OM188 - Juggalos

This week, Ken and John talk about:

Faygo, Seattle Chicken Schism (OM188)

A lot of people are closer to being a Juggalo than they think, but Ken is not Juggalo-adjacent. He did drink cheap soft-drinks before, but never Faygo, a regional soda pop headquartered in Michigan that is more available in the Southern and Midwestern United States. You can get Faygo in Seattle at Ezell’s Famous Chicken restaurant, but Ken goes to Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, Ezell’s post-divorce partner that actually has Ezell chicken.

In the Seattle Chicken Schism one owner of the chicken restaurant took the recipe while the other took the name. It is Oprah’s favorite fried chicken and she even has it flown in! She has a place on Lopez Island now, maybe because she wanted to move closer to Ezell’s.

The history of Gangsta Rap (OM188)

Ken is a music fan and he loves Hip Hop, but the depth of his love for Hip Hop does not get into anything Horror Core. Instead it has to be what white college students were listening to in the 1980s, like A Tribe Called Quest. He was not into N.W.A., but he was very self-congratulatory and would listen to Public Enemy because it was the tough rap that was also socially conscious and very political. Chuck D was an intellectual and Ken wanted Chuck D, Q-Tip and guys like that to be his Hip Hop icons. He was a De La Soul and Daisy Rock guy.

The advent of Gangsta Rap was back in the 1980s. Ice-T was a progenitor of it, but the N.W.A. guys established a new tone that no longer appealed to a broad audience. It wasn’t party-rap anymore about feeling good. Ken just wanted to listen to Kid ’n Play, but suddenly everything was about bank-robbing and misogyny.

N.W.A. was talking about life on the ground and what it was like growing up in Compton Los Angeles and it resonated with people because it felt very true to life and described violence. The terminology was that it glorified violence, but it didn’t so much as depict it in vignettes. They had stories about gang murders and doing crimes and part of the mythology was that they were actually criminals themselves who were forced into criminality by their circumstances. It resonated throughout Hip Hop culture!

Many of Ken's friends loved N.W.A., mostly his delighted white friends, not just because they wanted a chance to say the N-word, but they liked the taboo nature of the subject matter. It was very voyeuristic. Like all popular music forms the audience was not confined just to the people who most resembled the artist, but it became universally suburban-adopted and it influenced a whole generation of young suburban kids to adopt a little bit of a tougher swagger than they had probably earned.

Tom Hanks’ youngest son Chet Haze is perpetually in Internet news for adopting that kind of unearned Hip Hop slang. He speaks in a cadence that you wouldn’t associate with Tom Hanks’ pretty stable and affluent home life, except we all know from watching his movies that Ice Cube became a suburban dad anyway. He went the other direction and acted in light-hearted comedies.

Gansta Rap had more diffuse origins than just N.W.A. and even rappers like Run-D.M.C. who later became very mainstream were initially rapping about what it was like in street life, but they didn’t have to use their AK because they weren’t especially violent. Just like Grunge, Gangsta Rap was a term that was applied rather than self-generated from within the culture.

It sprung up in New York and Indiana and it resonated widely enough that it became a new genre, so much so that it became synonymous with rap and it was very easy to say that rap is no longer a diverse form, but it was about crime and misogyny, which was a bummer and unfair. It was telling the true story of police interactions with inner city culture.

This was during a period of America where we were talking in popular culture as though we were in a post-racial society and part of the reaction to that was the depiction that we were not in a post-racial society if you live in Compton or inner-city Detroit. This was the soundtrack for people who had seen this Rodney King video and were no longer under any illusions. This was pre Black Lives Matter, but a similar kind of: ”Don’t make the mistake that your experience in the suburbs is similar to our experience in the city!”

Sonically and culturally it became much less possible to have Hip Hop music focus on togetherness and unity. There was a popular sub-genre of viby summer hip hop, there were Salt N’ Pepper and other legacy artists, but new rappers needed to be legit and if they weren’t autobiographically talking about what was happening on the streets and they didn’t have the bullet wounds there was a lack of legitimacy. A lot of mainstream big-money Hip Hop came out of that school. Jay-Z is Rap’s first billionaire, but his origin story is as a street drug dealer and as a kid he was in the life. He was not always a tycoon.

The history of ICP (OM188)

Detroit, Michigan is the locus of the Juggalo experience because the band originated there. A lot of factors played into this: They closed down all the factories, first in Allentown, but especially Detroit exemplified urban blight and white flight. It had a very large African-American population because of the factory work that flourished in the 1950s and brought a lot of people in a great migration up the Mississippi river from the endemic racism of the South to the much more subtle racism of the North.

