The New ‘Princess’ of Rap: How Ice Spice Exploded Into Stardom
At the beginning of 2021 — a year before she introduced herself to the world as Ice Spice, with her signature cinnamon curly afro — Isis Gaston wrapped her hair into two braids and tucked them underneath a silk scarf. Wearing a black lounge set, she smiled for the camera while a sample of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” faded into the background and the hook of “Buss It,” rapper Erica Banks’ breakout 2020 single, started. The clip cut, and Gaston, now clad in a teal cut-out dress, dropped it low and twerked with her long, light brown locks cascading over her frame.
The viral video was just one of millions from the “Buss It” TikTok challenge, which helped Banks earn her first Billboard Hot 100 entry, a Travis Scott remix and a partnership with Warner Records in conjunction with her own label, 1501 Certified Entertainment. But for the then-21-year-old Gaston, who was just mustering the courage to record her own music, the TikTok trend and the way it boosted Banks’ career seemed like something she could achieve, too.
“It was so funny — I was already working on my first song ever that I was recording. I had already wrote little raps and sh-t before that, [but] it took me a lot to get to recording. I was halfway done with it when I did the ‘Buss It’ challenge. When I saw it going so viral, I was like, ‘Damn, imagine that was my song I was twerking to,’ ” she recalls today with a chuckle. “The next month, I put out my first song and took it from there.”
In March 2021, Ice Spice dropped her sharp-tongued debut single, “Bully Freestyle,” which was produced by RIOTUSA, whom she had met through a mutual friend while attending the State University of New York (SUNY) at Purchase. For the next year-and-a-half, Ice refined her craft — and in August 2022, she independently released “Munch (Feelin’ U)” and finally experienced the success she had always envisioned.
“Munch” — or, as Ice defined it, “somebody that’s really obsessed with you that’s just fiending to eat it” — immediately entered the pop culture lexicon. After delivering the deliciously cynical line “You thought I was feeling you,” Ice spends the song shooting down voracious admirers and envious haters alike with cutthroat bars that bounce off RIOTUSA’s menacing production. In the official music video, she smizes before flashing cameras, twerking once again — but this time while wearing a pale green tube top, denim booty shorts and neon orange nails that complement her now-famous ’fro. TikTok users devoured “Munch” (which has since accumulated 2.4 billion views on its hashtag); Drake played it on his SiriusXM channel, Sound 42; and the song quickly became the New York drill anthem of the summer. Audiences crowned Ice “the People’s Princess.”
“I saw all of my supporters being like, ‘She’s the People’s Princess! She’s Princess Diana!’ ” Ice remembers. “At first, I was confused. I was like, ‘Um, Princess Diana? Out of everybody?’ But [then] I was like, ‘F–k it, she’s iconic.’ ” And judging by the way Ice, now 23, commands the luxurious high-rise apartment at 432 Park Ave. — one of the tallest residential buildings in the world, where our conversation is happening — she’s now well aware of her sovereignty. She struts the hallway in cotton candy-toned regalia: a baby blue velvet cropped hoodie, MRDR BRVDO jeans with pink distressed patches and cloud-dyed Air Force 1s. Her omnipresent $100,000 chain featuring a diamond-encrusted cartoon rendering of her face hangs around her neck, and she frequently checks herself out in a metallic pink Balenciaga Le Cagole rhinestone-embossed purse with a heart-shaped mirror.
Last fall, about a month after the release of “Munch,” Ice signed a label deal with 10K Projects and Capitol Records. At the beginning of 2023, she treated her fans (collectively called the Spice Cabinet, individually known as Munchkins) to her debut EP, Like..?, a six-song set named for her signature interjection, which further flashed her lyrical vocabulary and expanded her drill sound. The project debuted in the top 10 of Billboard’s Top Rap Albums chart and the top 40 of the Billboard 200, while its Lil Tjay-assisted “Gangsta Boo” debuted at No. 82 on the Hot 100, marking Ice’s debut entry on the chart. When she joined forces with fellow online sensation PinkPantheress on “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” in February, the track vaulted both artists to No. 3 on the Hot 100.
Like her memorable one-liners, Ice’s hits keep coming: In April, her idol, Nicki Minaj, hopped on the remix of Like..? track “Princess Diana,” which debuted at No. 4 on the Hot 100 and became the first No. 1 on Hot Rap Songs by two co-billed women in its 34-year history.
