Clowns are funny. Clowns are scary. Insane Clown Posse — if you couldn’t tell from the name — is a lot of both.
The greasepaint-smeared horrorcore duo, a product of southwest Detroit’s violent, working-class neighborhoods, has taken its thuggish hip-hop to cartoonish levels over the past 18 years, spreading messages of rape ‘n’ murder alongside quasi-Christian mysticism with nary a wink. And if the band’s Waffle House brawls and love of pro-wrestling all seems a little white trash, well, that’s sort of the point.
Despite zero critical love and plenty of criminal troubles, the band has also inspired a national cult of hard-core fans (known as Juggalos and Juggalettes) who flock to ICP’s convoluted, contradictory mythology. And every year, these fans gather at the group’s over-the-top, Faygo- soaked live shows to share in ICP’s bizarrely utopian vision of musical togetherness.
In advance of the ICP’s concert at the Fillmore Auditorium on Monday, I talked to Violent J, a.k.a. Joseph Bruce, one of the heads of a controversial act that has gradually and effectively branded itself as the outsider’s outsider.
John Wenzel: A few weeks ago, the blogosphere was abuzz with parodies of your video “Miracles,” which ponders things like magnets and giraffes. Did you intend for it to be taken seriously?
Violent J: That’s for sure, but at times, we forget who we are and how original and bizarre a band we really are. So we forget when we put out a song like “Miracles” that we’re in clown paint and everything else, or that we throw soda all over the stage. Know what I’m saying? We’ve been doing it so long that it’s normal to us and we’re like, “We can never be taken seriously because we’re just that outrageous.”
Who were you expecting to take it seriously?
There are fans that have been with us forever, who know we’ve always done songs like that — deep songs, serious songs. We’ve never tried to do that for the masses. Do I wish it had not happened? Hell no, man. That’s our whole life — making USA Today’s “Worst Album of the Year.” It ain’t like all of a sudden people are going to give it up hatin’ on us.
Literally minutes before this interview, your show was moved from Red Rocks to the Fillmore, which is about a third the size of Red Rocks. You guys typically do pretty well here in terms of ticket sales. Do you know what happened?
It’s tough because tickets are expensive for this tour, and that’s the only way it could happen, with the number of artists and the live wrestling and everything. But in case anyone thinks ICP is out there getting paid on tour, let me tell you something: Our goal is to break even, you know what I mean? The stuff we bring on tour, the Faygo, the crew, the amount of people and all that stuff and the lighting. … If we can come off tour and didn’t end up spending a penny, that’s celebration to us.
You’ve always put a lot of effort into your live shows, though.
We were just looking for more of a festival feel of a tour this summer. And we were like, “What can the Juggalos do when they’re getting in line and hanging out all early? Let’s give ’em wrestling.” You know what I’m saying? Give everybody something to do before the concert starts.
Why do you think you do so well in Denver? What are some other cities with big ICP fan contingents? I’d imagine Detroit’s pretty big.
We don’t do very well in Detroit and that’s what’s really weird, man. It’s just a weird thing, man. I’d say there’s probably 15 or 16 other cities that we do better in than Detroit, maybe more. It’s actually probably like 30 or 40 other cities. Unless it’s Halloween or some special event, Detroit will be among the smallest houses. We still fill the building.
How do you think ICP’s message has evolved over the years?
You know, we’re on the same page on a lot of the stuff, but we’ve become more positive, and I can’t deny that. But that’s because life got better, and our lives also got surrounded by all this wonderful Juggalo love. It was harder to be mad all the time, and that definitely showed in our music. But at the same time, Juggalos also found each other. It is fun to belong to something, so we all started making more funner jams and started having an audience to talk to. We have this fan base now that understands us, and our dumbness is OK by them. Whatever that is, a mispronunciation of words and other (stuff) people pick on us for. They can relate to it. For Juggalos, we’re like Bob Dylan and shit.
They’re certainly still buying up your albums.
Things are just going super wonderful, man. Just to be here 20 years, and be on the charts and shit, it’s just dope, man. People predicted us dead years and years ago. Every time somebody acknowledges us they predict our death. You know what I’m saying? Talking about the band, saying “This is a phase or a stupid thing for the summer.” Our whole career people have looked at us as a novelty act. They figured we’d be gone, and we outlast everything.
A novelty act, like Gwar or Weird Al Yankovic?
Yeah, whatever. Something like that.
How do you respond when people say the band is dumb and evil?
I think that shit is great stuff. It has a place in music. It’s all entertainment. Some entertainment is just way more creative than other shit. Like, you know, you never hear groups like us hating on them, it’s just them hatin’ on us…
By “them” do you mean critics or other musicians?
Both. The mainstream. The masses. Every time. I don’t wanna sound like I’m bitchin’ because I’m not. I love where we’re at and what we have. We’re sittin’ so wonderful. Our career is in our hands. We’ve built it roots-deep. We’ll be here forever. And we can play Vegas. But the whole time it’s a fight to prove ourselves, and in reality we’ve been proving ourselves, we’ve been schooling it for so long. We got a wall full of plaques. We might be the most hated band in the world but we got mad love and it’s obvious.
Has having kids changed your perspective?
Oh yeah. The whole song “Miracles” is inspired from having kids, seeing everything be so amazing to them. Everything, even magnets, you know what I’m sayin’? That comes from seeing the kids playing with magnets and remembering finding them fascinating. All that cool-ass shit. Just having kids inspired a lot of music. I remember Shaggy (2 Dope, the other half of ICP) had kids before I did so he was ahead of me on a lot of that. (There were) things he wanted to do and say. I’d be arguing with him: “That’s not what we’re at!” And then two or three years later I’m in that state. That’s also where everybody’s essentially headed. Most people, if they don’t get it now, they’ll get it.
How do you think your kids will respond to or feel about your music? There’s some pretty harsh stuff in there.
It’s so funny you asked me that. My son is becoming a Juggalo star. Violent JJ. He’s become Violent JJ. And my daughter Ruby. They’re on tour with us. I bring my family on tour.
How old are they?
JJ is five and Ruby is three. JJ comes out on stage most nights and he cries and cries until we paint him up, just like daddy, and he comes out on stage at the end of the last songs. I pull him on my shoulder and he squirts Faygo. I take him over to the big huge water gun and he sits on it and squirts the water gun all over the Juggolos. And we have wrestling during the day and he comes down to the ring with my friend. He’s five years old and you can get on the Internet now and see him doing wrestling spots, spots where he smacks the bad guy. He understands showmanship. He goes corner to corner, climbs up the rope and raises his arms like wrestlers do.
And your daughter?
She’s the opposite. She doesn’t want to be out there. All the costumes scare her. She’s 3 ½, but still it’s been a year now that JJ’s been coming out on stage with me and he’s a born showman and it just is incredible man. He comes to our rehearsals with us and he loves it.
Anything else you want to add?
We’re proud of our concerts and what goes into them because we feel like nobody can fuck with our live show. That’s where we shine. We’ll always have a whole new set, a whole new stage theme, and I’m proud, and that’s what you’re hearing right now.
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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an A&E reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press. He also maintains a Twitter feed of random song titles.