Vanilla Ice’s Biggest Hit Was ‘Ice Ice Baby.’ But ‘Ninja Rap’ Is His Legacy
It was early 1991, and the biggest name in the recording industry was Vanilla Ice, to the chagrin of self-respecting music fans everywhere. Hip-hop was starting to establish a foothold in mainstream culture, cementing itself as a vital new artform, and then along came this rapping goofball dropping disses like “Homeboy, you probably eat spaghetti with a spoon.” His breakthrough album, To the Extreme, which had come out in September of the previous year, quickly went seven-times platinum. But critics hated Ice, accusing him of being a lightweight, a poseur, someone who was delivering a sanitized version of rap that made it “safe” for white audiences. A popular knock on him at the time was that he was the Elvis of rap. How did Ice feel about that?
“I’m not Elvis Presley; I’m Vanilla Ice,” he told The New York Times. “I don’t know anything about him except that he made movies and was a superstar.”
Film was the next item on Ice’s to-conquer list, and about a month after the Times piece, he made his first big-screen appearance. Thirty-two years later, it’s still the stuff of legends — at least in some corners of the culture. For legions of kids who grew up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, they’ll always pledge allegiance to “Ninja Rap.”
Ice hasn’t been relevant for decades, but the Turtles will be back in a big way this Friday thanks to the new Seth Rogen-guided animated flick Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. And they’re bringing Ice with them, the film featuring a brief callback to “Ninja Rap.” It’s a nod to nostalgists as well as people who enjoy laughing at cringey old pop-culture ephemera. Some will rise in defense of the rap track Ice wrote for The Secret of the Ooze. They may be friends, they may be loved ones, they may otherwise have sound opinions. But in this case, they are wrong. “Ninja Rap,” and Ice’s appearance in The Secret of the Ooze, are funny in all the wrong ways.
Born in 1967, Ice (whose real name is Robert Van Winkle) grew up in Miami and Dallas, the latter being where he was first discovered. As Floyd “Earthquake” Brown, a DJ at a Dallas club called City Lights, told The Ringer in 2020, “I noticed this white guy dancing in the crowd. City Lights was all Black, so at first I was like, ‘What does he think he’s doing?’ He could dance his ass off, and we’d never seen a white guy do that. The women was loving it and getting all up on him like, ‘Oooh, look at him.’ And he was like, ‘I’m not finna stop. I’m gonna make y’all love me.’”
Brown would later co-write Ice’s biggest hit, “Ice Ice Baby,” as well as co-write and co-produce several To the Extreme tracks. Hip-hop culture was a passion of Ice’s from a young age — even if he felt somewhat self-conscious because he was the one white kid who loved it. “Back when I was 13 or 14 I used to spin on my head on cardboard and break dance,” he once said, “and I had a bunch of Black friends and they just labeled me Vanilla Ice. Actually, I didn’t like it, so they just called me it more. It just stuck with me like a nickname.”
After putting out an earlier version of To the Extreme, called Hooked, on a small label, Ice signed to SBK Records, a new distributor that would have hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s with artists like Technotronic (“Pump Up the Jam”) and Jesus Jones (“Right Here, Right Now”). Ice had impressed Public Enemy, who had the kid open for them on tour, convincing their label Def Jam that he’d be huge. But as Ice explained later, the Def Jam deal was for only $30,000. “Public Enemy was going to appear on my record,” Ice recalled. “And I had another deal with SBK to cross my hip-hop record to the pop market for $1.5 million. So I took the money … It was like winning the lottery overnight. I didn’t see the consequences. The consequences (were) being turned into a novelty act.”
But “Ice Ice Baby” hit No. 1 in November of 1990, and To the Extreme was on the top of the charts for months, dethroning Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, from MC Hammer, another rapper at the time accused of sanding off hip-hop’s political edges to manufacture bland mainstream pop. Ice was 23 years old, and it sounds like he was pretty miserable. “I had a $650,000 Porsche, two million-dollar yachts and mansions everywhere and every other fucking material thing you could imagine,” he told Salon in 2002. “And the people it attracted was a bunch of fake, leach, rock star leach, stripper-chick wannabes. … I tried to commit suicide in ‘94 when I had $20 million in the bank.”
