An Intelligent Look at the Insane Clown Posse
The Insane Clown Posse, one of the world's most hated bands. To learn more about them, you really have to stop for a moment and take a good look. The imagery they strike you with is strange: clown makeup, crude, juvenile rap sheets, dark bumps and beats... it's understandable how many people are immediately turned off to their music. However, as I hope to show, behind the veneer of clown paint and violence is a message that is quite possibly more creative than any other modern day musical group, and an innovative, ground-breaking series of accomplishments.
The ICP started as an inner-city street gang in downtown Detroit, the "Inner City Posse". Back then, members Joe Bruce and Joey Utsler, did little more than pretend to be thugs and make rap tapes from karaoke machines. In the meantime, as the 90's dawned, things boded poorly for these wannabe gangsters. As local notoriety grew for the ICP with their rap tapes, established Detroit inner-city street gangs felt antagonized and attacked, wiping out the rag tag bunch for all except a few members.
Retreating from the thugging gang scene almost forcefully, the duo concentrated on cutting tapes. Basement Cuts was their debut tape, which they got local record store owner Alex Abbiss to distribute. After selling about 200 copies, ICP and Alex created Psychopathic Records, their own record label, and produced Dog Beats their second album, in 1991. This would be their last album under the "Inner City Posse" monicker. With Joe Bruce coming out of county jail, and the group's friends deserting because of the gang violence, and little direction in their music, the group reached a low point, and their future looked rather bleak.
This, of course, is when the story starts to get interesting.
Joe Bruce, one day in 1991, had a revelation. He claims he was visited by spirits from the afterlife, which he said came to him in the form of a "Dark Carnival" of souls. The message was clear, and was iterated in all of their albums from then onward...
"There will be 6 faces of the Dark Carnival. After all 6 have risen, the end of time will consume us all."
Changing their entire personas and rap stylings, Joe Bruce adopting the name "Violent J" and Joey Utsler becoming "Shaggy 2 Dope", they dressed up as clowns to represent the dead Carnival's prophecy. Thus, the Insane Clown Posse was born, telling the tale of 6 Joker's Cards, along with a prophecy of doom.
Carnival of Carnage - 1992
I fully intended to write this defending ICP, and I haven't addressed any criticisms yet, so let's set one aside for analysis. One of the major criticisms of ICP is that they are a mindless, directionless gimmick. To see whether is this fair to say or not, let's look more into the story told by the Insane Clown Posse, and see what exactly it means, so we can weigh the merits of that claim in it's own right. Keep this complaint in mind as we explore the story and career of the ICP, so you can come to your own conclusion.
Carnival of Carnage was released early 1992, and was their first "face" of the Dark Carnival, a "Joker's Card". The Joker's Card albums are concept albums, 6 chapters of a single story of a Dead Carnival bringing about the judgement (some believe this is a modern revision of an ancient Egyptian myth laced with post-modern Christian themes of the End Times, but that is, as the group might say, "purely speculation"). With each Card, came more details and more parts of the story, so the story evolved over time. Riddles were planted everywhere in the music of the Joker's Cards, becoming a trademark of the music. Some riddles seemed to even tie to the childhood of the members, seeming as though the artistic vision of the group was further reaching than it originally seemed. In other parts there were even subliminal messages with strange religious overtones. This very mysterious, roundabout way to tell a story seemed to hint at something more complex than the juvenile horror tales on the tracks themselves... but we'll get more into that later.
The first chapter of the story, Carnival of Carnage, starts in with an eerie spoken introduction by Violent J...
"It was a soft gentle night, in the little town of... of... well, your town. The gentle breeze swept the streets, creating that pleasant howl that these kind town folks have enjoyed for so many, many years. The wind chimes sent their peaceful melodies into the ears of the sleepy residents. But the unusual was approaching in the distance, something evil was heading towards this small town. As the residents slept, something crept, slithered and crawled it's way through the quiet streets. Guided by the moon light these frightening strangers set up tents and rides, shows and games: there were savage jesters, and wicked ringmasters, there were horrid freak shows, and sights only the impending doomed will witness...
They brung with them the carnage that they had lived with for eternity. The morning is a new day, the people of this town will unwillingly witness the show of their lives, only rumored to exist.
They will be the next to die helplessly at the Carnival of Carnage"
The "Carnival of Carnage" told a story of the poor and destitute of the ghettos banding together to defeat the rich and wicked, united as a supernatural "carnival". In tracks such as "The Juggla", "Psychopathic", "Ghetto Freak Show" and "Night of the Axe", ICP rapped about social rejects turning into comical serial killers, using exaggerated wacky euphemisms to illustrate cartoon murder sprees of mayhem running wild on the world of the upper class. "Your Rebel Flag" is an all-out attack on racism. "Never Had It Made" is a narrative about a misguided soul trying to find his way into Heaven, recalling his hard life in the land of the living, going from promising boy to unloved, undead serial killer (A particular phrase echos the sentiment of the album well, "I used to wonder what life's about, until it chewed me up and spit me out."). The final track, "Taste", wraps up the message of the album, calling for "blood to run in the streets paved with gold". For the suffering in the ghettos the track says it's time to give the rich a "taste of the same; when we kill the government's children and the streets smell of death, maybe then they'll see our situation in a new light, and put an end to the chaos in the ghetto and put an end to the killings." The wicked clowns as "vigilante superheros" (in the words of Violent J) take revenge on the rich in such a cartoonish way that it couldn't be taken as a real-life call to arms, but in a serious enough way to touch on the feelings of those who listened to it.
Empty on it's own, but fitting for being a first Chapter, "Carnival of Carnage" gave ICP the real life experience in having to deal with promotion in local venues and promotion on larger scales, since they were not signed to a label, promotion had to be entirely self-created. Carnival of Carnage's sales were disappointing, on release day it only sold 17 copies (the inspiration behind the mysterious "17" references). The duo's local success promoting the album continously grew from these meager sales to rival and, in many ways, overshadow local competitors Kid Rock (pre-fame) and horror rapper Esham (both artists actually appearing on "Carnival of Carnage" in guest tracks).
The Ringmaster - 1994
Now, during the era of Carnival of Carnage, ICP kept very busy. They created samplers and learned how to promote in the streets. Their second release, The Ringmaster capitalized on this knowledge, as ICP took the promotion to the state level, creating samplers, visiting local schools and other hangout spots, flyers, talking to record shop owners to get higher distribution. Over several months of guerilla promotion, Ringmaster sold 60,000 copies in the Midwest, all while ICP was on it's own self-owned promotion, with no radio promotion backing them, or major funding from a big-time record label. This impressive result attracted the attention of labels looking for new talent... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
It's the success of ICP locally and in Michigan that overshadowed other Detroit artists of that time, and it was this that led ICP down a new, unbeaten path to success. If you want to be a musician today, you have only one real option. Work on music, attempt to open for popular local acts, become a popular local act, then beg for the attention of record labels to promote you. Once signed, your fate is in the hand of record labels. One criticism of ICP is that they're just one-time attractions. This new path starts here for ICP, at "The Ringmaster", and leads through the route of corporate politics, and takes ICP on a new road to success - and they are one of the few groups to take this new, underground approach and see it through to long-term success. Staying over 10 years in the industry, and continuing to grow beyond mere recording label status to sign new acts, promote internationally, and turning the label singlehandedly into a multimillion dollar company, that's not something one-shot, one-time acts do. In fact, that's totally unheard of. Because of groups like ICP, musicians today are beginning to realize that there are now more avenues to success than the big record labels.
The Ringmaster started a lot of things for the Clowns, but what it really represented was the pending fulfillment of the Joker's Card saga. If it wasn't set in stone that the world would see the 6 faces of the Dark Carnival by the end of recording Carnival of Carnage, it was the day Ringmaster was released.
Each Joker's Card acts as something of a warning of the judgement. Carnival of Carnage was a warning about what would happen if we neglect those who are disenfranchised. The Ringmaster is a warning about what happens if we neglect our very basic morals. Chapter 2 of the Joker's Card story continues with the afterlife... once you die, you get to meet the dead Carnival. The Ringmaster is it's leader, who will determine what happens to you, and he's powered by your very own mortal sins. This terrible beast compromises every wrong deed and element of evil, and he's the thing that will judge you in the afterlife. The tracks of the album reflect this theme, with songs telling the listener about the Carnival's eternal trip through the afterlife, taking the evil souls through it's exhibits ("Murder Go Round", "Wagon Wagon", "House of Mirrors"), as well as a few unique, inflective songs like "Southwest Song". Ringmaster sets the theme for future Joker's Cards, and picks up where Carnival of Carnage left off. The elements of moral judgement are much more obvious, but still incomplete. Low points of the album make it a little dated and dull by today's standards, but of course, the improvement from Carnival of Carnage is obvious.
Having over 100,000+ record sales in the Midwest due to self promotion, a $60,000 contract got ICP signed on Jive Records (producers of such pop acts as Britney Spears, N'Sync, Backstreet Boys and R. Kelly), and there were bold promises of national promotion. ICP thought this was their big break, the beginning of the same easy street other artists get. Little did they know that this was the start of a long, hard road.
The Riddlebox - 1995
Releasing The Riddlebox on Jive Records, ICP was looking forward to some big results. Jive, on the other hand, was one step ahead of the Clowns.
Knowing that ICP would spend it's time doing promotion for them, Jive felt no need to finance a promotion for the new album. Without the full backing of Jive, there was no possibility of it going national, and Jive executives decided that since ICP had already saturated the Michigan market, the best thing to do with Riddlebox would be to keep it in Michigan, invest no money on it, and sell to the same 60,000 audience, reaping the profit.
