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Hip-Hop/R&B

ICP’s clowning glory

Ten years on, Detroit’s great white joke is having the last laugh.

Tears of a clown: Violent J serenades Detroit.
The proverbial money shot" ICP's Violent J.
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Published 10/23/2002

They have two platinum and five gold records, but Insane Clown Posse will always be Detroit’s Other White Meat.

It’s true. Eminem may have vaulted from obscure local rhyme-battler to surly MTV pop star to Hollywood dark horse; and who knew Kid Rock could turn a gig as the Howling Diablos’ scratch DJ at the Bear’s Den into the world’s first arena-sized bar band? Yet compared to their fellow honky rappers, Insane Clown Posse’s Joe “Violent J” Bruce and Joey “Shaggy 2 Dope” Utlser have toiled the better part of the last decade in relative obscurity.

Sure, ICP has had its moments in the public eye. In 1997, ICP became an unlikely First Amendment mascot when Disney yanked its Great Milenko album off the shelves, only to turn around and re-sell the album to Island Records, where the disc promptly went platinum.

But the Clowns aren’t for everyone, and the mainstream attention was awkward. Major media pretty much wrote off ICP’s cartoon-violent rap and stage makeup as a novelty act. Spin magazine even went so far as to publish a cartoon dismissing both ICP and its fan base. USA Today voted ICP albums the year’s worst two years in a row, and would no doubt have a third time if Kathie Lee Gifford hadn’t released an album.

In the MTV-canonized sense, ICP isn’t a music business success story. Yet, over the last decade, the duo have become devil-may-care millionaires.

Today, Bruce and Utlser head up an entertainment empire run by childhood friends and family members. It includes a national wrestling league, a film and DVD division, a record label, a game division, a radio show (for the XM satellite network), a warehouse-sized merchandising division that sells everything from thongs and leather jackets to lighters and ICP beanie dolls.

Like Kiss, the Clown’s records are somewhat incidental to a greater marketing concern. The records are more like catalysts occasioning tours, merchandise, wrestling shows and release of records by their protégés. And, if there’s one thing that ICP does well, its tap into a fan-base frequency where people who love ICP buy everything they do — and say. There’s even an annual fan club convention called the Gathering of the Juggalos.

“Juggalos” is clown-speak for the ICP fans. The hardcore fans are a force to be reckoned with, to be sure; the lifeblood of the Clowns’ enduring viability. Young, organized and vocal, the rabid fans have turned ICP into a cult.

Two years ago, when ICP’s last single — a cover of Sly Fox’s 1986 hit “Let’s Go All The Way” — failed to make it into MTV rotation, the Clowns recruited a phalanx of Juggalos to storm “Total Request Live” and flood request lines. NYPD had to clear throngs of face-painted kids out before the cameras were on. The cable channel sent a memo detailing that — surprise, surprise — “TRL” eligibility is limited to predetermined acts — no write-in votes allowed.

A quick Google search for ICP will reveal handfuls of fan Web sites, each frothingly dedicated to ICP, not just as band, but as a way of life. ICP’s own site is littered with philosophical missives from “Violent J” Bruce himself. There’s also news about comic book conventions where ICP merch is sold, the ICP-affiliated wrestling shows, and news on its new album The Wraith: Shangri-La, which hits the streets November 5.

The music industry has never known quite what to make of ICP. But Detroit and pockets of hardcore fans, it seems, have.

We all scream for Faygo

The Clowns began naively as wannabe gangster rappers from suburban Detroit working-class families. They moved around Hazel Park, Oak Park, Berkley and southwest Detroit. Around 1990, Bruce and Utlser started a backyard wrestling league in which many of its members doubled as a quasi-gang of hard-core rappers called Inner City Posse.

