Tears of a Clown: The American Nightmare That Created the Insane Clown Posse
How two poor white kids from Detroit became the leaders of a hated and misunderstood subculture that is centered around macabre raps, face paint, Faygo, and family.
Photo by Amy Lombard
Detroit's historic Masonic Temple reeked of pot, sweat, flat soda, and Speed Stick deodorant on the night of February 21, 2015. The funk of the juggalo had choked the air of a venue that—thanks to its gold ceilings and red carpets—looked like it should have been hosting a performance of Swan Lake instead of white rappers in clown makeup.
There's always a twisted tent-revival vibe to Insane Clown Posse's shows, but Juggalo Day was another beast altogether. This year, the free annual hometown show, which is put on to collect canned goods for a collection of food banks, resembled Blade's bloodbath rave, if you exchanged the fake blood for Faygo Moon Mist. Rapturous ICP fans writhed together in their soda sacrament, yelping "whoop whoop," while Violent J, Shaggy 2 Dope, and their brood of cryptic clown dancers ran circles around the stage with the kind of swagger you can only learn in America's worst public schools.
To people outside of the culture, the scene at Juggalo Day was an embarrassment at best, and dangerous at worst. The FBI currently classifies juggalos as a national gang. And after 26 years of releasing albums and going on international tours, ICP is just as divisive today as they were when the now-defunct Blender magazine named them the worst band in history. Even though the juggalo family has never been bigger or stronger, there is little appreciation for the artistry behind their music or the supportive nature of the culture they created. And so, they soldier on, making music for their hordes of obsessed fans outside of the mainstream.
As such, the group quietly released their latest album, The Marvelous Missing Link: The Lost Version, on April 28. And despite it breaking the top 10 of the iTunes hip-hop albums chart, there were no reviews on Pitchfork.com or short profiles in the last pages of the New Yorker. When the band gets any press at all, it's usually terrible and diminutive. Every legitimate rap critic I asked to talk about ICP refused to comment for this story because the band was, in one writer's words, "irrelevant." Not to mention, nearly every news outlet—including this one—has sent a reporter down to events like Juggalo Day to gawk at the freaks and depict the band and its followers as imbeciles.
However, I wasn't in the thralls of the sticky bacchanalia at Juggalo Day. I was backstage with ICP's small (by rap standards) entourage of family and friends. And from there, the scene didn't look like a bunch of rabid fans hailing dufuses who extol the pleasures of soda pop. Instead, it looked like clockwork. Roadies moved on and off the stage in synchronized fashion, covering hot lights from soda splashes and wheeling in new props and effects. Backup clowns tapped in and tapped out, like tag-team wrestlers, all based on a strict, timed script. It was like these Midwestern knuckleheads were putting on a twisted version of Miss Saigon.
"It's just all based on cues that [Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope] set," a backup clown said.
"We're performing, so they gotta know when to come out, when to leave, when to hit the floor, when to throw Faygo—all in unison," Violent J said to me. "[It's just] like the Backstreet Boys."
For a pivotal show like Juggalo Day, ICP and their clown crew do grueling practices every day of the week before the show, on a soundstage in a warehouse located in Farmington Hills, Michigan. They rehearse costumes changes, choreograph dance moves, practice entrance cues, and work on their Faygo-spraying technique. It's like a carnivalesque take on the strict, rehearsal regimen Motown artists went through in the 60s at Hitsville USA, which is only about ten minutes from where Violent J and Shaggy first formed ICP.
ICP's intense work ethic and preparation have been essential to their ascension from a second-tier Detroit rap group into the leaders of their own subculture—a feat accomplished by virtually no other group in popular American music, save for maybe the Grateful Dead.
Being a juggalo has become a way of life for tens of thousands of Americans who feel disenfranchised for one reason or another. As one dreadlocked juggalette I met at Juggalo Day named Sarah told me, ICP is for "Kids who just don't fit in at other places... It's family. It makes you feel good... You can be yourself."
