"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
After Vanilla Ice sold 7 million copies of his debut album in 1990, the white rapper formerly known as Robert Van Winkle quickly found himself a cultural whipping boy. In an era of steeled hip-hop produced by serious, hardened outfits like Public Enemy and NWA, Vanilla Ice wore ridiculous glitter pants, opened for MC Hammer and even falsely claimed that he had been stabbed five times in gang fights. People were playa hatin’ Vanilla before the phrase even existed.
Only two things matter in the rap game: street cred and money. Vanilla Ice had none of the former. But even a run-in with Death Row records impresario Suge Knight that Ice says cost him $180 million couldn’t stop him from holding onto his money. He managed to stay flush even when he could no longer sell the public on his soft-serve rhymes, bleach-blond pompadour and Liberace get-ups.
In 1998, Ice stepped into the nu metal arena and released “Hard to Swallow.” He is currently touring in support of “Bi-Polar,” an album with eight nu metal tracks and 16 rap tracks that mark his return to rhymes.
Ice is now married with two children. He believes that Jesus Christ is his personal savior. Despite his multiple attempts to recreate himself as a real musician and crack his cold-as-ice rep, he’s still a punchline, especially in the hip-hop world.
A perplexed generation that can’t get “Ice Ice Baby” out of its head demands answers. I recently talked with Ice about his new gig as a nu metal frontman, the “Ice Ice Baby” era, his pet kangaroo Bucky and those wack haircuts he used to have.
You remember the haircuts, don’t you?
First things first. On your new album, “Bi-Polar,” you’re billed as V-Ice. What’s up with the name change?
No, get that straight. It’s still Vanilla Ice. I guess they just put it short on the record and people are asking me that question and it’s funny because there’s no name change. I’m proud of it and I’m not trying to run from anything or hide from anything. You think of Prince who changed his name, it’s like, who gives a fuck? He didn’t change his name. He made it a symbol. He didn’t even have a name.
How did you come to be called Vanilla Ice in the first place?
Back when I was 13 or 14 I used to spin on my head on cardboard and break dance, 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.
So let’s talk about “Bi-Polar.” Why a nu metal album and a rap album on the same disc?
My main focus is on the rock stuff just because of everything I’ve been through. Music is about reflection. I get more energy from it. But I still love hip-hop and I did it to show people I’m still true to hip-hop. A lot of people today are influenced by both. 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.
What made you decide that being a nu metal frontman was for you?
There wasn’t much thought behind it. It was the intensity of the lyrics I was writing. There was absolutely no way I was going to go scream over some break beat or some fucking computer to match the intensity that I’m wantin’ to deliver. There was no way it was going to get done without the band. I’m enjoyin’ myself now for the first time ever. It’s hard to understand that, you sell 17 million records it sounds like it’s great and gravy and shit, but I didn’t enjoy it too much, man. Anyone who hates on Vanilla Ice would have done the same fucking thing, so they can’t hate on me. They told me, we want you to wear these baggy pants because the young kids like it because the young kids like it and it’s all glittery and polished and everything, and I said, “Fuck no, I’m not wearin’ this gay-ass shit,” and they said, “Well here’s a million dollars, man, will you do it?” And I said, “Fuck yes.” And anybody would have done the same thing if they were given the same chance. I’d lick my mother’s asshole for a million dollars.
As you say in “Hip Hop Rules,” “I went 17 platinum/amazing.” How high are you going to take it this time around?
I don’t set any goals for myself. I always expect the unexpected, man. I’m still getting beyond that stigma and shit. I’ve faced my adversities and I’m catering to the ones who appreciate what I’m doing, and there are a shitload of them out there. I have a very loyal fan base, similar to Insane Clown Posse’s fan base, a lot of young kids 15 to 19, body-piercing tattooed kids who are very aware of “Ice Ice Baby” and the whole player hatin’ thing or whatever and they’re very into what I’m doing now. And I’m very appreciative of that. I’m not like a Korn or Limp Bizkit who comes out hardcore and goes mainstream. I’m like the guy who went backwards. I started off mainstream and now I’m into the hardcore shit. It’s not about the money or anything for me. I just enjoy making my music and to have people appreciate it is my award.
