competitors in an embarrassingly profitable endeavor, but their fame outlasted their fortune and grew into something else, something ugly. Today they’re punch lines, answers to Trivial Pursuit questions, has-beens. Famous enough that they will never be able to walk into a bar without someone saying, “Hey, aren’t you?” but forgotten enough that I wonder if that same someone even buys them a drink.
     Tonight MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice will take the stage together for the first time in eighteen years. And yet, as if the show’s promoters were selling rotary telephones, they couldn’t get the local media to say a word about it. Then Rolling Stone put a short blurb on their website. This was followed by Jay Leno telling a joke about it on The Tonight Show. The punch line went something like: Only in Utah would people pay to see two has-beens. Overnight it appeared that Utah’s media outlets changed their collective minds about the show’s news worthiness [2]. Nightly news programs, local papers, and morning DJs started talking about the retro hip-hop event.
     The advanced ticket sales for the show have been modest, a little more than 2,100. The venue can seat over twice that. Jason and Sam are hoping that all the last minute media attention will bring a huge crowd of at-the-door ticket sales. Ice’s numerous day-of-the-show appearances on outlets like Good Day Utah [3] will surely help.


There are signs in Orem, Utah which read “Family City, U.S.A.” If “Family City, U.S.A.” sounds to you like a slogan a realtor or an ardent city councilman dreamed up, if it sounds like anything less than a civic mission statement—a true aspiration—then you might not like Orem, Utah. Orem is young married couples. Orem is modest homes filled with large families. Orem is knowing your neighbors, seeing them at church and tee ball games and Eagle Scout projects. Orem is entrepreneurial capitalist spirit. [4] Orem’s sister city, Provo, is home to Brigham Young University and the Mormon Church’s Missionary Training Center. Orem is eighty-eight percent Mormon. Orem is ninety-one percent white, and eighty-six percent vote Republican. [5] The Bible Belt would undoubtedly disagree, but the citizens of Orem know that they live at the heart of Red America. [6]   
     When I told a friend that MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were performing together one time only in Orem, he said it reminded him of something Mark Twain wrote: “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
     The story of how the concert came to be starts with Jason’s business partner, Sam Salisbury. On the Warped Tour, Sam met Tommy Quon, Vanilla Ice’s manager. Shortly thereafter Sam began joking with friends about the idea of an Ice/Hammer reunion concert, a joke that got attention, a joke that got repeated. A joke that snowballed into an investigation of if it could even be done. Tommy Quon told Sam good luck, saying he himself had reached out to Hammer a few times about the idea and never heard back. Sam was able to make contact with an individual who had one time helped to arrange a Hammer concert. Using this contact, Sam made an offer to Hammer. Four months later, the Hammer people got back to Sam with a steep price. From there, Sam was able to negotiate terms that both parties agreed upon. [7]


Jason and I pull up to the McKay [8] Events Center, and I help him carry in walkie-talkies and backstage passes. Jason is wearing a black corduroy sports jacket over a black T-shirt with a fancy gold print, jeans, sunglasses, and dress shoes. I’m dressed way too casual-conservative in a polo shirt and comfortable jeans. Everyone else backstage is dressed either skateboard punk, hip-hop, or club chic.
Jason and I head back to the war room, the logistical hub of the concert’s organization and planning. It’s a conference room filled with take-out lunches, bottled water, and the swag provided by the various sponsors. There are stacks of boxes of Vitamin Water, Fuze soft drinks, and Red Bull. [9] The plan for the show is to have a DJ spin, then opening act: Love You Long Time (a local band that does retro-80s music and hip-hop), DJ spin, Vanilla Ice, DJ spin, MC Hammer, then cap off the night with a breakdance battle. A joint press conference is scheduled around six, two hours before the doors open, but no sign of Hammer yet. Jason’s assistant is preparing for Hammer’s arrival, and Jason is working on the VIP list.
     A crew from the cable channel A&E will be following Hammer, filming a reality show called Hammer Time. [10] There is also an independent filmmaker who is following Ice. The guy doing the film on Ice comes in and out of the war room a few times. He reminds me of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club; I think it’s his hair. He says the film will focus on a few months in the life of Vanilla Ice but doesn’t disclose much else. Previously, he’s done music videos, including one for The Killers. I wonder if he is more or less rehashing the territory covered by The Surreal Life, minus the other celebrities, zooming in on the daily drama of Vanilla Ice’s life; washed-up celebrity for washed-up celebrity’s sake. Basically saying, “Look, the man was so famous, but now the dry cleaner has messed up his order and he’s throwing a fit.” [11] I guess a lot of people find catharsis in reality shows, if not intellectual stimulation: the joy of discovering that other people’s lives have problems too and the rush of superiority that comes when we see they might be even less mature than we are. Celebrity reality has the added catharsis of seeing the rough edges in a life once made glossy by publicists.
     I’m here writing about Vanilla Ice not because I see him as a serious artist or a serious meltdown waiting to happen, but because I see him as a serious subject. Ice’s life is a view on 90s race relations and popular culture, notions of hip-hop urban masculinity, as well as the fickle fortune called fame. Vanilla Ice is a serious subject because one could argue that artists who have widespread success but little original talent are the purest reflections of the culture that produced them. But to begin to understand Vanilla Ice’s rise and fall as a slice of American culture, we should review his personal history. 


Robert Van Winkle was born in 1967 at Baylor Hospital in Dallas. His mother was a secretary and part-time music teacher. His father left the family when Robert was four. He went to high school in Carrollton, a suburb of Dallas, but he dropped out at the age of sixteen to pursue breakdancing. While breakdancing, he got his nickname, Vanilla.
     Breakdancer and freestyle rapper, Vanilla Ice teamed up with Floyd “DJ Earthquake” Brown and a troop of back-up dancers to become the main attraction at several predominantly black Dallas night clubs. Eventually they worked their way up to opening for such rap heavyweights as Public Enemy and MC Hammer.
     Rap icon Chuck D of Public Enemy recalls Vanilla Ice: “We tried to sign him. ’Cause I said, ‘If there’s gonna be an Elvis in hip-hop, I wanna own it.’”
     In 1989, Vanilla Ice cut a record with Ichiban Records, a small independent label. Ice’s debut single “Play That Funky Music” flopped, but a Georgia DJ decided to play the B side, a track titled “Ice, Ice, Baby.” Calls came in immediately.  People wanted to hear “Ice, Ice, Baby.” SBK Records, a big-name label, bought the rights to the song and signed Vanilla Ice. On September 22, 1990, “Ice, Ice, Baby” first appeared on the Billboard Top 40. 
     Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em had been atop the Billboard 100 for a staggering eighteen weeks [12] when To the Extreme overtook it on November 10, 1990. Ice’s album stayed number one for a fifteen-week run of its own. This was the first time there had been back-to-back number one hip-hop albums. And “Ice, Ice, Baby” was the first rap song to be number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. For eight months, the charts were ruled by hip-hop, the new face of American pop music. But what color was the face? The blues, jazz, rock-n-roll and disco students of history saw in Vanilla Ice a familiar story about to unfold, a story that did not end profitably for black Americans. Who was going to get all that money: the black hands that had labored to make hip-hop what it had become or a white newcomer? [13]
     The value we place on authenticity is often the very pressure that encourages others to act inauthentically. In rap music, which often markets itself on urban notions of masculinity, perceived authenticity is called “street cred,” a concept that often embraces an urban and sometimes criminal lifestyle. One week after his first album, To the Extreme, topped the charts, Robert Van Winkle and SBK records released a biography of Vanilla Ice. He was a gang member who grew up in the ghettos of Miami Lakes, Florida. The biography also claimed that Ice was a motocross national champion.
     People instantly noticed thatIce, Ice, Baby” sampled heavily from the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure.” Such sampling was a trick that most small, independent hip-hop albums got away with. But now there was serious money involved, and the copyright holders threatened suit. They later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. But worse still for Ice’s public image was his handling of the situation. Mainstream white audiences were unaware of sampling as part of hip-hop’s aesthetic. Ice’s attempt on MTV to claim his hit was original because of the difference of a single note looked idiotic. [14]
     By the end of 1990, exposés of the false biography hit newsstands, and the fall from sensation to pariah was swift. A Saturday Night Live parody featured Kevin Bacon as Vanilla Ice in an interview with Nat X (Chris Rock). “Word to your mother,” Kevin Bacon repeated over and over, mimicking Van Winkle’s onstage persona. This happened less than a month after Vanilla Ice had been a musical guest on the show. In an interview with Rolling Stone, rapper Ice-T joked that the only street Vanilla Ice was from was Sesame Street. By the summer of ’91, the rap group 3rd Bass released the music video to their hit “Pop Goes the Weasel,” in which Henry Rollins plays Vanilla Ice and 3rd Bass assaults him. An In Living Color parody featured Jim Carrey as Vanilla Ice, bungling through a slapstick version of “Ice, Ice, Baby.” The lyrics:

