For four months when I was 20 years old, I listened only to Insane Clown Posse (ICP) records — specifically, the first four Joker’s Card LPs in the band’s seven-album Dark Carnival cycle. I was a Juggalo, and I had the T-shirt and face paint to prove it.
The Ringmaster, Riddlebox, The Great Milenko and Carnival of Carnage played on constant repeat in my dented 1990 Nissan pickup truck. Named for the spirits with whom you reckon when you die, the cards’ titles hinted at ICP’s bigger picture. If this seems doomsday-oriented, cult-like, that’s because it is.
But neither I nor the world understood the depth of ICP’s mythical allegory in the year 2000. I only knew the attraction I felt toward the rap duo from Detroit had blossomed like a long-dormant case of shingles. I’d been a fan of nu metal in high school, like so many of my fellow suburban teens — seen Rage Against the Machine, Korn’s Family Values Tour and eaten more mouthfuls of sweaty flab in mosh pits than I cared to remember. ICP was all over the alt-rock radio stations. But their music didn’t resonate with me the way it did with my sister, who regularly smoked up to The Great Milenko.
I wouldn’t become a Juggalette until I was 20 years old, working the graveyard shift at a Baton Rouge hotel. My boyfriend, a theoretical physics major, spent the summer in Japan doing research on a neutrino detector. I hadn’t made any other friends at Louisiana State University. Its 36,000 students all felt like iterations of the same khaki-shorts and Greek T-shirt clad football fan. I had little in common with them, I thought.
It didn’t help that I lived with my grandmother, 30 minutes away from campus, in the dollar-store and meth-lab spotted outskirts of Baton Rouge. Even if I’d been socially inclined, I wouldn’t have wanted to commute to campus more than I had to. Then my boyfriend dumped me as soon as he got back from Japan. He didn’t love me, he said. And that’s when the serrated, rage- and Faygo-soaked songs about hatchet violence started to sound great.
Why had I never listened to this? I wondered as I sat alone behind the front desk of the Marriott with my Walkman and a book. I loved “Chicken Hunting,” a song about “chopping motherfucking rednecks silly,” and “Southwest Voodoo,” told from the perspective of a teenage voodoo practitioner in a cafeteria: “Got my own food, who wants some? I got possum nipples and raccoon tongue.”
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope denounced the kind of redneck bigotry that surrounded me growing up in southern Louisiana. They threaded their albums through with the Dark Carnival’s mythology and the promise that “all would be revealed” when the last Joker’s Card dropped. Some bands have concept albums. ICP’s members have concept careers. They’re mad prophets in face paint.
“The Dark Carnival is our religion,” Violent J told Rolling Stone in 2014. “It’s talking about serial killers and the killing of racist people and the killing of pedophiles, and somehow the bottom line is magically apparent to Juggalos.”
It isn’t that I didn’t try to listen to bands other than ICP during those four months. I’d switch on the radio or slide other CDs into my player. But compared to Insane Clown Posse’s cheerful vulgarity and gruesome supernatural stories, everything else felt flat.
I met a fellow Juggalo at work. A new hire for the hotel’s swing shift, Zane wore his bleached-blonde hair in a carefully sculpted buzz cut. When he said his favorite band was Insane Clown Posse, I knew we’d be friends.
Zane lived near me, in what was then an unincorporated parish called Central, Louisiana. He was gay, a drug addict and a devout Christian, stacking WWJD “What Would Jesus Do?” cuffs among his neon plastic rave bracelets. He didn’t just love Insane Clown Posse, though; he also loved Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto, Ferry Corsten, AK1200 — electronic music producers and DJs. Zane took me to raves and made me part of that scene. Gradually, ICP albums moved to the back of my CD binder.
I stopped listening to Insane Clown Posse in 2003, after the last Joker’s Card dropped. In The Wraith: Shangri La, all became clear, as the wicked clowns had promised. “Truth is, we follow God,” they rapped. “We’ve always been behind Him. The Carnival is God and may all Juggalos find Him.”
That announcement led to a schism among Juggalos. Some ninjas were pissed to find out their twisted, violent, Eminem-feuding band was secretly… religious. But others embraced the Dark Carnival brand of spirituality and found in it a deeper kinship with their fellow Juggalos.
It seems incongruous that a vulgar horrorcore rap duo from Detroit is on a self-described mission from God. The same way it was incongruous to listen to Zane describe the golden feet of angels he’d seen while overdosing. Spirituality had no right to exist in the debased realms of violence and addiction. Yet here it was.
Lately, it’s become cool to make fun of ICP and their fans for being dumb white trash. When I read reports of the Gathering of the Juggalos, though, I comb the photos and try to find aspects of my former self among the nudity, synthetic dreadlocks and nitrous balloons. I think I have little in common with these Juggalos. Yet I am one.
And as I examine them, I see why I was attracted to ICP: I was a white person from the South who felt disenfranchised from its mainstream culture of football and hunting, who felt hatred for its lingering segregation and rebel flags. I was a petty criminal, shoplifting and smoking meth, lashing out at The Man, though I had no idea who he was or how privileged I’d been in my life. Insane Clown Posse gave me a magical world to step into and a colorful painted face to assume once I was there.
I don’t have the relationship to music now that I did fifteen years ago, the sense that I am reclaiming a part of myself by going to a show or buying an album. But I did see ICP when they came to New Orleans in 2010. I still remembered “Chicken Huntin’” and screamed its lyrics while 16,000 liters of diet Faygo doused me. My fellow Juggalos and Juggalettes embraced me as they chanted something I hadn’t heard before: “Fam-uh-LEE! Fam-uh-LEE!”
ICP has created a family among fans, a different reality, and that is no small thing. “To be able to leave your world and step into another is a gift we will be forever thankful for,” the liner notes of The Riddlebox read. As a writer, it’s what I aspire to. It’s why I’m down with the clown, and I’m down for life, yo.