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."
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.