There was a swift backlash to his unprecedented commercial success. Ice didn’t help himself by insisting “Ice Ice Baby” didn’t sample the Queen/David Bowie hit “Under Pressure,” a claim that was eventually (and easily) debunked. (It had been Brown who had first come up with using “Under Pressure” for the track: “That song caught my ear right off,” he said. “I just kept looping the eight bars and then I put a beat behind it … And when I let Ice hear it, he flipped out on it.”) Where Beastie Boys paid homage to hip-hop culture, showing love to its Black trailblazers, Ice just seemed like a dorky carpetbagger. His showbiz-y outfits and ridiculously lacquered hair made him look like a joke. And his album’s attempts at presenting him as a badass and a suave loverman were risible. Later, Ice would blame his label, which he insisted shaped his dopey public image. “I was a puppet for the record company,” Ice said in 1998. “It worked. It made me rich and sold a bunch of records for them, but they sold me out. They asked if I would wear these baggy clothes, and then they asked if I’d do a slow song like MC Hammer. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t like slow songs.’ Then they asked if I would do it for a million bucks. I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’”
And then there was Ice’s 1991 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.
Hall was known as being a pretty milquetoast host, but he famously went after the rapper for, among other things, his cultural appropriation of a Black artform. All these years later, it’s still an incredibly uncomfortable interview to watch, but what’s perhaps forgotten is that Hall’s grilling happened after Ice had performed his hit “Play That Funky Music,” which the crowd absolutely loved. When Ice sat down to talk to Hall, the host had to wait several moments for the hollering studio audience to calm down — you’d think the Beatles were in town. But the appearance quickly went from triumphant to tense — as with the Times interview, Ice defensively insisted he wasn’t Elvis — and the crowd booed Hall a couple times for attacking the superstar.
Afterward, Ice brushed off Hall’s confrontational interview, chalking it up to the host’s friendship with Hammer, who was reportedly feuding with Ice at the time. “He was trying to go to bat for Hammer because of stuff he’d read, because he’s Hammer’s friend and he doesn’t like me,” Ice said. “I don’t know why. He was just trying to break me, you know? But ain’t nobody gonna stop this train.”
Nonetheless, Ice was a man with a metaphorical target on his back. Discrepancies in his backstory only further inflamed critics, who were convinced he was nothing but a manufactured image. And when Ice appeared in public, he didn’t help his cause by being petulant and immature, declaring at the American Music Awards, “To the people that try to hold me down, kiss my white butt.”
In the midst of all this, New Line was about to release Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze in the spring of 1991. The first film, a low-budget live-action adaptation of the comic-book series (created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird) and the subsequent animated kids’ show, had been a surprise hit when it came out almost exactly a year earlier. Featuring impressive work from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and sporting an endearing adolescent energy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a low-key, handmade response to the success of the blockbuster superhero movie Batman, which had come out the previous summer. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had charm and a scrappy underdog energy, introducing moviegoers to the title characters. If you weren’t familiar with them, the animated theme song filled you in: “They’re the world’s most fearsome fighting team / … / They’re heroes in the half-shell and they’re green / … / Leonardo leads / Donatello does machines / Raphael is cool but rude / Michelangelo is a party dude.”
Because the first film did so well, a sequel was quickly made. Steve Barron, a music-video director who’d made “Billie Jean” and “Money for Nothing,” had helmed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Michael Pressman was brought on for the sequel.
“I had directed (The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) and at the time, sequels were not all successful, so they approached me because of my credits,” Pressman later recalled. “I was very hesitant at first, but did my research and watched the first movie and heard how much kids had fallen in love with the Turtles.” And somewhere along the line, Vanilla Ice was asked to come up with a song. Unlike Pressman, he didn’t have to do any research on the characters.
“I was a huge Ninja Turtles fan before I was approached to do the movie,” Ice said in 2014.” So of course I was ecstatic. So excited. I was on a world tour when I got the phone call from the producers. … I wrote the song in a hotel room using an SP 1200, an old-school drum machine. It took me maybe 30 minutes to write it and the rest we completed in the studio.”
What Ice came up with was basically a hype track for the Turtles. And he definitely brought the enthusiasm:
It’s the green machine
Gonna rock the town without being seen
Have you ever seen a turtle get down
Slammin’ and jammin’ to the new swing sound
Yeah, everybody let’s move
Vanilla is here with the New Jack groove
Gonna rock and roll the place
With the power of the Ninja Turtle bass
Iceman, ya know I’m not playin’
Devastate the show while the Turtles are sayin’
What follows was a chorus chanted by his background singers with the ferocity of true believers. No musician has ever loved his girl — no protest singer has ever been as passionate in her fury — as those singers cared about cheering on the Turtles.