ICP was infuriated. Knowing they couldn't trust Jive to promote them, they went back to their roots of trusting in self-promotion, and used the $60,000 up front from their contract to buy painted up Riddlebox vans, press samplers, and hit the road. Throwing a dart on the map, they made their way south to Dallas, Texas. On the way, they stopped from city to city, establishing a network of "clown towns", which would later come back to help feed the national movement. In Dallas, after a few months of promotion, they scored some deals with local record stores, and while Riddlebox sold 60,000 copies in Detroit... it sold 40,000 in Dallas. It was now that ICP began to realize that there was something there, there was a demand for their style of music, and they began using a new name to describe their fans - "Juggalos". Looking at the results in Dallas, ICP was ready to throw another dart and go to the next major city. Unknowlingly, by abandoning reliance on Jive, and doing self-guided street promotion, ICP developed a unique and fairly untested strategy - fully independent national street promotion. Also, one of ICP's few major radio hits, "Dead Body Man", hit airwaves, although this hardly constituted an industry push. They began working more venues and perfected their famed theatrical Faygo-slinging performances they are known so well for today. ICP walked away with some new insight,
Violent J: "There's two ways to make it. And every time I sit down with a group like Project Born or Simken Heights, I say, 'There are two ways to make it. There's Eminem's route or even Kid Rock's route where you get a hit record and radio jumps on it. Or get a Dr. Dre putting you out and radio jumps on that. And that's pretty much the route that everybody's taking. Or there's our route, where you've gotta walk the whole fucking way. You gotta bust ass the whole fucking way. Everybody waits for that ride, though. No one wants to walk that route. You want a million fans? That's easy. You go to a million kids and give them a flyer and a sampler and you say, 'Buy this album, it's the shit.' That's how you do it. Or you just wait for the radio to put your message out for you or MTV to put it out for you. But the sure way of making it is to walk that long-ass route with nobody helping you but your damn self."
Riddlebox was as much of an improvement career-wise for ICP as it was musically. The Joker's Card album hints more at the true nature of the story of the Dark Carnival. It picked up on the word "Juggalo" from Ringmaster, and began to use it to describe those cartoon serial killing followers who work with the Dark Carnival and ICP to help root out the evils of the world. The story of the Riddlebox makes the aura of judgement even more profound than Ringmaster's "forks up/forks down" judgement. When you die, you spin the crank of the Riddlebox. For few, there will be a vision of warmth and light, and heaven and god. For many, there will seep out a fog, a growing insanity, images of hell and eternal damnation. Of course, you don't know what's in the Riddlebox unless you look within yourself...
It's this object of fate that they touch on with some more tracks of the album, "Riddle Box", "Joker's Wild" (where a cop/judge/redneck are all forced into a damned gameshow in Hell), "12" (a misplaced execution causes the undead to rise to seek revenge on the 12 people responsible), and "3 Rings" (a comical and bouncy track touching on social excommunication). Cult hit and anthem song "Chicken Huntin'" appeared on this album, a song reminding us of the clown's vocal hatred for racism and rednecks. Perhaps the most obvious of all the tracks on Riddlebox of the growing theme and development of the story is "The Killing Fields", which foretells a dark vision of Hell, where the evil and wicked will be bound to suffer. In fact, I have the lyrics here, on my website.
Coming out of the album strong, ICP is impeded by Jive, who refuses to release the group from their contract, and who also see no incentive to promote ICP. The era of the 3rd Joker's Card was about to draw to a close, but not before a national scandal and a surprising change of events ...
The Great Milenko - 1997
With few options, ICP was trapped. They didn't want to produce more of their Joker's Cards albums on Jive, since Jive had shown them the flaw of industry politics. They were building their own Psychopathic Records, and they felt they could secure their own distribution the way they wanted it. But being on contract prevented them from doing this.
Hollywood Records had caught wind of ICP's accomplishments, and found out about it's disputes with Jive. Hollywood offered to buy Jive's contract out giving ICP the option to finally be free of Jive, but ICP was reluctant when they found out that Hollywood Records was owned by the Disney Corporation. Hollywood executives assured the group that Disney owned many media outlets, and that each one was distinct from the whole (such as Miramax films, which puts out, among other things, horror and gangster films). Confident in the new partnership, ICP treaded forward, willing to give this new contract a shot over their current situation.
There they produced the 4th Joker's Card album, "The Great Milenko". The Great Milenko was not only a fitting chapter 4, but compositionally it was excellent. Some Juggalo fans to this day attest that The Great Milenko is their best work ever (although I beg to differ). A cult hit in every sense of the word, ICP even produced music videos for this new album, for the songs "Hokus Pokus", "How Many Times?" and "Halls of Illusions". All of which were shot down by major video stations, such as MTV, sticking true to the lack of support by mainstream media for the clowns. Special guests include Alice Cooper, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Slash, illustrating the darker nature ICP's music to those unfamiliar with them.
The Great Milenko plays the part of a magician sideshow within the Dark Carnival, and he tricks his viewers into the acts of malice and greed - a necromancer of sorts, acting not on dead bodies but dead minds and hearts. Tracks such as "Halls of Illusions" illustrate beautifully the need to resist the temptation to do wrong at the expense of others, as in the song victims are taken through an illusionary exhibit of all the great things that might've happened had they never gone about their wicked ways, before being dragged down to Hell. Other tracks such as "Hokus Pokus", "House of Horrors", "Southwest Voodoo", and "Boogie Woogie Wu" are standard clown fare, still evolving lyrically and musically, with catchy beats. Two songs stick out as being frontpieces for their existing fans, the Juggalos, "What is a Juggalo?" and "Down with the Clown", both promoting pride in supporting the band. "How Many Times?" is a more serious song, showing diversity of the group, and willingness to take the Joker's Cards into more serious social issues. A line from the song, for instance, attacks the failures of public schools (one of many diverse points the album touches on)...
