I Love the Nineties Tour: Behind the Scenes With Coolio, Vanilla Ice and More

Hitmakers and their tourmates Salt-N-Pepa, Mark McGrath and Young MC reflect on pop culture's ongoing nostalgia boom

Artists on the I Love the Nineties Tour – including Coolio, Vanilla Ice and Salt-N-Pepa – discuss the durability of their pop-cultural moment. Credit: Matt Salacuse for Rolling Stone

"If you had a flip phone, make some noise! If you had a cassette deck, make some noise!" Vanilla Ice is onstage giving orders to fans in the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They make some noise. The "Ice Ice Baby" man rocks his theme from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel. The crowd is here to party with the I Love the Nineties tour, featuring a lineup of hitmakers from the era of Club MTV: Salt-N-Pepa, Coolio, Rob Base, Color Me Badd and Young MC. At the merch stand, you can buy a neon-colored fannypack or a "Drop That Zero and Get With the Hero" T-shirt. 

Many of the fans here tonight in Bridgeport weren't born when "Ice Ice Baby" hit Number One. Others are tipsy moms and dads trying to party like they did in the mall parking lot the night they saw Wayne's World. The video screen flashes images of Kurt Cobain, Beavis & Butthead, Bill Clinton playing sax on The Arsenio Hall Show. When the entire crowd erupts in a sing-along of "Just a Friend" – "yooouuu! You got what I neeeed!" – it's an even more surreal Nineties time warp than Nine Inch Nails on Twin Peaks. Lots of confetti. Lots of pastels. Fans dress up as the stars. As Salt from Salt-N-Pepa says backstage, "You know you've made it when you're a Halloween costume."

The I Love the Nineties tour began last year and was an immediate hit: 98 shows in 98 cities for a gross of more than $21 million. Now there's a spinoff tour called the Party Continues, featuring TLC, Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath, Tone Loc, Montell Jordan, All-4-One and more, mostly doing 15-minute sets. There's also the Ship Hop Cruise. "These artists tour harder than they did back when they were hot," says Universal Attractions Agency co-owner Jeff Allen, who co-created the tours. The Nineties are suddenly big business. "People love this decade," Mark McGrath marvels. "I mean, even these fucking highlights in my hair are back in style again. Dude, if you stick with a bad hairstyle long enough, it'll come back 20 years later. I'm proof positive of that."

It isn't just music – Nineties nostalgia has become a huge franchise all over the culture, from the X-Files revival and Fuller House to the O.J. trial to the Power Rangers movie. Jude Law is famous again. Courtney Love just starred in a Lifetime movie. Hell, even Zima is back. You don't have to be a Clinton voter – although it helps – to miss the days when the nation's biggest threat was a semen-stained dress. There's something romantic about an era when people turned off their phones for hours at a time – a time of raves and riot grrrls, erotic thrillers and poetry slams.

"People forgot how much fun we had in the Nineties," Vanilla Ice says backstage. "We were the last generation that got out of the house. These kids today won't leave the house – they're on their computers. We didn't have smartphones and selfies and all this. So we had to go out. We listened to music in our cars, not our phones – I took the back seat out of my ride and put in subwoofers. We got our movies from Blockbuster, man. 'Be Kind, Rewind' – they'll never experience that!"

The Cool as Ice star, born Robert Van Winkle, is jovial and chatty at 49, with teen daughters of his own. He's made the move into home improvement, flipping houses down in Florida on The Vanilla Ice Project, just starting its seventh season on the DIY Network. He also filmed the self-explanatory Vanilla Ice Goes Amish, which ran for two seasons. But tonight he and his fellow stars rewind through the old days. "They'll dance for four hours – it's like a Zumba class," he says. "Music was crazy in the Nineties – you can go into the Seattle movement, you know, from Candlebox to Kurt Cobain to Pearl Jam. The Nineties was just a big melting pot of awesomeness." 

The way he sees it, kids today are missing out. "I call it the lost generation, because from 2000 to 2017, nothing really defines that whole generation in pop culture. Like, how would you look back at 2000 to 2017 and remember anything? How would you see somebody wearing some gear and say, 'Hey, that's gotta be from 2014?' There's no music there, there's no pop culture, there's no fashion that defines the generation. I look at the Nineties like it's the last truly great decade."

