Violent J places his hand on Shaggy 2 Dope’s upper-left thigh. It’s a remarkably affectionate gesture for a rapper who last night told Charlie Sheen to call him if the derailed actor ever needed anyone bumped off. Shaggy jumps. “Stop that, man!” He’d just been talking about how the police were “the biggest gang in the world,” but now looks at us. “Jesus Christ, he’s been touching me all weekend.”
The photographer I’m working with, Igor, and I are sitting on Insane Clown Posse’s tour bus, the evil harlequins’ temporary dressing room that’s parked backstage for the duration of the lifelong friends’ psycho-porn carnival-concert retreat, the Gathering of the Juggalos. This is the 12th year that the Detroit band’s label Psychopathic Records has organized the Gathering, a family reunion for the underground nexus of likeminded rejects, blue-collar misfits, and disenfranchised kids who’ve found themselves united by the “most hated band in the world” and the word “Juggalo.” It’s also the fifth that the event has been held at the privately owned HogRock Ranch & Campgrounds in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, and another year that lifelong friends Joey Utsler (Shaggy) and Joe Bruce (Violent J) will swear they don’t personally turn a profit from the wooded fun-house retreat. (“Most of the money that we do make, we put right back into Psychopathic, as opposed to going out and buying Lamborghinis and fucking sports cars,” insists Shaggy.) Except for the noticeable absence of Club Lotus, a velvet-roped campsite-turned-Juggalo Studio 54, everything inside the 115-acre illicit carnival seems the same as last year—contraband for sale, boobs for miles, spider-legged braids, topless moms, dilated pupils pooled in facepaint. But a lot has changed outside the gates.
Thanks to Saturday Night Live spoofs, the group’s accidental viral-video genius, and a globally referenced incident where ICP fans pelted fame-slut Tila Tequila with garbage onstage here last year, Insane Clown Posse are no longer seen as fetid not-in-our-backyard trash but as a novelty-shop curio. In April, after six or seven years when no Manhattan venue would book them, they headlined New York City for the first time in ages. In June, they announced that Charlie Sheen would act as a Gathering host. VH1 approached ICP about filming a reality show (think Hogan Knows Best meets The Housegirlfriends of Psychopathic Records), which they’ve thus far declined. (You’ll be happy to know that they attended these VH1 meetings in face paint.)
This national attention has boosted Gathering of the Juggalos’ external visibility from off-the-grid misfit toyland to American meme safari. Last year, there were about ten media representatives milling about for the entire weekend; this year, the press-badge list mushroomed to more than 50 outlets, everywhere from Fuse to “uh, my friend’s blog” to Deadspin, which sent a female reporter posing as a Juggalo. Separately, there is a sprinkle of white-collar randoms who’re excited to purchase narcotics in a place where no one knows their names. There’s a well-dressed couple gallivanting about, hands on hips, kicking up a cloud of silent snark. There’re a few facial expressions that betray an unnerving classism.
You would think ICP would be suspicious of this tourism. But Shaggy, sucking on his electronic cigarette in the tour bus, doesn’t seem bothered. “We’ve been doing this for how long, with no recognition and whatnot. So getting a bit of curiosity seekers, I think it’s kinda cool, whether they”—he means the observers—”like it or not.”
Insane Clown Posse does care deeply about what the Juggalos think about this. So much that the two men devoted more than 10 minutes of their annual hour-long ICP seminar, a state-of-the-Psychopathic-union address with poop references and STD jokes, to defending their willingness to work with the mainstream media. “Juggalos should be in the news because Juggalos are news,” Violent J told them. “They’re not like Deadheads, they’re not like hippies, they’re not like Jimmy Buffet’s motherfucking Parrotheads!” He was insistent. “This is not a fanbase. Juggalos are a movement, they are a way of life.”
It may be business rhetoric, but that doesn’t mean these guys don’t believe it. This year, a Juggalo steals a press pass, fibs his way past backstage security, and busts into club-cartoon Lil Jon’s tour bus. At any other American music festival, this would be grounds for immediate expulsion; here, the offender gets his laminate taken away and shooed off. Among the crew, there’s an unspoken understanding that Joe Bruce would be upset to learn that a Juggalo got kicked out of this place, especially for something like circumnavigating exclusivity.