Ninja, ninja, rap!
Ninja, ninja, rap!
Ninja, ninja, rap!
Go go go go!
Go ninja, Go ninja, go!
Go ninja, go ninja, go!
Go ninja, go ninja, go!
Go ninja, go ninja, go!
Go go go go!
Giving props to “the heroes in green,” Ice delivered the sort of cheese-ball party-hearty anthem that littered To the Extreme. It had everything: terrible scratching, fake-sounding horn sounds, a goofy whistle. “Ninja Rap” felt like a Hammer ripoff with its pump-you-up tone and maniacally repeated chorus. Also: The song has the longest outro. There’s a full minute of instrumental track at the end, as if anybody longed to hear that weak beat on its own for what feels like eternity. To be fair, it was impossible not to get “Go ninja, go ninja, go!” out of your head after hearing “Ninja Rap.” But you felt yourself getting stupider as you sang along. It felt like death approaching.
Of course, the concept of tying a pop star to a potential blockbuster film was nothing new. Plenty of artists had hits with soundtrack songs in the 1980s, and the end of the decade saw Bobby Brown rapping about proton packs for Ghostbusters II and Prince devoting a whole album to Batman’s escapades. But neither of those films featured an entire segment in which the pop star performs his song while the heroes kick ass and, eventually, do a choreographed dance.
After Ice turned in the track, he discovered he and “Ninja Rap” would be integrated into the movie — and in a pretty important part, too. In one of The Secret of the Ooze’s climactic scenes, the Turtles battle their mutant foes Tokka and Rahzar, their hand-to-hand combat sending them crashing into a venue where fans are innocently enjoying a Vanilla Ice gig. Although briefly thrown by this shocking development, Ice suddenly gets inspired to start performing “Ninja Rap,” presumably making it up on the spot. (Even more impressive, he and his dancers know some tight moves for this brand-new song.) It’s an incredibly hokey sequence — at one point, respected theater and character actor David Warner (who plays a kindly scientist) starts grooving to “Ninja Rap” — and when Pressman appeared on Turtle Tracks (a Turtles-themed podcast hosted by Cracked’s Brian VanHooker), he diplomatically hinted that maybe that wasn’t his favorite part of the shoot.
“That was pretty crazy,” Pressman recalled. “Right in the heat of (making the movie, I was told,) ‘Oh, we got Vanilla Ice to write the song.’ I have to tell you: ‘Vanilla Ice? Who’s this?’ … He showed up for a few days, and he was a bit of a character. And he was game — he certainly had fun doing it. But, y’know, what else can I say?”
The Secret of the Ooze didn’t do as well commercially as its predecessor, and the reviews weren’t as good, either. (“Ninja Rap” failed to chart.) But Ice’s next film foray would be far more disastrous. His own starring vehicle, Cool as Ice, came out in October 1991. He played Johnny, a famed rapper who ends up in a small town, quickly becoming smitten with local girl Kathy (Kristin Minter) — but there’s a complication, which is that her family is in the witness relocation program because her father (Michael Gross) was a good cop in a dirty precinct.
“I got a call from the producers. And they just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a movie for you,’” Ice recalled in 2021. “And I said, ‘Let me read the script.’ And I was like, ‘This is awesome. Motorcycles, girls, come on, let’s go.’ That was all I needed to see. I became an Elvis Presley fan because — he was way before my time — but I became a fan through his movies. So when I saw Cool as Ice … kind of have that ‘Get the girl, get in the fight,’ and that whole thing, I felt like, ‘Ah! This is almost like one of those Elvis movies, man.’ It’s great.”
Nobody else thought it was great. The late film critic Michael Wilmington was kinder than most, writing in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s one of those movies that seem fabricated for a shopping mall: decorative, pretty, vacuous. The colors are warm and bright, like a lollipop. The compositions recall chic magazines, and Vanilla’s screen image — glittery blue eyes, Leyendecker profile and upswept blond hair — suggests a fugitive from a Calvin Klein poster.” Most just made fun of Ice’s lack of dramatic chops, and Cool as Ice tanked at the box office, effectively ending his hopes of a film career.