Yo, I’m white and I’m capitalizing
On a trend that’s currently rising . . .
I’m living large and my bank is stupid
’Cause I just listen to real rap
And dupe it.
Chorus: He’s just a white, white baby.
Extremely white, white baby. [15]

Ice had already become an easy punch line when his full-length feature film Cool as Ice was released on October 18, 1991. Ice’s debut film was a commercial flop and received even worse critical reviews. [16] The movie, which was clearly a device to market Vanilla Ice to teenage girls, [17] reinforced opinions of Ice as a sellout, a pretty face without substance, a pop star whose wardrobe and hairstyle outshone his lyrics.  
     In spring of 1994, Vanilla Ice released his second full-length album Mind Blowin. Ice attempted with the album to reshape this image, growing dreadlocks and rapping about smoking pot at every opportunity, à la Cypress Hill. The album received largely negative reviews and had little commercial success. The album began a pattern of Ice attempting to rebrand himself with each new LP. But none of the albums following To the Extreme have had the same reach, leaving any attempt at redefining Ice’s career perpetually in the shadow of To the Extreme.
     Later in 1994, Robert Van Winkle twice attempted suicide, citing depression, drug addiction, and the collapse of his career.
     A decade later, Robert Van Winkle was on VH1’s second season (2004) of the The Surreal Life, a reality show in which he lived in a house with the likes of former porn star Ron Jeremy and Chips hero Erik Estrada. When he first signed on to do the show, it was under the condition he would not perform, “Ice, Ice, Baby.” But eventually, at a karaoke bar, his costars talked him into it. One frequent watcher was proud of Robert’s behavior on the show, commenting in his blog, “It seemed like you were forgiving yourself for being Vanilla Ice.”
     Some of the crimes for which Vanilla Ice was punished for were common practices in hip-hop and would later become accepted by mainstream audiences: sampling beats from other artists (Puff Daddy practically built his empire on remixes of 80s pop tunes) and fabricated street biographies (during the height of gangster rap in the mid-90s you couldn’t get a record contract without claiming to have shanked prison guards). For example, artist Akon’s biography turned out to have been exaggerated. [18] Also since Ice’s time, the fear of hip-hop going white seems to have diminished. [19] 
     And while Vanilla Ice did fabricate his history, it should be noted that the media’s depiction of him was partial. He had begun breakdancing and free styling in his teens and had been rapping for years before “Ice, Ice, Baby” entered America’s living rooms. However these subtleties were lost in the sound bites and parodies. One might have gotten the impression that one day Robert Van Winkle was performing Neil Diamond covers at Bar Mitzvahs and the next Vanilla Ice was being instructed by his agent to take copious notes while watching LL Cool J music videos.
     None of this is to suggest that Vanilla Ice’s career was unduly shortened. Vanilla Ice was a middling rapper and a talented breakdancer who borrowed a catchy tune at the right time. Both Vanilla Ice’s meteoric rise and Robert Van Winkle’s breakneck fall were the results of white Americans expending both cash and “psychic energy” [20] in response to pop music having gone black. Acts like MC Hammer brought hip-hop new prevalence in the American mainstream and turned the genre into big business, making a “vanilla ice” almost inevitable. Consider the Arsenio interview, the part not shown on YouTube. Arsenio confronted Vanilla Ice about his fabricated street biography. Ice retorted that this was old news. “It’s not old news to my audience, so let’s just answer it now,” said Arsenio. In defense of his street credibility, Ice said, “If you can’t see that I’m from the streets, you’re blind, because the majority of white people can’t dance and they don’t have much rhythm.” A curious statement. A statement that reflects assumptions about race, wealth, and rhythm that, while common, are gross generalizations, stereotypes. Stereotypes that Vanilla Ice didn’t challenge so much as affirm while simultaneously attempting to be a notable exception. Yes, Vanilla Ice was quite an act—the Elvis of hip-hop some called him derisively—an act that from the onset was both bound to succeed and certain to fail.


3:28 PM

Backstage in the war room, I meet two of the breakdancers: Mike E and Sea Bass. Then, MC Oz of Love You Long Time arrives. MC Oz is dressed somewhere between early Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the outfit Spike Lee wore in those 80s Nike commercials with Michael Jordan. The breakdancer, Sea Bass, or maybe it’s C-Bass, is telling everyone that he plans to move to Phoenix, Arizona, to pursue a masters in nonprofit management. Everyone seems to nod their head in agreement with this decision, as if to say it’s hard to make it as an artist in this economy. The breakdancers are telling MC Oz to check out, that some MTV people from Brooklyn told them that all the professionals post their stuff there. While this is going on, there is some confusion about Vanilla Ice’s VIP list, and Jason is trying to clarify that Ice wants to see people after the show but not before.


3:34 PM

There is a pile of meet-and-greet passes in the war room. Jason told me they are selling for two hundred dollars each. I’m not proud of it, but while no one is looking, I take one. I rationalize it’s my only chance to meet Vanilla Ice, to ask him some serious questions.


3:50 PM

Hammer and his people have arrived, but they have decided to go shopping instead of coming to do their sound check and media appearances. The itinerary is being rearranged. Hammer has specifically requested to visit Macy’s and the Harley Davidson store.
     “Is he going to buy a motorcycle and ship it home?” a girl asks Jason’s assistant.
     “No, he said he wants a vest.”
     “Oh. Interesting . . . Was he rude?”
     “No, he was very polite, but he said this was his time.”