"How many times did I walk in and just sit? And have to listen, and learn all this bullshit? Learning history and science, fucking wait. Knowing that, will that put food on my plate? Can I walk into McDonald's, up to the counter, and tell them you can make limestone from gunpowder? Will they give me a cheeseburger if I know that shit? Fuck no, fuck you and shut your fucking lips."
Another noteworthy track, Hellalujah, mocks televangelism. The song, spoken from the part of the phoney preacher, flaunts the extravegances and abuses of televangelists, and the song ends with the corrupt preacher taunting the viewers... "You still buy everything I sell, and I'm living well... see you in Hell." Perhaps the most important track on the album though is the one that seems almost out of place. The final track, "Pass Me By", plays the part of foreshadowing the direction of the Joker's Card saga, and perhaps helping to illustrate the importance of it. In the song, the glory of heaven in the afterlife is illustrated in only a way the clowns can conceptualize it. The chorus anthem hails the simple message:
"Hey, we all gonna die. But I'm not gonna fry. Even though most never try, I'm not gonna let this Pass Me By, no."
In the final verse of "Pass Me By", there is a warning to the wicked that you're not going to see this granduer of heaven if you continue about your ways. In few other tracks of their career are ICP more obvious about the true intentions of their story than in The Great Milenko's "Pass Me By".
Despite all their hard work on the 4th Joker's Card, "The Great Milenko" is pulled from shelves on the day of it's release. Southern Baptist coalitions boycotted Disney on it's remote involvement with the Ellen television show, a sitcom depicting the lifestyle of a Lesbian. Disney, in a move to clean up it's act, finds out what Hollywood has been doing with ICP, and tries to sweep it under the carpet to improve company image. ICP, on the other hand, doesn't accept this. The ensuing label debate creates a huge scandal for Hollywood records, and this is perhaps one of the biggest times for publicity of ICP. Many people are hearing about ICP for the first time ever, in a media frenzy, and what they hear is: "novelty band 'Insane Clown Posse', consisting of two white rappers who look like KISS only in clown face paint, get dropped for trying to put out an obscene album through Disney". Naturally, considering the paradigms involved, this began a tsunami negative publicity, that exists to this day. The rap scene wouldn't take them in because the only other white rappers of the time were the Beastie Boys, and ICP in no way fit with them. The popular media wouldn't take them in, seeing them as a novelty act ripoff of KISS, and the same went for rock, who at the time rejected rap/metal fusion acts. Ironically, rap/metal fusion became the genre to take the music scene by storm a couple of years later with the rise of acts such as Kid Rock - who ICP worked with and influenced firsthand as peers in Detroit, as we saw in Carnival of Carnage - and Eminem - who has his own sordid history with the clowns.
Music labels left and right began a bidding war for ICP, expecting a huge public spike in sales for The Great Milenko re-release, after the media publicity boom. Reportedly, Disney wasn't interested in letting the trouble-making clowns go, they wanted to bury their careers to continue to cover up for the scandal, demanding 2 million dollars to release them. It's a famed story that Alex Abbiss (ICP's manager) walked into Disney corporate offices and threatened to "bring in the Juggalos to burn down Disneyland" if ICP was not released from their Hollywood contract.
Amazingly, after the incident, there was a breakthrough in negotations, and Island Records signed away ICP for a substantially lower sum.
The Great Milenko went on to become certified platinum entering it's second year, and gained the accolade of being the longest running hip-hop/rap album in Billboard history (I am uncertain if it still holds this record, but the official ICP website says it does, although that note might be dated). Keep in mind that during these years, ICP was still recieving no MTV video play, and no radio promotion, yet there was unprecidented steadiness in it's fan base, the Juggalos. It maintained much of it's support touring, and it's label payed for a MTV timeslot to air "Shockumentary", which put the controversial group on television for a short period of time. This was perhaps one of the few real efforts a recording label had taken to pay for ICP's promotion, illustrating how much of ICP's notoriety and fame either arose from little besides their own hard work and uniquely dumb luck. Another promotion avenue for ICP came during this downtime, through involvement with the World Wrestling Federation and World Championship Wrestling. ICP, both die-hard wrestling fans, enjoyed the scene and it seems their fans typically shared the interest (despite having not been on wrestling television for a couple of years, Juggalo wrestling fans still carry Psychopathic signs to events to show their vocal support for ICP). Psychopathic Records grew as well, into a powerhouse that could provide the street team promotion needed to keep ICP afloat, as well as the merchandising and management of the Juggalo fanbase nationally.
The Amazing Jeckel Brothers - 1999
However, things weren't all good. Many mainstream fans, who ICP found latched on to them simply because they were now "celebrities", began to pollute their crowds. ICP, being a street-based, underground band who were more on the level with their fans, began having serious problems with the new fans. They encouraged their Juggalos to either inform the new people or kick them out of the community, because they wanted to retain the same level of easiness and reliability with their fans as they had before. ICP vocally preferred the dedicated Juggalo over 10, or even 100 mainstream "fans", and often left stages and created scenes because of this growing problem. They simply wanted those who understood their viewpoints and the music.