It was a strange period for Ice. He had an on-again/off-again relationship with Madonna. He put out a dull live album, Extremely Live, that tried to capitalize on his meteoric rise. Ice was suddenly a national punchline. In Jeff Weiss’ excellent 2020 profile of the rapper’s rise and fall, Ice pointed out one artist who stood by him: the young Tupac Shakur, who was about to start a solo career. “We’d played some early shows together with Digital Underground and let me tell you, 2Pac was one of the biggest Vanilla Ice supporters you ever met,” Ice said. “He gave me great advice: Keep your head up, don’t let no haters fucking keep you down, keep doing your thing, and don’t focus (on) them people ain’t paying for your bills. You know who is? The ones that’re buying it. Focus on them.”
But pretty soon, fewer people were buying his stuff. Ice’s second album, 1994’s Mind Blowin’, didn’t have an “Ice Ice Baby,” sinking without a trace. The pop-rap era had been quickly swept aside — Hammer was now a has-been as well — replaced by the steely West Coast G-funk of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and the gritty reality of New York artists like the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas. In 1996, Ice had an incident with Suge Knight, the head of Death Row Records, where it was reported Knight dangled him over a hotel balcony. The rapper always denied it happened, but the story only cemented Ice’s reputation as being soft and not a real gangster in a hip-hop age in which being a tough guy was paramount.
Four years after Mind Blowin’, Ice switched up his sound, embracing punk and metal elements, but Hard to Swallow was a commercial failure as well. He doubled-down on the approach with 2001’s Bi-Polar, a double album that featured one disc of nu-metal songs and one of rap songs. “I still love hip-hop and I did it to show people I’m still true to hip-hop,” he said at the time to explain Bi-Polar’s split-musical-personality construction. “A lot of people today are influenced by both (rock and rap). They might listen to Nirvana and Pearl Jam but still listen to Wu-Tang and Busta Rhymes. I did it to show people I know where my roots are and I haven’t left it behind, so for you guys, here’s some hip-hop. But my main focus is the band.”
But the world had moved on. After all, there was a new white rapper, Eminem, who worked hard to show he was savvier, more talented, more messed-up and more driven than Vanilla Ice. Where To the Extreme had been fluff, The Marshall Mathers LP was considered a masterpiece, and Em took shots at Ice as an irrelevant loser. Cool as Ice was a dud, but 8 Mile was an acclaimed film, with its star winning an Oscar for Best Original Song. Eminem became a legend — Vanilla Ice occasionally popped up in Adam Sandler movies.
Ice pivoted to becoming a home renovator. He dealt with addiction. (“I was puking and shitting on myself and, man, it was ugly,” Ice said of barely surviving a heroin overdose. “People were throwing cold water on me, and when I woke up, I thanked God I was still alive and promised Him I’d turn myself around. Ever since then He’s been blessin’ me.”) He appeared on The Surreal Life. But he avoided the embarrassment of going bankrupt like Hammer and so many other flashes in the pan. “Investments, bro,” Ice replied when asked what his secret was. “Don’t play the stock market unless you know what you’re doing, and real estate, you can’t lose. Two quick words of wisdom to anybody out there who wants to hold onto their money.”
He had lots of regrets along the way. But “Ninja Rap” was never one of them. In a 2013 interview, he admitted, “Secret of the Ooze is the highlight of my life and I’ll never top it!” A year later, he was talking to MTV about the song’s unlikely staying power in the culture — especially its “Go ninja, go ninja, go!” chorus. “I didn’t know it at the time, but of course I can see it now,” he said. “The impact was huge all around the world, not just in the U.S. When I go to Russia, China and Europe, I see fans dressed up as Ninja Turtles everywhere. It’s amazing to see the song have such a gigantic impact. Of course, everyone remembers ‘Ice Ice Baby,’ but the ‘Ninja Rap’ is bigger than ever right now.”
This is a man who has a massive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tattoo on his leg, after all, and he’s very protective of the characters. In 2014, Paramount released a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was produced by Michael Bay and felt like a cynical attempt to turn the franchise into a Transformers-like blast of adrenaline-fueled stupidity. There was a new rap song written for the movie — “Shell Shocked” by Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, Kill the Noise and Madsonik — and Ice hated it. “With respect to all of the artists, the song doesn’t really do it for me,” he said. “It feels a little artificial — what I mean by that is that it sounds like a bunch of executives in the corporate world put it together. It really does not fit the theme of the Ninja Turtles legend. I think you have to understand, and be a true ninja, to possess the magic to really pull off the secret sound.” As far as Ice was concerned, the Turtles were his turf. You don’t disrespect the green machine.