4:11 PM

Jason and Mike E are updating the list of breakdancers who are to appear in the final battle at the end of the show. The meet-and-greet is going to have to be pushed back until after the show for those willing to stay up that late. The joint press conference is also in jeopardy.


4:12 PM

Vanilla Ice wants a copy of his own first album, To the Extreme, and a pocket mirror. The show is meant to be mostly the artists’ old school stuff, which Jason and Sam assumed might take some refreshing, but they didn’t know Ice might not even still have a single copy of his own album. Someone is sent out to retrieve a copy of the album because iTunes does not carry it in its entirety. The girl who is assisting Ice says that she is impressed because she didn’t know that he was a vegetarian. She leaves the war room with a brown paper bag containing Ice’s requested Marlboro Lights and Jägermeister.


5:15 PM

Jason’s assistant is shouting, “The Hammer people need towels. The Hammer people need towels.”
     Jason has assigned me to find out why the walkie-talkies are not working. I have called the place that rented them to Jason and after a frustrating five minutes demonstrating that I’m not an idiot—that the damn things are not working—they are sending someone down.


5:17 PM

Hammer is finally sound checking. I watch him check the sound on “Two Pumps and a Bump,” the 1994 release that was an attempt to broaden his appeal in a market that was steadily moving toward gangster rap and away from hits like “Pray Just to Make It Today.” Hammer’s fall from pop stardom was slower than Ice’s. He had had more hits, he had a more faithful base. I remember the episode of Arsenio where Hammer came on promoting “Two Pumps and a Bump.” Arsenio, being a true ally, showed the music video and got hyped about the whole thing and asked Hammer all the right questions [21], but ultimately the fall still came. Hammer declared bankruptcy in 1996. The market became dominated by Death Row Records (Suge Knight’s label) and Bad Boy Records (Sean Puffy Combs' label). Gangster rap took over.
     Some blame “Two Pumps and a Bump” for Hammer’s career unraveling, arguing that the album alienated Hammer’s base by ruining his image as the only major rap artist who didn’t lace his music with profanity and sexual innuendo.
     Before this concert, the last time I saw MC Hammer was in a Super Bowl commercial for Cash for Gold, a sign of the economic times. A few Super Bowls before that, Hammer was in an insurance commercial also parodying himself for having lost a fortune overnight. Arsenio Hall lost his television show and never really got another shot at television or movies. Occasionally old friends like Tom Arnold or Jay Leno will get him on television for a short appearance. I hear he has a new cable show, but I haven’t been able to find it.

5:21 PM

Backstage, a slick looking guy is talking to girls I assume are backup dancers. [22] He’s saying to them, “Yeah, I always need people to fill my movie sets,” and the girls are breathlessly chirping, “Okay, okay, call us, call us.”
     The McKay Events Center is also home to the Utah Valley University Wolverines, so the stadium seating and much of the backstage area are school colors: yellow and green, the same bright, flat shades of yellow and green that are on John Deere tractor caps. The dressing rooms are actually locker rooms filled with snack tables and huge comfy LoveSacs. [23] Outside the room, the only thing designating what is usually the girls’ basketball locker room as the Hammer Female Dancers’ is a white piece of computer paper held on by Scotch tape which reads: “Hammer Female Dancers No Admittance on 02/27/09.”


5:34 PM

The movement and volume backstage has been increasing all afternoon. “Jason, Jason, which VIP room does the ice cream machine go in?” “Does anyone have the final VIP list?” “Are the walkie-talkies working?” People are now moving back and forth like bees in a hive, their combined noise becoming a steady hum.
     There are crowds of people roaming the backstage halls for no other reason than they are Sam’s friends. His VIP guest list is over fifty people, an incredible number for a show this size. Most headline acts don’t even request that many comped tickets. Some of Sam’s friends even get a massage from the massage girls, when the girls aren’t busy with actual performers, of course. Later, Vanilla Ice will report that someone stole the Jägermeister out of his dressing room. 


5:45 PM

Hammer and Ice meet front stage. Since everything has fallen behind schedule, this little meeting is replacing the joint press conference. They shake hands with a crowd of cameras and microphones in their faces. They seem cordial, standing close to each other. They talk about how many times they performed together. Ice recalls: “My first awards show, I was surrounded by a million people I didn’t know. All these famous people, I heard someone call my name, ‘Ice.’ I turned around, and it was Hammer.”
     Ice and Hammer say they might have a surprise for everyone at the concert tonight meaning, I assume, that they may take the stage and perform something together. 

6:51 PM

Ice is doing his sound checks, rapping and giving instructions. His DJ is warming up by practicing spinning around while mixing on the sound board. Ice’s drummer is pounding away.
     MC Hammer is in his press conference, and although he hasn’t headlined a show in over two years, he is defending his viability as an artist. He is recalling glory days—asking the press if they know anyone else who sold out the Tokyo Dome five nights in a row. I can see why the press is asking Hammer to show some self-consciousness about his fallen celebrity status; it seems like hubris for Hammer to bring up the Tokyo Dome now. But somehow I also sympathize with Hammer in telling the press to kiss off. The unstated subtext the press seems to be asking for is, Admit that you were just a fad, that your music just isn’t that good. Be grateful for your fifteen minutes. And in all honesty, Hammer’s music was a fad, but in the world of pop music, a lot of artists who will be recognized as fads tomorrow are getting money and respect today. Is Hammer’s music any less art than Soulja Boy’s [24]? Pop music is seldom a meritocracy: Why should anyone apologize for selling millions of records? And in the country that invented the pet rock and the Beanie Baby, why should anyone be expected to sell millions of records indefinitely? I think Chuck D probably said it best: “People talk about selling out. You’re supposed to sell out! If you got fifteen tapes on the shelf, your mission is to sell that motherfucker. You ain’t giving it away! So I can’t get mad at a Hammer for doing what he’s got to do.” Should we ask Hammer to apologize for making less money today? I don’t think so.

8:13 PM

The doors are open and a crowd is streaming in. The promo posters for the show read at the bottom: “Dress 80s for the Ultimate Dance Party”—an anachronism that also probably should have been more specific. The posters should say dress hip-hop circa ’91. The mistake may explain why a number of people have shown up to the concert dressed like Don Johnson in Miami Vice, wearing a sport coat over a pink T-shirt or like Dire Straits, which is essentially the Don Johnson look plus a head band. [25] There are girls dressed liked Cyndi Lauper and others like Madonna. [26] There are a lot of guys sporting Vanilla Ice’s old haircut. There are also a few Flavor-Flav impersonators and a few guys in Hammer’s signature parachute pants. The camera crew from the Vanilla Ice documentary get a group of guys dressed like Vanilla Ice to rap some of his lyrics. Three of the four guys remember the lyrics perfectly.
     The conflation of early-90s hip-hop with the 80s rather than with the rest of the 90s is telling. Ice and Hammer have more in common with the 80s hip-hop that preceded them than the rap music that followed them. Hammer and Ice had both influence on and conflict with the stars that followed them. For Hammer, the conflict was always fiscal and sometimes verbal, but for Ice, strangely enough, it did become physical at one point.
     In 1991, Marion Suge [27] Knight, a former NFL lineman and self-professed gang member turned record executive, showed up at Vanilla Ice’s hotel room with an associate, Mario Chocolate Jones. Several versions have been told of what happened next and part of this story’s appeal is that one may never know what exactly happened. [28] Suge’s bodyguards took Vanilla Ice’s bodyguard out of the room. Suge, a former L.A. Raider, put his arm around Vanilla Ice and took him out on the balcony where Suge explained that because his friend Jones had helped to write “Ice, Ice, Baby,” Vanilla Ice needed to sign over a big chunk of the royalties from To the Extreme. When Ice refused, Suge Knight grabbed him by the ankles and dangled him off the balcony until he agreed to sign over the royalties. Suge denied this, and Ice would later change his story, saying that the threat was only verbally implied and that he was never actually dangled upside down. But it was too late. The image of Vanilla Ice with that over-the-top haircut being dangled over a ledge by Suge Knight, while screaming or perhaps even crying, had seared itself into the pop consciousness of the time. [29]
     The royalties Ice signed over were seed money for Death Row Records and particularly Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, one of the most influential records in rap music to date. Death Row Records went on to change the face of hip-hop music (making acts like MC Hammer irrelevant) and with talent like Snoop Doggy Dog and Tupac Shakur, they brought gangster rap to the suburban white masses on a new level. And it all got underway with royalty money from To the Extreme. There’s something overtly dramatic and symbolic about the whole incident, almost like professional wrestling or a medieval morality play: the new harder rap music getting started by literally robbing the old; Mario Chocolate Jones taking back what Robert Vanilla Van Winkle stole from him.

