June 17, 2010
#25: Insane Clown Posse
Last week, we talked about a brief resurgence in popularity of 30s and 40s big band music, aka “Swing.” Swing was wildly popular for a hot minute, the bands critically accepted (if not always acclaimed), and lots of hip people dumped lots of money into zoot suits, dance lessons and the various other accoutrement’s of the genre. A few bands made some big dollars, got to perform on Leno, and then that was it. Nobody bought Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s second album, because nobody cared about swing, once popular culture had deemed the movement passé, and labels stopped pumping money into them. Eighteen months after the 90s became the 40s, it was over. Britney Spears came around. Things got dark for a long time.
Most fads (for swing was truly a fad-no one gets dressed up like that every Friday night forever) happen just like this. The 90s were chock full of them: Tamagotchi, sour gumballs, punk-ska (which lasted longer than swing, but still died a lonely death), etc. I’ve begun to realize that part of the reason there was no great guitar hero in the 90s-note that Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White weren’t joined by a 90s counterpart in It Might Get Loud-is that the 90s; even more so than the 2000s; were all about style over substance. Even in the wake of Nirvana, the radio was inundated with cut-rate imitation groups, bands that copied the sound but never approached the heart. It’s amazing to me, now, that the Goo Goo Dolls are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, trucking out the familiar old hits on a culture that never (non-ironically) asked for them. I imagine it’s the same feeling folks who grew up in the 80s felt when I was laughing and screaming Eddie Money songs in 1996.
There’s one group, however, that gets lumped in with all the other ridiculous fads of the 1990s that deserves a hell of a lot more credit than they get. This is a group who have weathered a declining music industry and universal ridicule by all the world except their fans. Despite zero support from radio or MTV, they’ve sold millions of records over the last twenty years. That group is the Insane Clown Posse.
Now, hear me out on this one. Growing up in Detroit in the mid-90s, there wasn’t anything to be proud of. The Stooges and the MC5 were long forgotten among all but the hippest of middle class Michigan families. Bob Seger and Ted Nugent are embarrassments. Kid Rock was still doing hip-hop, but he hadn’t yet emerged as the superstar he is today. Eminem was still just a twinkle in Dr. Dre’s eye. Even the Detroit Tigers, once an organization you could really get behind, were slacking (and by 2003 recorded the most single-season losses in American League history). The recession that we’re all feeling now was a reality in Detroit years earlier.
Formed in 1991 by Joseph “Violent J” Bruce and Joseph “Shaggy 2 Dope” Utsler, Insane Clown Posse started out as a hardcore gangsta rap group, before branching off into Detroit’s burgeoning “horrorcore” rap scene. Their first three albums, 1992′s Carnival of Carnage, Ringmaster (1994) and Riddlebox (1995) were huge successes throughout Michigan, and ICP began developing a following across the Midwest as well. For their fourth album, the group’s management secured a recording contract with Disney-owned Hollywood Records. The subsequent album, 1997′s The Great Milenko, was pulled from the shelves mere hours after its release. Because of the controversy, ICP received national attention, and became bigger than ever.
I didn’t know shit about ICP before the Hollywood Records controversy happened. All throughout high school, the meanest kids drove cars with ICP decals (huge, and depicting each of the album covers) on their windows. ICP, to me, equalled music for dickheads.
But somewhere in there, my friend convinced me to go with her to the late night signing of copies of The Great Milenko‘s reissue on Island records (a few months after the Hollywood debacle). I went out of sheer boredom, I’m sure. The scene-at some independent record store downtown, the name of which escapes me-was a rare one for suburban Michigan. People were happy. They were all together, celebrating a group from Detroit who was PROUD to be from Detroit. Eighteen years old at the time, I hadn’t been around for a group that was proud to be from Detroit. I was so detached from the idea that I was from a cool place, I didn’t even know hometown pride existed. I bought the album, and was subsequently hooked.
A few months later, I got to take in my first ICP concert. They were headlining the State Theater in Detroit, which holds about five thousand in a sold-out room. For about ninety minutes, the main floor erupted into the biggest pit I’d then experienced, all of it soaked with bottles of Faygo being tossed from the stage. Unlike the metal, beat-the-shit-out-of-each-other-until-there’s-only-two-guys-standing-type pit I’d become accustomed to at shows as wimpy as Bush’s, Insane Clown Posse’s was more like a big, communal dance – albeit one where everyone emerged drenched in Faygo – and a couple of people DID sustain bruises, but a communal dance nonetheless.
The dirtiest, poorest, scrubbiest people I know are into ICP. That’s always the way it’s been. Theirs is a group of once-poor guys who made good and invested their earnings. And they’re generous enough with their fans that the audience doesn’t resent their wealth, but aspires to put as much energy into their dreams as Bruce and Utsler did.
Of course, you fall away from your favorite things with time. I stopped being interested in Insane Clown Posse in the late summer of 1999, when I realized that their newest, The Amazing Jeckyl Brothers, really wasn’t very good at all. The fifth album in a series of six, the group claimed to be wrapping up a cautionary tale called The Dark Carnival. I had, for a time, been fervently interested in where ICP went with their message, but after Jeckyl Brothers, I couldn’t stomach another album. Apparently, the ultimate message of the Dark Carnival was always to follow God and make it to heaven. In a strange twist of fate, Juggalos (as ICP fans are called) across the world didn’t unite and slay Bruce and Utsler. Nay, Insane Clown Posse’s hardcore following took them at their word, and many converted to Christianity. Though their dalliance with the mainstream record industry is more than ten years gone now, ICP have a stronger following in 2010 than they did in 1999.
I’ve lived in New York for almost eight years, and at least once a week, I have to defend to someone that I’m a former Juggalo. I say “former” because I can’t abide by ICP’s misogynistic lyrics, and frankly, my tastes have broadened over the years. It’s been literally years since I put on one of their records. But I never hide the fact that they once meant the world to me. As Violent J himself said, “When you’re down with the clown, then you’re down for life.”
by Brook Pridemore