Still sustaining their momentum from the big scandal, and having the strong support of their core Juggalo fans, ICP released the 5th Joker's Card album, "The Amazing Jeckel Brothers" while still on Island, in 1999. The unprecedented occurred - the Insane Clown Posse debuted on the Billboard charts at #4, just beneath Backstreet Boys, despite having never recieved MTV video play, and despite not having any radio singles, loathed by critics and the media alike, with absolutely no national advertising campaign or strategy outside their traditional street promotion techniques, and even still it was 2 years since the famed Disney/ICP scandal. This was a landmark event in the music industry that a band with no popular commercial backing could debut so high. The album shortly became certified platinum (rumors online quote the RIAA website in saying "Amazing Jeckel Brothers" is still gold, even though Soundscan results will prove that AJB clearly outsold the certified platinum "Great Milenko", and thus has already met the criterion for platinum status).
Limited respect was forced out of the music industry, when ICP was invited to play Woodstock '99, and Alternative Press featured ICP as their cover story - which became the best selling edition of AP ever. Insane Clown Posse brought up some new projects, such as the horrorcore duo Twiztid, and ICP began expanding to other avenues to promote themselves that didn't involve traditional methods such as: comic books, toy/clothing-based merchandising, the creation of a Juggalo wrestling promotion - JCW, and a full length feature film staring Psychopathic Records staff, "Big Money Hustlas" which featured such offbeat celebrities as Rudy Ray Moore (known better as black supercop "Dolomite"), The Jerky Boys, Harland Williams, wrestling legend Mick Foley, Fred "Rerun" Barry, and the Misfits.
The Amazing Jeckel Brothers is a story about two more creatures of the Dark Carnival, playing with your immortal soul, just as you might expect from yet another Joker's Card album. This time things are more plainly obvious than last time, but it's not yet totally clear what the big secret message of the Dark Carnival's tales are just yet. The Amazing Jeckel Brothers, Jake and Jack Jeckel, are a juggling duo. Jake the just and Jack the wicked both juggle your sins on display for you at the end of your life. In the song they illustrate what happens in this juggling act quite clearly... "Jeckel drop ball, Shangri-La dies / One for your greed, Two for your lies /" which says that the more sins you make, the more difficult the juggling act becomes. Overwhelm Jake and Jack with heavy sins, and they will fumble, and those who witness the Amazing Jeckel Brothers fumble in their act are sent straight to Hell. Those who witness it completed, who didn't bear too many heavy sins, go to heaven. The Amazing Jeckel Brothers can be thought of as part of your soul, the good and evil conflict happening within each of us at all times, and this Joker's Card is yet another way to think about the judgement before the pending doom of the final face of the Dark Carnival.
The Amazing Jeckel Brothers contains one of ICP's most popular in-crowd anthem songs, "Fuck the World". People often misunderstand this song. In it, Violent J curses virtually everything, high and low, absurd and plausible, saying "fuck" 93 (or more) times. The point of the song comes in at the very final phrase, after mindless cursing of everything under the sun, then J brings it all together in the very final phrase of the song... "and fuck Violent J". The point of the song being that you can curse everything in the world, but it the end it doesn't even matter. One of the album's weak points was an increase in the skit-based comedy, not for lack of humor, but for simply taking too much time up on the album. "The Shaggy Show", in the second half of the album, is a long skit-like comedy segment built entirely around Snoop Dogg's rather bland guest spot. "Bring it On", "Assassins", "I Stab People" and "Everybody Rize" compromise this album's standard killer clown fare, evenly distributed throughout the album to keep the album rolling through the skits. "Bitches!" features special guest Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu Tang Clan, and was an instant score with the Juggalo listeners. "I Want My Shit" is the lyrically creative tale of Violent J's 225-year old life as a wandering supernatural immortal, the chorus proclaiming "I want my shit! And I won't die, till I get it!".
Amongst the more serious, theatrical elements of the Amazing Jeckel Brothers is "Terrible", a song attacking popular media for having no real scope of what's really wrong with the world. The song attacked news stations which concentrated on President Clinton's sex scandals instead of real news, and it also criticized Christian groups whose protests help some controversial music groups instead of doing the world some real good. Shaggy 2 Dope's segment of that particular verse...
"La di da - we gotta protest that! Some rock and roll ninja bit the head off a rat! Let's march in his concert and chant him to Hell... 'cause he's so fucking Terrible! Meanwhile his record sales double and triple 'cause of you worrying about him rubbing his nipple. Religious? Shit, you helped them bands, instead of helping them poor people eating out of them garbage cans. When you're done with that bitch, come protest me, shit motherfucka, I could use the money."
"Play With Me" illustrates the bitter depression of love abandoned, sung from the perspective of a toy that gets locked away and never played with again. "Mad Professor" reflects the same theme, as Violent J plays the part of a child recluse who builds his own Frankenstein zombie in his basement. Like "Killing Fields" from "The Riddle Box", there is another more serious look at Hell on this album in the form of "Echoside", telling the story of damned soul Damian trying desperately to find a way out of Hell, but you can read the story yourself as I have lyrics available on my site. Of special note is the phrases played in reverse speak, which hint even further at the band's feelings about Hell: "Fuck the Devil! Fuck that shit! We believe in life legit. If you diggin' what we say, why you throw your soul away?"
