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Play interview: Vanilla Ice sees power in music and remodeling

Vikram Patel

If you ever run into Vanilla Ice on the street, you would make him happy by using his actual name: Rob Van Winkle. But Mr. Van Winkle won't blame you if you forget. "I prefer 'Rob,' but it's kinda boring compared to 'Vanilla Ice,'" said Van Winkle in a recent interview with Play. "But that's my real name, you know?"

Van Winkle became wildly famous in 1989, almost overnight, for one thing: his hit song "Ice Ice Baby." The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in November 1990, making "To The Extreme" the fastest-selling hip-hop album of all time. "I was selling a million records a day, sometimes more," reminisced Van Winkle. A quarter of a century later, fans still recite all the lyrics to "Ice Ice Baby." Some even perform: "A 9-year-old girl came up to me the other day and sang every word to me."

The most famous white hip-hop artist of his era, Van Winkle does not recall considering the social implications of his "Ice Ice Baby" heyday. "I never really focused on it," said Van Winkle. "Music doesn't really have a color. I was just influenced by a certain form of music. Anybody who makes music is just influenced by somebody, somewhere. Look at Jimi Hendrix; he was probably influenced by a white guy playing a guitar. I was influenced by Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, break dancing. There was this amazing dance/hip-hop/battle rap era that owns its own space and time, and that's my influence right there. Whatever type of music I'm gonna do is going to be based off of what I listened to growing up and that's just how that came out. It has no color. Music has no color."

Van Winkle is proud of an array of achievements since his early 20s. And his fans have noticed. "Only about 25 percent of questions I get are about 'Ice Ice Baby,'" said Van Winkle. "Most of them are about 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.'" Van Winkle wrote the theme song, "Ninja Rap," for the live-action 1991 film "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze," in which he also played himself. "The 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle(s)' generation is running the world right now. It's huge, from Russia to China to America. Everywhere you go. They are big."

Van Winkle achieved more recent fame for hosting "The Vanilla Ice Project," in which Van Winkle remodels homes with his own crew for a fraction of what a private contractor would cost. Van Winkle's interest and skill in flipping houses stems from the surprising consequences of recklessly spending millions of dollars in the early 1990s.

"I sold 160 million records and had to do something with the money besides just buying nice cars," said Van Winkle. "So I bought houses. I bought a house in Los Angeles near Michael J. Fox. I bought a house on Bleecker Street in New York in the Village. I snowboard, so I bought a house in Snowbird, Utah. London, Dallas, all over the place. I thought I'd stay in them when I was nearby. But then I went on tour for three years and never saw any of those houses. Not one. It was really ironic."

Saddled with real estate and concerned that he had wasted a substantial amount of resources, Van Winkle tried to recoup his losses. "I thought, 'Why did I buy these homes? I just blew all that money. Let's sell them.' So, I sold them and it literally made me millions! And I go, 'you gotta be kidding me! Let's go buy some more.'"

Inspired by his good fortune in the housing market, Van Winkle bought more houses and began paying closer attention. "I hired these decorators to fix up my houses, and I paid them big money to decorate," said Van Winkle. "So I started to follow them around, intern, learn their ways, and actually went to a design school and got my license for contracting and everything, and started to get into it more. I started doing it for myself, and 18 years later, I got my own TV show for four years now, and it's number one on the network."

Van Winkle now also stars in a spinoff, "Vanilla Ice Goes Amish," a fish-out-of-water reality show that contrasts his energetic hip-hop style with Amish communities. This show has expanded his audience in a surprising way. "I've had some Amish people show up at my shows," said Van Winkle. "Ironically. You never know. It's crazy, but they do."

Van Winkle will perform in Anchorage on April 12 at the KFAT "Prom" event. He is bringing his band and promises that the show will get wild. "We will get it crunk, so to speak. We're gonna raise the roof. I know the Sheraton doesn't want to hear this, but we are bringing pyrotechnics, water's flying everywhere. You might get hurt, but it's a lot of fun."

Van Winkle answered a few more questions for Play.

Play: What message are you trying to get across to your audience members?

Van Winkle: Music is better than any photo album. You'll remember exactly what you were wearing, who you were dating, if you had a zigzag hairdo, whatever it is. You will remember. Through the music. And that's the greatest connection in life. It breaks down all races, all barriers, all hate. That's what it does.

Play: Have you ever been to Alaska before?

Van Winkle: Yes, but only on vacation -- cruise ships and stuff. It's gonna be awesome, there's people coming in from all over. Far regions, you know? Twitter ... I'm talking to a bunch of people.

Play: Do you have any advice for do-it-yourself remodelers?

Van Winkle: You look at my show and think, "Look at Vanilla Ice; if he can do it, I can do it." That's great, it's inspirational, it might get you started. But it also might make you dig your hole a little too deep and you can't get out of it. You gotta always plan for more budget. You start to see things in colors that you like that you would put in your house. If you are going to do it for investment purposes, you gotta watch your budget even more. If you are going to do it for personal, spend as much money as you want -- who cares? It's your house. So it depends on what you are going to do with it.

Play: Any secrets you are willing to share?

Van Winkle: Buy the house crazy, crazy cheap. That's the big key. Everybody knows about closures and short sales, but if you buy tax liens, you can get them for pennies on the dollar.

Play: Is there a chance "Vanilla Ice Goes to Alaska" could be in production someday?

Van Winkle: That would be awesome. I would be up for that.

More from Play magazine
By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent