- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
“Terrifying clown” is a time-honored trope in horror films and comic book villainy, and in this freak show of an October in America, scary clowns became a real-life menace in cities across the country, including Bastrop and San Marcos. But the Detroit-based horrorcore rap outfit Insane Clown Posse has built not just a brand but a lifestyle around the aesthetic. Their fans are a legion of face-painted misfits who call themselves Juggalos, adopting the outsider character described in the song “What Is a Juggalo?” off the group’s third album, “Riddlebox.”
On Oct. 14, the 20th anniversary tour for “Riddlebox” came to Empire Garage. It was ICP’s first Austin performance since 2001, a momentous occasion for Central Texas Juggalos. In this season of stark division and never-ending Facebook arguments and Twitter wars, it’s instructive to explore our differences. So we set out to understand why Austinites, our friends, neighbors and fellow music fanatics, continue to embrace one of the most mocked and maligned subcultures in modern music.
ICP fans immerse themselves in the band’s “dark carnival,” a self-made mythology drawn out over a dozen or so albums. They paint their faces and braid their hair. They bathe in the Midwestern trash soda Faygo that maniacal clown characters unleash in artificial fruit-scented gales across the audience at every ICP show. They make pilgrimages to the Gathering of the Juggalos, a roving annual music festival that draws thousands of like-minded fanatics. They use the phrase “whoop whoop” frequently, as a salutation and an all-purpose interjection. They rock “Hatchet Man” tattoos to identify themselves.
A Juggalo, as defined by the ICP song, might take a naked stroll through the ’hood “Winking at the freaks/with a 2-liter stuck in his butt-cheeks.” He might proceed to get sloppy drunk, hug his homies, then get belligerent and decide to fight his homies. He fantasizes about engaging in obscene and disgusting behavior specifically designed to offend the gentile sensibilities of the rich and orderly.
Their unhinged, drunken trickster bravado is considered so threatening that in 2011, the FBI labeled Juggalos a “loosely organized hybrid gang” in a National Gang Threat Assessment report. The band rejects the gang designation, and it is under appeal in a case brought by ICP and the American Civil Liberties Union. Their followers chafe at the misperception that Juggalo culture is besieged by the gratuitous violence espoused in the horror-show scenarios of ICP lyrics.
“They didn’t build this company by doing the stuff they rap or talk about in this music,” says Austin Doerr, the 37-year-old owner of Texas Hatchet Cartel, a local promotion group that presents shows from artists on ICP’s Psychopathic Records roster. “It’s like, you listen to the music to relieve that pressure in your life to be able to go out and do something with yourself. There’s Juggalos, you know, that are going to law school right now, that are doctors.”
Texas experienced the ICP phenomenon before most of the country. In 1995, when ICP’s label failed to promote “Riddlebox” adequately, rappers Joseph Bruce, aka Violent J, and Joseph Utsler, aka Shaggy Too Dope, took matters into their own hands.
“They threw a dart at a poster on the wall and said, ‘Wherever this dart lands is where we’re going to promote,’ and it hit Dallas,” Doerr says. “That was one of the first places they went.”
Tracy Fuller grew up in Dallas. He met the Insane Clown Posse rappers as a teenager in Deep Ellum on that first Texas excursion, and the experience was transformative. “I lived in a life of poverty. My parents, at the time, had a lot of life-controlling addictions and stuff like that,” he says. “And I was the poor, scrubby kid at school. And I was either in schools in the ghettos or I was in schools in the really high-class neighborhoods. I was always the outcast.”
These days Fuller, 35, works on production and security at several Austin music venues, including Stubb’s. He also runs the international news and community website for fellow ICP fans called truejuggalofamily.com. The title sums up how most Juggalos feel about their community: They consider themselves a family.
“It seems like to me all the people who are there are people who have been rejected by life … the castaways,” says Joey Silva, a local rapper and wrestler who has performed at the Gathering and considers himself a Juggalo. “Everyone has their groups and cliques when they grow up, and there are always the people who don’t fit into any of those … people who know what it feels like not to belong.”
“We don’t call each other family just to do that. It’s something that we feel, that we’re all related just in being outcasts in our own way,” Doerr says.
Most Juggalos don’t paint their faces anymore — it looked as if less than 25 percent of fans at the Empire show were in makeup — but when they do, it’s an act of liberation.
“People can laugh at us, hate us, we’re clowns. … You have zero expectations from a clown,” Silva says. “You can be a businessman from a high-rise building. You paint your face and you can be whoever you want at a show. No one knows who you are.”
Over the years the size of the Juggalo community in Central Texas has fluctuated. When ICP came to Stubb’s in 2001, fans lined up for hours before the show. This year a handful of Juggalos were waiting before doors opened at Empire, but when ICP took the stage shortly before 10 p.m., the club was packed and the crowd was hyped. From the moment the demented carnival began and 2-liter bottles of Faygo began to fly, raining soda (or, more accurately, pop) across the wildly cheering audience, the energy was pure electric.
“The music has brought us together in a deeper way than just the music,” says Doerr. “There’s a passion there.”
It was evident at the show. The synthesis between the artists and an audience who rapped along to every single word of every single song like their lives depended on it was stunning. The buy-in was 100 percent. With the Faygo rain, the dancing clown figures and occasional brightly colored beach balls that flew through the crowd, it was easy to get swept up.
With the notable exception of the relative slow jam “Lil Somethin Somethin,” it was even easy to dismiss the band’s crude lyricism. That song is the closest thing ICP has to a love song, and the band invited women (Juggalettes) in the crowd to dance onstage during it. They did, enthusiastically. But the lyrics are loaded with such despicable misogyny and disrespect, it was jarring. We should all want more for our Juggalette sisters.
No fights broke out at the ICP show, and the mood as the group wrapped their set was ebullient. After the show, some members of the audience drifted down Red River Street to Elysium, where the club was hosting a Halloween-themed drag show from their resident troupe. Watching Juggalos stream into a room full of drag queens, club owner John Wickham felt some apprehension. When he saw a Juggalo staring, fixated on a drag queen, he sidled over ready to defuse a tense situation. He made it to the table just in time to hear the Juggalo ask, “How do you get your makeup like that?”
Everyone erupted in laughter. Later, watching Juggalos buy shots for drag queens, Wickham’s spirits, trampled by the divisive rhetoric that’s defined this election season in our country, were lifted. “For a brief moment I felt confident that we all may just be able to get along,” he says.