They're outcasts, rejects and losers. The insults hurled at the devoted followers of American's most hated band only get worse; “gang member” and “murderer” are among the epithets.
Fans of Insane Clown Posse — Juggalos, they call themselves — dislike being called thugs and violent idiots. It's the critics who are wrong, for missing the subtle messages buried in lyrics like “The Witch” (“The witch told me, I gotta murder this one kid/K, well, maybe the witch didn't then, but I did/With a ninja suit, crept through like a black widow/with the crossbow, stuck him in the neck like ditto.”)
And are there ever critics of the clown-inspired Detroit hip-hop group. England's venerable New Musical Express described the 2000 double album “Bizzar ” as a “loathsome cavalcade of brutal sex and gleeful violence so sewer-minded you wonder if that stupid make-up isn't just to disguise their manhole-cover mouths.” In 1999, Rolling Stone said of the album “The Amazing Jeckel Brothers”: “Without skills, they serve up shock tactics that are no longer shocking. ‘Jeckel' generates a continuous stream of failed punch lines, secondhand misogyny, grade-Z gore, sexual insecurity and klutzy rhymes more laughable than laugh-worthy.”
Ridicule of Insane Clown Posse and the Juggalos peaked last year, when the band released a YouTube video for the song “Miracles,” a seemingly earnest attempt to tailor an upbeat tune that quickly launched scores of parodies and jeering Facebook posts thanks to puerile lyrics like “Magic everywhere in this b---h” and “F---ing magnets, how do they work?” Meanwhile, “Saturday Night Live” has repeatedly mocked the Juggalos, portraying them as the epitome of classlessness and cluelessness.
Dismissed as a gimmick, ICP's evil carnival motif has lasted 20 years. The criticism matters none to the Juggalos — “Jeckel Brothers” peaked at No.4 on the Billboard 200 chart. Most of ICP's records since 1999 — almost all of them released on an indie label — have reached Billboard's top 25. The duo of Joseph “ViolentJ” Bruce and Joseph “Shaggy 2Dope” Utsler put out their music via Psychopathic Records, a label they own and which includes a roster of like-minded “horrorcore” acts that generally adhere to the distinct culture that surrounds the band.
But like early rock 'n' rollers and the punk rockers who came later, the more that the mainstream rejects and scorns ICP and the Juggalos, the more entrenched Juggalos become.
“This is what we are,” said Jedediah Husted, a Louisville Juggalo. “If you don't like, f--- it.”
The fact that Insane Clown Posse's success has come largely without the support of corporate radio, MTV or the music press fits the narrative perfectly. Take the “Magnets” video, for example, which generated 5.5 million hits on YouTube and launched the band into the mainstream consciousness, for better or worse.
Aaron Daniels has devoted much of his adult life to living the Juggalo way. Daniels dropped out of high school to help care for his sick mother and didn't earn his GED until years later. Now 30, he is unemployed and lives on mental-health disability payments from the government.
Among the other kids, Daniels said he felt like an outcast. Then, when he was 14, a friend played him a tape of “Riddle Box,” Insane Clown Posse's third album.
“I was a Juggalo before I realized there was a name for it,” Daniels said. (The term “Juggalo” is derived from “The Juggla,” a song about a violent juggling act on ICP's 1992 debut album “Carnival of Carnage.”)
His fandom intensified through his teens and culminated on his 18th birthday, when ICP played the old Brewery Thunderdome in Louisville. Until that show, Daniels hadn't realized the scope of ICP's fandom and was amazed by the face-painted fans and the camaraderie in the crowd.
“It's a whole new state of mind — a new way of looking at life,” Daniels said. “It's like finding God for the first time. The design of the family is that everyone fits in. Nobody's judged; nobody's turned away. Most of us were the nerds and the fat kids growing up.”
