Insane Clown Posse could have been an awkward blip in music history. The story would go like this:
In the ’90s, white man-boys in Detroit painted their faces like clowns and rapped about slashing people up like they were in a B-grade ’80s horror flick. Disney released their fourth horrorcore album and then pulled it from the shelves when the Southern Baptists reared their heads.
That could have been it. But somehow, ICP has stuck around.
In the mid-’90s I was a white teenage loser in the rap section of a Midwestern shopping-mall CD store when I saw my first ICP album. I remember asking myself, “What the fuck kind of stupid shit is this?” As a member of ICP's target demographic, I had a mark on my back to become an early-adopter juggalo in one of the greatest brand coups in history. But, no. I turned the other way; the whole thing seemed too kitschy. When rumors spread that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were out to save my soul for Jesus through misogynistic imagery and the crass poetry of bloodlust, I yawned.
At least until Monday night — the first time I caught Insane Clown Posse live. It’s not that I’ve converted into a juggalo (much less a Christian) or that I even like the band. But the live experience was nothing short of religious, and easily one of the best shows I've ever seen.
Problematic? Yes. Misogynistic? Of course. Gross? Sure. A pathetic excuse for hip-hop? Pretty much. But it helped me understand why this duo, decades into its shtick, can still pack a theater – and, believe me, it was claustrophobic at points, particularly when four selfie-snapping teens unwittingly backed me into a wall, tickling my nose with their smoke-stained, greasy hair.
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There's a reason that ICP can inspire a floor-shaking chant of “Fam-i-ly, Fam-i-ly, Fam-i-ly” or “Whoop, Whoop." Whatever criticisms I have of the clowns as lyricists, they have provided the glue for juggalos to experience strong connections to each other. All I had to do was pay attention to the long string of openers acknowledging the family of fans to know that.
There was the wild orange-haired rapper Lyte, who spit-fire waxed about how the juggalo movement had taken him in when everybody else had pushed him away; Big Hoodoo, who dutifully stumped for ICP’s Psychopathic Records; and finally, R.A. the Rugged Man, an old-school MC who positioned himself as an outsider when he joined the tour and had fallen in love with the juggalos, some of the most devoted fans out there, as he told it. With thirty years of rapping under his belt, he was less loyal to Psychopathic or any other record label. He summed his thoughts up neatly: “Every record label sucks dick.”
Rugged Man couldn’t help but spin tales about the old days of hip-hop, when Biggie Smalls was still alive. He asked the crowd to chant "Wu Tang" alongside "ICP," which many outright mocked. The Rugged Man came off like the old jazz guys who used to visit my elementary school and talk about collaborating with the greats; sure, he could slay as a rapper, but his focus was bearing witness for rap’s legends, not its future. Not that ICP is hip-hop’s future – or even present.
The openers stuck to the schedule, but when it came time for ICP to perform and stagehands draped a plastic tarp in front of the stage for setup, the show came to a standstill. A long line of VIP juggalos waited restlessly to be escorted backstage to do a meet-and-greet with Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. The audience’s warm chants of “ICP” and “fam-i-ly” came and went. Then the chant, “Play the show” erupted. After that, “What the fuck?” became the rallying cry as the clock struck midnight.
In the lobby, poor Rugged Man looked more like Ragged Man standing by his merch table, trying to catch the eyes of ICP fans, who mostly ignored him. He seemed as ready to pack it up as I was. What the fuck, indeed.
Finally, the VIPs were escorted backstage. There was a scuffle in the crowd, and a cop and security guard hustled in to drag someone off. More “What the fuck.” More “ICP.” More “Play the show.”
Just as I settled in to tweet that a juggalo riot might break out at the Boulder Theater, a hand popped up over the black tarp. The lights dimmed. The opening music to the band's fourth album, The Great Milenko, which the duo would perform in its entirety Monday night, played over the speakers.
The crowd’s mood shifted from irritation to ecstasy. Nearly everybody in the family roared, “Whoop, Whoop!” The tarp came down and the lights came up.
On the backdrop was the spooky face from the cover of the Great Milenko album, which, under stroboscopic lights, looked both like a slightly creepy carnival clown and a diabolical monster. Two tables on stage had dozens of bottles of Faygo, the juggalo soda of choice. Security guards donned clear raincoats. Nobody else wore protection.