The lifestyle juggalos lead isn't just about memorizing the macabre lyrics from the group's dozens of albums. It's about watching the group's feature films so many times you know every word, and supporting all the other face-painted acts on their Psychopathic Records label, which has been estimated to pull in more than $10 million annually. It's about drinking Faygo soda until you've increased your risk for diabetes. It's about attending events like Juggalo Day and the Gathering of the Juggalos, where a reported tens of thousands of people come together every year for four days to allegedly throw poop on Tila Tequila, watch a little person give disabled veterans lap dances, and sing along to classic ICP songs like "Please Don't Hate Me (Eminem's Mom)." (Sample lyric: "Please don't hate me, but I been fucking your mom loose lately.")
The latest effort by ICP is the two-part record The Marvelous Missing Link: The Lost Version, which revolves around faith, because according to what Violent J told me, living life without faith is like "living with sunglasses on with a shade of depression. No matter what the weather is like, it's always gloomy and shitty."
That's a weird sentiment to come from a group known for making "inappropriate" music so offensive they were dropped from their second major record label contract in the late 90s. But then again, I've always known that there was more to ICP than what meets the eye, which is why I made my way to Detroit, the birthplace of the juggalo, to uncover how they've become one of pop culture's most reviled and successful phenomena.
Downtown Detroit looks like Baghdad with snow. Windowless six-story buildings litter the landscape. Local restaurants employ security guards with bulletproof vests. And police helicopters circle the city's skies like vultures, night and day, as the sound of sirens constantly ring out in the distance.
And yet, ICP are staunchly optimistic for their city. When I first met the duo at Psychopathic Records headquarters in Farmington Hills, which is 22 miles northwest of Downtown, they kept reassuring me that Motor City was on "the come-up," a notion that became increasingly hard for me to understand. I found myself constantly thinking, If this is what it looks like when it's on the rise, what the hell did it look like during their childhood?
Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J, whose real names are Joseph "Joey" Utsler and Joseph Bruce, grew up together in several low-income neighborhoods outside Detroit in the 70s. This was an era of the city's sharp economic decline, with rampant white flight to the suburbs and crucial institutions like Motown and manufacturing plants leaving the city for more lucrative locales. Violent crime in the inner city was also reaching an all-time high, with more than 1,000 annual homicides throughout most of the decade. This level of oppressive violence was a part of J and Shaggy's everyday life, even as kids. In his memoir, Behind the Paint, Violent J recounts seeing a naked woman "[running] out of a house with her hands tied" as he walked to school. That woman, he claims, had just been raped.
The memoir also paints the troubles Violent J was having at home. In a chapter called "Life with Satan," he describes how his stepfather, whom he refers to by the fake name "Lester the Molester," would grab his penis when he was just a young boy.
(Violent J was unavailable to comment on the topic of his childhood abuse. Psychopathic Records' publicist told me via email to "please refer to Violent J's autobiography Behind the Paint concerning his views on this particular topic... Many names have been changed for legal purposes, but Jumpsteady [Violent J's brother] can verify that everything described in the book is truthful.")
Violent J also remembers his stepfather's two grandsons coming over from time to time. One day, according to Violent J, one of the grandsons said, "Let's have sex," and ordered him to strip off his clothes and lie down on his stomach. At that point, Violent J didn't even know what sex was. He says he refused, left the room, and told his brother, Jumpsteady. According to the book, Jumpsteady chased the grandsons out of the house.
"Now that I'm a grown-ass, old-ass man, things are much different," Violent J writes. "If I ever run into [my stepfather]'s tired frame again, I'll kill [him]."
Later, as a teen, he says in the book, his friend walked him to the back of an abandoned house. The friend took out his cock and told Violent J to suck it. Violent J says he started crying and then saw a log. He went down, as if he was about to suck his cock, and then picked up the log, threw it at him, and ran.
