One way to try to find out which of your buddies are true friends is to ask them to come to Battle of the Wicked 2, a gathering of the Juggalos — the fan club of notorious, face-painted Detroit horrorcore rap crew/wrestling impresarios Insane Clown Posse.
Some dismiss the group's music out of hand, even if they confess they have heard nothing from the group since The Great Milenko in 1997. Others wanted to avoid getting sprayed with Faygo, the cheap Motor City soft drink Juggalos are known to douse each other with at shows.
Still others cop to being frightened of the Juggalos. "Whenever I read about some really heinous mass shooting, the report usually mentions something about them being 'an avid fan of the rap group Insane Clown Posse,'" said one friend. The same friend added that the group's records "would probably sell better if you could buy them at prison commissaries."
Insane Clown Posse
The Great White fire in 2003 gives people another out. Although it doesn't faze them at all, even the Juggalos admit that Insane Clown Posse is one of the most critically reviled bands ever. In the last few years, both Spin and Blender have dubbed them the worst band in history, while Rolling Stone called them "the ultimate wack MCs." So some people who have spent years and years accruing hipster cred are now afraid to slum it at shows like this. There's a possibility, however remote, that you could die at the show, and there it will be, chiseled in stone for all eternity: "Perished in the Houston Juggalos disaster, August 25, 2007."
And yet I have remained fascinated with the Juggalos and the I.C.P., even though I gave up my love for pro wrestling in third grade and clowns have mildly terrified me since I was four. (Once, at a circus in Nashville, I was randomly selected by a clown to be the King of the Circus. He tried to rip me out of my mother's lap and take me down to the center ring. I pitched a blue-faced fit.)
At any rate, I listened to a few I.C.P. tracks on iTunes, and MCs Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J weren't half bad, and the beats from on-again, off-again collaborator Michael E. Clark were better than average. Sure, the hyper-violent lyrics weren't my cup of tea, but they really weren't that far removed from those of groups like U.G.K. and the Geto Boys, especially from both groups' early days. As for them being the worst band ever? Please. They are not even the worst band to paint their faces. KISS and Blue October own that honor, hands down.
What's more, in this day and age of diminished music business expectations, the I.C.P. continues to sell records and pack shows. Cults this rabid have always fascinated me. These are some of the most dedicated fans in America right now, up there with those of String Cheese Incident, Tori Amos and Morrissey. What makes them tick?
My buddy Mike and I decided to find out. We decked ourselves out in our gnarliest T-shirts — I rocked a Geto Boys shirt that drew more than a couple of approving comments, while Mike selected a Goatwhore tee to cover the extreme metal end of the spectrum. We knocked back a few Pearls at the Pearl Bar across the street, and then it was time.
"Let's go Juggalo," Mike said, and in we went.
Battle of the Wicked 2 was at Walter's. It was a battle of the bands — ten or so rappers and one metal group duked it out onstage.
The club's façade was draped with a portrait of I.C.P.'s mascot — a silhouette of a clown waving a meat cleaver over his head in hot pursuit of fresh meat. Inside, a white sheet was hung behind the stage and daubed with red paint that simulated bloodstains.
The fans ranged in age from one girl of about ten to a couple of people who probably had AARP cards. Only a few bothered with the clown paint — generally, they only go to the trouble when I.C.P. or other bands from their Psychopathic Records label are on the bill. And as far as I knew, not a drop of Faygo was spilled.
Between bands, at seemingly random intervals, most of them would stop whatever they were doing and holler the I.C.P. catchphrase, "Woot woot!"
Many people of more refined, elite taste assume that anything as skuzzy and trailer-trashy as the Insane Clown Posse has to be racist, but that did not appear to be the case at all. In fact, it was one of the more integrated small-club shows I've seen.
In H-Town, many, perhaps most, of those down with the clown are brown. Two black women were also in attendance. Late in the evening, in response to Mike's direct question about the relative scarcity of blacks, a devout Juggalo would tell us in very carefully chosen words that many black people couldn't abide I.C.P.'s lyrics about demons and devils and other such supernatural phenomena.