What about when tourists become impostors? There’s a reporter here pretending to be a Juggalo. “That’s stupid,” scoffs Shaggy in disbelief, back on the bus. “You just come as yourself and you’re cool. Ain’t no use in some ‘undercover’ work, that’s just silly to me.”
Violent J can’t even comprehend this. “I’ve never even heard of that,” he says very seriously. “If you would dress up and act like what a Juggalo would act like, you must find Juggalos very interesting. You know what I’m saying?” I do. “It’s not even something that you say, I’m not a Juggalo no more or I am a Juggalo—it’s just, we’ve always been,” he says. Hanging a key around your neck doesn’t make you a latchkey kid. “It’s just a word. To describe a certain type of person. I never really thought about it, but I guess you can dress like a Juggalo or act like a Juggalo.” He seems crestfallen. “I guess I don’t have an opinion on that.”
“What is it, like a Halloween costume or something?” says Shaggy. I wince. “This is every day for us.”
Igor interrupts, nodding at me, “She went as a Juggalo for Halloween.”
We have a bit of a history, Insane Clown Posse and me. Last year, I put up some savings to come to the Gathering of the Juggalos and ended up publishing a very long article about Juggalos that strangers said very nice things about. (My employers liked it enough to reimburse me.) As a direct consequence of that piece, and by extension Insane Clown Posse, things in my life have changed for the better. Cast this as the world’s most pathetic humblebrag if you must, but facts are facts.
So I dressed up like a Juggalette for Halloween. Painted my face in Violent J’s thick black twist on Emmett Kelly lips, had my roommate draw “DOWN WITH THE CLOWN” and a cherry-red Psychopathic symbol on a white T-shirt. Bought a plastic cleaver from New York Costumes and carried the weapon around all night like a hatchet. It was a tribute, a quiet gesture of affection, but perhaps awkwardly expressed—maybe like when Violent J put his hand on Shaggy’s thigh.
They don’t say anything about it until the next day, when we run into them at the airport heading back to New York. Joey Utsler and Joe Bruce, a/k/a Shaggy and Violent J, are on our connecting flight to Detroit. Last night, Violent J let Igor and me climb onstage during ICP’s firework-accompanied finale and spray Faygo all over the crowd, which was one of the most fun things ever. But now, he’s Joe Bruce, a spiky-haired guy with luggage lagging behind his best friend Joey, without makeup. Finally seeing Insane Clown Posse without clown faces isn’t like discovering Mickey Mouse on a smoke break at Disney World; it’s like meeting the guys you talked to all night at a bar in daylight for the first time. (Far more surreal is seeing Sunday-night host Flavor Flav traipse in, big clock and all.)
We file into the security line. A Juggalo with a long, fluffy goatee giddily announces to the TSA agents, “That’s Shaggy 2 Dope from Insane Clown Posse!” He evidently expected them to be impressed. Instead, they rescan Utsler’s luggage.
I approach Joe Bruce. We fumble a fist bump. “I have a question. Are you in a rush?” he asks. “I’ve been thinking about this.” In the hours since we spoke, Joe, father of two, has played 29 songs for 10,000 people, endured a Faygo Apocalypse, dyed his hair red, pedaled onstage in a tricycle, presumably slept, and spent 90 minutes traveling to the Evansville airport. It seems impossible that he would have time to reflect on anything not immediately pressing. “You said you dressed up as a Juggalette for Halloween?” He is somber. My heart sinks. Now who’s the impostor. “And you like the Juggalos?” I nod. “Would you consider wearing something to represent Juggalos?” he asks. “I know you’d probably be too embarrassed to wear something to an office party,” he says with absolute earnestness. “But what about a little something, out in the world?”
His tone strikes me as that of unpopular kid you’ve quietly befriended and privately tutored at school, saying, “You don’t really like me, do you?”, or acknowledging that we can’t sit together at lunch, but what about on the bus? Then again, maybe he’s just a grown man reminding me that, as he knows better than anybody, all masquerades are serious business. “You’re preaching to the converted, man,” I say, dumbly.
On the plane, I sit next to the Juggalo from security. He’s 27, a custodian with a three-year-old daughter in a town of 9,000. His trip to the Gathering was his first time flying. “I was surprised to see them here,” he says about Joe and Joey. “I figured they’d have their own private jets.”