8:45 PM

The crowd is still pretty small during Love You Long Time’s performance. Before his final number, MC Oz tells the crowd that it is the honor of a lifetime to open for Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. During his final number MC Oz lifts a boom box over his head John Cusack style. [30] The crowd loves it.


9:31 PM

The crowd is slowly filling the ground level. They are spirited and shout back whenever the DJ prompts them. He has been spinning other early-90s hip-hop like Naughty by Nature and Kris Kross, but now for some reason the DJ has broken out the New Kids on the Block, and I wonder if even Vanilla Ice might be offended by this choice.
     It’s a long time before Ice takes the stage. I use this time to interview people about why they’ve come to the show.
     “My buddies and I started a Vanilla Ice website back in middle school. I guess I’m just old school.”
     “I got free tickets, but I did listen to them as a kid.”
     “Yeah, I would consider myself a fan, but a fan of like three of their songs total.”
     “I guess I’m here for the experience, the cultural event.”
     “I remember the music, but this is also a good excuse to get dressed up.”
     As the time for Ice to come onstage draws near, the crowd paradoxically gets younger and younger. The crowd has also doubled in size. The McKay Center is full if not packed. Many of these people aren’t the people who listened to Vanilla Ice; these are their younger siblings. People are herding their way down the steps from the seated area, the yellow and green bleachers, onto the floor. One kid is complaining loudly that he paid more for his assigned seat than the people with floor tickets paid, so he should be allowed on the floor, but the security officer just points back up at the yellow and green bleachers. 


10:18 PM

The crowd is over four thousand strong when Vanilla Ice finally takes the stage. Ice comes through a grim reaper arch, a lot of dry ice smog and strobe lighting. Ice is wearing a T-shirt with a sequin pattern in the shape of a massive gold chain. (I guess sequins are a lot cheaper than real gold.) At the bottom of the fake necklace is the area code 561. This is actually my parents’ area code in West Palm Beach, Florida. And since we are on a family plan together, this is my area code. Ice opens with a song I never heard about the dirty south. Ice’s first few numbers are all songs he recorded in gasping-struggling attempts to revive his career with some sort of mass audience and as such they represent a sort of what’s-what list of trends in alternative hip-hop from jumping on the dirty south bandwagon to Limp Bizkit-style rap metal and ICPish stage effects.

10:27 PM

Ice and a demonic clown in a Santa suit are dowsing the crowd with water bottles. Spraying some water on the crowd at concerts is a common practice, but something about Ice and the clown’s enthusiasm is uncommon. The novelty of it, you would think that Ice and the clown invented crowd spraying. At one point someone in the first few rows actually manages to douse Ice back. Ice responds by pouring a whole bottle of water on his own head, as if to show he can take it. [31]  

10:35 PM

Ice asks the audience if they are ready for him to go old school, and the crowd erupts at this prospect. He performs “Go Ninja Go,” the song he recorded for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze. The crowd gets loudest when Ice calls them by name: “Utah.” Ice catches on to this and even uses Utah as an alternative refrain in certain songs. [32]
     After another number, an important sounding sort of preamble starts. Ice asks the crowd, “Utah, are you ready?” People scream, and a sea of cell phones comes out. Everyone knows this is the moment they paid to participate in. And sure enough, when “Ice, Ice, Baby” starts up, the crowd equals Robert Van Winkle in volume without electronic assistance. They have not come here to see him perform it so much as to shout it back at him, to affirm that they have forgotten the date of the Mayflower Compact and the personal essays they wrote to get admitted to college, but for some reason, out of the cultural minutiae of their crowded lives, they remember the lyrics to “Ice, Ice, Baby."
     After “Ice, Ice Baby,” Hammer joins Ice on stage along with everyone who holds VIP passes, strangely even further blurring the line between performer and audience, for a special number: “Play That Funky Music (White Boy).” Hammer and Ice dance and the crowd sways and Hammer points to Ice during the chorus to indicate that he is indeed the white boy with the funky music. Ice darts off stage for a moment and then returns wearing an old school rhinestone and leather motorcycle jacket that is clearly from his heyday: it’s black and white with Ice in white block letters on one sleeve. The crowd digs Ice putting on the jacket, a uniform they recognize him in.
     “I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you, Utah.” Ice shouts.


11:15 PM

Yet another DJ is spinning while we wait for MC Hammer. What a lot of people who aren’t close to the stage don’t notice is my friend Jason scrambling. Hammer’s manager told Jason that Hammer will not take the stage until it is “completely dry.” Vanilla Ice and his demonic clown friend have just spent forty-five minutes dumping whole bottles of water on it. Jason and his assistants are once again scrambling to find towels. I watch as Jason and his crew mops the stage with whatever spare towels they can find, Hammer’s black manager overlooking the white boys on their hands and knees.


11:43 PM

MC Hammer finally takes the stage. He’s wearing those same dark sun glasses. He also has on a shirt and tie and, oh, a black leather Harley Davidson vest, all above his signature genie-esque pants. I’m guessing that the back-up dancers’ matching shirt and tie outfits were purchased at Macy’s. He performs with a large crew of back-up dancers, about a dozen by my count. I don’t recognize his first two numbers. Then Hammer says:
     “We are hittin’ hard in Oakland.”
     “Word,” the back-up dancers reply in unison.
     “We are hittin’ hard in L.A.” Hammer says.
     “Word,” the dancers shout.
     “Cleveland, Chicago, and Yo-town is on fire.”
     “Word. Word. Word.”
     “And in Miami we’re mooovin’ something.”
     “But when I got off the plane today, an old man said to me, ‘Hammer, you ain’t hittin’ in no Salt Lake City. You ain’t hittin’ in no Salt Lake City, Hammer. What you gonna’ do about that?’” Pauses.
     Then breaking into song: “And I saaaiddd, ‘I’m gonna turn this mutha out.’” All with the back-up dancers bursting into tightly choreographed motion, a routine that hasn’t changed since the music video to “Turn This Mutha Out” originally aired. And yet seeing it live changes my opinion of MC Hammer as a showman. I confess that it impresses me, helps me to realize at least in part why he sold out the Tokyo Dome so easily. All of this is done on a bare stage, no fancy lighting or pyrotechnics, but the dancers and the Master of Ceremonies and the music have a tight marriage. They all fit one another in a way that is obviously rehearsed—and at this point being rehashed—but nonetheless impressive.   