“The first time I met her, I knew she was special. I got that tingling feeling [I get] every time when you meet that [kind of] artist,” says Michelle Jubelirer, CEO/chair of Capitol Music Group. “I knew she was a global superstar in the making.”
But despite projecting confidence, Ice is still adjusting to the spotlight. And if she was once a bit shocked by the Princess Diana comparisons, she has lately come to understand the late icon’s plight a little better, as she’s increasingly faced her own share of alarming encounters with onlookers. When she performed at a New York Fashion Week afterparty in February, fans swarmed her by the DJ booth, prompting security to escort her offstage midperformance. Ice even had to push people off herself.
“I’m not going to lie: I was scared in that moment. I was kind of worried because we was a little outnumbered that night,” she confesses. But her tone swiftly shifts to gratitude: “But looking back, I was like, ‘This is really a blessing being able to just see how excited people are to see me perform.’ ”
Balancing exposure and privacy is tough for any rising artist and their team. Her manager, James Rosemond Jr., remembers hip-hop super-agent Cara Lewis (who now counts Ice as a client alongside the likes of Travis Scott and Eminem) and promoters blowing up his phone after the performance about what had happened, even though it never posed a threat to him, given the security measures they had in place.
“It’s been eight months since ‘Munch,’ and as anybody can see, it went from zero to 100 — real quick,” he says in April, nodding to the Drake song. He met Ice in March 2022 through his client Diablo, a DJ-producer who was working with her for the first time at New York recording studio Blast Off Productions. “Me and her manifested each other — I was looking for a female act, and she was looking for a manager,” he says. Rosemond, 30, now manages Ice, RIOTUSA and Diablo under Mastermind Artists, the management and label company that he started in 2019. But the last year has taught him that management isn’t just about discovering and developing great artists — it’s also about protecting them. And at this transitional stage in Ice’s career, where she falls somewhere between rising rap star and culture-shifting sensation, Rosemond is having “real conversations” with her about what’s happening while giving her the space to say no.
Jubelirer and 10K co-presidents Zach Friedman and Tony Talamo are betting on Ice to become the next “global superstar,” a term all three use independently. But as they root for her to take off — “It’s a rocket, and we’re just holding on,” Friedman says — she’s still finding her footing. “It’s been less than a year of me being famous, so it is definitely an adjustment,” she admits. As she aims to live up to the lofty title that industry patrons and fans have anointed her with while still protecting her peace and privacy, Ice is trying to enjoy the lightning-fast ride while steeling herself for all that comes with it.
Isis Gaston was born one of one.
Entering the world on Jan. 1, 2000, she was practically predestined to rule her generation. Growing up in the Bronx, she admits with a sigh, she found her birthday “annoying, [because] everybody else is just celebrating New Year’s, but it’s my birthday.” But long before she assumed any title, she knew how to set an example. Ice’s four younger siblings looked up to her, and in turn, she looked up to her father — an underground rapper.
“While I was growing up, I wasn’t like, ‘My father’s a rapper, so I’m going to be one, too,’ ” she says; still, “seeing somebody go to the studio and always hearing hip-hop music,” like New York heavyweights Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Wu-Tang Clan, planted the seeds for her career. And while she didn’t manifest becoming a rapper, “I did manifest being successful,” she says matter-of-factly. Ice credits her mother, along with Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret, for teaching her about manifestation and the law of attraction when she was just 10 years old.
It wasn’t until 2019, when fellow New Yorker Pop Smoke popped off, that Ice grew interested in drill music, the hip-hop subgenre characterized by nihilistic and realistic lyrics about the inescapable prevalence of violence in major cities, punctuated with gunplay-like production loaded with rattling hi-hats and ad-libs like “Brrrrrrrap!” and “Grrrrr!”
Drill originated on Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s, defined by dark, slow tempos (borrowed from Atlanta trap music) and popularized by Chief Keef and Lil Durk, among others. Soon, the style traveled across the pond — and intermingled with grime, garage and road rap, molding U.K. drill. In Brooklyn, Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel started borrowing from Chicago drill’s sinister storytelling and injecting New York’s boisterous energy. They rapidly became hometown heroes: Both rappers scored label deals with Epic Records, and Shmurda’s smash “Hot N—a” landed in the top 10 of the Hot 100. Yet their promising come-ups — and New York drill’s emergence — stalled in December 2014, when Shmurda, Rebel and affiliates in the GS9 hip-hop collective were arrested on conspiracy to murder, weapons possession and reckless endangerment charges.
