HE'S BEEN called the Elvis of Rap. He's also been called the Pat Boone of Rap.

You can call him Vanilla Ice.

Whatever you call him, there's no ignoring the fact that Vanilla Ice, fickle pop music's Flavor of the Month, has attracted a new audience to rap. A new money-spending audience. This mostly male, mostly black form was suddenly made safe for and appealing to teenage girls. Teenage white girls.

Just a few months ago, the white 22-year-old named Vanilla Ice -- a k a Robby Van Winkle -- was opening shows for M.C. Hammer, the world's most popular rapper, at arenas around the country.

Last week, this rap Van Winkle was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance with -- or against, depending on how you choose to look at it -- M.C. Hammer.

Ice's debut album "To the Extreme," an egomaniacal example of bragging to the beat, has sold seven million copies to date. It even knocked Hammer himself out of his 21-week No. 1 spot on the album charts. The self-aggrandizing single "Ice Ice Baby" moved, becoming the first rap song ever to hit No. 1. And for some reason, it got heavy airplay even on radio stations that said no thanks to hits by other rap artists such as Tone-Loc.

And still the Vanilla Ice machine grinds on: Ice kicks off his own headlining tour this week -- he arrives at Patriot Center on Sunday. Ice's big screen debut in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Secret of the Ooze," for which he also sings the title track, hits the city's screens March 23. And his unauthorized biography (Avon paperback) is due in mid-February.

Leaving questions of talent aside, Ice's lightning success has drawn the questions about color lines in pop music ever sharper. Like whose music is it anyway? Does music belong to anyone? What's going on here?

Call it crossover: As white rock loosens its longtime lock on the charts, many white artists are trying out the latest black innovations, while some black artists are softening their sound to appeal to a wider pop market. So a gray area has started to shade in the top of these formerly segregated music charts. It's worth noting that last October Billboard magazine's black singles and album charts were renamed the R&B charts.

"We needed in this magazine to identify the music and not the people making the music," explains Billboard charts manager Terri Rossi. "And there are an increasing number of people who are not black making R&B music."

You can play a little game with it: Put the R&B and pop charts side by side, and you can find a white analogue/imitator for many hit black artists. For rapper/dancer/Pepsi pusher M.C. Hammer, for example, you have rapper/dancer/Coke shill Vanilla Ice. For sweet soul siren Whitney Houston, there's the stratospheric Mariah Carey. For love man Jeffrey Osborne, there's Michael Bolton. And for New Edition or its spinoff, Bell Biv Devoe, you have New Kids on the Block.

But even Suzanne Vega is on the black (now R&B) charts, for heaven's sake. They don't come any whiter than her. And Christian pop singer Amy Grant has just released a dance tune called "Baby Baby." Now cartoon characters like Barbie and Bart Simpson are getting into the black sound action with their own hit singles.

Some pop-watchers optimistically see this sort of musical merging as the proverbial sincerest form of flattery; a sign of unification, with black and white cultures finally coming together through fashion and art.

Others are angrier, seeing Business as Usual stamped all over it. White mimicry. A pale copy of the real thing. Appropriation. Reconstitution. Decolorization.

Vanilla Ice is merely the latest chapter in a recurring American dream, in which a good-looking white kid borrows a black sound and style (even his name is nicked from the other black Ices: Ice-T, Ice Cube and Just-Ice) and walks off with the prize. While a triple scoop of Vanilla Ice clones can't be far behind, white rappers are still a relative rarity -- you can count the successful acts on one hand, and it strikes some as odd and others as unfair that the first No. 1 rap album belongs to the bratty Beastie Boys, and the only No. 1 one rap single to Vanilla Ice, and not to the black originators of the style. There are other white rappers, including 3rd Bass and the up-and-coming Young Black Teenagers; and now, a white female rapper named Tairrie B. (Debbie Harry and Madonna really don't count). But with these acts, being white is the selling point, the only thing that makes them stand out.

So, for the moment, anyway, Vanilla Ice is the king of the crossover hill. He's got the styles down, peppers his (PG-rated) raps with the requisite boasts and gangster escapades, and scores soaring sales on both the black and pop charts. But as tough as his 'tude talks, he can't get no respect. His rap style has left rap's critics and cognoscenti cold and contemptuous. Ice is dying to be "street," but his is one street that's been hosed down, repaved and cordoned off to the rabble.

It's snowing outside the Berkshire Place Hotel, where "Saturday Night Live" houses its guest stars. Inside, the lobby steams up as would-be Ice interviewers stack up like jets over LaGuardia. An ABC-TV crew lurks and loiters, waiting to just shoot the man of the moment walking down hotel hallways.