The inner city got decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System where they ran the freeway right through the heart of the most vibrant black neighborhood in Detroit and created a condition where there was no longer any pretending that there wasn’t just an institutional hostility to black culture. It started the history of riots in Detroit and the ”burning the city down” of the 1960s and 1970s.

Detroit became a hot-bed of music. We think of it as the home of Motown and there were Punk bands like MC5. It continued to produce music with a social message that throughout the 1970s increasingly became more and more aggressive. By the advent of early 1990s Gangsta Rap Detroit was producing a variety of sub-national Hip Hop artists.

At this time a couple of brothers by the last name of Bruce grew up in fairly extreme poverty in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. Their father left when they were young and absconded with whatever money they had. They were raised by a single mother who worked as a janitor and was supporting the entire family on her wage. They went to school, but they were living on government subsidies. It is very similar to Eminem’s origin story who was also from Detroit, but the Bruce brothers were white kids.

The oldest brother was Robert Bruce and John stops short of calling him a Lesser Bruce, and the younger brother was Joseph. They dabbled in street gangs, and most street gangs start in a group of friends who are all just trying to make it and you are not always trying to send your membership application to the Bloods or the Crips. Ken did that, but he never got an email back although his essay was very strong. They dabbled in all of the stew of street culture of the late 1980s with petty crime and drugs and they gradually adopted Hip Hop language and signifiers. Robert tried to get out of there by joining the Army and leaving Detroit, but his brother Joe remained and started a street gang called the Inner City Posse.

The idea of a bunch of white kids starting a gang raised an eyebrow and they did not immediately have the cred of representing inner city Detroit, but if you are in desperate poverty and you are living in conditions where your life is on the streets, there are different rules about your adoption of what you hear as the language of the streets.

The language of Ken’s and John’s streets are very different, it is mostly the poems of Robert Frost and the dulcet tones of Seals & Crofts. The Bruce brothers started doing some crimes and doing some raps, and there is a bit of amateur wrestling thrown into this stew of different influences. Kid Rock came out of the same culture where it is a little bit Redneck and a little bit Hard Rock meets Country ethos with the spitting lyrics of Hip Hop.

Hip Hop disseminated across the country and was readily adopted by people who were already listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and who were already looking for protest music, and even though the different kinds of protest music may sound dissimilar it still works together. The message of MC5 and N.W.A. aren’t remarkably different when posited against global capitalism, for instance.

Ken doesn’t remember that scene fondly and he thinks it hasn’t aged that well. There is not a whole lot of nostalgia for that whole Kid Rock, Limb Bizkit, white kid Rap Rock sound, but N.W.A. really holds up because the music was largely created by Dr. Dre who we all agree is a genius. There has never really been a side of Hip Hop that was coopted entirely by white artists and became a new style of the genre. It spawned New Metal, but that died immediately.

There are still plenty of white rappers, but it is not like with Rock’n’Roll that diluted into the culture and is almost exclusively a white art form although the origins are not while, but it became the voice of white teens. With The Rolling Stones you still hear a clear reference to the black origins of Rock, but by the time it got to Foreigner that was mostly gone, to not even talk about it morphing into Heavy Metal or one of the 1000 other forms. Early Fleetwood Mac was still a Blues band that would have made reference to their black heroes, but by the 1970s Stevie Nicks wasn’t saying: ”If it weren’t for John Lee Hooker I wouldn’t be here talking about Rhiannon”

Curiously, there is something about the way that Rap culture evolved and solidified in whatever is the truth of the legitimate heart of it. There will always be a new Macklemore and there is even the rhythmic wordplay of Eminem with an entire generation of white suburban teenagers having that as their primary musical vernacular. When they sit and try to come up with music themselves, they are not going to somehow devolve into Steely Dan, but they are going to have Rap as their primary way of thinking.

The Bruce brothers in their nascency as rappers realized that Gangsta Rap was so prevalent that there was no way for them to distinguish themselves on the national scene or even on the Detroit scene. They needed to set themselves and ultimately the Detroit scene apart and they were not going to compete with N.W.A. or Biggie Smalls. Some of that may have to do with the fact that the quality of their raps was not as smart.

Eminem is a sign that someone from 5 miles away, if they actually had the flow, could have made a go of it. They happened upon the idea of Horror Rap that was coming from a theatrical place, and they were rapping about violence. It was emotionally similar to the experience of life in the inner city and true-life storytelling of Gangsta Rap rather than thematically similar.

A lot of this is retroactive theorizing around the rise of Horror Core, but by rapping within the context of Horror movies and the almost fantastical violence in those they connected with people who were raised in environments of violence and who felt violent impulses. They could do it in almost a comedic style of hatchet murder where they weren’t actually claiming to be hatchet murderers, but it resonated with them emotionally.