If you predicted in 1992 that Vanilla Ice would return to headline an arena tour in 2017, people would reply, "And monkeys might fly out of my butt." Yet he's moved on – he's been embraced by the Juggalo culture, and is scheduled to perform this September at the Juggalo March on Washington. His last album, in 2011, was WTF: Wisdom, Tenacity & Focus. It's a long way past the days when he did "Ice Ice Baby" in his infamous Arsenio appearance. "Arsenio – whatever happened to that guy?" Vanilla wonders. "I think he got in trouble – he had Mussolini or somebody on his show. Someone he wasn't supposed to have."

Mark McGrath is spending most of 2017 on the Party Continues tour, doing his Sugar Ray hits. "Michael Jordan would be playing basketball right now if he could," he reasons. "It's funny when people ask me, 'You still doing the band thing?' You wouldn't ask, 'You're 49 – are you still a dentist?' If I'm fortunate enough to have the dream career, I'm the last guy that's gonna give it away."

McGrath is an old hand at this kind of thing. "I put together a couple of Nineties nostalgia tours, and they've been basically alternative rock: Gin Blossoms, Smash Mouth, Everclear, Lit, those kinds of bands." This time it's a little different. "The first show I did, last March in Las Vegas, I found myself dancing onstage with Vanilla Ice, having a dance-off, and losing terribly by the way, next to a Ninja Turtle and a giant Transformer. And I was not on Ecstasy or molly. But the Nineties is when all the genres collided. Lollapalooza started – that's when you have Ice-T playing with Nine Inch Nails playing with Henry Rollins playing with the Boredoms. The walls came down. Alternative music landed by way of osmosis in pop music. You would hear Kiss-FM or Z-100: 'Coming right up, Mariah Carey, Blink-182, Eminem, Sugar Ray,' and you're like, 'What the fuck is happening?' The genres got blown apart – that's why we're looking back."

To him, it makes perfect sense that Nineties nostalgia has arrived. "It was the last heyday of the music business. When you were a kid in your garage, you could pick up a guitar and dream of being part of that. I compare it to these young kids playing basketball, wanting to be in the NBA – then all of a sudden the NBA disappears, and the NFL disappears. Now people are still playing basketball, but it's the local rec league; people are still playing football, but you gotta go find some guys and get some games together. The infrastructure of stardom is gone. So you look back on that – not just as a business, but romantically. 'Boy, that was fun, going to Tower Records to see what's new, watching MTV for a world premiere.'"

Another factor is that the post-Y2K era never got its own identity as a decade – it didn't even get a name. "Right – what would you call it, the Noughties? The 2000s? No one knows what to call it. No one knows when it started or ended. It took a while for the stink of the Nineties to go away, because nothing replaced it. The industry imploded, so there weren't new bands coming up. Name the last rock star. The top ten touring bands in Pollstar – it was still the Chili Peppers, it was still Soundgarden – God rest his soul, Chris Cornell – it was still the Dave Matthews Band. Nothing replaced the Nineties, even though the decade was over."

What keeps these Nineties vets going? "We've all been through the wringer," McGrath says. "We've all experienced the highest highs, and we've all come down on our melons – be honest, everybody. Some of the Nineties songs – yeah, they were novelties, and some of them maybe weren't the deepest in the world. But if the 'Macarena' was the first song your son or daughter ever sang, that song is 'Hey Jude' to you. That song will always be 'Hey Jude' to you. I understand, because Psy's 'Gangnam Style' was the first song my kids ever sang. So that song to me is 'God Only Knows.'"

Backstage in Bridgeport, Coolio is talking to Rob Base at catering. "What gives you diabetes isn't sugar. It's from chicken. They proved it." Coolio goes to work with a power drill, trying to fix his custom jewel-studded microphone case. "It's my Mic Saber," he explains. "They try to get us to use these dinky little fabric ones, but I ain't having that shit. Snoop paid sixty grand for his." Coolio repairs a twisted screw with the drill and a sledgehammer, showing off some serious workmanship. "Didn't you know? I'm BlackGyver."