11:56 PM

Hammer performs “Two Pumps and a Bump.” A song that once raised conservatives’ hackles now doesn’t raise hairs, even in Orem, Utah. The act is the same, but what has changed dramatically is the amount of time it takes Hammer to catch his breath between numbers. After each song, Hammer steps into the shadows of the stage for close to a full minute. I begin to wonder if maybe he has emphysema or something. He’s probably just out of shape. The dance numbers are demanding and by my research he hasn’t headlined a show in at least two years—and before that show it had been an additional two years.
     I’m also impressed by the breakdancing his crew does to that song he recorded for the The Addams Family sound track. [33] Unlike Ice’s, Hammer’s performance is not a merger of desperate material. The sound and the appeal are consistent. Although he is still sucking wind between songs, Hammer hits his stride as he gets into his more familiar numbers like “Too Legit to Quit.” He’s feeding off the energy of the crowd.
     For his final number, he too has all the VIPs up onstage, which takes an additional few minutes to get everyone up there. Then he pauses again, saying:
     “Make a path for the Ice Man. We’re not starting till the Ice Man’s up here.”
     Ice comes out onstage and enjoys himself dancing and interacting with the crowd as Hammer performs, “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer is really feeling this number as evidenced by the way he jumps off the stage into the buffering area with the bouncers. As the music dies Hammer hollers: “I love you, Utaahhh. I am, I am, I am Hammer, Hammer, Hammer.”

FEBRUARY 28, 2009

1:13 AM

I’m standing in line to meet Vanilla Ice. I haven’t eaten since we got to Orem, and my back and my feet hurt. I’m cranky. I’ve got some good material, but all night I’ve had to be the uncool kid at the party scribbling notes in the corner. There is a line of mutants in front of me. The security guard is having a meltdown about keeping the line single file. You can tell he just wants to go to bed too. Who would stand in line this long, this late, just to get Vanilla Ice’s autograph? I mean, that isn’t writing an article about him. My theft of the meet-and-greet pass has proven pointless as Ice has simply set up shop at the merchandise table and signs autographs for anyone willing to wait. The line is moving slowly—I guess Vanilla Ice is being gracious up there.
     I take this time to remember how it was I became interested in Vanilla Ice in the first place. I’m not a hip-hop aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. In the 90s, like many middle-class white Americans, I became familiar with hip-hop because a) it had become too large on the American cultural horizon to ignore and b) it was easier to dance to than Pearl Jam. My own interest in Vanilla Ice began in an unusual place—ninth grade gym class. That year, I was forced to take gym with Brian Wolff. You see, Brian Wolff, to my ninth grade gym class, was something akin to what Vanilla Ice was to rap music: he was a racial line crosser that we didn’t like. He was a white kid that considered hip-hop part of his identity.
     Brian Wolff was three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than anyone else in our gym class, which made him six inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me. His talents included pushups, dodge ball, and insulting your mother. We all knew that he must have failed at least a grade or two at some point, but no one ever dared to ask him about it. Brian had moved to our school in seventh grade from a black neighborhood. He had been in my gym class in middle school but had disappeared for an entire school year and then returned. No one ever got up the courage to ask him about that either.
     His jeans, worn low, were so baggy that they bellowed. He always had expensive high-top sneakers, Air Jordans, kept in mint condition. He talked constantly about sex, drugs, and handguns. But the thing that made him stand out before he could even open his mouth, before you could get close enough to see his sneakers, the thing that would enable you to pick him out of a lineup was his haircut. Brian Wolff had the same haircut as Vanilla Ice. Spiky on top with the sides short and two horizontal strips above each ear which ran to the letters shaved in the back of his head, DEF. Vanilla Ice had his big hit, “Ice, Ice, Baby,” when we were in middle school, and then Brian’s hair was respectable. But by the time we were in the ninth grade, Vanilla Ice had not produced another hit and was being parodied by Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, the preppy look was back for white kids, and grunge had begun to offer itself as an alternative to hip-hop for those who wanted to be counterculture. In short, when Brian wasn’t in the room, he was called a “wigger.” And I think his haircut was starting to lose points even among the other white kids called wiggers and the few black kids who accepted wiggers. The Ice man with his fresh lyrics and stolen beats had fooled the nation for six months that he was cool, but he seemed to have fooled Brian for a lifetime. No one wanted to say this to Brian’s face though. And even now I have trouble reconciling his reluctance to let go of that faded haircut and the way he intimidated me. Yeah, we were all bullied at some point, but imagine being bullied by a bad caricature of a one-hit-wonder, white rap artist. Now, it’s humorous. Then, it was degrading.
     The bigger picture in terms of American pop culture and race relations within pop culture escaped me in ninth grade. I couldn’t see that I was living in history, that pop culture would change. A blind spot that seems huge considering that the house I grew up in had been part of the Underground Railroad. This alone should have made me perceive history as more tangible than fiction, as a march that continued up to the present. [34]
     In our small town of Smyrna in every class of thirty kids there were three to six black kids. The word n*gger was taboo. So much in fact that, like kissing your sister, I can’t even remember how I learned that it was prohibited. I just remember knowing that it was. One time, at the park, a white middle-schooler said the N-word out loud. He got the crap beat out of him by a black kid from my high school. Part of me felt sorry for the little white kid. I knew the kid, he had come home once with my little brother, and from what I knew he was far more stupid than he was racist. Part of me tried to sympathize with all the blacks at the park that must have heard what he said. Mostly, I just wondered how did that kid miss the memo? How did he not know that if you’re going to use the N-word out loud in America, you had better be prepared to have large black men kick your ass.
     The word wigger was different, as contradictory as it was. One time I even heard a black friend say wigger. The word was harsh but needed to enforce a crucial binary: there was black cool and there was white cool. You didn’t get to pick which cool you aspired to—your parents and God decided that for you. We’d see a white kid sagging his pants, wearing too many gold chains, ball cap backward, maybe even a ball cap with a big “X.” Wigger. Despite the word’s troublesome root, we were persuaded that our black counterparts would agree: That they too would sneer at someone who needed to be reminded, in no uncertain terms, of their inauthenticity.
     If you had asked me in high school why Brian dressed and talked and acted like Vanilla Ice, my answer would have been simple: he’s trying to be cool but he’s not. Now years later when I think about the way Brian Wolff behaved and that we called him wigger behind his back, I remember the way hip-hop exploded onto our radios and televisions and redefined cool. But hip-hop redefined cool in a way that was problematic to white suburbanites like ourselves because we could never be Ice-T or Dr. Dre. These pop icons were distinctly other, setting limits on imitation, causing us to walk a fine line between cool and inauthentic. We could wear a single chain or sag our pants or maybe wear our ball cap backward, but we couldn’t do all three at once. And we wouldn’t wear multiple chains or sag our pants too low; that was wigger-like. Later these temptations would be removed by the arrival of grunge. But just as a “vanilla ice” was inevitable, posited by the larger cultural landscape of the time, so too were Vanilla Ice wannabes. Studying Vanilla Ice’s career helped me to see Brian Wolff’s at-school persona as a reflection of the changing popular culture of the early-90s. We called Brian fake for embracing what we had hypocritically flirted with and for continuing to embrace hip-hop after we had moved on to the next fad.
     Brian’s persona also reflected the urban black community he had grown up in. (Assuming he hadn’t lied to us about that.) And Brian’s home life may have been a factor as well. Now, when I look back on Brian Wolff, he is a reminder to me that at my high school, in the 90s, there was white cool and there was black cool. In other words, there was white masculinity and there was black masculinity. His father left the family when Robert was four. As myopic as it was, I never speculated about Brian Wolff’s home life until I learned this fact about Robert Van Winkle. Realizing that Brian Wolff’s Vanilla Ice impersonation was, at least in part, the result of factors beyond his control, I was able to come to the same conclusion about him being a jerk and a bully. Plus he never dangled me upside down from a hotel balcony. Strangely, studying the life of Vanilla Ice allowed me to let go of my resentment of Brian Wolff. This is a pleasant realization to have as the security guard for the McKay Events Center gets red in the face shouting, “Keep the line single file. It’s not that hard people. Haven’t you been to kindergarten?” He is replaced by another security guard who seems less stressed.


