Twenty-five years ago, "Ice Ice Baby" was the very first single by a rapper to top the American Billboard charts. It was late October of 1990, and the charts were dominated by Mariah Carey, George Michael and Janet Jackson. But for a sweet seven days of glory, Vanilla Ice was number one.
Everything about "Ice Ice Baby" was kind of a mess. The beats were stolen, the rapping was bad, and the references were weirdly specific and not universal. And somehow this song still gets played at events and weddings.
But do you really know what these lyrics mean? Here's a guide:
Vanilla is the first name of the rapper who sings this song, are you paying attention at all?
His real name is Robert Matthew Van Winkle (hehe). Van Winkle is a white boy who liked to take part in black cultural events as a young adult. When Van Winkle was in his early teens and struggling through the mire of who he was as a human, he joined a breakdancing group where he was the only white boy. Urban legend has it that he was not terrible.
One of the dance moves that Van Winkle really liked to do when he was breakdancing was titled "the Ice." Guessing that means it' so cool it's cold. I don't know what this looks like and I refuse to research and try to find out.
Vanilla Ice got his name by being a white boy participating in black culture… and that’s also what made this song famous.
The intro bassline riff is probably the most famous thing about "Ice Ice Baby." When the song hit the airwaves, it sounded incredibly familiar—because it was the bassline from Queen and David Bowie's 1981 track "Under Pressure," used without permission. Oops. Here's the original:
Here's Ice trying, very unconvincingly, to explain how his bassline is different from the "Under Pressure" bassline.
This issue ended up being resolved out of court.
In the beginning of the song, Vanilla Ice yells, "Yo, VIP, let's kick it." He does not mean Very Important Person. It's a reference to his super cool pre-rap career breakdancing crew, Vanilla Ice Posse. Never forget that Vanilla Ice considers himself a breakdancer.
This is the most famous line in the song; it stands out because the beat drops out and there's almost no music behind it—and it kicks off the rapped verse. It's the part casual listeners know. This lyric stands the test of time since every now and then, someone will still scribble "collaborate and listen" on a stop sign.
It's also kind of a meta-narrative for how the song was made: Using samples of other artists's works, which would be started and stopped. So that's the stop. There were five people credited with writing the lyrics before two more were added from the "sampling" of "Under Pressure." Hence the collaboration. Listen is what you do to the song, I guess.
In the first verse, Ice raps that he's "back with a brand new invention." That's because amazingly, Vanilla Ice had already had a hit song before "Ice Ice Baby." It was an re-imagining of the 1976 Wild Cherry hit "Play That Funky Music." Here's the original:
And here's Vanilla's version:
The legend goes that "Ice Ice Baby" became popular—and led to fame and a label deal for Vanilla Ice—because it was the B-side of "Play That Funky Music," and a radio DJ played the wrong side.
"Killing a melody" is the idea that an artist's rhyme or sound is so iconically theirs, no one else can use it in a song. Is this really true for "Ice Ice Baby," considering Vanilla Ice paid Queen and David Bowie what one can assume to be a very high "undisclosed sum"?
The best misinterpretation of a lyric in "Ice Ice Baby"? Hearing your second cousin at a wedding sing, "Love it, or leave it, you better gain weight." Gain weight is wrong! According to the liner notes, Ice is saying "gangway," which is Florida (and old-timey sailor) slang for "move."
A Vega is a brand of speaker—an abbreviation, really, for Cerwin Vega. You can buy some here. Slogan: "The LOUD speaker company." Seems about right.
Vanilla Ice says he's "rollin in a 5.0." This is a Ford Mustang.
Ice is from Miami. A1A Beachfront Avenue is a road in Miami that runs along the Atlantic Ocean. There are a bunch of bars on this street.
Oooh. Drama. There are a lot of shout-outs to Shay in this song. People often think Ice is saying "DJ" or "Dee-jay," but he's not. He's saying D-Shay.
Shay was a good friend of Vanilla Ice's, and a producer who worked with him a lot. "Ice Ice Baby" is actually a story about Vanilla Ice and Shay's friendship and their adventure one weekend. Ironic, since the two had a massive falling out before the song got popular—and Shay got no credit for working on it.
Ultimately, Shay didn't miss out on much. Vanilla Ice's fame and fortune stalled out fairly dramatically after the success of this song. He never had another number one hit, and even though he dated Madonna and appeared in a movie titled Cool As Ice, he ended up a one-hit wonder. He's not completely gone forever, though; he does have a home renovation show—The Vanilla Ice Project—on the DIY channel.
1n 1991, "Ice Ice Baby" was nominated for the Grammy for Best Rap Performance and justly lost to MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This."
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.