The assemblage didn't look all that different from any other rap crowd, save for the age of some of the attendees and the fact that most sported hip-hop fashions about five years behind the times.
Once acclimated to my surroundings, I started asking questions.
Or rather, people started asking me questions, like, "What are you doing with that notepad?" That one was posed by a woman who looked to be about 32, and could have passed for an office worker. I told her I was a reporter, and I was quickly introduced to about half a dozen media-starved Juggalos and Juggalettes who each wanted their story told and their picture taken. After all, 002, Envy Houston and the Chronicle's Shelby Hodge seldom drop by Juggalo gatherings.
Angela was the thirtysomething woman, and I asked her and her friend Amber what it meant to be a Juggalette. "We're kind of like a family — everybody knows everybody," Angela said. "If you are really into the music that's on Psychopathic Records and the message that they send, that's what it's about," added Amber. "It's someone who truly believes in what's in the music."
"We accept everybody," said Jonah Hexx, a Dallas MC who appeared on the bill. "We are the underground, the dregs of society. Kind of like metal or punk rock. Nobody's excluded — nobody. We're like family, no matter where they come from."
Hexx, like all Juggalos, knows that the band is hated. "Most people think it's just a gimmick, that there's no depth to it," he said. "But I don't agree. There's a lot to it, especially now that I.C.P. has been around for over 15 years."
By this point, an I.C.P.-inspired metal band had taken the stage and was tearing through a doom-laden cover of "Gin and Juice."
Accompanied by die-hard Juggalos Cyrus and Houston Juggalos Web master M-Dirrty, Mike and I stepped outside — interviewing indoors was no longer possible.
"You wanna know the perfect description of a Juggalo?" asked Cyrus, an excitable, fast-talking guy. "It's this — a serial-killing hippie."
"This music brings people together," he added. "The scrub kids tryin' to make a vibe, the 95 percent of the population that come from hard times."
"We are the people who don't fit in," said M-Dirrty. "We aren't really gangsters, we aren't really preps."
Out of the blue, Cyrus told me I should have come on Halloween. "This show is nothing like that. Halloween is when we go all out — the face-paint and all that."
I asked them what the Houston crew brought to the fabric of national Juggalo-dom. I really wanted to know — this music and scene seems, like a lot of music from Detroit, to be inextricably bound with decay and rot, the sound track to the industrial Rust Belt and blue-collar America's Armageddon. Along with The MC5, Iggy Pop, Eminem and Alice Cooper, the I.C.P. is part of a venerable tradition of Motor City groups that have served as Public Enemy Number One against all that is officially good and decent in America.
But then again, a lot of the group's inspiration came from Houston — especially the Geto Boys, whose splatter-fest necrophilia anthem "Mind of a Lunatic" informs many an I.C.P. tune. (The Geto Boys also were born in a time of decay. The 1980s Oil Bust, Houston's only sustained economic downturn, coincided directly with their rise.)
"You don't know how right you are about that," enthused Cyrus.
"They're based in the Midwest and they came to Dallas all the time, but they skip Houston a lot," added M-Dirrty, jumping ahead. The conversation was all over the map. Maybe they were overserved on Faygo, or maybe they were just starved for attention. A Juggalette screamed "Fuck you!" to some of her friends in the background.
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"That's why we have the message board and the Web site and these shows three or four times a year," said M-Dirrty. "You come here and meet and drink and see live underground bands."
"We've done this for four years, and you can ask anyone in that club and they will tell you we are the number one fan group in Houston," said Cyrus. A car peeled out in the street nearby. "We've done numbers no other band can touch." Another car peeled out. "A few years ago, we couldn't have gotten two bands up on that stage. Now we've got ten and two down from Dallas. Kids are looking up there and thinking, 'I can do this.' And that's something."
So take that, Juggalo haters — it looks like your least favorite band is gonna be spawning imitators for years to come.