If Bob Dylan going electric, the Sex Pistols and 2 Live Crew didn't destroy civilization, we're probably safe from a couple Faygo-spraying clowns recounting 21st century morality tales. Shaggy 2 Dope (aka Joseph Utsler) and Violent J (aka Joseph Bruce) are face-painting rappers whose cartoonish vengeance fantasies made the FBI paranoid enough to classify their followers, aka Juggalos, a gang in 2011.
It's a bit of musical moral hysteria on par with censoring Elvis' hips. Maybe the Feds have mistaken Insane Clown Posse for Dethklok, the music juggernaut from Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse. Regardless, ICP is fighting the classification in court.
"It don't make no sense," Utsler told Boise Weekly. "Jack the Ripper probably listened to Mozart. You know what I'm saying? Mozart would've been pinned for that shit."
It's par for the course in the life of the most vilified musicians since Marilyn Manson—and at least Manson had entertainment giant Interscope Records backing him. ICP is independent, responsible for the ups and downs of the industry and the label it co-founded, Psychopathic Records. It has been a rollercoaster ride but after years as one of the media's whack-a-mole villains, the band is finally beginning to begrudgingly receive recognition to match the gold and platinum albums.
Even 23 years after its debut, Carnival of Carnage (Psychopathic Records, 1992), the band many dismissed as a gimmick is still going strong. A few years ago, Wired magazine profiled ICP for its business acumen. More recently, the band was written about by Vice and GQ. ICP's experience might be best summed up by a Gandhi quote: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
"To get real publications talking positive about us, that's wonderful. We've been in the game for so long, it's undeniable to people now. It's not just a flash in the pan, some kind of shitty fad or whatever they thought it was," Utsler said. "It feels good to get recognition. I feel a lot of it has to do with people that used to listen to our shit are more grown; now they're in their 30s or 40s, you know, and are in positions where they can do things like that."
On the surface, ICP's homicidal clown act suggests a horror flick populated by over-the-top wrestlers/serial killers. But maybe Utsler and Bruce are more like avenging angels meting out justice on miscreants and evildoers who have escaped society's strictures.
In some sense they speak for downtrodden—conceptual ground walked upon by the likes of Bruce Springsteen. Unlike the Boss, who sings about washing away sin in the sea, ICP suggests more immediate, bloodier dispensation. As different as they are in sound, appearance and reception, the clowns and Springsteen sing songs dedicated to society's dispossessed and forgotten, whether they live in union towns or travel in the carnival sideshow, where all the freaks can feel they're on even ground.
"I wish it was like that," said Utsler. "It's that blue-collar thing, but the fact is that [Springsteen is] beloved. People look at him and say he's a hard-working man. People look at us and go, 'Those assholes.'"
Whatever mainstream culture thinks of ICP is irrelevant. The band has an audience, and it's a loyal one.
ICP's annual music festival, the Gathering of the Juggalos celebrated its 16th year in July. The weekend blowout features carnival rides, music and extraordinary people watching, ample fodder for journalists, who document the event with equal parts horror, revulsion, fascination and mirth. After some issues with its hosts, the Gathering moved to Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio, which has proven to be a good decision.
"It's awesome. It's a smaller place but it just makes it more intimate," Utsler said. "It started to get so out of control at the other place ... Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to diss what we had going before, but there was some crazy shit [hard drugs like heroin] going on that we weren't with at all."
ICP is currently supporting the recent release of twin albums, the dark The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost (Psychopathic, April 2015) and the brighter The Marvelous Missing Link: Found (Psychopathic, July 2015). A dozen years ago, ICP released a pair of albums with a similar light/dark aspect, 2002's The Wraith: Shangri-La and 2004's Hell's Pit. This time they dropped the dark album first for a reason.
"When we do a darker record, our mindset is in that record, so it's like we feel it in our personal lives and stuff. So it was good to get that deeper, darker shit out first, so we could go and record a more positive record [like Found] and feel good about that," Utsler said. "Because back in the day, we came out with Shangri-La first and we were flying high, going great, best times of our lives. Then we did Hell's Pit and, no shit, our personal lives went down in the shitter. It took me fucking years and years to recover from that."
If there's one thing the music business has taught ICP, it's you never know what's coming next. Even though things are better now, it has been a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back process the whole way, but the band has learned to keep the focus on what's ahead rather than how high or low the rollercoaster ride has taken it.
"We're used to it. It's a ride we know very well and have been on many times," Utsler said.
As he said about the FBI's gang case, "We're going to see it through no matter what."