ICP began having problems with Island, feeling the label didn't relate to ICP's plan of action, and wanted to get out of the contract with Island before releasing their final chapter to the Joker's Card saga. However, their contract with Island required a prerequisite number of albums before the group could be allowed an option out. So ICP put together compilation CD's and the double-album Bizaar/Bizzar combo to help satisfy the quota. While not part of the Joker's Card story, Bizaar/Bizzar served several purposes besides that of filling of the quota with Island. It had several songs reflecting changes in musical style, which would become foreshadowing for the final Joker's Card. The hit single on the double-album release was "Let's Go All The Way", a remake of an '80s pop song by Sly Fox, with lyrics rewritten to fit the Carnival's wandering theme.
"Let's Go All The Way" became popular with radio, and ICP even filmed a music video for the song, which aired on MTV, igniting another scandal, this time outside the public eye. ICP's new music video was given little real chance by MTV executives, and only played at 5 AM in the morning - this was despite having no graphic language or sexually suggestive content. The video depicted a group of diverse races marching unified to paradise, but was deemed "inappropriate" by MTV executives. This decision to hold back the video came at a time when MTV was drawing ire from parent's groups who slammed on MTV's sex-driven pop icons and music videos - yet videos like ICP's "Let's Go All The Way" were kept on the 5 AM timeslot. There were even reports of parents coming to like ICP for it's positive message in "Let's Go All The Way", which made many Juggalo fans feel as though the group was "selling out". ICP lashed out hard against those that felt this way, and this incident created something of internal division, but the main group of dedicated fans appreciated the new exposure and stood by ICP. ICP's video was even put up for TRL voting, on a write-in basis. There were several incidents in Times Square with massive crowds of Juggalos being dispersed (sometimes by anti-riot police forces) before the live filming of MTV's TRL top ten show. TRL officials eventually barred ICP's video from eligibility, due to "vote corruption", claiming ICP's fans were cheating to get their high vote tallies in online write-in forms (despite this not seeming really possible). ICP's video was soon taken out of MTV rotation.
This was a quiet time for ICP, as they pondered what to do next. Producing a supergroup album with other artists under their production wing, "Dark Lotus" had more thematic religious elements to it, helping build anticipation for the Sixth Joker's Card. ICP created an annual event in 2000 unheard of in modern music, a 3-day fan convention "Gathering of the Juggalos", where thousands of ICP fans and the curious come in to attend events of all natures - games, movies, rides, shows, musical concerts leading out the day, all sorts of festivities. The 2003 Gathering actually was held outdoors, and included such scenic events as skydiving, hiking and cliff jumping.
Some of the secrets had begun slipping out by this point. Each Joker's Card album was labelled "Dedicated to the Butterfly". Violent J explained this dedication, and it was reprinted with every copy of the Sixth Joker's Card. Here's the dedication explained as it was written in the booklet with the Sixth Joker's Card...
Violent J: "I was maybe 7 years old. My brother Rob was around 8 or 9 I guess. We were outside playing in front of our house in suburban Berkley, MI. I remember it was a regular summer afternoon, we were hanging out in the yard or whatever when my brother Rob screamed 'Joe I caught a giant butterfly! Hurry up and get the jar!' I grabbed the jar off the steps and ran over to him. Somehow, some way, he had actually managed to catch one of them big ass, pretty, orange, yellow and black butterflies right out of the air with his bare hands. Unbelievable. If you remember anything about being a kid, you remember them things are un-catchable. They'll fuckin' sit there and dance, slow motion, in the air style, right around your fuckin' face while you bust your ass trying to catch it. Somehow, on this regular summer afternoon, Rob happened to scoop it right out of flight with his bare hands. 'Hurry, get the jar opened up and ready, I can feel its wings trying to get away!'
Finally we had it safely and sound in the jar with the fresh poked holes in the lid and everything. We knew that we'd better let it go soon though. We looked at this creature as an animal more than an insect. Plus being that age, this animal was more than just a bug to us. It was our homie. We decided we would just have it spend one night with us and we'd let it go in the morning. Plus we figured a whole family of giant butterflies might even come looking for it if we didn't. I mean this butterfly was so big, and colorful in that jar. It even looked like it had fur on it. It was absolutely awesome.
That night, as usual it was hot as hell in our bed room, so we took the fan and pointed it right into the holes of the butterfly's jar. We didn't think much of it at the time other than hopefully the butterfly will be comfortable while he's spending this night with us.
The following morning, much, much, to our sadness, the Butterfly was dead. Our guess was it had to be the fan blowing on it all night. We didn't mean to harm this beautiful, giant Butterfly at all. We were painfully crushed.
We had a funeral right there in our backyard for it that morning. We buried it in this lil' empty box on top of some napkins and stuff. As we were paying our last respects to this butterfly, both me and my brother Rob made a vow - right then and there we made this vow: "One day, we will both make it to Heaven and apologize to the Butterfly, face to face."
We made that vow when we were just two lil' young-ass kids, but what better time than then? That was us at our cleanest and purest form. We were so loving, only because were were still so untouched and unscatched by the real world. That yard was the only world we knew back then. We didn't know any real negatives, or realties even, because they are kept from most young children. We were at our cleanest points that morning. Ready for the world with our first vow and goal to complete in life.
