I listened to all of Insane Clown Posse’s albums, and now I understand
Insane Clown Posse made history with the Juggalo March in September, a protest that took place on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall and called out the FBI for labeling the rap group’s fan base a gang. Although the FBI hasn’t rescinded the label, the protest was a success, with Juggalos across the country banding together and showing solidarity.
As the Daily Dot reported last month:
Speakers railed against the rising tide of hatred and intolerance. Juggalos carried signs that said “Faygo, not Facism!” and “Black Juggalos Matter” and “Fuck Nazis.”
“America’s come farther than I think they realized. A lot of people don’t want discrimination in this country anymore, man. They don’t want bullshit racism. They don’t want hate. That’s played out and ancient, man. And I feel like today we’re representing a lot of that bullshit. We’re representing the force against it,” said ICP’s Violent J to a crowd of exuberant Juggalos, anti-facists, and onlookers at the Lincoln Memorial.
2017 also marks the 25th anniversary of ICP’s debut album Carnival Of Carnage; the 20th anniversary of The Great Milenko; the 15th anniversary of The Wraith: Shangri-La; and the fifth anniversary of The Mighty Death Pop!
In honor of ICP’s momentous year, I listened to all of the band’s 14 canonical albums.
I’ve never listened to an ICP album or song in my life, so I had no idea what to expect. But I did it to understand America in 2017.
“It was a soft, gentle night in the little town of, of… Well, your town.”
These are the first words Insane Clown Posse’s Violent J utters on Carnival Of Carnage album opener “Intro” and I’m already wishing I never agreed to do this. I understand the importance of J’s monologue and how it’s setting up not only the narrative of the album but the inevitable storyline that ICP has built with its music (more on this later). But introducing the world of ICP with this Sleepy Hollow fuckery? Come on.
“The Juggla” samples some production from Prince’s “Kiss” and now I’m scouring the internet for any information in relation to this. Did Prince approve of this sample? Did he ever hear “The Juggla” in its entirety? Was Prince secretly a fan of ICP? In an alternate reality Prince has headlined the Gathering of the Juggalos while wearing purple face paint, and was working on a collaborative album with ICP titled Insane Clown Prince.
“Bitch, I’ll go down south/With a piece of wheat hangin’ out my mouth” is an actual thing that’s said on this song titled “Red Neck Hoe.” The image is so evocative that devoid of its lewdness I can’t help but laugh. The lyrics are reminiscent of the first time I heard 2 Live Crew. Blatant misogyny and sexism aside, I have to acknowledge former ICP member John Kickjazz for rapping against racism toward the end of the track, even though it makes no sense at all considering the song is about having the most salacious sex with a stereotypical rural white woman.
1992 was weird, man. Back then Kid Rock was actually considered one of Detroit’s biggest rappers, so much so that ICP paid him $600 to feature on Carnage so the album could be sold at Harmony House, one of Michigan’s largest record store chains at that time. Rock appears on the track “Is That You?” and I have to say—fuck you Kid Rock for calling yourself a “n***a.” The only good that could potentially come of this is when, while on the campaign trail for his expected Michigan Senate run next year, the following interaction takes place:
Reporter (maybe me): Mr. Rock, back in 1992 you once featured on a song by ICP called “Is That You?” Do you recall this?
Kid Rock: Um… sure, yes. Why is this relevant?
Reporter: Well, you said the following in the track, “Boo-hoo muthafucka what ya cryin’ for? I’m that n***a that your bitch would die for.”
Kid Rock: Well… um… you see… *Kid Rock transforms into a bald eagle and soars far and away, never to be seen again*
ICP’s politics are all over the place on Carnage but at a time where people are protesting against the removal of Confederate statues under the guise of preserving heritage and history (read: white supremacy) it’s nice to hear J and Dope defiantly declare “Fuck your rebel flag” on “Your Rebel Flag.” Of course, the message gets diluted because of the duo’s reliance on horrorcore tropes, but these last six lines are so brightly colored that they’re reminiscent of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” in how they’re both unapologetic in their vitriol against oppressive forces:
Punk, I’ll put a slug in your bald head
Scalp a skinhead quick
And your greasy-ass triple clan and shit
And zip you up in a bag
And I’ll shit on a motherfuckin rebel flag
Yeah shit on a rebel flag!
