BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

It’s extremely rare to hear a story related to the Insane Clown Posse that’s anything but very weird, and last week was no exception.

This past Thursday, reports surfaced that two Maryland men were arrested after trying to burn, and cut off a roommate’s tattoo, following an altercation wherein he “disrespected” the aforementioned clown-themed horrorcore group, usually referred to as ICP. The victim lived, although doctors ultimately had to amputate his arm below the elbow. It also bears mentioning that the tattoo in question was in fact an ICP one.

This incident represents the latest in a series of public scandals related to the Insane Clown Posse. Before the forced tattoo-removal of last Thursday, earlier in the week saw a bizarre story unfold that had fellow-Detroit musician Kid Rock denying that he owns a glass sex toy, an object which attorneys believe may be tied to the case of Andrea Pellegrini, a former ICP employee who is suing the group and their surrounding apparatus for sexual harassment.

The history of ICP is as completely unusual as it is totally fascinating. The group was formed by two Detroit kids with rough backgrounds named Joseph Bruce, aka “Violent J,” and Joseph Utsler, aka “Shaggy 2 Dope.” Before adopting their circus-based moniker, they started out as “Inner City Posse,” in 1989. But after Bruce was inspired by a dream he had about a clown, the modern iteration of ICP was born, and their debut album, Carnival of Carnage, arrived a few years later—in 1992. (It should be noted that ICP also took a brief detour from music during their career, for a short tenure in professional wrestling.) Bruce’s dreams also spawned the mythology of the “Dark Carnival,” a pseudo-spiritualistic set of ideas about good and evil which would go on to inform much of ICP’s music, as well becoming a selling point for many of their fans.

Speaking of their fans, ICP is probably best known for their faygo-loving band of devotees, who famously call themselves "juggalos," and for the Gathering of the Juggalos, which brings those fans together every year, as they are for anything else. Featuring other acts on ICP’s Psychopathic Records, in addition to an increasingly impressive and surprising list of other well-known artists and guests, the Gathering gives juggalos a chance to call one another “ninjas” and to use the customary “woop woop” greeting, while wearing ICP-inspired painted faces and hatchet logo attire in harmony. Although, perhaps harmony isn’t exactly the right word; the festival’s infamous reputation is fueled by something that looks a lot more like a fellowship built on chaos.

But despite what Bill O'Reilly or anyone else would have you believe, juggalos insist that their bond is not based on violence or anger, but a mutual sense of community. A mini-doc from Reason.com finds the Village Voice’s Camille Dodero comparing them to "beliebers" or "deadheads."

Except that’s not really accurate. ICP has spurred a strain of devotion that’s so severe, it’s no wonder some have expressed concern.

At the very least, there is a certain amount of drug use associated with juggalo culture, as evidenced by one fan’s supposed overdose at last year’s Gathering. But with the level of drug-related health cases at so many American music festivals, it’s hardly fair to assign any special amount of blame to juggalos in this regard.

More troubling is the FBI’s classification of juggalos as a minor gang, a label which ICP has fought hard to shake. This might seem like an overreaction to a group that at first comes off as a bunch of soda-drinking stoners who like to wear elaborate makeup, but given the recent situation in Maryland and the lawsuit with Pellegrini, one can only start to ask if there’s something more sinister going on here. This is a group where one of the leaders is named Violent J, after all.

This speculation bypasses the most important question in the ICP discussion though, which is what makes people love this group so much? This is a fanbase that, professions of nonviolence aside, is also so committed to their organization that two of them were willing to cut off a third one’s arm because they questioned his loyalty to the juggalo legion. Beliebers have done some crazy crap overtime, but none of them have gone as extreme as that. So logically, a normal person has to be curious, what makes someone an ICP fan in 2014? What’s the psychology of getting behind this much-maligned group?

Because make no mistake, besides being attacked and feared, juggalos and ICP are not remotely well-respected. When music magazine Blender did a list of the 50 worst artists of all time, Insane Clown Posse clocked in at number one—although they’ve since embraced the distinction of “the most hated band in the world." And today, pop culture continues to ridicule them.

A series of ongoing infomercials created to promote the Gathering as well as a low-budget, CGI-heavy video for their single "Miracles" put ICP in the crosshairs of Saturday Night Live, circa 2010. SNL poked fun at these viral oddities, and it wasn’t long before before others started to create their own ICP parody clips, too. Shortly thereafter, enough of these videos existed that the New York Times felt they merited their own profile. Comedy Central’s Workaholics and FX’s It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia also did notable send-ups of the group in the last few years.

