For a country built on religious freedom and free speech, we certainly are a judgmental lot. In fact, certain subcultures seem to receive a disproportionate share of scorn. Ponytailed ex-hippies in expensive vehicles. Women with big hair (pref. from Jersey). Men over a certain age wearing skinny jeans. Fans of Michael Bolton. And that most reviled of species, the Juggalo.
The latter are fans of the rap-rock act Insane Clown Posse, a group that has become the redheaded stepchild of the music world and the target of the FBI itself.
"When you think of Juggalos, the first thing someone would think of is a negative image, probably some white trash person who lives in a trailer that isn't very smart," says Ray Cubillan, frontman of the Charleston hardcore band, EVA. "ICP almost prides itself on being the ones willing to take in those people who some might think of in a negative light."
That's a big reason why the band's recently had trouble finding a home for its 15th annual festival, the Gathering of the Juggalos. After five years at a rural site in southern Illinois, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope recently announced they were moving the fest to Missouri. Then two weeks ago ICP retracted that, confirming instead a site in Thornville, Ohio, just outside of Columbus.
To be sure, the festival — which runs from July 22 to 26 this year — has a reputation for unruliness and drug use, but exactly how does this makes it any different from Bonnaroo, Coachella, or Electric Forest? There's a price to pay when 10,000 people descend on a campground, especially in an atmosphere where freedom of expression's given carte blanche.
"The hardcore community always prides itself in theory on unity and family, but most of the time that's all talk and people judge each other based on what they listen to and what they're wearing, just like high school," Cubillan continues. "But when I go to an ICP show, it's more like it's supposed to be. There are all these people that I probably wouldn't hang out with in any other setting, but as soon as ICP starts playing, we're hugging. We're singing along and spraying soda on each other. I always thought that was cool."
The hatchet-wielding pair behind Insane Clown Posse, Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J (a.k.a. Joseph Utsler and Joseph Bruce), got their start in the early '90s when Ice-T and N.W.A. were helping launch gangsta rap. Inspired by fellow Detroit rapper Esham's dark surreal lyrics, ICP used a similarly outrageous, image-heavy style as a touchstone for their violent rap and donned their attire for its theatricality, assuming the role of avenging clowns.
In 1992 they released their debut Carnival of Carnage, inaugurating one of the more unusual runs in music history. They scored three gold and two platinum records in their first five releases without anything even close to a hit single, while simultaneously being critically reviled. (They did release three of those albums for a major label, and two more subsequent to that.)
Part of the allure was built into the iconography. The carnival sideshow theme is like a bat-signal to freaks, and who hasn't at some point in their youth felt freakish? That's part of the band's unspoken, everyman appeal. Today, ICP has turned that geeky obsession into not only a near Tolkien-worthy mythology, but a tremendous merchandising machine.
"It's an acquired taste, no doubt about it," Violent J told us in a previous interview. "We don't appeal to the masses. But the few we do appeal to, who find our stuff artistic, refreshing, and genuine, maybe they're the type that feel alone in a lot of circumstances — not just liking our music. They come together through our music, our events, and they come across other people that like the same shit they do, like this music, and also feel the same way they do about a bunch of things. It's like an overwhelming feeling. That's why they end up chanting family. Just the only word that can describe what they're feeling."
What's even stranger is that the ICP craze shows no signs of abating. Their last two albums — 2009's Bang! Pow! Boom! and 2012's The Mighty Death Pop — both reached No. 4 on the album charts, replicating their best prior showing, 1999's The Amazing Jeckel Brothers. Think of how many big bands have come and gone the last 22 years. Who would've thought a homicidal clown duo would be the one to remain commercially relevant?
Cubillan first became fascinated by the ICP song "Mr. Johnson's Head" when he was six years old, and he's even more of a fan today. He wonders how it is we understand that Anthony Hopkins isn't going to eat our face off, but we're frightened of a couple white 40-something rappers in greasepaint.
"Game of Thrones is probably more violent than any music-related thing. When there's rape or murder, there's a visual. When a guy in clown makeup tells me he's going to murder somebody, I know it's not going to happen," Cubillan laughs. "They are some smart dudes, not that they always articulate that, but there are interviews out there where they break character a bit and let you know they know what they're doing. But it's funny we get hung up on these things. They're making music."
Not that Violent J or Shaggy 2 Dope care what other people think. Violent J proudly proclaims that Juggalo love paid his kid's college tuition. Why would he worry? They have a prosperous career while once bigger names like Big Daddy Kane or Sir Mix-A-Lot do not. Living well is the best revenge.
"I can't stress enough how much we don't give a fuck if people understand it or not," Violent J explained during our earlier talk. "What we're doing out here is a wonderful thing for a lot of people. Something magic had brought us together, and we all belong to something now. We're not alone. Our music has helped a lot of good human beings through a lot of shit, and if they have a problem with, then they can fuck right off."