And yes, ICP sells an anti-Confederate flag shirt on its website. What a time to be alive.
Now we’re on the second album, The Ringmaster, which is where I’ll talk about the story ICP has created through its releases. Ringmaster serves as the second Joker’s Card in the group’s Dark Carnival mythology, with the Dark Carnival representing an afterlife where souls wait to see where they’ll go next—heaven or hell. Each Joker’s Card tries to “save the human soul” by showing the evil that one has inside themselves, with the first card (Carnival Of Carnage) being a representation of the ghettos and the violence that occurs in them, and the second one (The Ringmaster) being the overseer of the carnival who’s actually the manifestation of one’s sins.
In the book ICP: Behind the Paint, J talked about the inspiration behind the Joker’s Card, saying that the group “wanted to make a statement, to direct our energy. We wanted to mix comedy and horror, and hold it up like a mirror to a city full of gangsters and scrubs like us.” This is intricate as fuck and I applaud ICP for still building on the folklore of this narrative that is basically the CarnEvil arcade game meets a more supernatural version of Saw, but the music fails to be as fascinating as the concept.
“Mr. Johnson’s Head” is easily my favorite ICP track so far, because the duo not only calls out Columbus and how he’s revered in U.S. history books, but also calls out George Washington and Benjamin Franklin:
Fuck Washington, Benjamin, fuck ‘em all
They can suck my nuts til’ they wood teeth fall out
Mind you, they do this while telling a fictitious story about the murder of Mr. Johnson, a racist teacher whose head they decapitated.
Prior to ICP’s third album, Riddle Box, the group had been warned by Jive Records’ Senior Vice President of Artists and Repertoire Jeff Fenster to not release an album that was over an hour long. Naturally Box is a 70-minute album. Say what you will about their music but at least ICP fights for creative control. Granted, this was ICP’s only release with Jive, but damn the man nonetheless.
Of course ICP has a song that retells the story of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” called “Ol’ Evil Eye.” Do you think Poe would’ve been a Juggalo? He would’ve been, right? Why am I doing this to myself?
The Great Milenko, ICP’s fourth album, is fascinating for everything but the music. The album served as the first and last for the group under Disney’s Hollywood Records, which purchased ICP’s contract from Jive for $1 million. But similar to Jive, ICP’s signing with Hollywood didn’t last long, with the label deleting the album, ending the group’s tour in support of it, and dropping the band. Disney was already facing backlash from the Southern Baptist Church (because of course) for promoting Gay Days at Disneyland, as well as producing the sitcom Ellen. To avoid further controversy Disney cut all ties to ICP, declaring that the group’s album “did not fit the Disney image.” ICP had the last laugh, with the group getting signed by Island Records and The Great Milenko getting released as it was originally intended.
A lot of money can change an artist’s sound for the better and it shows on The Great Milenko. The production sounds fuller; J and Dope sound like they’ve found their voice. I enjoyed Carnage because of the rawness of it all, especially when it came to the two rappers’ voices. However, on both Ringmaster and Riddle Box, the duo sounded like they were trying to emulate the vocal stylings of Cypress Hill which took away from their personas. Instead of sounding like deadly and deranged clowns they sounded like clowns who had given their life of nihilism up for rolling papers and a pound of weed. It’s refreshing to hear them return to their roots while continuing to experiment on their delivery.
“Halls Of Illusion” is a really good song. Sure, I’m delirious and drunk right now but this track is one of the strongest I’ve heard. The hook is catchy; the production is reminiscent of West Coast gangsta rap; and Slash (of Guns N’ Roses fame) brings the song’s chorus to life with an overdrive guitar riff. Also fun fact: Slash is a self-professed fan of the band and reportedly was paid for this appearance in bottles of Wild Irish Rose (flavored fortified wines) at his request. Classic Slash.
“What is a Juggalo?” is underwhelming which is disappointing because this is technically the first Juggalo anthem. Because of ICP’s fan base at the time it’s understandable why the song fails to be more inclusive, with the song speaking to men only. Today Juggalos have come to encompass people of varying genders, as well as races, sexual orientation, etc. But “What is a Juggalo?” is just about how a Juggalo will “eat Monopoly and shit out Connect Four.”