The Dark Carnival
The Juggalo lifestyle — being “down with the clown,” in ICP parlance — means going to shows in full clownface, wearing the band's Hatchet Man logo on their clothing (or as a tattoo) and drinking the preferred soft drink, the discount soda Faygo, which Utsler and Bruce usually end up pouring onto the crowd in a form of Juggalo baptism.
Juggalo interests also include professional wrestling, lowbrow movies and video games. The lingo is a mix of carnival jargon, Detroit patois and street slang. Men are Juggalos, women are Juggalettes (and sometimes Ninjas and Ninjettes). Profanities are more common than commas. Reciprocate the Juggalo's ways, and be met by “MCL” — “much clown love.”
But the obsession can run deeper than an unrelenting love for the music.
Beloved as The Flaming Lips are, no fan has converted Wayne Coyne's lyrics into a quasi-religion. ICP's music — and the Juggalo lifestyle — fills the slot of faith for people like Daniels — to the point that Daniels has been ordained a minister via an instant ordination website — and started a quasi-religious meet-up he's dubbed the Temple of the Hatchet, a reference to The Hatchet Man. The Saturday night services mostly consist of hanging out and listening to music, with a smattering of ICP-inspired preaching tossed in, Daniels said. But the intent is clear: Daniels wants to live his life in accordance to Juggalo values.
“It's about having a family, having a place to turn to,” Daniels said. “Without this, I'd probably be doing the stuff they're talking about.”
As the head of the Temple of the Hatchet, Daniels prefers to be called “Pope Aaron.” He even wrote a papal-style “bull” in response to critics.
“There is a common misconception about the Hatchet family,” he wrote. “Most people think we are a gang. If we were anything like that we would be a mafia. Though yes we are a gang, but not like a street gang. Is your family not a big gang of people that will always be there for each other? When a brother or sister is down and out, don't you reach out to lend them a helping hand? Then you're gang-related, too.”
Later, he adds: “Were you ever bullied? Were you the one called nerd or freak? Were you called the fat kid or any of the other countless names that some rude people that judge others can call others to make themselves look and feel better? Then you're gang-related, too! And the Dark Carnival dwells deep inside you.”
The Dark Carnival is the thing — here is how ICP has spiraled from a pop culture interest to an unlikely spiritual guide for a small but loyal sect of fans like Daniels.
The basis of the band's first six albums, the Dark Carnival was inspired by a dream Joseph Bruce says he once had about a limbo-like world set in an evil carnival, where souls wait to be judged for Heaven or Hell.
The Dark Carnival mythology — which Daniels and other Juggalos take seriously — led the Guardian newspaper in England to famously describe Insane Clown Posse as a clandestine group of fundamentalist Christians, hooking fans through raunchy lyrics and retooling the meaning into explicit parables.
But while he and Bruce profess a belief in the divine, Utsler says it would be incorrect to classify them as fundamentalist Christians.
“What's your fate, Heaven or Hell?” he asked. “But we're not sitting there trying to be no Christian group. I don't go to church. All we're saying is, ‘Do good in your life.' Nobody wants to see anybody burn in hell.”
And the violence?
“The violence is to get someone turned on to the music,” he concedes, adding that he's pleased to hear fans tell of straightening their lives after finding deep meaning in ICP lyrics.
Daniels has a more nuanced explanation for Utsler and Bruce's music. To him, Insane Clown Posse songs are morality tales — brutal morality tales where severe justice is doled out by people dressed as clowns, with hatchets.
“They're talking about killers, sex offenders, child molesters — pretty much the scum of the earth who nobody wants to be around,” Daniels said. “They're basically saying what everybody else is thinking.”
Among the outcasts
Out of curiosity, Sean Bailey, a manager at the record store Ear X-tacy, dressed as a Juggalo and attended an Insane Clown Posse show last year in Louisville.
He said the concert reminded him of the hardcore punk shows he attended as a teenager, rowdy underground performances packed with fans whose aggressive dancing was offset by a deep sense of outcast kinship.
