Sunday, November 22, 2015

Faith, Family and Faygo: Inside the Juggalo Subculture

Disrespected, disparaged and derided in most media depictions, fans of the cult act Insane Clown Posse maintain they are mercilessly misrepresented, misinterpreted and misjudged. At a recent concert in Atlanta, Uncommon Journalism spoke with several fans about what they perceive as the greatest misconceptions and mistruths about the oft-maligned – and oft-misunderstood – Juggalo community.

THE DARK CARNIVAL ARRIVES: A sea of adoring Juggalos and Juggalettes go wild for "horrorcore" hip-hop artists The Insane Clown Posse at a Nov. 10 concert in Atlanta. (Photo credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

ATLANTA -- By the time the Nov. 10 Insane Clown Posse show was over, the floors of the Masquerade looked like Jonestown for plastic soda bottles. Thick pools of cola had already coagulated upon the wooden planks of Heaven – the venue’s top-level performance hall – and started dripping down the staircase into the facility’s lower level stages (appropriately enough, named Purgatory and Hell.) 

Such is the aftermath of many an ICP performance. Much like shock rockers GWAR and comedian Gallagher, the group forges a bond with its adoring audience through torrents of flying fluid. Primarily, this comes in the form of “Faygo showers,” in which the group douses the crowd in streams of pop; fittingly enough, both the act and the beverage are products of America’s preeminent blue collar dystopia, Detroit. 

The cola is clearly crucial – if not central – to the live ICP experience. There are no drum sets or guitars to be found when the group takes the stage; just a gaggle of costumed dancers (scantily clad policewomen and deformed Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men among them), a giant jester prop in the background and two tables buckling underneath the weight of hundreds of two-liter containers. Their fans – many of them adorned with the same pancake makeup as their heroes – merrily dance about, soaked head-to-toe in the sugary sacrament; some even scoop up the mangled bottles of Diet Faygo as souvenirs. 

It’s not your typical concert-going experience, to be sure – imagine Dave Matthews or Andre 3000 blasting their faithful followers in the face with carbonated drinks. Then again, the Insane Clown Posse is far from a typical act, and the same can be said of their legion of admirers.

The group – and with it, a miniature pop culture industry unto itself – is the brainchild of Joseph “Violent J” Bruce and Joseph “Shaggy 2 Dope” Utsler, two Michiganders who grew up wrestling in makeshift backyard rings and listening to N.W.A. and the Beastie Boys. A hip-hop outfit originally called the Inner City Psychos, they adopted their current moniker (and with it, their trademark creepy clown get-up) in the early 1990s. After two regionally successful independent albums, the group signed with a Jive Records sub-label in 1995; less than a year later, they inked a $1 million deal with Hollywood Records – a Walt Disney Company subsidiary.

That’s where things get really interesting. Just hours after The Great Milenko dropped in late summer 1997, the label yanked the album from store shelves, citing its release as a gross oversight on behalf of its review board. The ensuing controversy thrust ICP into the national spotlight and the group was picked up by Island Records, who invested heavily in marketing the group to the disaffected youths of a post-Marilyn Manson America. 

Boosted by appearances on nationally televised pro wrestling programs and heavy rotation on MTV, ICP became a bona fide mainstream act - that is, until they split from the Vivendi subsidiary in 2001 and decided to produce music, movies and miscellaneous multimedia on their own independently-funded label, Psychopathic Records. 

COLA HOLOCAUST: As the case with most ICP performances, the notorious
    duo's Nov. 10 Atlanta concert left the floors of the Masquerade a sticky, sopping mess.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)

By all empirical measurements, it is hard to call the act anything but an astonishing success. By 2007, the group's discography had sold well over 6.5 million units. To date, they've had two albums certified platinum and an additional five go gold.

Alas, the group has drawn acerbic criticism from magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, who in addition to savaging the duo for their gross-out, parodic "horrorcore" lyrics, attacked their music as misogynistic and racist (accusations the group, obviously, refute.) The now defunct magazine Blender named them the worst musical act in history in 2003; GQ bestowed another dubious distinction upon them a decade later when they dubbed ICP the worst rappers of all-time

Then there was the fallout from the 2010 single “Miracles,” – a rather innocuous, cheerful ditty that was ferociously denigrated for its (intentionally?) hokey music video and a meme-spawning lyrical probe into the fundamentals of magnetism. 

The detractors and faultfinders of the Insane Clown Posse’s music can be downright brutal in their critiques, no question. But in many ways, the scorn heaped upon the group’s fans is even more caustic.

The same way Jimmy Buffet has Parrotheads and Gene Simmons and pals have the Kiss Army, the Insane Clown Posse have Juggalos and Jugalettes. The more hardcore ICP loyalists proudly sport the same Kabuki face as their idols and adorn their vehicles – and sometimes, their own bodies – with the group’s logo, a cartoon, axe-wielding maniac. They have their own vernacular (a customary greeting is to “whoop” at each other like quails) and – of course – they guzzle down Faygo by the buckets.

These ardent supporters of ICP and their Psychopathic Records label mates are frequently mocked on online communities, such as Reddit and 4Chan. They have been skewered on television programs like Saturday Night Live and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphiawith a Juggalo pastiche making its way into the best-selling video game Grand Theft Auto V. In a 2010 article for The Guardian, scribe Louis Pattison described the subculture as “part of a reactionary groundswell of American culture that sees ignorance of science and book-learning not as a weakness, but as a virtue.” And perhaps the ultimate slight? In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation listed them as an emerging “hybrid gang” in their annual national threat assessment. 

Violent J, one half of the infamous Insane Clown Posse.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)
There have been numerous documented incidents of ICP fans committing violent acts, including a handful of homicides. By that same token, however, ICP and their fans have also founded several charitable organizations, including a nonprofit aiding the homeless and impoverished in Denver, Salt Lake City and Reno, Nevada and a crisis services center in Buffalo, New York. Not unlike the band’s mascots the Amazing Jeckel Brothers – essentially, personifications of yin-and-yang, id-and-ego duality – their fans appear to represent both the darkest, and most altruistic, aspects of the human condition. Then again, perhaps the same can be said of any fandom, from death metal devotees to anime aficionados to Olivia Newton-John enthusiasts. Lest we forget, the peace, love and understanding promoted by the Beatles was cited as an influence by members of the Manson Family.

So what is it about the group and their music that has inspired such a unique sense of fan community, and why does that invoke such harsh criticism from outsiders? When ICP fans aren’t rocking out to tunes like “Chicken Huntin'” and “I Stab People,” what are they doing with their lives? Are they really the degenerate cretins the critics describe, or are they just normal people - with spouses and children and 9-to-5 jobs – who simply have somewhat unorthodox tastes in entertainment? 

Welcome to the show

The Masquerade, one of Atlanta’s most storied concert venues, has a very distinct smell – a goulash of spilled beer, fried chicken, mud and marijuana. Cigarette smokers – many sporting sinister-looking “corpse paint” on their faces and some clad in mock mental patient outfits – are all corralled in the courtyard. Before it is even 7:30 p.m., management has ushered an irate fan from the building (screaming "I didn't see the real ICP!" while opening act P.O.D. performed) and carried a diminutive (and clearly inebriated) young woman into a Checker Cab. Sans a traditional Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant entrance, attendees in wheelchairs are lifted by pulley into the building via the same cargo cage used for band equipment.

The group is introduced via a mash-up of profane “Winnebago Man” quotes and the old entrance theme of deceased pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior. A gigantic black veil – which appears to be a rain tarp – falls, and the group immediately launches into their back catalog, which includes such standards as “Homies,” “Boogie Woogie Wu” and “The Neden Game” – the latter a comical takeoff of The Dating Game, in which the duo expresses their desire to get a contestant "naked and hit it like a caveman."

Although the concertgoers are predominantly white, there’s actually quite a bit of diversity on the dance floor. Hispanic and Asian fans are dolled up in Gothic duds, while a trio of African-American dwarves – wearing matching wool knit caps – pirouette to the music behind them. It’s also an all-ages show, with elementary school tykes hobnobbing with vaping, twenty-something paraplegics and half-naked, Pabst Blue Ribbon-sipping middle-aged women, who, inexplicably, are dressed like the Batman rogue Poison Ivy. 

The scent of value-priced cola is overwhelming. As one passerby commented, “it smells like root beer and meth.”

While there is some crowd surfing, the audience seems surprisingly convivial. There is no moshing, and if someone gets bumped into, polite apologies are instantly made. No one looks angry, and not a single fight breaks out. In fact, the audience, as a collective, looks downright ebullient; the concert concludes with dozens of fans storming the stage for the closer “I’m Comin’ Home,” bouncing around with an almost childish joyfulness.

Once the group leave the stage and the house lights flick back on, the crowd explodes in a cacophonous chant of “family, family,” with each syllable weightily stressed, in what could be construed as an oblique nod to the protagonists’ battle cry “gooba gobble, gooba gobble, one of us, one of us” in the cult classic Tod Browning flick Freaks

DOWN WITH THE CLOWN: Mega-fan Justin Vinnacombe, center, splashes some
soda onstage beside Shaggy 2 Dope during the grand finale of ICP's Nov. 10 show in Atlanta.
(Photo Credit: James Swift

Among those participating in the cola-slicked celebration is 29-year-old Justin Vinnacombe, who can rightly lay claim to being one of the group's biggest fans - and not just because he proudly wears a black t-shirt with the nickname "Fat Boy" emblazoned on the back of it. Since 2002, he’s been to at least 500 shows featuring ICP and their Psychopathic Records label mates. An IHOP server by day, he even help set up the group’s latest concert via his own production unit, Urban Chaos Entertainment. 

He was introduced to the group by a friend about 15 years ago. Although he was amused by the duo’s darkly comical lyrics, it wasn’t until he attended his first show that he became a full-fledged Juggalo. 

“I saw a group of people who bonded over music and being close,” he said. “Everybody out here shares the same beliefs and the same ideas, and we all come together … it makes for a good night.” 

He rattles off a list of common “misconceptions” about the ICP fan community. They are drug dealers. They are junkies. They party all the time and don’t take care of any of their responsibilities. 

That’s certainly not his case. “We found a babysitter for tonight and then I go home to my kids after I leave here,” Vinnacombe said. “All my bills are current, my shit is being paid for. I’ve made money off the show tonight.” 

The Insane Clown Posse take the stage in Atlanta on Nov. 10.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)
Detractors, he said, fail to grasp the deeper layers of the ICP discography. Sure, the group may have some songs about necrophilia and STIs as written from the perspective of pubic lice, but they also delve into some far heavier sociocultural issues, in a much more serious tone. Take their 1999 track “Terrible,” for instance, which over the course of four and half minutes, touches upon the topics of censorship, racism, media hypocrisy and the oft-ignored plight of the homeless.  

Then, there’s the group’s crypto-Christian leanings, as made evident by the closing track of their 2002 album The Wraith: Shangri-La, in which the duo declare that their entire musical career was a Trojan horse, so to speak, for people to find God. 

“It has its undertones,” Vinnacombe said. “I think they did something great by bringing it in a way that it reaches a whole different group of people who might not just be reached by gospel music.” 

Despite the gore, gunge and deluge of swear words that riddle the group’s lyrics, Vinnacombe said the central lesson he takes away from ICP’s music isn’t a spiteful or misanthropic one. Rather, he said their work – in tandem with the fellowship of other fans – has given him a much more benevolent worldview. 

