How Brian May Made Vanilla Ice Pay For Ripping Off “Under Pressure”
via Rock N' Roll True Stories / Youtube
Released on August 22, 1990, American rapper Vanilla Ice’s debut album, To the Extreme, featured a track that would later propel him to internet notoriety. The infamous “Ice Ice Baby” became his most famous hit, earning him both success and ridicule.
The single reached the top of the charts in 10 countries, including the UK Singles chart and the US Billboard 100. However, not everyone celebrated the rap single’s popularity.
The English rock band Queen, along with singer David Bowie, who co-wrote and co-performed their song “Under Pressure”, identified a striking resemblance in the bass line, accusing Vanilla Ice of ripping off their work.
In a recent interview with classical guitarist Rosie Bennet, Queen guitarist Brian May shared how Vanilla Ice settled the lawsuit out of court after failing hard to prove that the tune was an original of his.
One of the most memorable song plagiarism cases
Making time before Queen + Adam Lambert’s upcoming shows in Japan, May engaged in a conversation with Bennet on the latter’s guitar podcast called Fret Not. The guitar maestro talked about artificial intelligence, mental health, fame, and plagiarism.
During their discussion, he shared his reflections on the incident when Vanilla Ice replicated “Under Pressure”. Regarding the resemblance between Queen’s 1981 collaboration with David Bowie and ‘Ice Ice Baby,’ May remarked:
“I think it was just on the radio when we heard it… And I remember reading an interview with Vanilla Ice himself, ‘Didn’t you steal this from Queen?’ And he said, ‘No, theirs is completely different; mine is (mimics an identical melody twice)’. I mean, we didn’t go to war for it, but the publishers did,” the guitarist recalled.
While the rapper faced criticism for initially asserting that his song was different from Queen’s “Under Pressure”, in subsequent interviews, he acknowledged the band’s contribution. In a 2006 interview with the Iowa State Daily, Ice recognized the sampling and dismissed the now-famous interview as a joke.
The settlement and its effects on Vanilla Ice’s career
Fortunately for Vanilla Ice, the dispute was resolved out of court and settled privately. The specific amount remained undisclosed until a later time, with a payment of 4 million USD being made to the band Queen, accompanied by writing credits for all four members on the song.
Brian May continued, stating, “So, they reached a settlement, wherein he agrees to pay us a significant portion of the earnings he garnered from that song. We’re fine with that (laughs); it essentially made us part of the songwriting team, in a way.”
Reflecting on the topic of sampling, Brian remarked, “That’s a noteworthy example, isn’t it? He created something new and interesting, and it resonated with people.
Originating as a straightforward sampling matter, the rapper’s reputation plunged. Ironically, “Ice Ice Baby” unexpectedly boosted the popularity of the original “Under Pressure” track, as younger generations encountered it through the rapper.
“I own the song like Michael Jackson owns the Beatles”
In later years, Vanilla Ice asserted that the legal dispute turned out to be advantageous for him.
Speaking on the Dan Patrick Show, the rapper explained that he essentially ‘bought the song’ from Brian May, emphasizing that since it involved David Bowie and Queen, they didn’t possess the actual rights to it. According to him:
“It was David Bowie and Queen, so they didn’t have the actual rights to it. So I went to Brian May and bought the song. I own the song like Michael Jackson owns the Beatles. It was cheaper than a lawsuit and court settlement. So “Under Pressure”, “Ice Ice Baby” – same difference.”
Contrastingly, a representative for Queen refuted these assertions, informing Ultimate Classic Rock, “an arrangement was made whereby the publishing in the song was shared.”
“‘Ice Ice Baby’, it still makes me smile”
Reflecting on this plagiarism case he can now only look back on, Brian May reiterated that recognizing one’s inspirations is “the decent thing to do”.
“So, I guess it’s about acknowledging your influences, that’s the decent thing to do. I hope that I’ve always done it. Sometimes you want to quote someone deliberately — like (Sergey) Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”.”
May explained that the composer was obviously transparent about his intentions, so nobody took offense. If he had appropriated that material without acknowledgment, it would be a different story.
The guitarist concluded: “‘Ice Ice Baby’, it still makes me smile.”