But within five years, the Brooklyn drill scene had a new figurehead: The 20-year-old Smoke, who lent his gruff yet suave voice to ominous 808 drum loops, courtesy of U.K. drill pioneer 808MeloBeats, for hits like “Welcome to the Party” and “Dior” that became street anthems. “I feel like Pop Smoke brought this new life back to it, and I was just obsessed,” Ice says of the rapper, who was murdered in February 2020. “He brought a lot of light into New York and definitely paved the way for a lot of current drill rappers.”
When Ice enrolled at SUNY Purchase, she pursued friendships with producers who could help her make her own mark in the drill scene. “I had a couple producer friends on campus that never would f–king send me a beat. And I’m like, ‘Hello?’ Nobody wanted to send me beats but RIOT,” she says of the producer — the son of WQHT (Hot 97) New York DJ/radio personality DJ Enuff — who became her go-to collaborator.
“Ice and RIOT are like Shaq and Kobe. You just don’t break it up. You let them do their thing, and they’re going to cook every night,” says 10K’s Talamo.
The duo started off by sampling 2010s EDM hits like Zedd and Foxes’ “Clarity” and Martin Garrix and Bebe Rexha’s “In the Name of Love” to soften drill’s rough edges and contrast Ice’s low-pitched, laid-back voice with pitched-up, bubblegum pop melodies and flashes of tenderness in the lyrics.
“Back in 2021, there was a big wave of sample drill where they were sampling a whole bunch of popular tracks. But I like finding things that either I had a connection to or are abstract samples,” RIOT explains. “So with ‘No Clarity,’ I was going through old EDM tracks, and when I came across it, it was real nostalgic for me because I loved that song when I was 12. I’m like, ‘Yo, we have to do this one!’ I made the beat, and Ice loved it.”
They didn’t clear the sample for the song, released in November 2021, but Zedd let it fly — and even invited Ice to perform it with him at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in March. “Funny thing about that performance is right before I went onstage, his laptop wasn’t working. And he said that that hadn’t happened to him in 10 years, so I was like, ‘It’s because I’m here,’ ” she recalls. “It ended up working out fine. I went out there and did ‘In Ha Mood’ and ‘No Clarity’ real quick, but the crowd was definitely a different crowd that I’ve never performed for.”
Zedd’s stage setup at Ultra, with smoke cannons firing right at the artist, also felt foreign to her. But as she has quickly graduated to large stages, one aspect of performance has been unexpectedly familiar: The athleticism required to run around them brings Ice back to her volleyball days in high school and college. “That’s what be motivating me to go into the gym. I’ve been working out lately, and I’m going to have that breath control down pat, feel me?” she says.
While Ice adapts to bigger stages, Rosemond is adapting to higher-stakes management operations — and drawing from old inspirations. Those include one of his college textbooks, All You Need To Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman, or as Rosemond calls it, “the bible of the music business.” After dropping out of Bay State College in Boston, he flew to Los Angeles to meet with Passman, a family friend, to get advice that helped him start his previous management company, RoyalDream Projects, in 2012. And like Ice, he also learned a lot from his father, James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond, the famed hip-hop mogul who formerly managed The Game, Gucci Mane and many more.
“I was privy to a lot of his deal-making, and me being a sponge allowed me to soak up what contracts looked like and how to approach labels,” Rosemond says. Before labels began approaching Ice, he advised her, “ ‘Let’s do it ourselves first.’ Deals came to her — production deals, 360 deals — but they were deals that I knew could be better, and in order to get a better deal, you have to go out and do it yourself.”
While Ice’s team independently released her first two major singles, “Munch” and “Bikini Bottom,” Rosemond tapped Create Music Group for distribution, after the company partnered with WorldStar HipHop in 2021 to launch a full-service music distribution hub called WorldStar Distro. “I knew Create Music had sister companies — WorldStar, Genius, Datpiff. So my thing was, ‘Here’s this record. Here’s the vision,’ ” he explains. From there, Rosemond made sure those branches executed the vision: WorldStar HipHop premiered Ice’s music videos on its YouTube channel, while Genius had her perform “Munch” on its Open Mic series. “We was able to be very strategic with it — and it worked.”
To help him and Ice navigate the ensuing label bidding war and emerge with the friendliest possible terms, including owning her masters and publishing, Rosemond hired his high school acquaintance Leon Morabia, an attorney from the newly merged powerhouse firm Mark Music and Media Law, P.C., which represents established acts from Billie Eilish to Guns N’ Roses. So when he and Ice arrived at a dinner meeting with 10K and Capitol at Nobu Malibu last summer, “We wasn’t freestyling it. We had that vision walking in,” he says.