The first time ICP referred to its fan base as Juggalos was in 1993 when the group was performing “The Juggla.” The audience responded positively to the name and, well, the rest is history. Some music critics have opposed the name, suggesting that the term is similar to the racial term “jigaboo.” But allow me to speak on behalf of all Black people and say that the term juggalo isn’t racist, but we still feel a type of way that ICP allowed Kid Rock to use the N-word.
The Amazing Jeckel Brothers is the most realized ICP album I’ve heard so far. A balance between rap and rock seems to have been found on here and of course guest appearances from Snoop Dogg and Ol’ Dirty Bastard play a part in this. But the two also seem to be more playful in their lyrics even though they’re still problematic. I’ll put it this way: B-horror films can be bad, especially when they take themselves too seriously. But some are self-aware, treading the line between horror and parody with a precision that’s impressive. Jeckel Brothers isn’t exactly there yet but it’s an indicator of what ICP is capable of when it tries to be funny.
Of course I couldn’t just mention how Snoop and ODB popped up on an ICP album without providing any background. The former’s story is straightforward: Snoop, who was signed to No Limit Records at the time, reportedly didn’t want ICP to pay his label, instead asking the group to give him $40,000 in a briefcase. ICP agreed and that’s how Snoop appeared on “The Shaggy Show.” However ODB’s story is a little more entertaining. Through Snoop, ICP connected with ODB and, after reportedly paying him $30,000 for his feature, appeared on a song called “Bitches.” However, the song was changed to “Bitches” because ODB’s recording only consisted of him rambling about “bitches.” Ultimately, ICP was only able to make four rhymes out of the recording after working on it for a week, and its members had to redo their rhymes. But it paid off, because ODB is truly the star of the carnival show on the track.
Never in my life did I think I’d be making coffee while listening to ICP’s sixth album, Bizaar, but here I am. Bizaar is a part of a double album the group released in October 2000 (the second half of the album is called Bizzar but counts as the group’s seventh album) and so far it’s not that bad. By now ICP has had its first Gathering of the Juggalos; performed at Woodstock ‘99; and made a movie (Big Money Hustlas if you want to watch).
Eminem, a fellow Detroit rapper, has become a mainstream success. Both artists share a similar aesthetic, but one did it better. This is especially noticeable on Bizaar.
ICP’s raps come across as more slapstick schtick than horrorcore violence, akin to an episode of Ren & Stimpy: “I’ll hunt Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon tell him hey do me up,” the group raps on “Fearless.” It’s hard not to be skeptical and think of some of the over-the-top lyrics Eminem rapped on the showstopping Slim Shady LP.
He beat ICP at its own game by being a flatly better rapper. Eminem’s voice played a part in the allure of his music. His delivery—cartoonish and exaggerated—contrasted his surreal and violent lyrical content. By using the alter ego of Slim Shady, Eminem was really able to cultivate a character. Although ICP tried to do the same, it took some time to get there. ICP could’ve been bigger than Eminem, had it not been for Eminem himself.
“Behind The Paint” is a good song and it’s refreshing to hear ICP discuss the ills of fame. J stole the song with this verse:
Another girl I don’t dare to confide
Playing that role, it hurts inside
Here I am thinking she wants me
She only wants that killer on her CD
Just when I couldn’t feel any worse
Bitch asked me if I could paint my face first
As clunky and sexist as the request might be, it’s indicative of fame—how people idolize what you represent and not necessarily who you are. I hope to hear more of this on other albums.
Did you know that this year a Boston Juggalo by the name of Richard Newton went to the top-40 radio station Kiss 108 and requested that it play “My Axe,” a song from ICP’s seventh album Bizzar, while in possession of an axe? Fortunately, no one was hurt.
The Wraith: Shangri-La and The Wraith: Hell’s Pit, ICP’s eighth and ninth albums respectively, are a lot.
They’re the end of the group’s Dark Carnival mythology, with both albums representing the sixth Joker’s Card. So what’s supposed to feel like a climactic conclusion to a 10-year-old narrative (both albums were released in 2002, 10 years after the release of Carnival Of Carnage) feels convoluted and exhausted.
Where Shangri-La finds the souls stuck in the Dark Carnival achieving redemption and acceptance into heaven, Hell’s Pit finds them all in hell. Personally, I enjoyed the former more, because it’s optimistic in a way that I haven’t heard from its predecessors. Both “Juggalo Homies” and “We Belong” offer sentiments of acceptance and friendship that speak to why people fuck with ICP so much. Granted I don’t believe that the group created this story only to conclude with a pep talk on spirituality and finding God (although this absolutely follows in line with ICP’s comically crass aesthetic), but this is the most direct ICP has been with its fan base, emphasizing the importance of community support.