1:56 AM

I’m amazed. Vanilla Ice is still going. He’s still signing autographs and making banter with the crowd. My turn is coming up. I’m not going to have much time at all while he signs my poster. I’ve worked out a strategy: I’m going to build on common ground by telling him that 561 is my area code. Then having established that, I should get a better answer to a serious question about either the strange nature of fame or pop culture.
     I’m still trying to formulate my serious question when my turn comes up and our conversation goes as follows:
     Me: Hey Rob, [pointing to his shirt] 561 is my area code.
     Rob: Really?
     Me: Yeah, Lake Park.
     Rob: Cool, we’re both Palm Beach Ninjas, ha-ha. 
     To which I had a hard time responding, I probably should have just asked him a serious question. Then the security guard snaps our picture together, and I’m pushed aside by the next group in line.


2:22 AM

Jason is driving us away from Orem, back toward Salt Lake City. I’m sulking a little and chiding myself for not asking Ice a serious question, for not trying to sneak into his dressing room or something. But what pearl of wisdom did I hope to gain, really? Our conversation was fittingly a little like pop music in that it was made ridiculous by our attempts to say something we thought the other person wanted to hear.
     When a pop song comes on the radio, we may say, “I like this song,” and turn it up, or, “I love this song,” and crank it. Or perhaps a declaration even more personal, “This is my song,” an absurd thing to say about commercial art and yet the very reaction the art was intended to produce. Arguing against William Bennett, who claims that Americans increasingly have no culture, pop culture analyst Robert Scholes says that Americans do have culture, just a different culture than Bennett. Scholes writes that, “What [Americans] really lack, for the most part is any way of analyzing and criticizing the power of a text like the Budweiser commercial—not its power to sell beer which is easily resisted once you have tasted better beer—but its power to sell America.” Similarly, we may reject Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer as celebrities, but this does not mean we have rejected the importance American culture places on celebrity itself; on the contrary, we hold fame sacred so we must pity, despise, mock, or at least become terribly irked by those who possess such renown unworthily. Rejecting celebrity as a concept, instead of rejecting them as celebrities, would mean accepting Hammer and Ice as persons with lives beyond our purview and interest. One could not laugh at or dismiss so easily such a complete human being as the non-celebrity.
     And so it is also with our rejection or acceptance of pop music: you cannot truly hear a pop song until it has lost its pop, having been downgraded or perhaps uplifted to pure history, having lost the siren song of cool, one hears it for the first time again and discovers if it still calls them. “I like this song,” we say, but do we say this in recognition of the song or ourselves in that moment? And what is wrong with allowing ourselves to experience the moment again? Four thousand people in Orem, Utah, shouting back at Vanilla Ice:
     Something grabs a hold of me tightly
     Flowin’ like a harpoon daily and nightly
     Will it ever stop?
     Yo—I don’t know.
     “Why Utah?”
     “Because they called.”  



[1]  Update in 2017: I guess Arsenio got his show back for a year in 2013. And now he’s a little bit of a media presence—good for him. I haven’t seen much of him personally but in today’s increasingly diverse media landscape, everyone who once occupied the limelight eventually gets another 15 minutes. [««« back]

[2]  Mormons (and to a lesser degree Utahns) have a sort-of small town anxiety about their national perception. Many Mormons love to share and/or catalogue positive media coverage about themselves: the 2002 Olympics, Ronald ReAgan’s visit to Welfare Square, Sam Malone on Cheers mishearing why more men don’t send flowers (“Mormons aren’t allowed to send flowers.”), former President of the Church Gordon B. Hinckley being interviewed on Larry King Live. Some even love to collect clips that are not necessarily positive but just acknowledge Mormons: The Simpsons (“America’s most powerful weirdos”), South Park (“No, the correct answer was ‘Mormon,’”) The Book of Mormon Musical, etc. [««« back]

[3]  Utah’s version of Good Morning America with folksy news people saying almost everything with a smile, but from what I’ve noticed, even more time is devoted to cooking on Good Day Utah. [««« back]

[4]  List of Companies started in Orem: WordPerfect, Novell, Omniture, Fishbowl Inventory, Doba, Names Database, Zuka Juice, PowerQuest, Blendtec, Wahoo Studios, and NinjaBee. [««« back]

[5]  The 2000 census listed Orem as 90.8% white. The percentage that votes Republicans is based on the 2004 Presidential elections in Utah county, which I thought was a clearer indication than the 2000 or 2008 elections, because those elections were more referendums on disgraced incumbents, and John McCain is not a real Republican.
     Update in 2017: While the 2016 presidential election did sadly go to some reality television star whose name escapes me at the moment, Evan McMillan, a former CIA agent and Goldman Sachs man, did get 29.7% of the vote in Utah County. I myself became tempted to vote for Evan McMillan (who is Mormon) when a white nationalist left me a voicemail telling me not to vote for Evan McMillan because he is in his thirties and still single and therefore...da da da…might be gay. I have a rule that if white nationalist tell me not to vote for someone because they are gay, I vote for that person. [««« back]

[6]  Mr. Sean Hannity himself celebrates the 4th of July every year at the Stadium of Fire, a fireworks celebration (held in Provo) of such a grand scale that any patriot with or without PTSD would surely be in tears by the end. I suspect Hannity gets paid to be there. [««« back]

[7]  Vanilla Ice wanted to make sure that he would be treated as well as Hammer and that if the concert became a tour, he and Hammer would switch off headlining every other performance. [««« back]

[8]  Named after the ninth Prophet and President of the Mormon Church, David O. McKay. David O. McKay being an important religious figure to us, many Mormons find humor in saying things like, “I still have my ticket stub from ‘Jay Z Live at the David O. McKay Events Center’” or “Marilyn Manson at the David O. McKay Events Center.” The latter was particularly memorable/blasphemous because Marilyn, in all his/her rage decided to shred copies of The Book of Mormon on stage, much to the chagrin/mortification/delight of the audience that night. [««« back]

