- Design by Justin Rose / Photo by Marvin Shaouni
We're hanging out with Violent J (Joseph Bruce) of the Insane Clown Posse in one of his homes in a bucolic stretch of Milford. It's a nerd's paradise, full of pro wrestling memorabilia, a collection of soda from around the world, toys for his son, JJ, and daughter, Ruby — ages 7 and 5, respectively — a shrine to Michael Jackson and a copy of the Beach Boys' Smile box set sitting proudly behind his writing desk.
He spends most of the time enthusing about ICP's new record The Mighty Death Pop and classic hip hop that's playing nonstop on Backspin Radio in the background the entire time. This cozy slice of Pure Michigan hardly seems the home of half of the world's most hated band.
But it's a badge of honor that Violent J has worn with pride along with his bandmate Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Ulster) for 20 years now. And over the last couple years there's been a noticeable thaw in that hate. Call it Juggalo global warming if you will. Loving parodies on Saturday Night Live. A viral YouTube smash with their goofball video for "Miracles." A Distinguished Achievement Award at the Detroit Music Awards in 2011. A collaboration with Jack White that left some of Jack's fans scratching their heads.
Even if you don't love their music, chances are you love them for the pop culture icons they've become. And how can you not love a couple of pro wrestling-loving, makeup-wearing clowns rapping in the middle of an unrelenting storm of Faygo to a sea of rabid, dressed-up, merch-obsessed fans?
And how can you not respect their classic Detroit-grind work ethic? They've created a band, a record label (Psychopathic Records), and a wrestling league (Juggalo Championship Wrestling) that are all hugely successful on top of creating an entire gonzo subculture of Juggalos, a merch-obsessed fandom ready to be showered in baptismal Redpop. Not bad for a couple of kids that started out hustling records from the trunk of their car. Did I mention they make B-movies in their spare time?
There's only one major problem in the Juggalo universe. In 2011, the FBI took the unprecedented step of declaring ICP fans — Juggalos — to be a gang in the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment (the last Detroit group to earn the attention of the feds would probably be the MC5).
According to the FBI, "Most crimes committed by Juggalos are sporadic, disorganized, individualistic and often involve simple assault, personal drug use and possession, petty theft and vandalism." Kind of sounds like the parking lot of any metal show anywhere in America. In fact the parking lot at ICP's last Emerald Theater show consisted mostly of kids sharing Faygo, Newports and face paint in the midst of chanting "Family" — signifying that all freaks are welcome in a gathering of self-described scrubs.
In response, ICP announced that they "are investigating a possible lawsuit against the FBI or other governmental agencies that have violated the rights of Juggalos on the mistaken belief that they are 'gang members.'" (You can see their announcement on juggalosfightback.com.)
While it's easy to see Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope as merely their onstage caricatures, offstage they're full of surprises. They're just as likely to go off on how brilliant Brian Wilson is or the importance of tolerance as they are to tell you how rad Hulk Hogan is. We sat down with Violent J to talk about the new record, the Gathering of Juggalos, how the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson inspire them, what it's like having the FBI consider your fans a gang, and how in hell you shoot a bottle of Faygo 100 feet.
Metro Times: What makes The Mighty Death Pop your biggest project?
Violent J: It's four whole albums, each album was given everything we had. Two-and-a-half years we've been doing this. It's trying to battle the fact that CDs don't matter no more — it's trying to fight that. And the guests we got on it? We got Ice Cube, Color Me Badd and the Geto Boys. One of the versions — Red Pop — comes with a bonus album of covers. We do Tears for Fears, Christina Aguilera, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy and Yo Gabba Gabba! Without a doubt it's the longest, hardest project that we've done it. We didn't rush it, we stayed focused.
MT: How is The Mighty Death Pop different from Bang! Pow! Boom!?
Violent J: Musically it's covering new terrain, it has the classic shit everybody loves, but I also I think we did a lot of cool things with our voices. I think our rhyme style is really cool. And with [producer] Mike [E Clark] we went through hundreds of beats looking for stuff we've never fucked with. I'll admit my voice has changed over the years, but with this record I stopped smoking weed, I didn't drink, we'd fucking drink hot tea while we were cutting the vocals.
The good shit keeps coming. That's awesome. We're so fortunate. It's not like our best days are behind us.
MT: What does the growth of the gathering say about Juggalos?