“There was a very strong sense of family and unity amongst those in attendance,” Bailey said. “Lots of face paint, lots of baggy clothing emblazoned with the Hatchet Man and an exorbitant amount of Faygo soda dripping from the ceilings, the walls, the stage, the attendees — seemingly everywhere.”
Then there was the performance itself, which Bailey called “sonically and visually intoxicating, edge-of-your-seat entertaining and unlike anything I've ever witnessed before.”
Juggalo fandom at its most profound is on display each summer at the Gathering of the Juggalos.
The annual festival near Rockford, Ill., is a required pilgrimage for truly dedicated Juggalos, featuring performances by ICP and other Psychopathic Records artists, plus guests who have included Ice Cube, GWAR, Ol' Dirty Bastard and — most notoriously — Internet celebrity Tila Tequila, whose face was bloodied when rowdy Juggalos turned on her and lobbed bottles at her during her appearance at last year's gathering.
The episode illustrates a dichotomy within the Juggalos, who preach brotherly love and understanding on one hand, but can easily whip themselves into a bottle-throwing mob at the slightest provocation. (In this case, it was the perception that Tequila was only there for publicity and not truly “down with the clown.”)
But in Daniels' mind, there was nothing contradictory at all about the way Tequila — who essentially earned her fame by posting provocative photos of herself on MySpace and by showing up anywhere cameras are present — was treated by the Juggalos. As with any hard-core subculture, be it the Marine Corps, the Hells Angels or the Oakland Raiders Fan Club, poseurs are dealt with harshly.
“She claimed she was a Juggalo, and we didn't like that,” Daniels said. “We would have accepted it if she had been herself and not tried to be something she's not.”
Perhaps out of an awareness that they and their cohorts do not come off as warm and inviting, Juggalos invariably turn to their own conversion stories, which often involve being an outcast in search of something to which to cling.
Jordon Cunningham came into Juggalodom at age 10. The target of bullies at school, he found refuge among the Juggalos with whom his older brother ran.
“He saw how they were treating me,” said Cunningham, now 18. “He had me hang out with him and his friends. That was the place for outcasts.”
ICP provided the soundtrack for their lives, and somewhere in the murder and mayhem, a positive message was discerned.
“Me and my brother, we grew up poor. If I'd never heard of ICP, I'd probably be worse off than I am,” said Cunningham, who plans to enroll at Jefferson Community & Technical College this fall. “I used to get in fights all the time and kept getting locked up. This put a positive spin on my life.”
Sonja Elli is another convert. The 23-year-old became a Juggalette eight years ago, when Daniels introduced her to the music. She concedes that her non-Juggalo friends have difficulty understanding her fascination. She's not surprised.
“It's weird music,” she said. “(But) you don't have to be judged by anybody — it's like a family.”
More than marketing
Insane Clown Posse's successes are astonishing, considering the general disdain for the band.
(If you have any doubt of the ire the band draws, read the comments posted on the “Miracles” video on YouTube.)
The loyalty of Juggalo Nation is sincere, and Utsler insists the strange world he and Bruce have created — the face paint, the Hatchet Man, the Dark Carnival — is not just a supremely effective marketing ploy.
“We didn't even make the Juggalos,” Utsler said. “Juggalos happened on their own. If that were a marketing scheme, it would have been a burned-out fad by now.”
And perhaps the mainstream will eventually swallow up ICP and the Juggalos. After all, another white rapper from Detroit used to sing about murdering people, too, but now Eminem appears in movies with Adam Sandler and Kim Basinger and performs on “Saturday Night Live.”
In the meantime, Utsler says he is content to work hard and tour relentlessly. Anything to keep the Juggalos happy.
“We never have a break,” he said. “We're always working.”
The current tour will bring ICP to Expo Five on Friday, and later this winter Utsler and Bruce will record their 12th album, set for release in early 2012.
“This record we're about to come out with?” Utsler said. “Man, s---, it's going to change the world.”
That's certain, at least for the few, the proud, the Juggalos.