This is the first installment of a three-part essay. Part 2 can be found here; Part 3 is here.

If Internet memes are in fact like viruses, a certain unhealthy fascination with the Insane Clown Posse seems to be one bug that our collective body has at last overcome. Rewind eight months, when most of us contracted (or re-contracted) Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J on YouTube, that great incubator of digital contagion. There we discovered, with mingled joy and revulsion, that around these two scary clowns had sprung up not just a school of rap, but an entire subculture of angry-looking men and women, or “Juggalos” and “Juggalettes.” It felt wrong to mock these people, but, like the delicious scratching of rashy flesh, we delighted ourselves in it nonetheless. And then we spread it on to our friends. Seemingly overnight, the outbreak was nation-wide; ICP was being discussed on blogs, parodied on SNL, and interviewed, exhaustively, on everything from their taste in women (fat) to their understanding of basic physics (slim).

Ultimately, to sate the itch, we sent spies to report back from ICP’s annual concert festival, a raunchy, scabby bacchanal known as The Gathering of the Juggalos. While performing there one night, the human-sized Bratz doll known as Tila Tequila was pelted with beer bottles by an inhospitable crowd. In an attempt to appease her attackers, Tequila reportedly pulled down her top and jiggled her boobs at the audience. At this point, according to some reports, the crowd hurled a watermelon full of human feces at her. Cartoonish and grotesque, the assault could have been plucked directly from an ICP lyric. (Got TT to show me hella tit, then I Gallaghered that bitch with a ‘melon fulla shit. [Splat!]) Art and life had collided; exhausted, disgusted, we finally looked away.

In the postmortem, the consensus has been that ICP will now sink back into the obscurity that they deserve. But this feels obtuse; if all we ever remember about the Insane Clown Posse is their lack of artistic talent, then we will have misremembered the Insane Clown Posse. The most common attacks against them as musicians (when people even stoop to address their music anymore) are that 1. it’s not good, and 2. it’s not funny. I will concede the first point, but not the second. Because the Insane Clown Posse are funny; it’s just that most of us are too old to get the joke.

The duo’s misogyny, their homophobia, even their depictions of violence were never really hateful so much as naughty. Martin Bashir once compared their songs to “nursery rhymes laced with murder,” but in actuality they are more like Itchy and Scratchy cartoons laced with whatever hormone cocktail makes us grow hair in new places. Theirs is the familiar rage of being horny but unfulfilled; it’s that desperate fear of dying a virgin.  “We don’t get chicks. We don’t get chicks. We never get any damn chicks!” Violent J complained to Adam Carolla on an episode of Loveline back in 1997, when the group was experiencing its first flush of success. (He also admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that he and Shaggy 2 Dope also didn’t smoke pot or drink alcohol. Faygo-brand root beer was their drug of choice.)

Six years earlier they’d changed their name from the Inner City Posse to the Insane Clown Posse, adopted the themes of the burgeoning horrorcore rap scene, and, fortunately, shed their third member, a one John Kickjazz (whom I always imagine as an SNL character played by Andy Samberg). The group steadily cultivated a surprisingly huge fan base; when they appeared on Loveline in 1997, their fourth album, The Great Milenko, had just gone platinum without the help of any advertising, radio airplay, or exposure on MTV.  They were unexpected millionaires, but strangely, they didn’t seem much interested in the money. Violent J told Carolla he drove a purple Ford Explorer and lived in a $250,000 house. “I have a seven-digit bank account, and I’m an idiot!” he exclaimed, as bewildered as anyone else at his success.

Most of that money ICP ended up reinvesting in their first feature film, Big Money Hustlas, a lovingly rendered neo-Blaxploitation comedy featuring, among other things, Harland Williams as a character named Officer Harry Cox. The fact that they reinvested the money (in a high concept re-appropriation of black culture, no less) is key: ICP, and by extension their diehard fans, never seemed to yearn for the usual things— fame, fortune, or artistic recognition—but rather for a new and concrete identity, built largely around a disavowal of cultural norms. Hence: makeup; dyed hair; foggy espousals of religion and anti-religion; a co-opting of the term ‘underground’; cartoon violence; black slang; fat girls slam-dancing in the mud; and shock comedy.

Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J started wearing scary clown makeup in 1992, the same year Todd McFarlane created Spawn. It was a time when that kind of dark-but-childish aesthetic seemed edgy, rather than trashy and puerile. For many years, the duo also practiced “extreme wrestling”—another thing that seemed edgy back in the early 90s—bouncing around in rings wrapped with barbed wire and hitting their opponents with flaming baseball bats studded with thumb tacks. Their lyrics threatened violence, often of a sexual nature, but these too were always weirdly cartoonish and stunted; in one song, Violent J says he will dip his nuts in your soup and “bust a nut in your macaroni”; in another, he threatens to assault his date’s mother, but then imagines it in the most pubescent conceivable way: “After your mom does the dishes and the silverware, I dry fuck her ‘til I nut in my underwear.” Wrestling, crude language, intra-underwear-ejaculation—these transgressions are ones that only teenage boys (and people with the minds of teenage boys) exalt.

Despite their occasional efforts at musical legitimacy, we never learned to take the Insane Clown Posse seriously. Even when they attempted to make deep music—about, say, their child-like wonder at the mysteries of the universe—we still laughed. (Or rather, we LOLed, which is to say, we sat in silence and smirked; in the mute reaches of the digisphere, the one has long been mistaken for the other.) In the end, we failed to take ICP’s “Miracles” to heart not because their sudden shift into antiscience signified a regression from adolescence to childhood—“Niagara Falls and the pyramids, everything you believed in as kids”— or because it evinced a shocking lack of education. (It did, but since when do we fault high school dropouts for not understanding the workings of electromagnetism?) No, these were just the excuses one social class used to vent its frustrations with another, lower one: namely, their stubborn refusal to accept the dictates of the American educational system—their wish to remain stupid. (More about that later.)

In the end, the real reason we didn’t regard ICP as serious and introspective artists is because they didn’t even seem to see themselves that way. Take “Miracles.” Sandwiched between couplets earnestly marveling at the appearance of rainbows and the invisibility of music, ICP manages to slip in a line that could well have been penned by Shel Silverstein:

Violent J: “I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco bay. It tried to eat my cell phone.” Shaggy [in an aside]: “He ran away.”

“Jokes. Jokes, man. Jokes. Jokes. Jokes,” Violent J told The Guardian, when an interviewer tried to parse the moral messages embedded in a song entitled “I Stuck Her With My Wang.” “It’s just a ridiculous scenario. Silly stories, man. Silly stories.” This pronouncement and countless others like it should have been clue enough that ICP are fundamentally unserious artists (i.e. comedians). But for me, this realization didn’t gel until I heard their response to an interviewer’s question about the SNL parodies of their videos. “That, on the real, was awesome,” Violent J said, suddenly growing sincere. “To be honored on Saturday Night Live like that, is close to as great as being honored by Weird Al.”

In Part 2: Weird Al, Eminem, and the strange power of comedic rap on the eleven-year-old brain.

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