When that fizzled, the duo began detailing their exploits — getting into trouble and drinking Faygo — using the exaggerated narratives they heard on NWA and Geto Boys albums. Bruce and Utsler started wearing evil clown face paint, a la Kiss — only they probably didn’t know what Kiss was. They soon switched to a more darkly humorous musical style, influenced by the gothic urban storytelling of Detroit’s self-styled “acid rapper” Esham. Esham would eventually produce and appear on early ICP albums.

Bruce and Utsler either worked dead-end jobs or stole to support themselves. Bruce was once fired from a job dressing up as a pizza slice for wearing a fake diamond on his tooth. Utsler would thieve from Birmingham retail stores and sell his take to school kids. In a telling twist on the “Reading Is Fun-damental” campaign of the ’80s, Utsler lifted expensive books from chain stores for resale. The guys would even date girls who worked at Kinko’s if it meant free fliers and posters. (ICP’s tireless fliering pre-dated today’s omnipresent “street-team” promotion by a good eight years).

The Clowns’ style showed promise. Their ability to broaden the appeal of dead-end rap machismo with horror movie narrative appealed to a young audience of suburban rap fans. What’s more, ICP’s talent for self-promotion showed genius.

Bruce and Utsler partnered with a small record store owner, Alex Abbiss, who became their career-long manager. The Clowns and Abiss hatched a plan: Release six albums, call them “Joker’s Cards,” and make them collectable. Make each detail some ominous take on humanity’s self-styled undoing. Each must lead up to some kind of apocalypse. (We’re on the final Joker’s Card now, though no word from the ICP camp yet on what’s to follow.)

The pair built a fan base of young, white suburban rap fans who, like themselves, where drawn to the extremes of the genre.

In the studio, the Clowns teamed up with P-Funk/Kid Rock producer Mike E. Clark, who produced all ICP music until splitting with the group last year. Clark helped capture the Clowns’ cartoonish extremism of late-night cable horror flicks with songs about murdering rednecks (“Chicken Huntin’”) and driving hearses (“Dead Body Man”).

While other local bands labored over basement demos, ICP released albums and EPs every six months. And ICP shows were guaranteed sellouts, drawing a sea of kids in face paint who loved getting sprayed with Faygo, the low-rent soft drink the Clowns adopted as their trademark. Soon ICP were selling out the Ritz and State Theatre — without major label or radio support; something, it should be noted, Kid Rock and Eminem never did.

Beyond our borders

But ICP’s success, however organic and hard-won in Detroit, couldn’t convince national labels that its brand of makeup-sportin’, proto-rap-rock could work, even though many of today’s nü-metalers — paint-mask-wearing mooks like Slipknot and Mudvayne — have surpassed ICP’s limited rap sound but still owe a good part of their aesthetic sense to them.

A 1995 deal with New York’s Jive Records went south when the label did little more than siphon the profits from ICP’s existing Rust Belt fan base. A subsequent 1997 deal with Hollywood backfired when Disney shelved the Great Milenko record in an effort to appease Southern Baptists. The resultant wave of publicity got the Clowns signed to Island Records.

Since then, ICP’s lingered in a sort of parallel reality to Detroit’s more heralded exports like Kid Rock, Eminem and the White Stripes. Still, the Clowns have rubbed elbows (and sometimes fists) with a six-degrees-of Kevin Bacon-like cross-section of the entertainment industry.

They’ve recorded with Slash, Snoop Dogg, Alice Cooper and Wu Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard, wrestled with the Rock. They’ve chilled with Pat Boone. The Clowns once decked Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. They played Woodstock ’99, sparred with Sharon Osbourne on “The Howard Stern Show” (Utlser told her she could “buff my pickle”), had Leif Garrett take them to Hollywood strip bars to research a movie about them. They made their own movie, 2000’s Big Money Hustlas.

However marginalized ICP may seem, its enduring success has put sand in the craw of Kid Rock and Eminem. In 1999, for an already sold-out show at the Palace, Kid Rock put “no clowning around” on the show’s posters. Eminem — irked at ICP’s “Slim Shady” parody “Slim Anus” — put the Clowns in a skit on his Anger Management Tour, which included beating up sex-doll effigies of ICP.