How much do you bench?
Fuck dude, I haven’t bench-pressed since high school.
Fair enough. So you produced both the metal and rap cuts on “Bi-Polar” and played many instruments. What was that experience like?
It’s awesome. You think of all these fabricated bands and shit, for instance Madonna, where somebody else writes their music and makes the beats and writes the lyrics and packages the whole thing and they’re sitting up there in front of a crowd, and there’s no way possible you could tell me that it’s as gratifying as if you did all the shit yourself. It’s much more gratifying. I play the drums, I play the guitar, I play the bass, I play keyboards and all that shit and just to do it and produce it, it’s you. It’s more real. It’s not some fabricated bullshit. I’m not going to lie. It’ll never sell 17 million or nothin’ like that and I’m not tryin’ to. I’m just tryin’ to cater to those who appreciate what I’m doing.
The nu metal side of your new album is called “Skabz.” With a “Z.” Are you talking about dermal blood encrustations or people who cross the lines during union strikes? Or what exactly does that refer to?
You know, like if you got dragged down the street like fuckin’ some hate crime or somethin’ and you didn’t die? Like I said earlier, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So basically I’m picking my scabs.
People might be surprised to know that you’ve got a set of golden pipes. Where did you develop that sweet-ass voice?
Fuck, dude, it just comes from my emotion, man. Ross Robinson, workin’ with him on my last record, he showed me a way to capture an emotional moment on tape, whatever comes out, just be rollin’. First take, that’s the realest one.
Now that you’re a family man how is touring different?
I still hang out and do my shit, I just don’t fuck around. You’ve done it so long and so many times, I guess the thrill’s gone. I love playin’ the music, and that’s the party to me. The whole time I’m on stage, I’m just havin’ the best time of my life, man. That’s what it’s all about for me.
On this album you work with Chuck D and LA tha Darkman from the Wu Tang Clan. How did you get guys who would have clowned you 10 years ago to rhyme on this album?
Just respect, man. If you listen to the lyrics, lyrically I’ve held my own. It’s not like Hammer or Tone Loc where they don’t have lyrical content. If you released “Ice Ice Baby” today, it would fit in today’s lyrical respect among peers, you know what I’m sayin’? I think that if they would have clowned it back in the day, it would’ve only been because it was a movement and they jumped on the bandwagon, not out of seriousness. Everybody knows I hold my own. My lyrics aren’t, “Pump it up, go! Go!” At least I’m sayin’ somethin’.
Your press release says that you’ve found a personal connection to God. Your song “Molton” concludes with you singing “I am a holy soldier!” over and over. What does that mean?
That I’m a soldier, man, that I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior. But I’m not really religious. I just believe that there’s a higher power and that we’re not evolved or whatever. We didn’t just come from the sand. Of course you can tell by the record with all the fucks and everything that I just believe that my character speaks for itself in the eyes of God and words and anger and all that shit is just part of life. I think there’s more people going to heaven than they think. Bible Belt people try to make everybody feel like they’re going to hell and I don’t believe that. I think God has pity on us. We’re only victims of today’s society. Our generation didn’t invent this whole society, we’re just conformed to it. So you can’t punish us for that. I think everybody’s going to heaven unless you’re really fucking up and doing something you’re conscious of and you don’t do anything to correct it.
Your contemporaries from the late ’80s rap game like MC Hammer are infamous for going bankrupt. How did you manage to hold on to the bling bling?
Investments, bro. 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.
Rappers like to floss. What’s the most lavish thing you’ve dropped money on?
I used to floss like crazy. I had a $650,000 Porsche, two million-dollar yachts and mansions everywhere and every other fucking material thing you could imagine. And the people it attracted was a bunch of fake, leach, rock star leach, stripper-chick wannabes, and it was just a fuckin’ … none of them is your friend. They’re around you because of who you are, not what you are. So I learned a valuable lesson. I learned every fuckin’ thing the hard way.
Everyone who has seen your “Behind the Music” knows that you had a run-in with Suge Knight back in the day. Do you guys still have beef?
