Insane Clown Posse is the Grateful Dead of horror-rap: Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J have created their own traveling cult of the dispossessed around the somewhat poetic concept of a strange carnival sideshow.
Like their fans, the now-famous former outcasts Insane Clown Posse were once disparaged as freaks and reviled for their mere existence. The music world's reception of the duo's graphic theatricality and intricate mythology mirrors the experience of their audience, providing a sympathetic rallying point in a world that, like Will Smith's parents, just doesn't understand.
"We don't give a fuck if people understand it or not," says Violent J, or Joseph Bruce, from a California tour stop. "What we're doing out here is a wonderful thing for a lot of people. We all belong to something now."
Growing up in Detroit, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope (or Joseph Utsler) weren't cool or smart. They were average kids interested in wrestling and hip-hop. When Michigan rappers Esham and Kid Rock started to get some attention with their own gimmicks, the pair decided to reinvent their gangsta rap with a twist—well, something more like a rewritten plot. They became homicidal clowns involved in an overarching machination more convoluted than an X-Files season.
"You had Kid Rock riding a tractor and Esham coming out of coffins with a glow-in-the-dark 666 T-shirt," remembers Bruce. "Everyone had theatrics to them. It was more than just a sound—you had a look and story. We saw it like pro wrestling: It's not just a normal guy with a normal name, but this guy is a mad scientist or a lunatic in a straitjacket."
That was more than two decades ago, and they've outlasted every expectation, assembling legions of Faygo-swilling Juggalos (their Kiss Army, if you will) whose numbers continue to swell long after the group's predicted expiration date. Seemingly, they would have hit their high-water mark amid the rap-rock explosion of the late '90s while on Island Records. But their fortunes have accelerated of late: Their last (and self-released) record, 2009's Bang! Pow! Boom!, debuted at No. 4 nationally, matching their highest showing ever.
For the album's third single, "Miracles," the band remained true to form, making a video that went viral while confusing mostly everyone. Inspired by Bruce's children and their wide-eyed appreciation for the wonder of the world, the video questioned—perhaps more innocently than many might have expected from a couple of bloodthirsty clowns—how magnets work. It prompted a Saturday Night Live parody that pondered how blankets work. If there was ever any doubt as to whether these clowns could reach the mainstream, they somehow answered that question in the most surprising way.
"We've always done songs like that. Songs that are deep and have some kind of meaning. Sometimes when we're talking directly to Juggalos we're not yelling or screaming or swinging an ax," says Bruce. "[But] everybody expected us to do one thing. The fact that everybody hated it and dissed us and thought we were fucking idiots—that's fine."
Indeed, they keep the Juggalos on their toes. Recently, Jack White reached out to include them on a single his label, Third Man, is releasing featuring JEFF the Brotherhood. It includes a Mozart tune called "Leck Mich Im Arsch"—literally "Lick My Ass." The clowns weren't into it.
"I was a little upset at first, like, 'Ah man, lick my ass?' They're thinking: 'Let's get ICP on this, and they're high-fiving each other in the studio,'" Bruce laughs. "Then he talked about it and the idea that people don't know that about Mozart. He used to do shit on the side that sounded like our shit, full of cuss words and stupid nursery rhymes. He used to do that to make his boys laugh, and a lot of that's like the beginnings of ICP."
Given their upswing in name recognition during the last few years, they feel their next album, Mighty Death Pop, could be their biggest release yet. They're treating it as such, putting in lots of extra time and effort for the 2012 release. They know they're an acquired taste, but they make no apologies and have no room for haters.
"If you're outside the music and you're not feeling that bond, well it seems like the joke's on you. It's your loss. We're in here, and we're feeling it, loving each other's company and having fun," Bruce says. "We don't care if the rest of the world is outside staring at us like, 'Look at those assholes.' We're here having a blast. That's what it's about."