nybody listening to hip hop music in the early 1990s will remember the name Vanilla Ice. For a short window of time, Robert Mathew Van Winkle was the most famous entertainer in the world.
Ice Ice Baby, Ice’s biggest hit, was a global success. The single sold millions of copies and was a number one hit in the United States, Belgium, the UK, Australia, Holland, and many other countries.
In the US, Ice Ice Baby was the first hip-hop single to sit at the top of the Billboard Charts.
Whether you would consider the song hip-hop or not, a strange story that came out of this success ended up shaping the future of hip-hop massively.
Mario Lavell Johnson, also known as Chocolate, had worked with Vanilla Ice on some tracks before the runaway success of Ice Ice Baby. Chocolate had been credited correctly on the recordings, but he hadn’t been paid.
It’s at this point where the lawyers got involved. And it is also here where the myth starts to grow and diverge.
According to some accounts, this was a simple dispute that was settled correctly and above board with Chocolate eventually getting paid the money he was owed.
In other tellings, this is where the notorious Suge Knight decided to settle things the way he knew best.
The LA encounters
While Vanilla Ice was living up his fame in LA, he soon came to be familiar with a man that he now almost certainly wishes he had never met. Not that their meetings were ever cordially arranged affairs.
According to Ice, their first meeting took place in an LA restaurant:
“THE FIRST TIME I MET SUGE KNIGHT WAS AT THE RESTAURANT IN LA CALLED, PALM, PALM RESTAURANT… AND UH I WAS SITTING THERE EATING A NICE MEAL AND ALL OF A SUDDEN THESE HUGE GUYS WHO LOOKED LIKE A FOOTBALL TEAM SHOWED UP. YOU KNOW, IT WAS VERY INTIMIDATING TO SEE THESE GUYS WHO WERE BIGGER THAN MY BODYGUARDS YOU KNOW AND A BUNCH OF THEM. THEY PRETTY MUCH GRABBED MY BODYGUARD AND PULLED HIM OUT AND SAT DOWN THERE RIGHT NEXT TO ME, ‘HOW YOU DOING?’”Vanilla Ice
This first meeting then led to Suge and his crew showing up in a variety of places where Ice was in attendance. Until things came to a head in an LA hotel room one evening.
Vanilla Ice Hung Out to Dry
At this point, Ice states that Suge Knight took him out to a 15th-floor balcony and casually pointed out just how high up they were.
This implied threat is what led Ice to sign over his royalties to Suge Knight there and then, although the myth is that Suge hung Vanilla Ice over the balcony before getting his signature.
Ice claims this wasn’t the case, but standing out on the balcony with Knight obviously left a lasting impression on more than just his bank balance:
“I WENT TO MY HOTEL ROOM AND SUGE WAS IN THERE WITH SEVERAL PEOPLE. HE LET ME KNOW HE WANTED TO GET SOME POINTS OFF THE RECORD “ICE ICE BABY.” SUGE TOOK ME OUT ON THE BALCONY, STARTED TALKING TO ME PERSONALLY. HE HAD ME LOOK OVER THE EDGE, SHOWING ME HOW HIGH I WAS UP THERE. I NEEDED TO WEAR A DIAPER THAT DAY. I WAS AN “INVESTOR” IN DEATH ROW RECORDS WITH NO RETURN ON MY MONEY.” Vanilla Ice
The Rise of Death Row Records
Whatever the truth about what did or did not happen with Vanilla Ice and Suge Knight on the balcony, Knight did get paid and this not insignificant amount of cash helped to grow the fledgling label. Suge went on to sign iconic artists such as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and even bailed Tupac Shakur out of prison and got him to join the label as well.
And while it is very unlikely that many will truly accept Vanilla Ice as the first hip-hop artist to top the Billboard Charts, there is no doubt over the influence that Death Row Records had on hip-hop and popular culture as we know it today.
In some small way, we have Vanilla Ice to thank for this.