There’s no animosity. If anything he’s probably happy about it. He got $180 million from me in the beginning and started Death Row Records. I look at it in a positive way because I tried to commit suicide in ’94 when I had $20 million in the bank, and this is before that even, so why am I going to care about what he took from me. Without the money he got from me, the money wouldn’t have been as great to fund the Chronic record, Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg … all that shit came from what Suge got from me to start Death Row.
You like to ride ninja motorcycles. Did you ever consider becoming one?
No, man, I just love motocross. My passion for motocross goes back 20 years.
Right. But if you did become a ninja, what kind of ninja do you think you’d be?
A teenage mutant ninja is what I’d be. “Go ninja …”
How was it working with Michael Gross, aka Mr. Keaton from “Family Ties,” in “Cool as Ice”?
Michael Gross? Oh you remember that, huh?
I rented it this weekend for, like, the fifth time. Fucking love it. I love that scene where you’re in the house, the big romance, fall-in-love scene. But what was Michael Gross like?
He was cool, man. When you’re actin’ and shit, it helps to have someone good on the other side deliver the lines to you. It makes you deliver your shit better. He’s great.
Did Tina Yothers ever come around the set?
Yeah, from “Family Ties.”
Oh, that’s right. No, there was a bunch of people around, but not her.
You were a pretty serious jet ski and motocross racer. Have you ever thought about racing a monster truck?
[Laughs] No, but I sure would. I’d jump one in a minute.
If you did, what would you call your monster truck?
I’d call it the Mud Munster. Yeah. I have a song called “Mud Munster” on my new record.
Have you ever used the line “Drop that zero and get with the hero” in real life?
Just jokingly. It’s a great one-liner isn’t it? It’s funny as fuck. People remember that shit.
Ice Cube wrote the screenplay for the new “Friday” flick. Do you have any plans to get behind the camera and pursue film?
I just did a cameo appearance in a movie called “The New Guy.” They always seem to use my songs. There’s some movie out now and they’re using my song in the trailer …
“Ice Ice Baby?”
Yeah. I get a few roles thrown my way, but we turn down more than we do. It’s more about music for me. If the right role comes along, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to just jump on anything that comes my way.
You popularized a few catchphrases with “To the Extreme” that were really perplexing. Why did you start saying “yup yup” and “word to your mother”? What do they mean?
They’re just phrases I said along my whole entire high school period and friends you hang out with and shit. Your music is about your reflection, bro. Shit that you say and do is going to come out and people picked up on it. There wasn’t a whole bunch of thinkin’ behind it.
Do you still throw those phrases around today?
Jokingly. Yeah, every now and then. I kind of crack on my old self. I understand the whole thing. People know that I understand it, so it’s OK. Everything’s cool with me. I’m copacetic.
On the back of the “Bi-Polar” album cover, there’s a picture of you making a hand gesture where you look like you’re grabbing an invisible ball with both hands. Does that mean anything?
Because you used to have a hand signal for VIP [Vanilla Ice Posse] right?
Yeah, you hold the two middle fingers up.
Do you have any dogs?
No. I’ve got a kangaroo.
What’s its name?
Bucky. It’s cool as fuck. They don’t kick like people say and shit. They’re really nice.
That’s cool. But as a general rule of thumb, how many attack dogs do you think a rapper should have?
[Laughs] I think you should have none. You don’t have to fill any fuckin’ stereotype image.
True. Your unique hairstyles used to be a hallmark of your style. Looking back, what do you think about those cuts now?
Was the Boz, Brian Bosworth, an inspiration at all in terms of hairstyles?
I didn’t even know who he was until he started making the movies.
Do you still cut your own hair?
It’s low-maintenance now. I like not having to deal with it. Just wake up and fuckin’ whatever.
A lot of celebrities have a cause these days. Sally Struthers has those starving kids. Bob Dole has erectile problems. What’s your cause?
My cause is my own kids. That’s my priority.
When you were kicking around titles for the album that became “Bi-Polar,” did “Ice capades” ever come up as a possible title?
No. That’s a little too friendly for me.
When you hear “Ice Ice Baby” on the radio these days, what do you do?
Fuckin’ turn it up. It feels great. That’s a great song. It’s timeless. It holds a space in history and you can’t take it away. You just own that piece of time. Everybody loves that song. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)