"He's a kid, he exaggerates a lot, you have to expect that," says one of Ice's publicity keepers, assigned to placate interviewers annoyed at being kept waiting. "He doesn't mean any harm."

At long last, in he saunters, the latest model of the American dream machine:

Chiseled cheekbones and billboard-sized Cazzy shades.

A close-cropped fade haircut shaved with intricate designs that surges forward to crest in a bleach-streaked teen-idol pompadour.

Star-spangled red-white-and-blue and black leather jacket by Jeff Hamilton, who makes all of Mike Tyson's and Andrew Dice Clay's leather jackets. Now he makes Vanilla Ice's. It's reversible.

Miami Dolphins T-shirt.

Artfully shredded and repatched jeans.

Suede Fila hiking shoes (one red, one black -- with contrasting laces).

A tangle of gold chains with medallions (a "No. 1" and a gold disc) and two fistfuls of rings, gold jawbreakers studded with sparkling stones.

You think for a moment this just might be Robo-Rapper -- the bionic pop star constructed by the record company's market research and A&R departments to defeat the invincible M.C. Hammer.

Vanilla Ice hits the conference room chair talking, and his animatronic demeanor gives you the eerie feeling he's with you but not with you. You're like so many who have asked him the same questions.

So, uh, Mr. Ice, what do you like to be called?


It's the day after his Grammy nomination was announced, and Ice has spent the afternoon between rehearsing at the NBC Studios for the next day's "Saturday Night Live" appearance. You remember the press keeper telling you that for the past six months Ice has done every interview, signed every autograph, shaken every hand at every backstage and record store meet-and-greet that SBK Records asked him for.

"The thing I hate the most being asked is about the black and white issue and {stuff} like that," he announces right off the bat.

And then proceeds to talk about it for half an hour -- after he tells you about the time he was stabbed and lost half the blood in his body.

"My life changed about four years ago and that's what got me here, actually. I got stabbed four years ago and almost died. I was left to die. And I didn't die and I came back. Who stabbed me? This guy, he was in a devil-worshipping posse, a gang. I don't know his real name. He's in prison, yeah, oh yeah, they caught him. This happened in Richardson -- uh, Dallas, Texas."

Now, making the Ice slip on his own stories is getting to be a favorite pastime of pop journalists, who have so far seen him contradict himself on where he grew up, his economic background, his love life, his motocross career, where his songs come from, and how and why and where he was stabbed (he's previously situated the Life-Changing Event in Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, Fla.), among other things.

Is it any wonder this overnight sensation is a bit on the defensive side?

"People twist my stories," Ice says. "Some people want to write bad things and make things up about me. People who know me, they know I'm a good guy, and that I have no reason to lie about anything. Hey, by the time that first bad article had got out, I had already sold six million records before anybody even knew really where I was even from or anything. So it's not where you're from, it's where you're at."

But Ice says he wasn't prepared for the ravenous appetite of these press jackals, thirsty for more pop scandal after the fall of Milli Vanilli.

"Everybody's told me that when your record goes No. 1, there's gonna be those critics out there that always have something to say bad about you. They say I'm stealing stuff, like Queen's 'Under Pressure.' That's not stealing. To some people it's stealing, but the people who think it's stealing are the people who don't listen to rap music; they don't know rap music. Sampling is rap music. It really doesn't matter what they call it, they're not buying the records anyway. The people that are buying it understand that it's part of rap music."

But Ice has been accused of lifting more than just a catchy rhythm here and a hairstyle there. Street credibility is key to Ice, and he's more than touchy about the critics who claim he's cooperating with the white-run music business in ruthlessly ripping off black music, that he fabricated his past in order to swagger with rap's bad boys.

"The bottom line is I didn't lie. I had to prove myself on national TV by pulling my pants down and showing my scars where I got stabbed."

And he did, too: Ice yanked down his jeans to show us the bottom line, the nation's Number One posterior in all its scarred glory, on "Into the Night" and "Entertainment Tonight." And for a People magazine reporter and Fox Television. (I just couldn't ask him to do it again.)

"Because I did get stabbed, I am from the streets, that's where I learned to rap, that's where I learned to dance, it's where I learned to beatbox. And the people that can't see that, then you're blind, because in the majority, there's not too many white people that really can dance and have rhythm."

And why is that, Ice?

"It's simple if you think about it: The reason why is because there's not too many white people growing up in the streets nowadays. Or any days actually. The majority of white people are more wealthy than black people. Everybody knows this, this is not a hidden fact. Rap music is from the streets, it's street music. Rap music is black music."