We didn't know the differences between white, black or Asian people, boys or girls, east sidaz or west sidaz, Jewish or Muslim people. None of that shit mattered to us then, and it still shouldn't. We just looked for smiling faces back then, and we still should.
Look at us all now. It was the world around us that instilled all the hatred and wacky beliefs upon us all. We become one with the world as we walked through it. Once we live some life, our souls ain't as clean anymore. We all got a lil' bit older, we didn't care as much anymore about butterflies or what colors their wings had. We learned who we are supposed to hate, who we should love and even flat out how we should be as people. All of which is taught to us by other people! And who the fuck are they? We spend our entire lives trying not to do what ever is considered "stale" by everybody else. Well fuck that! Consider us stale as fuck then. We some four-week-old, desert-dried-Wonder-Bread, stale-ass individuals then.
We will one day complete our vows before we pass. I want to be as clean as I was when I was 7. I want my own heart telling me what to do and how to live. We will rid our souls of this garbage that was pounded into it, and once again respect the beauty of some fresh ass shit like a Butterfly's wings. One day, we will get to Heaven and apologize to the Butterfly, just like we said we would. We're going to Shangri-La, baby. Sorry if that upsets you... wait, no we ain't! Fuck off if that upsets you. The bottom line is we want nothing more out of the rest of our lives but to see you Juggalos there in Shangri-La with us."
The Butterfly was one of the most speculated aspects of the first 5 eras of Joker's Cards. Once it was explained, what did it mean? In fact, what were all the 5 stories leading to? ICP went into hiding for 8 months, and planned the next course of action. After a long period of silence, during the 2002 annual "Gathering of the Juggalos", ICP finally came out with a new look, ready to reveal everything in the Sixth and Final Joker's Card.
The Beginning of the Sixth and Final Joker's Card Era - 2002
Changing even their appearance for the first time in their 10-year history, ICP was ready to debut their final chapter of the story of the Dark Carnival. Finally liberated from Island Records, the plans were set, their fully-fledged self-owned national independent recording label, Psychopathic Records (now international with it's Europathic branch recently opened), ready to deal with the demand for the Sixth and Final Joker's Card from packaging to secured national distribution deals to a fully international tour ranging from Australia, the continental United States and into Europe... so it was time for ICP to announce the title of their final chapter, and explain what it's all about. Keep in mind, if you've read all this way, this album really makes or breaks their career, since the entire build, the riddles and subliminal messages and hidden religious themes, was all pointing to this finale.
The Wraith: Shangri-La - 2002
The six and final Joker's Card was "The Wraith", but it wouldn't come in the form of one album as the other Joker's Cards did, it will come in two. All the other Joker's Cards in some way or another reflected some kind of warning about the judgement, because this was the big finale there was no reason to hide that theme in carnival riddles and circus pranks... that being said, the Sixth Joker's Card was the most obvious of the 6. "The Wraith" acts like all the other Joker's Cards, weighing the damned in after death, only this time around death isn't masked in a carnival theme, it's right out there where it's plainly obvious that ICP are talking about the grim reaper, the afterlife, and the known consequences in Heaven and Hell based on basic religious understandings. The Insane Clown Posse intends to tell the story of Heaven and Hell in two different album versions of the Wraith, one version for their beloved fans the Juggalos (the story of the path to Shangri-La), and the other version for the rest of the world (the story of the path to Hell's Pit). These two albums are the Wraith's exhibit of the afterlife, after which, the "end of time will consume us all" (we'll live out our lives, grow old, and meet the Wraith one day like everyone else).
The first album of the two-part story was released November 5th, 2002. "The Wraith: Shangri-La" capitalized on the history of the clowns, openly touching on why ICP used the violent rap style (which the band calls "The Wicked Shit"), and how it was used to relay a bigger message to the fans. Some of the tracks of Shangri-La illuminate the beauty and granduer of heaven, most noteably "It Rains Diamonds", where the chorus proclaims:
"It Rains Diamonds nightly, in my Shangri-La lit brightly. Who can miss this so inviting? Come stand on mountain-tops and Yell! [...] Diamonds drift upon the mist of forgetfulness, bringing a peace untold as I fade away to become what my eyes see - see into the eternity, of Shangri-La."
Tracks like "Murder Rap", a tribute to rap legends "Above the Law", were obviously saved for special mention on this album. More stories from the clowns abound, and even though they're in heaven, that doesn't prevent them from doing a little cartoon-style killing (the song "The Staleness" seems almost apologetic for the heavy, repeated themes of violence in their music). "Blaaam!!!" tells the story of Violent J after he got his hands on a wish-granting genie bottle, although his wishing doesn't go quite as planned. "Welcome to the Show", "We Belong", "Ain't Yo Bidness" (download - all downloads hosted on ICP's official website) and "Juggalo Homies" (download) are all upbeat variations of the Juggalo pride themes, reiterating how the Dark Carnival is something of a family of outcasts, and fitting the theme of the album, these outcasts are destined to reach Shangri-La together.
What's more important than some of these tracks are the ones on Shangri-La touching even harder on the Carnival mythology and the spiritual elements of ICP's music. "Crossing The Bridge" (download) is a song written from the perspective of a prayer to god from a simple man who simply wants to know "why?" The song's chorus emphasises the importance of acknowledging human brutality against the innocent, moving on to the second verse where it challenges religious orthodoxy in favor of a strong moral constitution. Here's a snippet of the second verse, with the chorus at the end, to help illustrate the song's point a little.