"Memories like [this] can haunt you for a lifetime," he writes. "I realize that everybody out there has horrible memories of their own. I'm not alone in this. I think it's best for people to tell other ninjas about their horrible memories, because in time, that horrible memory of yours might turn into a funny story, and that makes it much easier to deal with. "
Obviously, this is a mantra that goes deep into a lot of ICP's work, considering their countless humorous songs about killing pedophiles. And although his youth featured abuse, it's clear that J holds fond memories of his childhood, especially once he became best friends with Shaggy in elementary school. Their friendship was the one constant thing they had at a time when both their families struggled to make ends meet.
There are a lot of juggalos out there who grew up by themselves in those conditions, and it was hard. It wasn't easy until they discovered [ICP]. —Violent J
They related to each other because they were so damn poor and didn't have real father figures in the home. The lack of male presence in the house especially affected Shaggy, who fell into drinking and drug use at an early age partially because there was no one around strong enough to stop him.
"Couldn't nobody take it. I was a drunk," Shaggy told Howard Stern in 2006 about how bad his drinking eventually became after ICP exploded. "I still get into fights. Only problem with [sobriety] is now I remember the fights."
As poor kids, they both only owned one shirt and two pairs of pants, which made them unpopular with classmates. Other kids clowned them constantly for being poor and treated them like "scrubs." Then, one day, they decided enough was enough. In middle school, they started to embrace the "scrub life" and made it a style choice, calling themselves "the floobs."
"We can make it cool to have nothing," Violent J decided. He and Shaggy started to flaunt. When they rode their shitty bikes down the street, they'd scream, "We're the floobs!" It was a scene probably not too dissimilar from the way I saw juggalos defiantly yell "Family!" at Juggalo Day, pronouncing their unity as proud scum bags.
Making something out of nothing would become an essential theme of ICP's music and the culture around it. Eventually, they'd go on to write songs about Payless shoes as if they were Margiela sneakers and pen love odes to overweight women like they were Rihanna. "A lot of fat chicks appreciated that," Violent J joked to me, but he sees ICP's mission as a very serious one. "There are a lot of juggalos out there who grew up by themselves in those conditions, and it was hard," he said. "It wasn't easy until they discovered [ICP]."
Every juggalo I met at Juggalo Day echoed this statement. When they're telling their stories of first identifying as a juggalo, they sound like gay men talking about coming out of the closet. You don't become a Juggalo; you're born one. Before ICP made them aware that they were part of the juggalo family, they felt like outcasts. They were too fat, too ugly, and too poor to even hang with the punks or the comic-book nerds. Juggalo culture gave them an identity, while also transforming the stigmas of their scrub-life into something to be proud of. Or, as Violent J put it, "Now everybody's a floob."
In their late teens, the floobs became an actual gang—the Inner City Posse. They "were all losers so far in our lives, and the whole gang thing kind of gave us an excuse to be losers," as Violent J put it in his memoir. Where most gangs cook crack or run prostitution rings, they just did "horrible things," like hitting hookers on the face with bricks. But the gang also acted like bloodthirsty Robin Hoods. "I hated the rich," Violent J wrote in Behind the Paint. "We'd drive around Birmingham and just beat the shit out of rich kids."
Violent J was too busy making mayhem in the streets to take rap seriously. It wasn't until he went to jail for 90 days when he was 18 for attempting to steal a car that he started really writing rhymes. When he got out, he decided to stay out of trouble and devote himself to his music. He recorded a tape called Enter the Ghetto Zone, calling himself Violent J for the first time. Shaggy loved it and started rapping with him.
Everybody on the Detroit rap scene started to develop gimmicks. Kid Rock dressed as a cowboy. Esham said he worshiped Satan. And ICP painted their faces like clowns.
The duo spent hours recording songs, handing out flyers, and begging record store owners to sell their albums. They loved the work, and Violent J hoped to become as musically accomplished as his idols like Michael Jackson and Brian Wilson, who "worked on his shit so hard he went crazy." However, this work ethic came with a price: "It meant sacrificing tons of shit that normal 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids do like going out clubbing, hollering at chicks, and partying," Shaggy said.
