The spangly American flag jackets are gone. So is the streaked pompadour, the baggy harem pants, the cheesy dance moves and the tough-guy image.
What then, is left for Rob Van Winkle, better known to the world as Vanilla "Ice Ice Baby" Ice?
What's that? Did he say a tour and a new album?
"It's high-energy, stage-diving, hip-hop for sure," said Ice, 29, who is currently playing to packed houses across the heartland and working on his first new album since 1994's disappointing Mind Blowin', on which the mutable rapper took on a more "hard-core" persona.
Things have changed in a big way for the one-hit wonder since his multimillion-selling debut, To The Extreme. Among those changes are his new daughter, a harder "rock edge" to his music and a new tattoo on his stomach.
And then there's his newfound relationship with God.
"God has blessed me in more ways than one," Ice said. "I found God when I found myself on the floor with friends dumping cold water on me. I overdosed one night and woke up the next day and found God," he said. It's not unlike the kind of story that death row prisoners tell. And to hear Ice tell it, the fame, fortune and bright lights began to feel like a death sentence.
These days, though, he's turned things around and is busy making up for lost time, he said, adding that he recently got a leaf tattooed on his belly to signify that he is "turning over a new leaf." It began last year with one and two shows a week, slowly building up to three and four shows in 1,500-seat theaters in places such as Omaha, Neb., and Denton, Texas, the kind of places where 15-year-old girls used to stick a Vanilla Ice sticker on their school notebooks back in the blond rapper's heyday.
"We just stumbled into it and it just felt right," said Josh Hunt of Avalanche Productions, which has been promoting a number of Ice's dates in the Midwest. "The guy sold, what, 7 million records? All the shows have been sold out, people are definitely interested."
One of those people is Gerritt Lang, 16, from Maryland, who runs the Grit's Ninja Rap unofficial Vanilla Ice website. "I feel that this is not the time for a 'harder,
mosh-pit happy' feel to anyone's music," wrote Lang about Ice's new direction. "I do, however, think that now is the time for a comeback tour by Ice. He has been gaining popularity more as a 'remember the time' rapper; something people can relate to in remembrance of the early '90s, when rap was at its peak and so were 'flattop' haircuts ... People have flocked to see the Iceman play again and to remember the time when he was the greatest rapper in the country."
Lang also took issue with describing Ice as a "one-hit wonder," "because his second album was enormously popular overseas," he said.
Trying to explain his sudden fall from grace by 1992, Ice said he feels like the victim: He claimed his record company at the time (SBK) made him adopt his wholesome, white-bread look, forced him to record a cheesy ballad ("I Love You," which his manager, John Hunt -- who was, oddly, on the phone during the interview -- mentioned "went to #1 in Brazil"), and pitched him on a quickie dud movie ("Cool as Ice").
Hoping to recapture some of his past success, Ice is at work on his new, self-produced album, Hard to Swallow, which will include guest vocals from Bloodhound Gang singer Jimmy Pop Ali and the songs "Block Bumpin," "Whose This White Boy Knockin' At My Door" and "You Can Shake It Down."
Also lending a hand on the album is his good buddy, guitar-rocker Lenny Kravitz, who Ice said is the godfather to his 5-month-old baby girl, Dusti Rain. Oh yeah, and Kravitz just bought one of Ice's two cigarette speed boats. "I'm not an idiot," Ice said of the seemingly reckless spending of his youth on a palatial Florida estate, boats, flashy cars and exotic pets. "I'm financially set for the rest of my life. I ended up with way more than I thought I would."
Plus, technically, he said, he's more than the sum of his David Bowie/Queen ("Under Pressure")-sampling 1990 hit, "Ice Ice Baby." "I'm not a one-hit wonder until I give up," Ice said defiantly. "People never see that that one hit had one behind it that went to #2, 'Play That Funky Music.' "
"I don't know why this is happening now," Ice said of his tour success. "But I sure do accept it. It's awesome."