I never questioned the book, but let's say I live by the book. I never ate meat on Tuesdays, how much bigger would my wings look?
I try to pray everyday, but sometimes get lost on the way. I've seen the holiest spirit, so much to mislead the way.
I gave the visions I got, I've been told I'm gonna rot, inside the Devil's intestines... I'm still here holding my spot.
I've just been wondering "Why?" "... Why?" "... Why?" "... Why?" "... Why?"
I seen some children Crossing the Bridge. What kind of life did they get to live? What kind of choice did they get to make? What if it was a child's mistake?
Coming up to the end of the album the track "The Wraith" talks about death's job of collecting souls. Once again, the clowns come through on bringing their inflections out from obscurity of prior albums, for example one phrase of the song says: "Then again, 9 times out of 10, I wish he'd take me instead of some of these poor children we see." The song "Hell's Forecast" reminds listeners of Shangri-La that this isn't going to be the last album by far, as shortly after the track "It Rains Diamonds", "Hell's Forecast" predicts another kind of rain - the rain of dead bodies and the terror of Hell's Pit. Vivid imagery abounds, but the track is more a teaser for the darkness to come than a real exploration into it.
The finale of "The Wraith: Shangri-La" is it's last track, the mysterious track 17 (17 appears in ICP albums throughout their history, as I explained earlier, and has been the source of speculation amongst Juggalos for years). This track, "The Unveiling" says it's time to come clean about the prophecy and story of the Dark Carnival, they say there's no more need for reverse talking, subliminal messages or the riddles the group is so famous for. "The Unveiling" lives up to it's name by having ICP finally explain their own gimmick, and the importance of the story behind it. They explain in this simple song about how they used their trademark vulgar music (the "Wicked Shit", it's what they mean when talking about the "Hatchet" below) as a way to dress up a story of moralisticly religious overtones - that constant theme of the judgement that the Joker's Cards were based on. It all started with riddles and hints in "Carnival of Carnage" and worked it's way up to the more obvious themes displayed in "The Wraith". For some fans this was a surprise, for others they had seen it coming, but for mainstream publications it came as a total shock. All parties seemed to embrace the bold declaration, as critics this time around have been fairly positive for reviews of Shangri-La.
Here are the lyrics for the final song, so you can read them and come to your own conclusion:
"Now we've been told this carnival shit has touched on many lives. People have fucking sworn to us, they too can feel it inside. What is it that draws you in, this magic that compels you? We've been waiting six fucking Joker's Cards to finally tell you. The messages and hints were there - although most never picked up on them. We snuck 'em in subliminally, with that 'wicked shit' around them. We mentioned more and more of this on every Joker's Card, the bottom line always the same, you ain't have to look hard.
We wickedly kick it, inflict it, you get it; get wit' it, and dig, we don't preach it flat out. Some ninjas don't wanna get with ya, they quick to forget ya, without the Hatchet, and get out. So we rose the Hatchet do or die, now Juggalo's standing tall. After all Six have risen the end of time will consume us all.
It ain't got nothing to do with us. It ain't Psychopathic Records. All we're doing is pointing shit out to you, we in this together. Who's behind the Dark Carnival, the Gatherings and the Hatchet? Who's behind Dark Lotus, the Circus and everybody at it? Who invented Juggalos and Juggalettes and fucking Faygo showers? What about that feeling you get when bumping our shit, who's behind the Juggalo powers? This ain't no fucking fan club, it ain't about making a buck. Don't buy our fucking action figures bitch, I don't give a fuck! It ain't about Violent J or Shaggy, the Butterfly or 17. When we speak of 'Shangri-La', what you think we mean? Truth is we follow GOD, and have always been behind him. The Carnival is GOD and may all Juggalos find him!"
The chorus rings "We ain't sorry if we tricked you" as it plays through a collage of the band's memorable songs throughout it's career, ending Shangri-La on a upbeat, momentous finale. Ultimately, the story of the ICP is a "take from it what you will" story, and really, only you can decide whether or not it was worthwhile message conducted by the greatest "behind-the-scenes" band to ever live, or a short-lived gimmick produced by talentless hacks. I hope that through this article, I managed to give you an intelligent view of who they are, so you can come to an informed decision yourself.
However, the story isn't over. While this newest revelation from the Insane Clown Posse marks a new age for lovers of their unique musical stylings, and a provides meaningful closure to the tale of the Joker's Cards, there is still an entire second half to the message of the Sixth and Final Joker's Card. If the story of the path to Shangri-La was what ICP's special message was to their fans, the Juggalos, then what does ICP have left to say... to the world?
The Wraith: Hell's Pit - 2004
If you read this far and it's actually changed your mind or made you interested in the music of ICP, be sure to check out the end of the Joker's Card saga and maybe even the end of ICP itself, what ICP claims will be the darkest most wicked and vile musical tale ever told... "The Wraith: Hell's Pit".
To finish this overview of their career, I thought it'd be fitting to write a review of their final Joker's Card album, The Wraith: Hell's Pit. Just continue with the link below...