OK. The can of worms is officially open.

"But I'm not taking anything from anybody," Ice quickly counters. "I'm not a white guy trying to be black. I'm expressing myself through rap music and I got lucky. That's the bottom line about Vanilla Ice. All these people are saying because you're white it's easier for you to get on the charts. And on the other hand, they won't take you seriously because you're white. I have no advantage over anybody black or anything like that. I've been doing this for four years. I've been called a white nigger, a wanna-be black. Hey -- I'm white and I'm happy being white.

"There's a lot of people in the industry think that my record sold as much as it has because I'm white, and because I'm more or less a, a -- I don't want to sound bigheaded or anything stupid like that -- a good-looking white kid that attracts the females and stuff like this. What sold me is my record company. When I signed my contract with my record company, I held out for three years, and I signed a top priority record contract, which means that the record company puts me above every other act that they have and pushes me the hardest, and makes sure my record gets heard and my video gets seen. There's very few rappers in the world, as a matter of fact, there's only two rappers in the world that have signed top priority. And we can guess who the other one is. And that's the reason why we've sold how many records we have. That's why a lot of people don't want to give us respect. Because I'm white; or Hammer, because he's an entertainer."

In other words, crossover is not something that just happens. All those autographs, those meet-and-greets, those interviews, add up to something.

"And you can't compare me and Hammer," Ice insists. "His stuff is more -- it sounds bad when I say this -- his stuff is more senseless. In other words, his raps don't really mean much. It's like 'Pump it up!' 'Go Go!' 'Let's dance!' 'Into the groove' . . . stuff like that. My stuff tells a story from start to finish.

"Hammer's stuff is more pop, mainstream, whatayacallit -- commercial rap, instead of you know, underground rap. But he did it the way he wanted to do it and he's selling major records. Anyway, to the people or other rappers that can't understand or want to say bad things about Hammer or me, the bottom line is, take it to the bank. Who sold more records? Maybe you're jealous or something."

Ice has been accused of softening rap's raw, rough edges, making it soft and bland and safe enough for mass market consumption.

"No, man, rap music is all about expression and it's whatever's on your head," Ice says. "I mean, I'm from Miami, I can curse like a mother! But I'm not going to put that on my record. Because it's not going to sell! It's not going to sell five million copies!

"I'm hitting all the categories. I'm not something that my record company made. I'm me and I'm original. And I've had my hair this way before I even thought about being professional or anything like that. I cut my own hair; I've been doing it for years and years. I rap, I dance, I produce even, I choreograph all the moves on stage, I beatbox, and I got an image that . . . I never imagined would become like this. I never thought I was gonna become a role model or something like that and have an image, actually.

"I'm trying to reach all," he says. "You know, people called Hammer a sellout. But if he's a sellout, hey he's a sell out. He sells out his arena. Shoot, I'll sell out a concert! So whatever you want to call me, it doesn't matter to me."

But the black-and-white fact remains that Ice is no great shakes as a rapper. And it's a fact of pop life that the nation's young taste buds will eventually tire of Vanilla.

But deep-freezing the doomsayers, Ice insists "To the Extreme" was just the tip of the Iceberg.

"I got another record coming out. It'll be the first-ever live record, it'll be called 'Ice Capades,' " he says.

And Ice is diversifying -- he'll take a month off of the tour in April to star in his own Universal film.

"Acting's great, you know, the money is great, it's so much money at one time," he says. "Like, the record company is a lot of money too, but a movie deal, you just sign one deal and you got the money."

Yeah, Ice, but what about the acting?

"Oh, the acting is boring, actually, if you want to know the truth, it's kind of boring to me, compared to this. My manager wants me to give up rapping for acting, but that's not me. I get the last choice on it. My heart is in the music, but nobody said I couldn't do both of them.

"I can sing as well, but I will not sing, I rap. I'm a rapper," Ice says. "There's a high that you get being in front of 20,000 people, at the center of attention, that no actor could ever feel, that no person anywhere could ever feel. I like being the center of attention. It shows," he laughs.

"I smile on stage, and in all my photos I'm always doin' that Ice look," he says, demonstrating his trademark glowering pout.

"That's me, I'm chillin' like Bob Dylan. Rap music is where my heart is, that's what got me here. I'm gonna stick with what works."

VANILLA ICE -- Appearing Sunday with Riff at Patriot Center. Call 202/432-0200.

BELL BIV DEVOE -- Appearing Thursday with Johnny Gill, Keith Sweat and Monie Love at Capital Centre. Call 202/432-0200.