Ice Ice Baby – Hip Hop’s 1st Global #1 was seen as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
In 1990 the single Play That Funky Music by an unknown rapper known as Vanilla Ice was released to almost no real fanfare, the song just washed over a mass audience who didn’t really care for the attempted cover version of a legendary Funk Rock classic. This would’ve probably been the extent of the Vanilla Ice story were it not for one radio disc jockey named David Morales who decided to play the B side of the record.
On the B side of Play That Funky Music was a little ditty that ‘borrowed’ the bass line from a classic collaboration between Queen and David Bowie. That little ditty was known as Ice Ice Baby and it soon became the biggest song on the planet, the first global #1 hip hop record that sold millions of copies and effectively introduced hip hop to a global white audience. It was a strange and unexpected phenomenon that is wonderfully covered in the documentary Ice Ice Baby: Hip Hops First Global #1.
Ice Ice Baby is probably one of the more fascinating documentaries on a one-hit-wonder that you’ll ever see. It starts by laying out Vanilla Ice’s personal history, showing where he grew up and how he slowly gained his abilities as a performer in nightclubs that he would sneak into while underage along with his dance crew. It takes the time to show how much passion he has for hip hop and really lets you see how real his love for the genre is before starting in on the titular song that shot him into pop culture history. It helps turn the almost cartoon character of Vanilla Ice that we all have in our heads into a real person who it becomes easy to empathise with throughout the documentary.
Once Ice Ice Baby starts talking about the song, things start to pick up steam, the film just methodically goes through everything from how the song Ice Ice Baby was produced to how it first got noticed to the insane tours and even the lawsuits that came from the use of the Under Pressure sample. The story of this one song is full of strange twists and turns, issues ranging from legal battles that would change the world of sampling forever to an incident involving Suge Knight and the balcony of a hotel. It’s a wild story that’s laid out well, with the assistance of some fascinating interviews from almost everyone who was part of Vanilla Ice’s world at the time.
Ice Ice Baby doesn’t just focus on the positive though since the fall from grace was just as insane as the rise and the film really makes a meal out of showing how everyone really just milked Vanilla Ice dry as quickly as possible without much thought for the longevity of a career or the wellbeing of the performer. It shows the various things that went into the downfall, from hubris to mismanagement to just pure overexposure. They all factor in and are explored in great detail. They even take the time to talk about two of the most important things Ice ever did, namely the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and the ‘classic’ film Cool as Ice.
Where Ice Ice Baby really shines is when it takes a moment to explore what this song meant as a cultural artefact, specifically its importance to the world of hip hop and how Vanilla Ice was basically (to paraphrase the film) Hip Hop Elvis, there to take a black artform and make it something that could be sold to a largely white audience. It’s one of those things that nowadays we don’t really think about because hip hop is so ubiquitous in the music landscape but back in the 90s it was a very different thing and exploring how this happened is the high point of the documentary.
It’s also just kind of funny seeing how genuinely shocked Vanilla Ice was that his audience was largely white people, the film makes it seem like that caught him by surprise and it’s undeniably hilarious. Honestly, the thing you end up quickly learning is how everyone seemed to be completely surprised by not just the reaction of a largely white audience but how they were unprepared for the wild success that was about to take over.
The film does have a few strange editing choices, usually around how clips are presented (including one clip from the movie That’s My Boy where they seem to have just cropped Adam Sandler out of the image in a way that leaves half the screen black, but these choices are mostly mild aesthetic issues that don’t get in the way of the actual narrative. It’s something that might bug you for a minute but then the film will pull you back in with another wild twist in the tale.
For the most part, Ice Ice Baby is a fascinating look at a one-hit-wonder that shows the highs and lows of the music industry. While the film might be specifically about one song and one performer, a lot of what it reveals is applicable to the industry as a whole. Even if the song might be cheesy, Ice Ice Baby holds an important place in pop culture history and this documentary is a great look at what makes it such an important piece of modern pop culture.