[9]  The events I have been to this last year not sponsored by Red Bull: poetry readings and the Vagina Monologues. [««« back]

[10]  Sam, the brainchild behind this event, told me that when he greeted Hammer getting out of the limo at the McKay Events Center that the Hammer Time people filmed Hammer getting out of his limo three times to get the shot just right. To make it as realistic as possible, I assume. [««« back]

[11]  Nothing special really. I cried in front of the dry cleaners once. They closed earlier than I thought they did and I couldn’t get the outfit for the occasion that I had it dry cleaned for, and it was sitting right on the other side of the window, and I had had an awful day for a number of other reasons, but I think you get the idea: sometimes celebrities behave badly and sometimes they behave quiet commonly, and what we should really lift our noses at is the amplification the media gives their actions. Vanilla Ice, in a Washington Post interview, said of his experience on The Surreal Life that when you’re filmed twenty-four hours a day, the editors have a lot of power in their presentation of you. [««« back]

[12]  If not for the week of June 30, 1990, that the New Kids on the Block album Step by Step was number one, then Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em would have been number one for twenty-two consecutive weeks. In all, Hammer’s best-selling album spent a staggering 36 weeks in one of the top two spots on the charts. I find it interesting that all three of these acts—Ice, Hammer, and NKOTB—were male acts that could be described as coifed and preened eye candy that were heavy on choreographed and synchronized dancing, causing me to suspect that this was not only a revolutionary moment in pop hip-hop but also in teen and tween girls’ influence on discretionary spending. [««« back]

[13]  The above point in greater detail, which you may want to skip if you are already familiar with the history of white appropriation of black culture: In the 1920s, when the blues were first recorded, many white Americans and musicians considered it strictly folk music for Negros. To too much of the white population it was the idle past-time of a race relegated to inferiority. In terms of pop culture, a sideshow to a sideshow. However, since the 1950s, the effect of the blues in pop music has become ubiquitous. The twelve-bar three-line structure, once unique to the blues, is now the staple in pop music. And while, technically, folk music is not an unfitting description, when we compare the scope of the voices integrated, the cultural impact of, and the musical influence that the blues has had with other forms of folk music, it has transcended that label. It was not an improvement in race relations that changed white America’s perception of the blues, but an originality and virtuosity which made imitation irresistible to white artists.
     Since the Harlem Renaissance, the importation of black culture to the white majority has been commonplace—from the blues and jazz onto rock-n-roll, from the Watusi onto Elvis’s shaking hips, and you can add hip-hop: backward ball caps, sagging jeans, and bling-bling. What the white avant garde will be doing tomorrow is a watered-down version of what African American trendsetters are doing today. This importation has, at times, been interrupted, such as the nearly violent rejection of disco in the late-70s, which was more closely associated with African American culture than the dominant record seller in the 80s, rock-n-roll. Or the more recent turn in men’s fashion away from baggy jeans (associated with hip-hop) in favor of tight fitting jeans (associated with the largely white alternative rock scene). However these turns in many ways only serve to highlight mainstream white culture’s interdependency with African American culture, first, because heavy metal and alternative rock (or denim itself for that matter) while seeming “white” today are not without African American influence, and second, because the very definition of the latest trend is that it is not what was dominant yesterday. Black culture has held a unique position in shaping white pop culture.
     The reason for this unique relationship between black and white cultures stems in many ways, I believe, from the uniqueness of slavery—other racial minorities were not in America under slavery. Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans, and Native Americans were able to keep enough of their culture intact to view themselves as sojourners in a world of European American culture. As Rose Hum Lee notes in her sociological study of Chinese immigrants, “The sojourner feels his cultural heritage is superior and resists assimilation.” Slaves being brought over from Africa were deliberately stripped of their culture and, within the bonds of slavery, denied many aspects of cultural development. They were given aspects of the master’s culture that were thought to be useful in domesticating them, such as Christianity, which was to teach them obedience to the master and his God. They were allowed to keep the bits of culture thought to be benign, such as the field holler, but they were denied any aspect of development perceived as a threat, such as literacy.
     After the Emancipation, there was an increase in the development of African American culture. At first, black culture could neither recognize itself as sojourning nor be embraced by whites. A unique relationship that was separate but interdependent upon white culture developed as Ben Sidran states, “Black culture in America has been shaped by the amount of psychic energy it has spent adjusting to white culture.” Black culture defines and redefines itself as it is accepted, rejected, or even assimilated by white culture. As in the aforementioned rejection of disco in the late 70s, when the trend died, urban black Americans went on in response to create rap and hip-hop in the early-80s. It was not long before not only the music but the culture found itself in great demand with white audiences, and the wholesale importation began again.
     The African American cannot achieve identity the same way that the Caucasian American can, by simply following the cultural and fashion prescriptions that are created to market to white America. He will never be fully accepted on those terms, unless he can pass. He must reinvent himself to find respect—in music, in fashion, in culture. And when the white musician or fashion designer or manufacturer is looking for something original, where does he turn? To the African American community.
     Unfortunately, the sources of this cultural originality are not always compensated or even recognized. Elvis is the King of Rock-n-Roll and Chuck Berry is . . . well, you get the idea. There were concerns about something similar happening to hip-hop. Many African Americans were upset when Russell Simmons agreed to manage The Beastie Boys. [««« back]

[14]  With regards to the difference Ice said, “His is do-do-do-dodo-do-do. Ours is do-do-do-dodo-do-do-do.” And it’s true, if you listen carefully or study the sheet music, you will notice that they did add a single note to every other measure. Not surprisingly, this explanation failed both the legal standard and public opinion. [««« back]

[15]  By my offhand count the song uses the word white about twenty-seven times[««« back]

[16]  Cool as Ice is truly one of those enjoyably bad films. But what can one expect from a film with the tag line: “When a girl has a heart of stone, there's only one way to melt it. Just add Ice.” The director, David Kellogg’s, previous credits included Exposé music videos, DuPont Stain Master Carpet Commercials, and Playboy Video Centerfold: Dutch Twins. One suspects this as the film often breaks into musical montages that don’t so much move the story forward as much as they attempt to show Johnny (Vanilla Ice) in a sexy/dramatic light. I suspect the director let Ice use some of his own dialogue as Johnny’s more memorable lines include: “Yeah, whackhead tried to play baseball with my homeboy's bike!” “Drop that zero and get with the hero!” And “I'm gonna go across the street and, uh, schling a schlong.” [««« back]

[17]  Sadly, this film, centered on Ice’s romance with a high school girl, was only the second most blatant attempt to market Vanilla Ice to young females. The first being the Vanilla Ice doll, a Barbie-sized figure which came with a miniature microphone and fan club information. The doll rather realistically reflected Ice’s penchant for funky synthetic fabrics, his square jaw line, and his stiff (plastic) hair. rated the doll the 7th worst ever between the Ann Coulter and the Pee-wee Herman. Number one was the Adolf Hitler doll. [««« back]

[18]  Possession of a single stolen BMW is not the same as running a car theft ring and chop shop. But why stop with Akon when there are so many examples of irony and/or hyperbole in street cred: Ice-T, who was once derided by family watch dog groups and Al Gore for his song “Cop Killer,” is now in his ninth season playing a cop on Law & Order: SVU. Tupac had a large tattoo arching over his stomach that read “THUG LIFE” and a smaller one close by that read “50 Niggaz” implying that Mr. Shakur had killed fifty men—that’s more than Bonnie and Clyde, BTK, and Jeffery Dahmer combined. The first four battles of the Civil War barely killed as many men.* If he had done all that killing in a single year, the CDC would have put Tupac on their national health hazards list somewhere between lightning and suffocation from plastic bags.