The earliest incarnation of the Inner City Posse mainly rapped about goofing off. It wasn't until Violent J and Shaggy heard the Houston, Texas, rap group the Geto Boys, in the late 80s, that they got interested in making music that was equally inspired by both gangster shit and horror films. By the early 90s, many Detroit rappers were penning rhymes about street life, so everybody on the scene started to develop gimmicks to make a name for themselves. Kid Rock dressed as a cowboy. Esham said he worshiped Satan. And ICP painted their faces like clowns.
Violent J claims that he got the idea to put on clown makeup from God.
"The Dark Carnival came into our life and started delivering ideas. It didn't make sense at first, but we were like, let's do it—and we did it," Shaggy told me.
Its meaning has evolved over the years, but generally speaking, the Dark Carnival is the universe in which Insane Clown Posse's mythos is based. More specifically, as Violent J told Rolling Stone, it's about "the killing of racist people and the killing of pedophiles." In that sense, it's an allegory for doling out judgment, a kind of purgatory-themed amusement park where the bourgeois and the oppressors and the predators finally get what's coming to them.
"In our music, we express a lot of anger. A lot of the anger we express is still very real. It's just easier to say it on your record, and it's amplified on our records," Violent J told me. "If we talk about killing a pedophile, that comes from somewhere. That's real anger. We wish we could kill a pedophile, so we do it on the albums."
You can see this play out in their songs, such 1997's "Piggy Pie" and 2010's "To Catch a Predator," which is a revenge fantasy about torturing and decapitating a pedophile. In the realm of the Dark Carnival, it's people like this who have to go.
"Maybe it won't look exactly like it did in my vision, but something out there is coming, and it is going to consume all those whose souls are not pure," J writes in his memoir.
Those who do the judging and killing within the Dark Carnival are a cadre of extremely violent fictional characters. They have ominous names like the Great Milenko and the Ringmaster, are depicted with sinister faces, and all possess their own unique powers. Each character is represented by his or her own "joker card," which serves as the cover for each character's eponymous concept album in the ICP catalog. ICP completed their first deck of joker cards in 2004. There are six cards in a deck. Now, the group is on its second deck, of which the newly released The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost/Found Era is the third installment.
"Usually, the message [of] the joker card is second to the entertainment and it's a hidden message," Violent J said to me. However, "The message [of The Marvelous Missing Link] is right in your face: Find hope."
"No rapper out, I don't give a shit who it is, could do what [ICP] did. They created a movement." —DJ Paul
At this point, a concept like hope being the center of an ICP album isn't too unheard of. In 2001, after leaving Island Records to release music on their own label, Psychopathic Records, they dropped The Wraith: Shangri-La, the first album of the final card of the first joker deck. The album's final track, "Thy Unveiling," shocked outsiders and even longtime fans with the final stanza of its opening verse:
"When we speak of Shangri-La, what you think we mean? / Truth is we follow God, we've always been behind him. / The Carnival is God, and may all Juggalos find him!"
Some Juggalos felt duped: Had ICP been religious all along? Although the Guardian and other outlets have called the group Christian, ICP says this is false. They simply wanted to bring a deeper message to their music and tell the juggalos, their fellow floobs, there was hope even in the apocalypse. The shock factor also helped keep their name out there.
"We're the opposite of a band like U2, who can say, 'We're gonna take a couple years and regroup, guys.' We can't do that shit. We're underground," Violent J said to me. "We're constantly trying to stay relevant—constantly struggling to make noise that will cause people to look our way. It's hard when you're underground and you don't have hits on the radio and shit."
The gamble paid off. Today, Psychopathic Records is a full-blown business and ICP is a mainstay of the American cultural landscape. On the Billboard independent album charts, they have sold more number-one indie albums than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the White Stripes. The band has also continued to gain new fans. At Juggalo Day, I even met second-generation juggalos who were raised by juggalo parents.
