Every couple of years I tell myself I'm ready to get into Insane Clown Posse. Not in an ironic or gawky way, or in this way where I get really fascinated with the culture around them while not actually listening to their music––the primary modes of ICP appreciation among the "media class"––but actually enjoying their music, as it exists.
Not uncoincidentally, every couple of years I also realize that getting into Insane Clown Posse is incredibly difficult. This is not because Insane Clown Posse is "bad," per se; it's just that Insane Clown Posse does not conform to the conventional notions of taste as you or I understand them.
When most people think about ICP, they think of two aging white guys in clown makeup sing-rapping a goofy song about miracles and wondering how magnets work. And yes, that's definitely a version of ICP, but it's not the ICP that arose in early 90s Detroit offering a local, violence-obsessed alternative to the dance-rap of 2 Live Crew, Tone Loc, and Vanilla Ice that dominated the genre's mainstream. In a sense, they should be viewed as part of a larger wave of hyper-regional DIY hip-hop scenes that were occurring in places such as New Orleans, the Bay Area, and Memphis. (For context, the first ICP album sounds way more like the first record from Memphis's Gangsta Pat than it does "Miracles.")
"You had people who really fucked with their shit," Danny Brown said to Camille Dodero of the Village Voice back in 2012, when it was announced that the Detroit rapper would be playing ICP's Gathering of the Juggalos festival. "Kids in early high school––like ninth or tenth grade––a lot of kids were really into [horrorcore OG] Esham and ICP and that's all they would listen to. They didn't listen to commercial rap or anything else, but only what went on in that Psychopathic [Records] world. They had their own little clique of people."
As a group, you can take ICP or leave 'em, but it's hard to deny the impact they had on Detroit rap. For context, in either 1995 or 1997––depending on which Eminem fan page you consult––Eminem tried to promote his album release party by promising the group would be there, leading to a public feud that lasted long past the point where Em got so famous he should have stopped caring. And from around 2006—when Em's D12 broke up and the death of J Dilla destabilized the city's underground rap scene—until around 2012—when Doughboyz Cashout and Danny Brown's Bruiser Brigade really started picking up steam—ICP and Psychopathic were the only game in town. If you were a rapper in Michigan trying to get some shine, Psychopathic genuinely had (and still has) something to offer: Signing with them or their Hatchet House affiliate meant you got automatic access to their rabid fanbase, the ability to tour, and given Psychopathic's indie status, probably way more money and promotion than you'd get than if you signed with a major.
So, now that we've established that ICP is worth vaguely respecting from an abstract standpoint, let's go back to the issue of taste, or ICP's non-relation to it. At various times, genuine hip-hop legends such as Cold 187um, Esham, MC Breed, Dayton Family, and everybody in Three 6 Mafia who isn't Juicy J has been signed to Psychopathic or one of its affiliates, and throughout the years ICP themselves have worked with Ol' Dirty Bastard, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Necro, Mack 10, Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Bushwick Bill, Danny Brown, Slash (!?), and Jack White (?!?!?!). If I told you about a rap group who'd worked with all those guys and had gone out of their way to sign Dayton Family and Cold 187um, you'd think they were pretty cool! Or, at least, you would think that until I told you they wore clown makeup, were obsessed with downmarket Faygo soda, called their fans "Juggalos," and had made ten percent more rap-rock songs than will ever be socially acceptable.
The point of all of this is that ICP represents a very real socioeconomic viewpoint that, unless you grew up poor in Detroit, you'll probably never quite understand. But within the downtrodden, post-industrial milieu that city, there was (and remains) real economic pain. In turn, that leads to social pain, which then leads to Insane Clown Posse, who rap about inflicting that pain upon others as a way of communicating what they themselves feel. There is no point in offering social commentary when your audience has all the same problems that you do; it's much more cathartic to rap about dressing up like a clown and eating someone's head ("Ghetto Freak Show"), putting the word "fuck" before a bunch of nouns ("Fuck the World"), or announcing that your balls are so gross that insects flock to them ("Bugz on My Nutz").
Despite whatever reservations you might have, there remains a whole lot of ICP-affiliated music that's worth exploring. Selections from the duo's first few records are completely worth your time, as is much of the work by close ICP affiliates Twiztid and the secretly amazing hardcore rapper Blaze Ya Dead Homie. But as much as I'd love for you to willingly listen to Twiztid's Man's Myth or Blaze Ya Dead Homie's 1 Less G in the Hood, I know you're probably not going to do that. So instead, here are five Psychopathic Records cyphers (charmingly called "Psyphers" that hopefully you will watch while you're bored.
Featured Rappers: Bootleg of Dayton Family, Violent J of ICP, Anybody Killa, Jamie Madrox of Twiztid
Bootleg of Dayton Family is an incredible rapper, but given that Dayton Family's shit is a known quantity among hip-hop nerds you might have guessed that already. I absolutely guarantee you're not ready for the verse from Jamie Madrox of Twiztid, whose verse is so good you'll question whether you've actually been a Juggalo this entire time.
Featured Rappers: Shoestring of Dayton Family, Monoxide of Twiztid, Shaggy 2 Dope of ICP, Boondox
Psypher Two was filmed essentially concurrently with Psypher One, and Twiztid's Monoxide again steals the show, which leads to an interesting thought experiment. Given that Twiztid are from the same Detroit horrorcore scene as Eminem, both rap really fast, and are essentially contemporaries (ICP actually sicced Twiztid on Em when "My Name Is" first blew up, and Monoxide once allegedly battle-rapped against Em and actually won), could Twiztid have had Eminem's career if they'd signed with Dr. Dre and Em had signed with Psychopathic?
Featured Rappers: Insane Clown Posse, Twiztid, Cold 187um, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, Anybody Killa
The whole gang's here! One thing that becomes glaringly apparent after a few of these freestyles is that ICP––Violent J especially––haven't really updated their rap styles since the early 90s. You might say this is a bad thing, but I say it's weirdly charming. Come for the weird dance Madrox does after his verse, stay for Cold 187um's entire existence.
Featured Rappers: Insane Clown Posse, The R.O.C., Legz Diamond, Cold 187um, Anybody Killa, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, Doe Dubbla
This one is a diss to the FBI, who labeled Juggalos a "gang" in an extremely dumb move that was also great PR for ICP. Cold 187um yet again steals the show, if only for the line, "I've been federally indicted, uh!"
"IF WE WERE A GANG" PSYPHER
Featured Rappers: Anybody Killa, Lyte, Insane Clown Posse, Big Hoodoo, Blahzay Rose, DJ Clay
A quick note for any Juggalo completists who happen to have stumbled upon this article: Yes, I know that ICP has held live Psyphers at the past two Gatherings of the Juggalos, and, yes, I didn't put them on this list on purpose because I'm lazy. Anyways, the "If We Were a Gang" Psypher is from earlier this year, and it is yet another diss track to the FBI from the Psychopathic crew. Unlike earlier years, Anybody Killa––one of the few prominent Native American rappers working––acquits himself nicely, as does the Flint-hailing Psychopathic newcomer Lyte (though given that like half my family is from Flint there's a non-zero chance that I'm somehow related to him, so I might be biased). Anyway, if you have stuck with me through all of these Psychopathic Records freestyles I hope you now think that ICP and their various affiliates are equally as good as Odd Future, who except for Earl Sweatshirt were extremely overrated.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574. Lead image: Screenshot via YouTube Nolan Allan is a photographer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram. Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter.