Last week, Detroit rap duo Insane Clown Posse released the video for “Miracles,” the latest single from the group’s 11th album, Bang! Pow! Boom! The song is a catalog of whoa-dude epiphanies, the sort that teenagers in movies enjoy while lying on the hoods of subcompacts, passing joints, and gazing up at the stars. Wide-eyed and wondrous, rappers Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope hail a variety of phenomena that will “blow your brain,” from “the Milky Way and fucking shooting stars” to “long-necked giraffes” to “fucking rainbows.” One especially quotable line, courtesy of Shaggy, suggests a profane David Macaulay: “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” The rhymes are children’s-song simple, but the music swirls with portent: A synthesizer plays a flickering, ascending melody, and the song climaxes with a cathartic electric guitar solo. There are awed shout-outs to pets, sound waves, and for some reason, to a pelican that once tried to eat Violent J’s cell phone. The video, a four-minute parade of not-inexpensive-looking computer animation, illustrates nearly every “miracle” mentioned.
The song is funny—imagine Wordsworth gone rock-rap, dropping f-bombs aplenty in praise of the natural sublime. How funny the song was meant to be is up for debate. Much of its appeal comes from its foulmouthed, would-be profundity and its unexpectedly New Age aspect. But it stands to reason that two grown men calling themselves Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope—who wear face paint; preach a homespun, circus-based theology; and douse audiences in Faygo soda at their concerts—have at least some sense of humor about themselves.
Over the past few months, several ICP-themed videos have made the rounds online. Some have been created by the group or employees of its Psychopathic Records label, like the trailer for the ICP movie Big Money Rustlas or the 14-minute infomercial, released last July, that advertised the 10th installment of the Gathering of the Juggalos, a yearly festival in which the band’s mostly white, mostly working-class fans—called Juggalos—descend on an expanse of Midwestern mud for an extended weekend of concerts, wrestling matches, helicopter rides, and, yes, magic shows. Other videos have parodied ICP culture, like the recent Saturday Night Live spoof of the Gathering ad or this “Juggalo News Network” sketch, in which face-painted pundits debate health care reform (“Obama needs to prove he’s not a pussy-ass”).
Watching these videos back to back, it’s striking how thin the line is between source material and spoof—at first I thought the Juggalo News Network was actually the work of some particularly mirthful Juggalos. To a degree, this is something like when Tina Fey showed up on SNL to lampoon Sarah Palin: All she needed for a home run was a verbatim transcript of Palin’s Katie Couric interview. But in the same way that Palin tried to spin her fumbling sound bites into proof of her anti-elite bona fides, Insane Clown Posse and the Juggalos actively cultivate their ridiculousness and repugnance and wear them like a badge—scorn fuels their misfit pride.
Repugnance is the essential ingredient of Insane Clown Posse’s music, in which the MCs rap giddily about sodomy, STDs, child molestation, killing sprees, and drug addiction. Like Eminem, their onetime rival, they are products of Detroit’s “horrorcore” scene, which pushes hardcore rap into splatter-film territory. On one Bang! Pow! Boom! song, the duo slice off a pedophile’s skin and feed it to him; in another, Violent J threatens to shove “herpe meth-head anus [sic]” into someone’s face.
At first, “Miracles” seems like a major departure, because rectal probing and Chlamydia don’t make the roll call. But the song is, at root, pure ICP—the work of two guys wildly unafraid to court mockery. “I don’t wanna talk to a scientist,” Shaggy raps after his magnet stumper. “Y’all motherfuckers lying and getting me pissed!” And it turns out that the group has long trafficked in positive messages: Wrongdoers rarely go unpunished in ICP lyrics, and on the 2003 song “Thy Unveiling,” the pair revealed their religious faith, explaining that their gruesome, scatological tales actually pay tribute to God—a less on-the-nose version, perhaps, of those Halloween-season “hell houses” where fundamentalist Christians scare one another with grisly scenes of sin and damnation.
The thing people can miss about Insane Clown Posse, amid all the duo’s nastiness, is how square they are. In the Gathering of the Juggalos infomercial, barbed-wire death-match wrestling is touted with the same fervor as an array of birthday-party-grade diversions: “Check this out—dudes on stilts!” “Magicians and hypnotists walking around that bitch!” “Bouncy boxing and a giant waterslide!” Violent J, we learn, hosts a party in which attendees bounce balls around and listen to the Beach Boys.
This squareness dovetails with the Juggalos’ surprisingly friendly and inclusive rhetoric. A common chant at ICP concerts is “Fam-i-ly! Fam-i-ly!” and it bears noting that there are out-and-proud gay and lesbian Juggalos, that women seem to show up at ICP events in almost equal number to men (this Vice feature on the 2007 Gathering offers a fascinating look at the Juggalo frontlines and the complex way female fans fit into the proceedings), and that black musicians—if not fans—abound at the festivals.
Juggalos are something like the music-world version of Trekkies: a community of (and support group for) self-identifying outcasts, who don homemade costumes, speak in a private language, and revel in their societal-reject status. (The nerd/Juggalo kinship is made explicit by ICP role-playing games like The Quest for Shangri-Laand Legend of the Dark Carnival.) The result is a subcultural empire unmatched in the music business: In addition to DVDs, action figures, and a whole second string of face-painted rap-rock acts in the Psychopathic Records fold, there is a Juggalo-specific social-networking site and a Juggalo wrestling federation, all of which combine to cater to that eternal disaffected-teen desire to crawl into an elaborately constructed demimonde and build a second life there. By design, the place is off-putting to us outsiders—but if we can’t find the beauty in a fucking rainbow, that’s our problem.