"As far as rappers, I don't think rappers even stand a chance to give their opinion on ICP because ICP is kicking all of their ass," Three 6 Mafia founder and hip-hop legend DJ Paul told me. "No rapper out, I don't give a shit who it is, could do what they did. They created a movement. [The Gathering of the Juggalos] has people sleeping in their cars or in the grass for three days straight. I can't think of another rapper who can do that. You gotta have more than some good songs and sold a [few] million records to do that. [They had a] a genius plan."
ICP runs the Psychopathic Records operation from a two-story brick building in Farmington Hills, a suburb outside Detroit. It's their own demented take on Hittsville, USA.
Smoking an e-cig, Shaggy took me on a tour of the office with Violent J. In an office downstairs, they've pasted fan photos on the "Karma Wall."
"Every picture, there's something behind it," Shaggy said. "There are pictures of some normal-ass shit—people's high school photos, baby photos—but there's super entertaining things in the mix. It's not up there if it didn't mean something to somebody here."
Upstairs are offices for Psychopathic Records CEO Bill Dail, whom ICP met when they were kids, and Jumpsteady, Violent J's brother. Dail holds down the fort while the group tours and records. And Jumpsteady helps get out important messages to the juggalo family. "Jugalos love and trust the word of Jumpsteady," Violent J said.
Violent J and Shaggy have built Psychopathic to run on family values, which is incredible considering their home lives as children were so dysfunctional. They hire family members or old friends, and both rappers bring their kids and wives on tour, making pit stops at Chuck E Cheese to entertain them. Their years of raging and fucking "thousands, thousands" of women are long behind them—in fact, Shaggy's sober.
"[Being sober] doesn't make a difference in touring because we never really had the type of tours where we're balls-out rock stars," Shaggy said to me. "Nowadays it's just not as appealing as it used to be. We get done with a show and we're fucking tired."
To preserve their legacy, they've converted one conference room into a storage space containing all of their keepsakes and mementos. Silver metal shelves and clothes racks contain 25 years of ICP history: fake police outfits, zombie masks, monk robes, an ape costume—the list goes on and on. The room leads to a staircase that takes you down to a huge warehouse where they store the merch they sell online. Where most bands sell shitty shirts, ICP's merch runs the gamut from T-shirts to clothes that resemble high-end streetwear. It's only a matter of time before a downtown store like V-Files appropriates their panties that say "Psycho Bitch" or the purple jumpers that say "Faygo" on the back.
The heart and soul of the building, however, has nothing to do with e-commerce or clothes—it's their recording studio, "the Lotus Pod." It's in this wood-paneled studio where they've recorded most of their masterpieces.
"[The Lotus Pod] is the mecca of Psychopathic Records," Violent J said to me.
"The ground zero of where all the magic is produced," Shaggy 2 Dope continued for him. "This is where the noise comes from—right here in this building."
On the walls I saw the result of this noise—a framed gold record of The Amazing Jeckel Brothers and platinum plaque for The Great Milenko. These accomplishments and their family fortress in Farmington are a far cry from the group's broken and battered childhood as poor misbegotten kids rummaging around the gritty streets of Motor City. The plaque represents all the tireless hard work they've channeled into their art.
"It's more like a lifestyle than a workaholic," Shaggy added. "It's kind of like work is our life."
And they want this year's next two albums, The Missing Link: Lost and The Missing Link: Found, to continue to teach the juggalo community how to hope for a better future.
And who better to spread that message than Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope? After all, before the floobs, before The Great Milenko, before the Gathering, before Faygo became white-trash holy water, they were just two poor kids banding together together to overcome the perils of gang-ridden Detroit and the trauma of abuse.
"Who can knock something like [hope]? Who could diss something that provides hope for people?" Violent J asked me. "And so that's what we're talking about, man—have hope in your life."