Everybody has things in their past that you would never really guess and will never know unless they are randomly prompted in conversation. You know, the things that are such a dim memory you nearly forget them yourself. Here’s one of mine: for the year between my 14th and 15th birthdays, my favourite band was the Insane Clown Posse. That’s right friends, I was a juggalo.
It’s rare that this comes up. Unlike a lot of the bands I listened to at that age, I can’t really remember any lyrics or even song titles. They were something that came into my life (introduced to me by this kid named Jeremy who moved out to Mudgee from Sydney bringing all kinds of cool stuff) suddenly and disappeared (I discovered punk and indie music, and got a little bit uncomfortable with the lyrics of the gangsta rap I was listening to) just as quickly.
But I loved it at the time. There were a group of us at school who were into ICP and their “dark carnival”. We used to quote lyrics at each other, and managed to get their whole catalogue on our meagre pocket money by buying an album each and getting our one friend with a cd burner to distribute copies to everyone. I used to draw the little “hatchet man” logo, and even would try to come up with plans as to how I could taste the Detroit cheapo soda “Faygo” that the band would sing about.
If you’re not familiar with the band, it really is too strange for me to try to explain here. You’ll have to look it up yourself. I’ll just share my one favourite story about them. In the late 90’s the band was signed to Disney-owned Hollywood Records. After a complaint from conservative Americans the label tried to cut the band without any severance pay and without giving back the master tapes of their forthcoming album. The band’s manager told Hollywood Records CEO Michael Eisner that the juggalos (the band’s devoted fans) would “burn down Disneyland.” Miraculously, the label and band quickly came to an agreement.
These memories were well and truly crammed into the darkest corners of the back of my mind until it was announced earlier this year that ICP would be touring Australia. Once I had heard this information there was only one conceivable course of action. I had to go. And so it was that on Thursday night, I found myself successfully scamming my way into the Hifi in West End for a surreal experience I will try my best to relate to you.
The highlight of the show was really before it started. Despite the early starting time of 7pm, like clockwork at that minute there appeared at the Hi-fi hundreds of juggalos waiting to get in. There were loads of faces painted, ICP shirts and a definite gender imbalance. The doors didn’t quite open on time, but people happily killed time by singing lyrics together and chanting either “family!” or “whup whup!”. The queue stretched out for literally hundreds of metres around the block. Some guy came out onto his verandah to angrily complain to the venue management about the noise. Meanwhile, the patrons and staff of nearby establishments stared in open-mouthed astonishment. The feral face-painted masses had invaded yuppified Boundary Street.
To try to sneak in I had to wait for a while, so I didn’t stick around, but I did have a couple of brief conversations with very friendly fans. When I came back I witnesses a couple of 4zzz guys interviewing juggalos. One guy said, “Australia is an extremely racist country. People of all colours are racist towards others. The only place where there is no racism is here tonight.”
I got inside to a crowd chanting “ICP! ICP!” in anticipation. The curtain opened to a huge cheer, and then there they were, bouncing around the stage. Two men in their 40’s, wearing black and white facepaint, truly living the Peter Pan dream of never having to grow up.
There were a handful of others dressed as clowns (through the set they would change into zombies, grim reapers, demons and a few other things I can’t remember), who threw confetti into the crowd. Within the opening couple of songs, the first cases of soft drink appeared and were shaken up and sprayed into the crowd. Face paint, confetti, spraying soft drink? I know all the songs are about killing people and the juggalos are on the FBI’s list of dangerous gangs, but honestly this has more of the vibe of a 12 year old’s birthday party.
What about the music? The beats are pretty simple, and usually either circus style keyboards or rap-rock crossover guitar. There’s not much great variety there, and neither is there in the lyrics, which are low on political correctness but high in stupidity. And usually involve murder or non-romantic sex. Or both. There is the running theme of religious themes and imagery thrown in there as well, which is truly a bizarre mixture, but there you go.
It’s not really about the music though, despite the fact that a few people around me know all the words and are dancing enthusiastically. It’s more of a communal ritual – being with the “family” and getting drenched in the endless supply of soft drinks that are being sprayed into the crowd.
Violent J announced that they would be playing their last song “but there’s still lots of faygo left”, which must have been a cue because as soon as the song began, people started rushing the stage and opening the bottles until soon there were about 50 people on stage spraying the stuff around. I couldn’t possibly count how many bottles got emptied, box after box kept being brought out. People on stage are dancing, hugging, soaked. It’s an amazing sight.
Everyone on stage reminded me of another gig I snuck into at the Hi-fi a couple of years ago – New York street punks The Casualties. That time I think there were more people on stage at one point than in the audience. they have the same rhetoric of “family” and “us against the world”, and have a uniform as well – mohawks and patches. The same simplistic music that seems more like a means to an end than an end in itself.
One difference though is that the Casualties show was one of the most violent I’ve ever been to. I saw two people punched straight in the face in the pit. Tonight there is no hint of violence, and despite the audience being probably 80% male, no creepiness or harrassment of women that I could see. It really was just a big kid’s party.
At some point the band snuck off stage and left the delirious juggalos marinating in their soft drink. The lights came up, but nobody left yet, instead staying and chanting “fa-mi-ly! fa-mi-ly!” Soon enough the security started to corral people out, except get this: the security guards, who had been standing at the stage as per usual for Hi-fi shows, were completely doused in soft drink and covered in glitter. In those circumstances it’s pretty hard to be intimidating.
The crowd started moving out anyway, leaving the most bizarre sight – the front section of the Hi-fi was a massive pool of soft drink, ankle deep. One guy did a belly slide in it to big cheers and emerged fist-pumping. Did I mention kid’s parties? I had managed to avoid the soft drink geysers the whole night, but on the way out a lady came up to me saying “we’re family!” and hugged me, leaving a residue of sticky soda on the front of my shirt.
Outside the venue, the joyful family vibe remained – more chanting, more “whup whup” (I don’t know what it means either), overweight guys walking around with their shirts off. Like any good show at the Hi-fi, the milling crowd blocked off that little street and needed to be shepherded around by the security. I hung around for a while, not really doing anything except soaking in the atmosphere, until it was only the dregs left still there.
The juggalo phenomenon is pretty interesting I must say. I mean, it would be easy to pick holes in it or make fun of them, but I think they bring up so many interesting questions. How did this whole cult thing develop? What binds these people together? Is it really just a crappy hip hop group from the other side of the world? What do juggalos stand for?
There is a general anti-mainstream society sentiment, and occasionally something vaguely resembling a political idea in the lyrics, but that’s pretty hard to find amongst the cartoon violence and teenage boy humour. There’s the religious theme, and maybe that’s it – like many religions it’s about personal transformation. There’s definitely that sense of self-empowering, motivational speaker, community talk that outsider sub-cultures sometimes produce. Maybe it really is like family – those intangible but unquestionable bonds that tie you to other people for life. In a society lacking in community and connection, the wicked clowns fill a gap that people need.
However you see it, there is an enthralling and intoxicating energy to the whole thing. I see a lot of amazing bands regularly, who I would confidently claim are musically better than ICP. But it’s very rare that I leave a show feeling as happy as I did on Thursday night.