*Fort Sumter (2), Sewell’s Point (10), Aquia Creek (10), Phillipi Races (30), Total 52. [««« back]

[19]  In 1999, white rapper Eminem (Marshall Bruce Mathers III) released the Slim Shady LP, which went on to go triple platinum. Mathers, unlike Vanilla Ice, was not a one-hit wonder. He went on to have five best-selling albums. Largely because he’s a more virtuoso rapper, but in part because he has better management and in part because by 1999 the fear that rap music, like rock-n-roll, would take flight to become the property of white artists had died. I was interested to learn that Marshall Mathers’ father, like Robert Van Winkle’s, had left him and his mother at a young age. But more about that later. [««« back]

[20]  Ben Sidran’s term. See paragraph 4 of footnote 11 if you skipped it before but are now curious. [««« back]

[21]  Arsenio, of course, asked Hammer flattering questions. The most interesting example: In the video for “Two Pumps and a Bump,” Hammer wears a Speedo that appears fully loaded. Arsenio played the shaking Speedo clip and the audience did cheer. Arsenio then asked, “A lot of the women want to know what’s in your Speedo?” Hammer didn’t answer the question, just laughed, and then Arsenio joked, “I guess that’s what you call the real Hammer.” [««« back]

[22]  I would later discover that these girls were actually masseuses the production company often hires to keep backstage for the artists and their entourage. [««« back]

[23]  LoveSac, a Utah-based company, makes furniture that is like a 70s beanbag on steroids. Imagine a heavy pillow the size of a Volkswagen—no, imagine a couch made out of Jabba the Hutt. [««« back]

[24]  Soulja Boy is selling a lot of records and even more cellular ring tones but has been dissed by the likes of Ice-T and other old school rappers. Ice-T said he was single-handedly killing hip-hop music. He also told Soulja Boy to “eat a dick.” (Fighting words even in the foul-mouthed realm of rap music.) Soulja Boy responded on YouTube by pointing out to everyone, using Wikipedia, that Ice-T is older than the internet itself and is, therefore, the John McCain of rap music. Ice-T responded on YouTube (with the help of his sixteen-year-old son who understands how to work YouTube, which Ice-T at one point calls the “YouTubes”). Ice-T apologized for the meal suggestion but maintained that Soulja Boy’s lyrical skills still sucked. Since then, heavyweights like Kanye West have weighed in defending the seventeen-year-old Soulja Boy.
     But that’s only my second favorite dissing incident involving Soulja Boy. During a 2008 NBA playoff series between Cleveland and Washington, DeShawn Stevens, a role player for the Washington Wizards, called LeBron James “overrated.” When asked to respond, LeBron said, “Come on, that’s like Jay-Z responding to an insult from Soulja Boy.” Soulja Boy did not appreciate his name being used as a fill-in for crappy-ass-rapper. Stevens invited Soulja Boy to game three where he performed before the game and the Wizards went on to thump the Cavaliers by 28 points. (Stevens himself had a great game, making five three-pointers.) However Cleveland went on to win the series, and Jay-Z cut a track with the following lyrics: “Me and my N*gga Lebron, we so big we don’t have to respond” and “Who the fuck is overrated, if anything they underpaid him.”
     Update in 2017: Soulja Boy’s star has lost its shine and Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical virtuosity is now all the rage, even on NPR. [««« back]

[25]  A look which brought them “money for nothing” and “chicks for free.” [««« back]

[26]  This might not be a mistake, as Vanilla Ice did have a brief fling with Madonna and even ended up in her photo book, Sex. Ice has claimed that he was tricked into the photos but not the relationship. [««« back]

[27]  Short for Sugar Bear, a nickname his grandmother gave him. [««« back]

[28]  Both Vanilla Ice and Suge Knight have been known to change stories. [««« back]

[29]  The incident received a lot of tabloid coverage and was parodied in the film Be Cool, staring Vince Vaughn and Cedric the Entertainer. The incident has attained a sort of legendary status in part because it is consistent with popular views of both Vanilla Ice’s and Suge Knight’s characters: Rapper Easy-E said that his negotiation with Suge Knight over releasing Dr. Dre involved lengths of pipe and Suge reminding Easy-E that Suge knew where Easy’s mother lived. [««« back]

[30]  Bonus points if you can fill in the name of the film here:________________. Love You Long Time also filled me with lustful nostalgia with the cute girl playing the keytar. That’s right: the keytar. [««« back]

[31]  Vanilla Ice requested four pallets of bottled water for his performance only. [««« back]

[32]  When I started writing this piece I was determined not to mock Vanilla Ice simply because it’s the easiest and least original thing to do, but I have to disclose something, Vanilla Ice truly sounds goofy when he talks. Here are some snippets from between numbers and while he was MCing:
     “I still got love for Ron Jeremy.”
     “My DJ, the Mad Mexican, he gets crazy like Prozac.”
     “I still love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
     “Give a hand to those soldiers who are back from Iraq. Yeah, give them a hand. Now, let’s listen to the Mad Mexican.”
     Also, Ice, in a moment of pandering to the Orem Mormon crowd, tried to start a fam-i-ly, fam-i-ly chant. I don’t think people disagreed so much as found it out of context. And, as you will see later, when I actually got to meet him after the show, our brief conversation was stranger than I anticipated. [««« back]

[33]  I’m no expert but my little brother did drag me to two or three breakdancing competitions in south Florida, and I never saw anything that impressed me as much as Hammer’s back-up dancers. One of the better dancers is his son, apparently. Hammer is well known for taking good care of those close to him. Some even say that is part of the reason he went bankrupt, because he kept so many friends and family members on the payroll. Jason’s assistant tracked my phone number down after the concert and called me just to tell me that she wanted to make sure she wasn’t quoted as saying anything too negative about Hammer because she spent the day after the show with him (while he was waiting for his flight) and said, “He is an amazing spiritual man, and I had the completely wrong impression of him until I got to know him better. He helps so many people and is much kinder than any other celebrity I have worked with. ” She made me promise not to make Hammer look like a prima donna and to mention how nice he is, which I have just fulfilled in this footnote. [««« back]

[34]  You could go down into the basement and see where the chains had been ripped out of the walls. The former owners were ostensibly slave traders and the chains were part of the deception. One group of runaway slaves would take off at night and be replaced by another that would be chained to the walls. This was in Delaware, a small and often overlooked state within spitting distance of the Mason-Dixon line. During the civil war, Delaware declared itself neutral, and nobody cared. [««« back]

Brandon Alva is an Assistant Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College. His creative works have appeared in Talking River Review and on The Salty Beatnik, an arts and culture blog. He is a Dungeon Master and an amateur paleontologist.


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