Violent J: I think it says everything about the Juggalos. Listen, ICP is one thing, but I think the Juggalos I believe deserve infamy. There's never been anything like Juggalos in the history of rock 'n' roll. They deserve their notoriety. I love it when an article is about Juggalos. They are amazing. It's almost like the first time I ever saw an Amish person. I was like, "Those are Amish people? I've heard about them." I love the fact that in some areas of America, Juggalos will be chilling on the corner and people will go, "Those are real Juggalos?" I love that. I want Juggalos to go down in history. Is that partly because, if they go down in history, we go down in history? Maybe. Sure. They're not like the KISS Army, not like the Deadheads, not like anything. Juggalos are a little bit of everybody — people blazing their own path, they're not walking with the sheep. [The term] scrub is very popular in the Juggalo community. Shaggy has "Scrub Life" tattooed on his stomach. Like that old TLC song, we're the ones hanging out on the passenger side of our best friend's ride. Straight up. And sometimes scrubs are the best people. I bet you Einstein was a scrub, I bet you Thomas Edison was a scrub. I bet they were looked at weird in their school 'cause they were thinkers. Scrubs, they don't follow the masses. That's what I'm saying.
MT: Are your kids Juggalos?
Violent J: Absolutely. How couldn't they be? They're gonna be Juggalos no matter what as long as I instill the values of them being a Juggalo — not being judgmental, being open-minded. You know, stupid things like laughing at a kid 'cause he's fat, or picking on the ugly girl, or racism, or picking on a kid 'cause he's wearing $2 shoes, shit like that? That's all bullshit. It's all non-Juggalo shit. We don't laugh at each other for shit like that. If you're 400 pounds, you can peel off your shirt at the Gathering of Juggalos and nobody gives a fuck. We don't judge each other for things like that. The opposite of bullies is Juggalos.
MT: Where did the song "Miracles" come from?
Violent J: Being a dad made me realize what all of life is about — it's all about passing it on. It all makes sense when you have kids, you realize what you're doing here. Because the minute you have kids, it's not about you anymore, it's about them. You're just here to teach them and nurture them so they can go ahead and do the same and keep civilization going. Seeing everything through their eyes again is so remarkable. That's where the song "Miracles" comes from. It's seeing everything through their eyes. You start to take everything like rainbows and shooting stars for granted after you've seen them a few times. But when you're a kid they're treats of freshness, little things of dopeness to appreciate. I was giving the kids a bath and they we're just playing with the water coming out of the spout and it took me right back to being a kid.
MT: Do your kids know what you're doing for a living?
Violent J: Like most kids of musicians, they don't really fully understand it yet. They think everybody else's dad is a musician. I think when they get older they'll understand then. JJ gets on my shoulders when he's out on the road with me and he loves to spray Faygo; Ruby doesn't like it 'cause she doesn't like to get cold Faygo on her and she doesn't like the scary costumes, but JJ is right there. But JJ is too young to understand that what I do is cool. I try to tell him, "Not everybody's dad does what I do," but he doesn't get it yet. We'll have some of JJ's friends in the car and his friends will ask to play my music. And he tells them they can't hear it 'cause there's swearing in it. He knows that swearing is bad. I've never heard him swear. When he hears my music, I tell him that's just Daddy working.
MT: Who designs ICP merch?
Violent J: We have a team of people. A lot of designs come from Juggalos themselves. Juggalos send stuff in and then we call them back and say, "Hey would you like to make some money?" I'd say half of our merchandise comes from Juggalos. The other secret is being Juggalos ourselves. We don't sit around trying to figure out how to appeal to today's youth. We are who we're selling to. It's like a bunch of die-hard Star Wars fans coming up with the next Star Wars movie. It's cake.
MT: How much does the merch sell?
Violent J: Merch is probably 70 to 80 percent of Psychopathic Records sales — 'cause you can't download a T-shirt, you know? CDs hardly make any money, but we're doing everything we can to fight it. That's why the packaging is so expensive on our new album, so it's still cool to actually hold it on your hands. A lot of Juggalos are collectors, so we got that in our favor.
MT: What do you love about Michael Jackson and how does he influence ICP?
Violent J: He was an alien, you know, just unbelievably talented. Everything about him was just unreal — unreal heart, unreal dancing ability, unreal singing ability. I'm a huge fan, Joey [Shaggy 2 Dope] too. Joey's got his tattoo. When the world builds something up, they love to tear it down. He was America's hero, and then they turned on him and wanted to bring him down. It was like a modern-day lynching, what they did to him. Michael Jackson is a huge pop star — his music is obviously nothing like ours — but he was a target to everybody's cruelty so much that I can't help but feel for him. Very few artists are put on that pedestal and remain on it. They love to watch them fall, there's so many examples of that it's ridiculous. His gift was so amazing, his music, his dancing, his swagger. His anger is in his music, broken glass is in his music. I'll dispute this with anyone — Michael Jackson was one of the first to do the wicked shit; look at Thriller. Michael Jackson was the first one to have monsters in his videos, back in 1984. That's what we do — we got monsters on stage with us too. On a list of Top 20 scary songs "Thriller" is right up there — he's also got "Ghost" and "Is It Scary." Musically his anger really influenced us.