“We were not going to leave that dinner until we knew that she would be an artist that we would be building together and working together until the day she stops performing,” says Jubelirer.
After Morabia made sure the most important terms were in her favor, Ice inked her deal with 10K and Capitol, which immediately began assisting in the promotion of singles to radio and clearing samples, like Diddy’s “I Need a Girl (Pt. 2)” on “Gangsta Boo,” released in January. But Ice had secured assurances that her creative autonomy would remain intact. “No one on the label side touches the music. There is no traditional A&R with her. No one’s picking beats, no one’s saying, ‘Do this, do that,’ ” Friedman says. “It’s all her. We’re on her schedule.”
Ice is currently prepping the deluxe version of Like..? for this summer; while that project keeps her in the discourse, she can complete and release her debut album at her own pace. But Ice and RIOTUSA are manifesting even bigger things ahead.
“I just want more accolades. I just want to put out more music,” she says, while RIOTUSA adds, “I want to have multiple No. 1s on the Hot 100 chart. I want to have Grammys. I just want to have timeless music.” He followed Ice’s lead by writing down his goals in a journal every day. “At first, I was a little skeptical, feel me? But I started writing, and literally every single thing we started writing just started coming true. I’m on my fourth book now.”
When asked about their dream collaboration, both Ice and RIOTUSA are at a loss for words because they’ve already checked it off with Minaj. Ice credits Rosemond for ultimately making her dream come true. “I’m listening to her. Who’s her idol? Nicki, Nicki, Nicki, Nicki, Nicki. My thing is, how do I get her Nicki? And it’s being persistent,” he says. “It took months to get Nicki on board, and it happened.” (In tandem with the remix’s release, Minaj announced on her Queen Radio show that she established a partnership with Ice under Minaj’s new label, Heavy On It, but Rosemond declined to comment on the matter; Minaj’s reps did not respond to a request for comment.)
The destined alliance between rap’s newly crowned princess and its long-reigning queen had been fulfilled, exciting the Spice Cabinet and the Barbz. At the end of the music video, Ice and Minaj exchange wide-eyed glances and grins à la Minaj and Beyoncé’s 2015 “Feeling Myself” video, which Rosemond says was unplanned but demonstrates their “chemistry. And that’s big with Ice. She wants to work with people who want to work with her, but she’s very selective. It has to make sense.”
PinkPantheress felt similarly about “Boy’s a liar” when her label, Warner Music UK, pressed her to release a remix. “People kept mentioning it to me for charting reasons, but I was not really interested,” she tells Billboard, adding that she was only open to the idea if it involved another up-and-coming female artist who piqued her interest.
“[Ice] was kind of perfect. I saw she was following me, so I casually asked her if she would be down to do a remix. And she was really up for it. It was just literally through the DMs,” Pink recalls, while Ice adds, “I knew our fans would really appreciate it because I saw them wanting us to collab for a little bit.” In a matter of days, Ice sent over her verse, and Pink’s engineer, Jonny Breakwell, added it to the track. The next week, the British singer-songwriter-producer jetted to New York to shoot the video, and she instantly connected with her Bronx-bred collaborator. “Being Gen Z ‘It’ girls of the internet era, I feel like we had a lot in common, even though we’re from two completely different places,” says Pink.
The professional camera crew captured the duo’s chemistry, but one fan’s surreptitiously filmed video started a “wildfire,” as Ice calls it, on TikTok one month before “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” dropped. After she was caught off guard by the remix blasting throughout the neighborhood, the guerrilla filmer had spotted Ice and Pink filming in a nearby fire escape. She wasn’t the only local who observed the shoot. “There was a little group of boys down the block just screaming the whole time,” Ice recalls. “And then they was on the roof of the other building, watching us do the roof scenes, screaming. It was so funny.”
By now, Ice has learned that such distractions come with the territory — after all, as she raps in the song, “In the hood, I’m like Princess Diana” — and aren’t likely to let up any time soon. If she can laugh at them or make them work in her favor, she’ll eventually become the global superstar she intends to be. She’s already a face of two huge celebrity brands, Beyoncé’s Ivy Park and Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS. And she’s not shying away from the cameras any time soon: She’s also interested in acting. “But right now, I’m focused on music,” she says. “I’m still learning a lot, to be honest. But I’m so happy I’ve put in that time and that work — because it’s paying off.”
This story will appear in the May 13, 2023, issue of Billboard.
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