Horrorcore hip-hop iconoclasts Insane Clown Posse have received plenty of criticism for their music in reviews from magazines like Rolling Stone and Blender. Many religious groups take issue with the dark, violent imagery used in song lyrics. In most corners of independent music, the thought of treating any of their albums like serious work is laughable. But I'm not interested in giving them a music review. I want to know why this anomaly exists both within the music industry and outside of it. A culture has developed around the music and mythos of Insane Clown Posse, and I want to understand it.
To begin, I had to travel to their home base. The group's fans make a pilgrimage each year to the Gathering of the Juggalos, which takes place in Cave-In-Rock, Ill., in early August. I attended the 13th Annual Gathering of the Juggalos to experience juggalo culture at its most extreme, with around 10,000 fanatic juggalos.
Performers at the festival included revered hip-hop artists like Warren G, Biz Markie, Master P, The Game, Three 6 Mafia and DMX. Even underground hip-hop like Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon, Tech N9ne and Danny Brown, who shares the hometown of Detroit with the clowns, performed. Houston veterans Geto Boys came together to play, behavior that's become rare for them. Add originator of psychedelic-funk George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic to that. This still doesn't include the slew of alternative rock and metal bands, and groups from the Insane Clown Posse-owned independent label Psychopathic Records. While this year's line-up is weirdly impressive, the Gathering has seen performances by Ice Cube, CKY, MC Hammer, Busta Rhymes, Naughty by Nature, Method Man, Redman, Andrew WK, GWAR, Afroman and Bone Thugs N Harmony in the past. Getting big names to play is becoming easier each year, which is strange for a group that so many in mainstream and independent music find immature and repulsive.
But before we get to the festival, let me bring you up to speed on one of the strangest phenomenons in today's pop culture.
These comparatively more popular artists didn't accidentally slip onto the bill. Over the course of their career, Insane Clown Posse has shown their ability to excel at the business and marketing of their music and the artists on their label -- part of which is bringing in bigger names to collaborate or appear on songs. A larger part is getting big names onto tours with them and onto the bill for the Gathering. The argument could be made that everyone has a price, which Danny Brown even admitted in an interview with The Village Voice. But he also said that he admired the clowns' devoted fans and hoped to come away with some for himself.
Insane Clown Posse started in 1989 in Detroit. Both members were involved with inner city gangs and wanted something more out of life. They looked to imitate their idols in the hardcore gangsta rap scene that was peaking, but couldn't build a following. Local artist and horrorcore pioneer Esham provided inspiration and guidance for an aesthetic change to the band's appearance and thematic album style. The alternate personas of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope took the place of Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, respectively. They found a strange niché in Detroit and in the Midwest. By use of fliers, word of mouth, favors, opportunistic radio spots and creative use of Detroit soda Faygo, they built a cult following.
Since then the group has had public disputes with Eminem, started their own record label, founded their own wrestling federation and performed at Rock for Darfur, an awareness and benefit show for refugees and victims. In September 2003 Blender magazine voted them the worst band of any genre, but also described their latest album in a negative review as charming, good-natured idiocy. They appeared with Jack White and JEFF the Brotherhood on a track produced by White, which featured music written by Wolfgang Mozart in 1782 and was released on White's label Third Man Records titled "Leck Mich Im Arsch." The English translation is "Lick Me In The Arse," and the title comes from Mozart's little-known, odd sense of humor, which is disturbingly similar to the clowns'.
Insane Clown Posse has two platinum records and five gold albums. Featured artists in their catalog include Snoop Dogg, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Kid Rock, Ice-T, and more. They wrote, produced and starred in two feature-length films, and have scored high numbers on Billboard charts. In a music industry which capitalizes on mainstream popularity and an accessible sound, this duo of alternative, horrorcore, hip-hop, juggalo creativity has achieved an astounding amount of success. Whether you're a fan of the music or not, Insane Clown Posse has found a way to make their schtick work.
Sharon Osbourne and the clowns appeared on The Howard Stern show years ago in a feud over the contract of a band that Osbourne was managing. In the usual style of Stern's show, the two groups argued, and in that bickering they made a bet: Osbourne bet the clowns $50,000 that their next record wouldn't sell 200,000 units and Violent J agreed. I'm not saying that Osbourne is a music industry expert, but her experience level and position in the music industry has given her unique insight that many do not have. If I were to have made a bet on that bet I would have picked Osbourne, but when Insane Clown Posse released the next album, a double release titled The Wraith: Shangri-La, it sold 400,000.