HOLY SHIT DID ICP CREATE THE MIGOS FLOW BEFORE MIGOS CREATED THE MIGOS FLOW? I say this because “Freak Creepy Show,” a track from ICP’s 11th album Bang! Pow! Boom!, totally uses the now-everywhere triplet flow for its hook. Granted, this is the only time in the album the flow is used, but I wasn’t expecting to hear it at all. Maybe ICP deserves more credit than hip-hop fans give them.
I have no comments on The Tempest, ICP’s 10th album. It’s bad, and didn’t advance the band’s ideas either lyrically or sonically.
I don’t know if it’s because they brought back the Dark Carnival mythology for Bang! Pow! Boom! (that’s right, the story has returned, this time around focusing on a large explosion that clears evil souls from the carnival) but this album is a refreshing return to form for ICP. The production is eclectic and strong, and J and Dope are providing some of the best and memorable chants and hooks I’ve heard from them.
“MIRACLES” IS INCREDIBLE ON SOME LIL B BASEDGOD SHIT. SURE, THE VIDEO WAS MEMED (Saturday Night Live parodied the video) BUT THE SENTIMENT OF APPRECIATING LIFE AND ALL OF ITS WONDERS IS SO DOPE. ALSO CHECK OUT THESE FIRE BARS:
Fucking rainbows, after it rains
There’s enough miracles here to blow your brains
Water, fire, air, and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed
WOW. AND THE AD-LIBS? HEARING J SAY “MAGIC EVERYWHERE IN THIS BITCH” ON THE SONG’S HOOK BROUGHT ME JOY IN A WAY I NEVER THOUGHT I’D GET FROM AN ICP SONG. WOW. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. I LOVE LIFE.
I can’t go any further before acknowledging ICP’s secret weapon, Mike. E. Clark. The producer has been with ICP for most of the releases (except for both The Wraith albums) and has honed in on its sound with each album. He brings the carnivalesque aesthetic in ICP to life, with sounds and samples blended together in a way that’s bizarre but digestible, and I’d like to think that has pushed ICP to be better.
The Mighty Death Pop!, ICP’s 12th album, is the most accessible that the group has released. “Skreem!” is a perfect ICP song in that the production is great and the momentum builds with each verse. (Tech N9ne you didn’t have to burn the Dark Carnival down with those rapid-fire rhymes, my guy.) I appreciate the group taking Chris Brown to task on “Shooting Stars.” Jeckel Brothers is still the strongest so far, but I’d also recommend Death Pop! To anyone that would potentially want to listen to ICP.
I love when ICP writes songs about hate for the Confederate flag. Case in point “Confederate Flag” from The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost, which features the following hook: “I say fuck your rebel flag.” Like, the way J yells this makes me feel invincible, as if I chugged two liters of Faygo and am now snatching each and every Confederate flag in sight. It’s an anthem.
I HAD TO RUN “CONFEDERATE FLAG” BACK BECAUSE OF THIS VERSE:
It’s Juggalos all over the South, that don’t wave it
Proud of where they’re from but that flag, they hate it
Cause they understand it’s a symbol of slavery
One flag reps us all, it means bravery
PREACH. INSANE. CLOWN. POSSE.
Having finished listening to the last ICP album, The Marvelous Missing Link: Found, I can now say I have a newfound appreciation for the group.
Ranking the ICP records:
14) The Tempest
13) The Wraith: Hell’s Pit
12) The Great Milenko
11) Riddle Box
9) The Wraith: Shangri-La
6) The Marvelous Missing Link: Found
5) Carnival Of Carnage
4) The Marvelous Missing Link: Lost
3) Bang! Pow! Boom!
2) The Mighty Death Pop!
1) The Amazing Jeckel Brothers
Would I consider myself a Juggalo now? Absolutely not. But I get why people across the country align themselves to the name. Though ICP if you ever happen to read this please work on the sexism, or get a Juggalette to feature on a track or two or 10. The streets need it.
Elijah Watson is an internet culture and entertainment reporter. His work has been published by the Daily Beast, Vice, Complex, Bustle, Uproxx, and Okayplayer.