Coolio had too many hits to fit them all into his set. "'It Takes a Thief' – that was the one that made the hood like me. 'Gangsta's Paradise' – that was the one that made white people like me." In recent years, he's been diversifying his brand with projects like his family reality show Coolio's Rules and his web series Cookin' With Coolio, which is also the title of his cookbook, full of recipes for his "ghetto gourmet" cuisine. He's got his own theories on how music has changed since the Nineties. "Those were the crack days. Now it's the post-crack days – we're in the meth times. The mumble-rappers now are the grown-up crack babies. So if they're a little bit twisted and off and weird, it's not really their fault. They do a lot of dumb shit, but they have flashes of brilliance." What advice would he give them? "Get that money. While you can ..."

The Mic Saber is ready. "It's kinda dope, right? Almost like a drinking gourd. It's strong, it's sturdy, it's not gonna break if I drop it. And it lights up – that looks good onstage." Coolio holds it aloft like Excalibur. "Mic-calibur," he says. He uses it to strike a few rock-star poses. As his sax player Jarez says, "We call him the black Van Halen, a.k.a. the ghetto Peter Pan."

"Call me Bang Halen," Coolio says. "Gang Bang Halen." 

Everybody here has had to keep hustling. Marvin Young, known to the world as Young MC, just directed his first film – the horror thriller Justice Served, with Lance Henriksen, now available at your favorite video-on-demand portal. It was the seventh screenplay he's written; he also stars in it. His song "Know How" is on movie screens around the world in Baby Driver. But tonight he's all music, wearing a T-shirt with a boombox and the words "I Remember Real Hip Hop." "I don't know if I can do this forever," he says. "But I'll do it for now."

Young has an economics degree from USC, so he has strong opinions on the decline of the music business. "Today it's online scams about how many clicks you get. 'Oh, I had hundreds of thousands of views' – but you didn't make 10 dollars. So from a financial standpoint, there's a lot more sizzle and a lot less steak. Someone can have a hot record and go broke." As far as he's concerned, that helps old-school projects like this tour. "There isn't as much craftsmanship in the songwriting now. If a kid is getting mature and looking for something more complicated, they're not going to find it in what they hear today. They just won't. They'll find it in stuff that's older. So that's helped us."

Salt-N-Pepa are easily the shoop-tastic highlight of the night. At one point, they stop and make all the ladies in the house give their besties a hug. "We have been through hell and high water together," Salt announces. "And Pepa is forever my BFF!" For "Push It," they invite hordes of women to dance onstage with them – as Salt says, "That was a whole lotta estrogen up on the stage." It's genuinely moving to behold. Spinderella's DJ break skips from "Jump Around" to "Sweet Child O' Mine" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." At the end, Pepa says, "Thank you for keeping us so alive and so relevant all 31 years!"

Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton have that same chemistry backstage – you couldn't imagine two cooler people to hang with. They've been friends since college. Salt says, "We met in the lunchroom playing spades and that's how it came together. This started from a friendship. It wasn't a put-together group. We was just doing us. Even the asymetrical haircut started because Pep's sister burned her hair out on one side."

"My sister got her beautician license," Pepa explains. "She said, 'Girl, come on, let me at your hair.' I said, 'OK, this is free.' Hmmmph – it cost me though. I came out bald. So we made something out of it. We always did. We were besties before we were Salt-N-Pepa." 

Like nearly all their tourmates, they've served their time in reality TV, VH1's The Salt-N-Pepa Show, where they reconciled after a few years apart and talked out their issues with Spinderella. Now they're on the road again. Salt says, "I guess we're in that category with Tina Turner and people like that, where at 70 she had to say 'I'm done. You people aren't done, but I'm done.'"

"We always look at the parking lot," Pepa says. "Forget the ticket sales – we look at the cars and say, 'All these people got up out of their beds to see us 31 years later.' The Nineties babies are in the house – with their Sixties parents." Salt laughs at that. "Our Nineties babies aren't here. I invited my son – he had better plans. He's 17. He's over it."

With the clock ticking and babysitters waiting at home, the crowd has thinned a little by the time Vanilla Ice comes onstage for his awesomely bizarre headline set. After "Ice Ice Baby," he segues into his nu-metal-style covers of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" and Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What." He opens the stage to pretty much anyone who wants to dance. By now it's getting close to eleven and the ushers are shooing the crowd out; there might be more fans onstage than in the stands. They raise the house lights just as Vanilla Ice is beginning his poignant version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The Nineties live on? Word to your mother.