The flipside of this is that all the acknowledgement is actually giving ICP some kind of strange legitimacy. If not gaining much actual appreciation, ICP has at least endeared themselves to mainstream America with their special brand of goofiness. A Mozart-inspired collaboration with Jack White from 2011 confused everybody so much, nobody was really able to react to it any other way than to chuckle at the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

More recently, music channel Fuse decided ICP were so fun to watch that they gave them their own Beavis and Butt-head-style commentary show. Even Fox News has brought them back on as guest panelists. None of this has changed ICP’s basic reputation much, but regardless, they’ve come a long way from being the guys who were most famous for their beef with Eminem to being able to write and star in their own movie (not one that many others than diehard juggalos saw, but still).

That said, while ICP has become more of a presence in pop culture, juggalos have remained very much a singular group. They have their own social network and their own digital currency. There is no sign they want acceptance on a wider scale, or to transform people’s opinions on the Clowns. Ultimately, to enjoy ICP’s antics from the sidelines is one thing—but to jump headfirst into juggalo culture and fully embrace everything that entails—is a different animal entirely. Again, for all of ICP’s newfound success, they’re not artists who are ever likely to be taken seriously.

Moreover, ICP are so derided as musicians, people will often use them as a reference point when talking about other musicians they hate. While making fun of people who like H.I.M. and CKY, VICE’s Alex Koenig wrote:

The band’s merchandise and various ephemera no doubt find themselves housed in many a broken home and trailer park, alongside plenty of empty bottles of Faygo… Who are these lost souls? As you’ve no doubt already sussed out, they’re likely lower class sad-sacks, with a brother in the Army who they can’t live up to, and if they’ve ever had sex in any kind of consensual way, are probably well on their way to farting out a few pre-marital toddling abortions with an ex-meth head or daughter of ex-meth heads. If you manage to penetrate the mixed bag of one of these scuttlefish’s immediate family, Juggalos would certainly come spewing forth amongst the bile (but at least you could manage to rustle up some respect for ICP).

VICE loves to talk about ICP (and really, could there be any other topic so VICE-like?). Following the release of “Miracles,” they did a piece where they stopped people on the street and asked them a favorite lyric from the song: “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” When VICE later brought this line up to ICP’s faces, Violent J and Shaggy were less than enthusiastic about having to rehash it. “Magnets? I don’t fucking know," Shaggy 2 Dope responded. "You know what I’m sayin’? People act like we're stupid ‘cause we fucking said it, but c’mon, how do they work—no one really fuckin’ knows.”

What’s interesting is that the seething hatred for ICP as musicians makes their fanbase that much more ardent. The Daily Dot's Nico Lang contrasts them to Nickelback in this sense; whereas loving Nickelback is embarrassing, ICP fans don’t care what you think about them. They’re not necessarily trying to convert anybody, but their isolation as a musical subsect also binds them together. Or as Lang puts it, "They tap into that very feeling of being marginalized or left out; hating ICP might only make their fans stronger.”

Indeed, identifiability appears to be the strongest factor in what makes a juggalo. This principle likely holds true for most artistic appreciation but juggalos take it up a notch (see: tattoo removal). The band’s chief producer, Mike E. Clark, did an interview with VICE where he talked about how the mindset of loserdom has influenced their music (he also didn’t like peoples’ response to “Miracles,” saying, “The whole “Miracles” thing was crazy. It was just a song!”)

For Clark, it’s all rooted in typical concerns of adolescent uncoolness. He claims that working with ICP “brings [him] back to [his] days in grade school." As to why he identifies with Juggalo culture, Clark continues, "I used to get made fun of a lot. I was not the popular kid. I was a bit of an outcast. I definitely grew a thick skin in the process of my childhood."

This has become the major selling point for ICP: if no one else accepts you, we’ll accept you here. Dodero succinctly sums this up for the Village Voice. “As high-profile lowbrow exiles, Insane Clown Posse have become magnets for hundreds of thousands of fellow outcasts who call themselves Juggalos and Juggalettes, bonded by their outcast status," Dodero states. "For approximately 10,000 of them, the Gathering is a yearly reminder that these white-rap-loving black sheep aren't alone.”