Finally, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope came onto the stage, fresh from the Juggalo March on Washington, where they had joined thousands in protesting the FBI’s designation of their fans as a gang. But on this night they had nothing to say about the identity politics of juggalos or any other more pertinent social-justice issues. They left the kneeling to the football players, the punching to antifa, the outrage against Trump to the Dems, and took the crowd back to 1997, when their then-fresh album was already being derided by critics as out of date.
To hell with the critics. Twenty years later the party is still going. They were having fun, and the crowd, which had looked stoned and depressed waiting for the rappers to arrive, mostly woke from its slumber, taking to ICP like a vampire to blood.
It didn’t take much time for J and 2 Dope to start spraying the fans with sticky Faygo and chucking the bottles over the crowd, using carbonation to shoot them all the way to the back of the massive Boulder Theater, even up to the high roof and onto murals, which were inadequately covered by black tarps, some of which had been torn down. Two juggalos took shelter behind me, and I took Faygo to the face, the legs and the gut. On stage, a person wearing a monster mask dutifully reloaded the Faygo tables for the hour-plus performance. I still feel sticky.
Every now and then, creepy dancers would join the rappers, swinging all manners of flags, including the Confederate one. I was ready to write the band off as racist, but then I thought back to the song “Confederate Flag,” from the 2015 album The Marvelous Missing List: Lost.
“Rednecks call it pride / Pride for what? / White pride for slavery it sickens my gut / I see that flag as a challenge that you want to fight / You don't care who it offends / You say it's your right / Well it's my right to sock you dead in your lip / Put a foot on your neck, until you eat up a dick (bitch) / No matter where you live, you should hate that flag / ’Cause it represents evil bigots, tell ’em, Shaggs.”
Fans moshed and crowd-surfed. Even Violent J, who’s not a small guy, dove from the stage into the arms of his followers without warning. Of course they caught him.
Toward the end of the show, the VIPs were invited to the back again. I feared the rest of us would get stuck waiting out an endless pre-encore meet-and-greet. But they joined ICP on stage, armed with two-liters of Faygo. They started spraying the crowd. The soda lit up underneath strobes, looking ghostly, like floating plasma.
What was mystical in the air was a mess on the ground. The crowd was drenched. White fans’ ungroomed dreadlocks were soaked through with corn syrup. The room smelled like root beer (apparently the best in the country, according to Bon Appétit in 2009). Crushed two-liter bottles were everywhere. More juggalos took the stage. It was like a grand finale on the Fourth of July, but instead of fireworks, there was fizz. Amid the chaos, J and 2 Dope disappeared, and as the Faygo ran out and empty boxes were thrown into the crowd, people knew the show was over. The chaos had given ICP cover to escape. It was time to go home. The theater was trashed.
I didn’t leave the show loving Insane Clown Posse’s music. The violent lyrics still revolt me. The Christian overtones make me nervous. The palpable misogyny is awful. The rappers' lyrical skills are not that lyrical.
But I did leave jealous of the kind of family juggalos have built, and in awe of a musical act that has inspired such close bonds. Kendrick Lamar, J and 2 Dope are not. They’re not even R.J. the Rugged Man, or fellow horrorcore duo Twiztid (whose career was nurtured by ICP and who left Psychopathic Records to form label Majik Ninja Entertainment, an oedipal gesture that has caused deep rifts between juggalos).
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ICP allowed us to get in touch with the most vulnerable, traumatized and wounded parts of our psyche, acknowledge that in spite of how fucked up we all are, we’re worthwhile people, and, if we so choose, we can join the juggalos and heal our wounds under the ICP banner: Just buy this hoodie, this T-shirt, and this Hatchet Man necklace.
As Violent J said at the end of the night, before the crowd was baptized in Faygo, “If you take one thing home from this show, know this: The Insane Clown Posse loves each and every one of you unconditionally...un-con-ditionally.”
Communicating the love that so many people lack may be ICP's true mastery. It's more than a T-shirt, more than a brand, more than a band. Juggalo love is real.