Also, musically, there's two styles of music — you can do stuff like Wu Tang where you like your stuff really gritty and rough, and then you can do it like Michael Jackson where everything is perfect and smooth and the mix is crystal-clear. We like to make our stuff crystal-clear and that comes from Michael Jackson.
MT: What's the fascination with wrestling?
Violent J: There was a time in my life — probably 14 to 20 — those years were so important and influential, that I've spent the rest of my life based off those years. All the entertainment I loved in those years is my classic shit. I strive to know those artists, they're friends of mine now. Those are also the years we started ICP, and that's where you lay down your roots and foundation. And you never want to stray far from that.
Me and Shaggy, that was our first dream. I wrestled my first match when I was 19 — and dropped our first record. We were doing them both, and music kind of replaced wrestling. But we still went back and lived out the dream. We went to WWE, we went to WCW, we schooled that shit, man. No regrets.
MT: Where did you get your business skills from?
Violent J: Pro wrestling, Vince McMahon [owner and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment]. He does exactly what we do. He creates something that's not exactly real. These guys aren't bad guys, and we're not really ax murderers. Wrestling, I think everybody in the arena boos and cheers and knows it's not real. They just want that escape and get into the storyline. And that's what we do. These Juggalos know we're not ax murderers. They just want to go and escape, and that exaggerated anger works as therapy for them.
MT: Why do you love the Beach Boys?
Violent J: C'mon — Beach Boys are insane, man. Brian Wilson? His story is so incredible to me, it's so mind-blowing. I have a party at the Gathering of Juggalos called the Beach Boys Blowout! Bash! Blast! We play Beach Boys music, everybody wears hula shirts and we hand out cheeseburgers and Faygo.
I like the Beach Boys more than Beatles, and I love how they competed with each other in the '60s. And just like everything else I'm into, brother, they're a gimmick. Their gimmick is they're on a beach, they're singing about fast cars, girls, being on the beach, surfing — that's their character, you know.
MT: Where did the love of Faygo come from?
Violent J: Back in the day when we started out, the cool thing was Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. Run DMC just talked about Adidas. And the Beastie Boys on their first album name-dropped White Castle like three or four times. So when we started we wanted something that linked us to who we are. We loved pop, and we'd leave the house with no money and walk through the alley to the party store. And by the time we'd get there we'd have 10 returnables to take back and get a motherfucking two-liter for 89 cents. ... Even before rap Joey and I used to get into spray paint for a summer. I used to be known as Faygo Joe — that was my tag name. That was way before ICP. We always had a two-liter around and a bag of Andy Capp Hot Fries. But we never rapped about that. [laughs]
MT: ICP has mad skills when it comes to shooting off two-liters of Faygo in concert — how did that come about?
Violent J: Who would have fucking thunk it? You never know until you do it. You have to shoot Faygo on stage for an hour a night for 20 years to realize there's actually some skill that can be developed there. We usually go through about 500 two-liters a show.
I've done things like thrown it on the ground and it'll shoot off and just levitate in front of my face. I'll rap and just reach out and grab it without looking and the crowd will pop. Or sometimes I'll just kick it and it'll shoot off and come back to me and land in my arm. Or some kid'll flip me off 10 rows back and I'll just rocket that shit right at his hand.
But basically you unscrew the two-liter — and that's a talent in itself, we can do it in one motion — and then stick your finger in it and turn it upside down. And then while you're rappin' and shakin' it upside-down, the weight of it builds pressure. And the other thing is the heat on the stage. If it's a blistering hot day those two-liters are like bombs. If you throw it down on the floor it's going to explode. If it's cold, you can't get them to go anywhere. In Europe, the two-liters are longer and skinnier, and something about the aerodynamics of European pop — that stuff will go real far.
MT: It's hard to believe ICP has been at it for 20 years now.
Violent J: I know! We have tons of 18-year-old fans. They were born when we started rapping. That's crazy. My whole life there's just one regret I have out of all this. And I'm so blessed, Joey and I we get to make music and tour and work with all our friends — and, believe me, I would do what I do for free. I think the ultimate price I pay for what I do for a living is it's making my life go by extremely fast. It sure seems like since I started ICP stuff is flying by.
Doug Coombe is a longtime photographer and sometime writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]