The greater meaning of the Tao of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, in his eyes? 

“If you consider a person family, pick them up when they’re down and help them out,” he said. “Hopefully, they will do the same for you.” 

The show was the first in many years for “MJ,” a 42-year-old Atlanta resident. Now a promoter for EDM shows, he said he followed ICP on tour in the 2000s before falling out of the loop with their more recent material. 

In between cigarette puffs, he said he greatly admires the fan community. “There’s this camaraderie, where everybody feels all equal and you don’t feel pissed at each other,” he said. “Nobody’s standing around trying to be hard. It’s all hugs.” 

Shaggy 2 Dope wants to hear the Juggalo faithful holler at a
Nov. 10 show at the Masquerade. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
Like Vinnacombe, he’s well aware of all the Juggalo stereotypes. While outsiders may look upon them as violent devil-worshipers, “MJ” believes that, by and large, they are actually among the most peaceful and altruistic fan bases he’s ever encountered. “There really is no other group I can think of where people actively seek each other out and embrace each other,” he said. “I don’t see that with any other hip-hop or rock band in the world.” 

As for the deeper meaning of their music, he tosses out an interesting hypothesis. The group’s odes to murder and mayhem, he said, aren’t celebrations of the macabre; instead, he believes it’s the duo’s furtive way of describing what awaits the unsaved in the afterlife. 

“I think they’re basically trying to describe what hell would be like,” he said. “Their whole message is to be kind to each other, do unto others as you would have others do unto you. And if you don’t? You’re going into eternal hellfire.” 

Although he disagrees with those who maliciously mock the group and their fans, “MJ” says he isn’t necessarily surprised by their negative opinions. 

“With any counter-cultural movement or subset of society, if it’s not understood, it’s hated, all the way from race to religion to sexuality,” he said. “If people can find a reason to disparage something, they’re going to … they misunderstand that, and they’re just trying to make themselves feel better.” 

A family tradition? 

Daniel Gentile, a 35-year-old diesel mechanic from Marietta, Georgia, has been a fan of the group since the mid-1990s. He said he was drawn in by their fearless, non-P.C. lyrics, which he said often form unorthodox morality plays.  

“We get a bad rap because people think we’re all murder, kill and rape," he said. "But if you murder, kill and rape, you're going to suffer consequences."

For Gentile, the concert truly is a family affair. Attending the show alongside him are several nephews, two brothers, his wife and his sister-in-law. He even brought along his 11-year-old son, Vinnecio. 

Then there's his adopted family of fellow fans.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: Although the material can sometimes 
get a bit  ribald, Juggalo Daniel Gentile, 35, said he has no qualms 
about taking his 11-year-old son Vinnecio Gentile to Insane Clown
Posse shows. (Photo Credit: James Swift

"You get a bond with these people over a period of time and over the last 10 years I've been coming over here, these people have become my family," he said. "There's nothing more to it than that ... it brings the rejects of society together."

Although ICP fans may skew towards the fringe, Gentile says that doesn't mean they are a bunch of goons, low-lives and ne'er-do-wells. "In all areas of life, people are going to be homeless or going to be on drugs or they're going to commit crimes, but that's in all aspects, not just the Juggalo world," he said. "We're not a nuisance, we're just like everybody else."

He said he has no qualms bringing his elementary-aged child to the show, even if the group does cover some macabre territory and spout out some crude lyrics. The concert content, he said, is hardly any worse than the average Creepypasta posting or Stephen King movie, and if his kid knows the stuff is just entertainment, what's the harm? 

It's the first ICP show for his son, who has seen every other Psychopathic Records act - a cadre of performers with names like Twiztid, Boondox and Blaze Ya Dead Homie - live. Before the show, the aspiring rapper dazzled grown-ups with some impressive rhymes of his own.

"I get the message that I don't have to worry about what others say, because ICP spread that message through humor," he said. "People think we're bad people, but we're not. We're like other people - we live with our families and the people that we meet at shows, that can become a bond or something."