Why do Kid Rock and Eminem hate ICP so much? Part of it can be chalked up to friendly competition — the Clowns have long insisted Eminem used to come to their shows and even listed them, without asking, as special guests for an early record-release party. And Kid Rock did produce and rap on early ICP albums to make quick cash.

But there is a bigger issue. ICP, in its own loud and proud way, represents a hometown success story neither Eminem nor Kid Rock — nor any other Detroit band, for that matter — can claim. ICP had been selling out the very same venues on their own that Kid Rock and Eminem were half-filling before their big breaks.

Like Bill Bonds or the Joe Louis Fist, ICP are everything great and terrible about Detroit, tapping into a hometown pride so deep it’s tinged with a kind of fringe city embarrassment.

Having learned from two sour major label relationships (Jive and Hollywood), the Clowns got themselves dropped from a third (Island) in 2001 after the simultaneous release of two near-flops (Bizaar and Bizzar). The latter records were intended to do what the Clowns had been doing a decade ago: make music strictly for their fan base. With the new (and perhaps final) ICP album, The Wraith: Shangra La, that appears to be what the Clowns are doing.

Released both through their own Psychopathic label and LA’s D3 Entertainment — best known as a clearing house for one-off albums by Coolio and Wu Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard — The Wraith is the last installment in the ICP Joker’s Cards series that began in 1992 with the release of Carnival of Carnage.

The album marks the first ICP album produced without the help of producer Clark, and the first by ICP’s in-house producer and area alt-rock band veteran, Mike P. A two-song sampler shows the Clowns moving confidently, if a little rotely, beyond their trademark shock-rap territory into more amenable verse-chorus-bridge structures. The album’s first single, “Homies” is a greasepainted “With A Little Help From My Friends” over an all-live rhythm section and sing-along chorus. “Crossing Thy Bridge,” meanwhile, is an ominous, clumsily ambitious reflection on mortality and fate, the kind of stuff you’d expect on an album that’s supposed to signal, well, if not the, then at least an apocalypse.

More is better

According to insaneclownposse.com, pre-orders for The Wraith are “just behind U2 and Santana and well above Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and the 8 Mile sound track.”

Fed up with being misunderstood with the real world, it seems odd that the Clowns would tout their mainstream nudgings. The ICP Web site is asking Juggalos to request “Homies” on Canada’s Much Music video channel.

This shameless self-promotion could be part of the Clowns’ natural subversive streak. It could also be unrequited crossover aspirations. This latter theory might explain why ICP’s latest protégés, Zug Izland, are a hard-rock band (described as “Creed with a hatchet”) more likely to be heard on WRIF (which has played them) than a rap station.

Still, it’s 2002 and The Wraith may not be the place to become an ICP fan. In fact, the duo’s best song, “Fuck The World,” is on 1999’s Amazing Jeckel Brothers, while 1997’s The Great Milenko is probably ICP’s most cohesive album. Besides, what casual listener buys an ICP album, littered as it is with three-ringed killing sprees?

In a year when overhyped bands such as the Strokes and White Stripes gave writers pining for good ol’ college days something to write about more than they gave America’s music-buying youth something to drive around and party to, the Clowns very existence — serving a fan base — is accomplishment enough.

In a world all its own, Insane Clown Posse may never have to have anything written about them again. Don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years, whether anybody — the music business, critics, haters, you or me — wanted them to be or not.

Sometimes ICP seem to be emphasizing quantity over quality, but maybe that’s the point.

 

Insane Clown Posse will perform at the Erebus Haunted Attraction (18 S. Perry St., Pontiac) on Sunday, Oct. 27. For more information go to: www.hauntedpontiac.com.

Hobey Echlin is the co-author of the forthcoming Behind The Paint: The Official Autobiography of Insane Clown Posse. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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