If Ice had struggled since “Ninja Rap,” so had the Turtles. The Secret of the Ooze had performed decently at the box office, but 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, despite debuting at No. 1, failed to match the gross of the previous two films. On the big screen, the martial-arts masters went on hiatus, coming back in animated form for 2007’s edgier TMNT. It’s an underrated treat, but it didn’t become a blockbuster. Seven years later, Bay produced a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which was live-action and thoroughly lacking in charm — naturally, it was a huge hit, resulting in 2016’s equally disappointing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Thankfully, the sequel didn’t do as well, and the franchise died again. Cut to this Friday, when Mutant Mayhem arrives, its invigorating underground-comic style and its careful consideration of the four Turtles and their bond resulting in the best TMNT movie ever.
No doubt Ice will be pleased, even more so because “Ninja Rap” is in the movie. Talking about the musical easter egg, Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe admittedly recently, “It’s not my personal touch. I wish it was my personal touch, but the use of ‘Ninja Rap’ is very funny and excellent.” Discussing the particular scene in which the rap song appears, Rowe said, “(W)e just had some piece of easy listening music in there for a very long time, and we’re like, ‘It’s kind of funny.’ Then, at one in the morning one night, Seth (Rogen) texts me, and he’s like, ‘It should be “Ninja Rap.”’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s perfect. Oh my god, that’s the best idea, I wish I thought of it.’”
One of the reasons why Mutant Mayhem works so well is that, while it’s still lighthearted and endearing, it steers away from the cheesiness of The Secret of the Ooze. But the film doesn’t mock Vanilla Ice — it understands that “Ninja Rap” is part of the franchise’s legacy. There’s something very sweet and generous about that gesture, and the whole film is bighearted in that way. Mutant Mayhem features lots of indelible hip-hop anthems of the late 1980s and 1990s and, tellingly, “Ice Ice Baby” isn’t one of them. But the movie has love for the Iceman nonetheless.
In 2005, Vanilla Ice released Platinum Underground, another of his albums that didn’t make a dent on the charts. But there was a song on it called “Ninja Rap 2,” which featured a more nu-metal-ish take on the same general idea as the original track. Noticeably, there was less direct reference to the Turtles, and the chorus had changed to “Go ninja, go ninja go, what what!” Over its Limp Bizkit-like groove, Ice showed love to his friends in Insane Clown Posse while declaring himself a fiery iconoclast who’d successfully shed a showbiz image he never liked:
You can see, I always fight back adversity
I’ll never be what MTV wanted me to be
Now I’m free, free from disease of the industry
In 2020, there was talk of a Vanilla Ice biopic, which was going to star Dave Franco. “With (The Disaster Artist), people expected us to make a broad comedy where we make fun of (The Room director) Tommy Wiseau,” Franco said back then, “but the more real we played it, the funnier and heartfelt it was — that’s the tone we want for this one as well.” Not much has happened with the project since. Regardless, Ice feels like a candidate for career rehabilitation. Yes, he was corny and hacky back in the day, but he wasn’t evil. (As far as I know, he’s got no #MeToo skeletons in his closet.) To the Extreme is a bad album, but it’s not morally repulsive. At worst, he’s a hunky doofus whose photogenic whiteness made him a perfect candidate for superstardom at a time when hip-hop was about to go global. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else. And plenty of Turtles fans still have a soft spot in their heart for him and “Ninja Rap.”
In The Secret of the Ooze, Vanilla Ice plays himself, and it’s funny to think about the movie from his character’s perspective. There he is, minding his own business, performing for his audience when, suddenly, a bunch of Turtles show up and ruin his concert. All of a sudden, Leonardo and his crew are the center of attention, and Vanilla Ice has no choice but to provide their soundtrack. Everybody’s happier to see the Turtles — they’re bigger stars than he is. Ice says The Secret of the Ooze is still his greatest moment. But the film also proved prophetic, and a little poignant. For a brief moment, Vanilla Ice was the biggest thing in the world — but, soon, he’d be pushed to the background.