His father definitely says there is something deeper to the group's music than most assume. 

"If you listen to their message, they're actually very spiritual," he said. "They come off as these demons of society, but they're not. They're actually more like a demon slayer. They're drawing attention to the pedophiles and the rapists and weirdos of society ... it's more a message to make you aware of what's going on around you, not to scare you."

The Nov. 10 Insane Clown Posse show in Atlanta ended the
same way most of the act's shows conclude: in an orgy
of flying Faygo. (Photo Credit: James Swift)
Is it hypocritical for the group to claim Christian leanings, when they sing songs with titles like "Fuck the World" and "Bitches?" Perhaps, but, then again, the Bible itself did contain its fair share of death, destruction and debauchery. The story of David - who slew 200 men and severed their penises as war trophies - pretty much has all the makings of an ICP song as it is. 

The elder Gentile says he's not surprised so many people don't understand the group or its fans. To him, the entire Juggalo subculture is a symbolic mockery of society - if people are going to look at them funny, he said, they might as well do it because they're dressed like circus performers. 

"We're ourselves, we are who we are and people are going to stare and people are going to hate, but that's OK," he said. "Over the years, people see us. We're everywhere."

Being a Juggalo, he said, doesn't require tattoos or face paint or the most extensive memorabilia collection. To be a part of the Insane Clown Posse's inner circle, all you need is affection for your fellow fans. 

"You just accept each other and love one another," he said.

Jeremy Williams, a 25-year-old fan from Marietta, Georgia, doesn't fit the typical profile of your rank and file heavy metal enthusiast. An African-American with cerebral palsy, he requires a walker to move around. 

He said he feels "blessed" that a friend turned him on to the group. 

"Yeah, they talk about violence, but that's a part of the world," he said. "Their music has an innocence. They're clowns ... what they do is fun, they're not people who harm anybody."

He said the message of ICP's music runs parallel to that of another of his favorite acts, Michael Jackson. "It's all about love, and we need to keep that positivity going," he said.

Ever the post-post-modern consumer, he said he doesn't own any tangible ICP albums. Instead, he listens to their library on services like Pandora and iHeart Radio. Their work inspired him to pursue a musical career of his own. Under the stage name Konniption of Ymerej, he produces his own metalcore tracks; his signature song, "Special Ed Prison of the Mind," recounts his discouraging experiences in the public school system. 

"I speak for the kids who are disabled, the kids in the wheelchairs and the walkers, just the way ICP speaks for the Juggalos," he said. 

It's the first time he's ever seen the group live. He attended the event with his mother, who also relies upon a walker for mobility.

That he felt safe inviting her to the show, he said, speaks volumes about the true nature of the ICP fan community. 

'IT'S A SPIRITUAL THING': 25-year-old fan Jeremy Williams said seeing so many Insane
 Clown Posse enthusiasts at a Nov.10 concert in Atlanta enjoying themselves almost brought him to tears.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)

"It's an organized family where you feel loved," he said. "If it was gang, I wouldn't be sending my mom or even going to a show." 

A Christian, he said he appreciates the group's sometimes oblique nods to the scripture. When the duo sings about a "carnival in the sky," he said he knows they are talking about heaven, whether or not they come out and say it directly. 

As to why outsiders loathe the group so much - as well as the fan community he is a part of - Williams offers a succinct reply. "They know they're a pure love the world hasn't seen before," he said, "and that's why the world don't know what to do with them."

As the final volleys of Faygo blasted across the stage, he said he was almost moved to tears. It may have just been a concert to others, but to him, it was a transcendent experience. 

"I really feel like crying," he said, "it's a spiritual thing."

Long after Williams is loaded into the family van by his mother, a strange - yet oddly welcoming - sound echoes throughout the night sky. 

"Family, family," the parking lot revelers bark in unison. "Family, family."

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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