But although their records were available at your neighborhood big box music store, legal trouble was brewing.
In the FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment List the juggalos were added, making this year's Gathering a gang rally and all merchandise available there gang apparel. This means that affiliation with juggalos and Insane Clown Posse through clothing, music, or tattoos can be considered violation of parole or probation. Anyone associated with the lifestyle can have a gang file included with their record, which is considered in court sentences.
In response, at this year's Gathering, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope have set forth an investigation into the FBI's decision. They spoke about the ways that their inclusion on the list had affected their fans.
The clowns know how to put on a show, regularly including fireworks, Faygo and confetti in their act and for others onstage. And the diverse musical lineup isn't the only attraction. Comedians Cheech & Chong performed, along with Bobcat Goldthwait, Ralphie May and Jamie Kennedy. Professional wrestling stars made appearances and the Juggalo Championship Wrestling federation held several matches throughout the week. Fans can enjoy state-fair type food and drinks, ride on carnival rides, or explore the private campground full of stages and vendors.
Cave-In-Rock is a town of 350 people on the northern bank of the Ohio River, five hours driving from Indianapolis. The photographer and I drove straight through the tiny village and shot up a steep hill. As we crested at the top the Ohio River stretched out before us and we boarded a ferry to cross. I talked to the ferry's operator about the juggalos and he let us know that we'd passed the campgrounds. He explained that no one minded the group's presence in town besides "older farts and church folks," and that he suspects the county has profited from the event the past six years that it has been held there.
We found our way into a parking space and walked towards the campgrounds. Juggalos had set up tents all over the private property. Many sat in circles enjoying soda and beer they'd bought in the surrounding community. The gravel lot we'd parked in held license plates from every state besides Hawaii and Alaska. We met Canadian juggalos and heard rumors that fans from every continent were present. Each time that I asked a juggalo their reason for coming they raised their arms outward and shouted, "This is my family." Most times this would begin a chant of 'fam-i-ly' among the crowd and passerby. The gathering is a place where juggalos feel safe and secure. The music, clothing, and lifestyle is an expression of identity in the post-consumer society that we all live in, and the juggalos have elected the gathering as time and place to call home. We met with friendly groups everywhere we went. We saw families, older couples, and teenagers.
"Ain't no hate here," one young juggalo summed up. "No hate at all. This is my family."
While my trepidation to attend was quickly overruled by curiosity, the initial fear originated from the violence that surrounds the juggalos in the news media. As a member of said news media I should have known better than to believe it. The only time that we felt threatened was when we were warned of the "drug bridge," a place where exchanges were made. We were told that cameras and press would be met with physical violence - but drugs are nothing new at music festivals. The juggalos are doing the same thing that happens at Bonnaroo's "drug alley" and similar subcultures at any large festival.
On the first day of the gathering local police had made eight arrests on felony drug possession charges. By the end of the festival, however, no major injuries or incidents had occurred, and the crowd dispersed. Vendors at the festival sold grocery supplies, soda, food, drinks, and several juggalo souvenirs. Some had been coming to the gathering for years, they said. The crowds were always friendly and they made a significant amount of profit from the trip, despite their customers being recently defined members of a gang.
Overall the experience was laid-back. We heard stories of devotion, like the man who wore a kilt and had ridden 44 hours on a bus from Seattle. He told us that he took off 12 days from work and would probably be fired upon his return. Around his neck he showed us the charms that juggalos collect from each gathering, of which there have now been 13.
"I got eleven of 'em," he said. "I'm never going to miss this again."
An older fan with tattoos paying homage to hardcore punk groups Black Flag and Cro-Mags told us about his favorite concert. He was fortunate enough to have seen The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson. He also spoke about his love for Brazilian thrash-metal gods, Sepultura. I asked him why he came to the gathering, especially because his tastes in music are so diverse.
"I grew up in Detroit," he said. "These are my homies. These are my people."
I didn't grow up in Detroit, these aren't my homies and they aren't my people. I still don't understand how Insane Clown Posse is possible, but take away the music that repulses so many and they are still wildly successful independent musicians that perform and produce on their own terms. Many factors would need to be taken into account to explain this phenomenon, but in the end I suspect that magnets have something to do with it.