In this light, the type of fervor ICP has produced is borderline religious in nature. The Gathering is almost revival-esque in the way it feeds off energy. Which is curiously appropriate, since ICP professed to being consciously Christian about four years ago. In an interview with The Guardian that was widely laughed at (fitting, as they’re another place that has mercilessly savaged Insane Clown Posse in the past), the group elaborated about their religious convictions earnestly. They’ve penned a lot of grotesque lyrics overtime, so the Christianity announcement shocked some people, but for ICP, it was all leading up to one place. Violent J told The Guardian, "You have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you're one of them. You're a person from the street and you speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them: God has helped me."

The religious aspects of ICP’s music also make sense when thrown in with the overarching distrust in science laden throughout “Miracles,” and the larger connotations of the Dark Carnival ethos.

It follows, then, why juggalos would base their existence around their fandom. For them, ICP aren’t just a band, they’re a family. They’re a way of life. Thomas Morton, working (again) for VICE, did some research and discovered, “The Family spread rapidly across the poorer swaths of the Midwest and established a huge and more or less self-sufficient underground with its own distribution network, porn, churches (seriously), charities, file-sharing services, anti-drunk-driving coalition (JADD), initiatory secret society, GLBT activists, pro- and backyard-wrestling circuits… If you want some scope of their national coverage, just plug the word 'Juggalo' into Google.”

But if you want to go deeper than a Google search, if you really want to understand the fundamental story of ICP and the juggalos, there’s one other thing you need to know about them besides they’re identification as outcasts and their religious-type beliefs in the Dark Carnival.

You need to know that people think they’re poor and stupid.

And if you want proof of that, all you need to do is read any article about them ever written. For Morton’s part, he provides an anecdote in his VICE story. “I was having a bit of a hard time reconciling all the weird spiritual and individual-empowerment business with the general adolescent dumb I’d been basting in all day," he recalled. "The few people I’d talked to so far had been really well-spoken and thoughtful, but it seemed like everyone around me was inarticulate to the point of it being sort of endearing.”

This type of thinking, about ICP and their massive horde of fans, isn’t very good for anyone. It makes their critics come off as impossibly mean, skewering a bunch of lesser-thans just for the fun of it, and it encourages juggalos to feed into that stereotype, since the impossibility of escaping it is taken as a certainty.

When the VICE staff did their magnets survey, they sarcastically prefaced it by writing:

Can you believe those fucking dumbshits in the Insane Clown Posse don't know how magnets work? What a bunch of stupid, poorly-educated, lower-class stupidy stupids, right? It's almost like their impoverished upbringing placed such little importance on learning that their current understanding of basic physical science is deficient. Fucking 'tards.

Anyways, everybody knows how magnets work (I mean "le DOYE," you know?). To prove this point we went to Union Square to let a bunch of regular schmoes and schmoinas drop some science on those fucking idiot, awestruck, white trash, positive-minded simpletons.

In the end, what the survey found was that most people don’t know how magnets work. And the one person who did know was a college dropout.

Juggalos are prevalently white, lower-class people, although this is not always the case. Economic challenge and crime are intrinsically related, but if anything, this makes juggalos part of a system that victimizes the poor, as opposed to the other way around.

To imagine that juggalos could one day embrace the innocuous, potentially positive elements of their subculture is a nice thought, however far away that day is. The conversation about them as “white trash” has gotten old and pretty sad. But for now, things look as if they’ll stay right where they are.

Funny enough, there are ICP fans out there who’ve expressed interest in disavowing the juggalo classification altogether, taking into account all the negative connotations that come with it. In talking to Dodero, Violent J was also trepidatious about the dedication of ICP’s followers, confessing that, "This shit is. A. Lot. For Us. To Take. Both of us are on medication for this shit. It's too overwhelming. This shit is—[long pause]—unreal! Everyday. Is Breathtaking. Every day, it's amazing—that Juggalos even exist! And we appreciate it. We don't control this. We're not the leaders of this. All we do is provide a soundtrack."

That Violent J himself would be concerned with whether juggalos have gotten out of hand is a powerful indication of what ICP has become. And if last week demonstrates anything, it’s that this movement is on the brink of self-destruction (see: tattoo removal).

When the carnival is over, reducing juggalos to poor and stupid caricatures is going to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. But in the meantime, if there are juggalos out there who don’t want to be seen as a collective of morons, then they would be wise to encourage their brethren to stop acting like just that.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture. 

Photo via jaredeberhardt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)