The style of ICP (OM188)

Early iterations of the Insane Clown Posse were just a group of friends and associates that included older brother Robert who was rapping under the name Jump Steady, but after a while Robert morphed into a consiglieri and the two main rappers left standing at the heart of what had formerly been the gang of Inner City Posse were Joseph Bruce under the name Violent J, and his friend Joseph Utsler under the name Shaggy 2 Dope.

Violent J is almost religiously inspired and in a different context he would probably be seen as a visionary. He has a colorful dream life and fantasies, and he has filled notebooks with weird drawings, snatches of poetry and red dragons. He incorporated several of his dreams into the mythology of the young ICP, one of them was the Dark Carnival, a purgatorial space where people destined for hell would be judged by a variety of demonic personages in a carnival atmosphere with juggling, rollercoasters and a log ride. For someone who had grown up poor and was mocked and reviled even by the street culture in Detroit to envision a carnival in a purgatory prior to hell sounds like a fun and pleasurable environment, better than going straight to hell.

They decided not to rap about Satan and they had a very complex and self-generated spirituality. The Dark Carnival became part of their foundation myth and they decided to wear scary clown makeup because one of their early crew members wore clown makeup in his role as a heightman (?). There was of course a Wrestling influence as well.

People in the audience love it! On stage you want to distinguish yourself and make yourself the focal point of the show and big graphical clown makeup in black and white, almost like Rorschach from The Watchmen, some blotchy symmetrical things, helps with that: The combination of the dreams of Violent J, the clown makeup, the rapping about horror violence.

They started to make records, but those were independent releases that didn’t sweep the nation. Locally in Detroit they were able to continue on in their music career and they continued to grow. At a certain point in 1991 they partnered with a guy who ran a local record store and put together Psychopathic Records, a label that would become the venue for their own albums, and they came up with a picture of a character that is very similar to what Pearl Jam used to promote their album 10 that was spray-painted all over Seattle in the 1990s: A little stick-figure with dreadlocked hair holding up his hands.

John being in jail for vandalism (OL188)

In 1991 John had a band called Chautauqua, which gives you a sense of how much outside of this culture he was. They had a three-color overlay graffiti stencil where you would spray-paint the base one, the second one and the third one to create a three-color stencil that just said Chautauqua.

One night John was spray-painting that at the side of what he thought was an abandoned warehouse in Downtown Seattle, right next to the Pearl Jam stick-figure on a wall covered with Grunge-era band graffiti. All of a sudden a door opened right next to where he was spray-painting, leading to a brightly-lit sweat-shop full small women bent over sowing machines making some kind of garment in the middle of the night.

A guy shouted: ”What the hell are you doing? Spray-painting my building?” John ran and the guy jumped into a car and chased him all over Downtown Seattle. It was horrifying and John ended up getting arrested that night for vandalism because the guy chased John the wrong way up 1st Avenue and they intercepted two cops sitting on the sidewalk. The guy told them that John had vandalized his building and they all went back to the building and John couldn’t deny that he had done it. They arrested John for vandalism and put him in a cell.

This became a problem because John didn’t address it in the courts and then there was a bench warrant for him and the cost of it went up and up. Somehow he did not turn to Horror Core Rap, but he continued to play Indie Pop. John ended up going to jail five separate times over it because he didn’t have any money and he continued not to pay the fine that kept growing. Every time he would encounter a cop they would arrest him and put him in jail, but never for the night, always for 5 hours until John could call somebody and get them to bail him out of jail. Like so much in John’s life, some of the pain is a result of Eddie Vedder and his dumb little man.

Fans identifying with ICP, getting the name Juggalos (OM188)

Through Psychopathic Records ICP began to accrue a group of fans. Part of the explanation of this phenomenon is that there is a lot of music that appeals to the disaffected, people who feel marginalized and who feel that music is the only venue where they can find a sense of belonging. There is a kind of violence that maybe is more wide-spread now and one could theorize a lot of reasons for it. There is an exclusion from modern society where you are truly out of it and see no opportunity, no way to ever make it in the straight world, and you feel that you are not only the enemy of the police and the state, but also the enemy of the rich and even the middle class and lower middle class.

If you are looked down upon by everyone in the culture and you see no avenue to escape, it generates alienation, particularly if you grew up in an environment where you are the victim of repeated violence from your father, the police, or whomever else. It is almost a surreal amount of trauma you could conceivably experience and no-one would believe it if you told them your story. Only something that felt comic-book would relate to you and where do you find music that expresses your experience?

There is a lot of identification with comic-book powers and the violence in those. In the last Superman movie he is fighting some super-dragon from outer space and they destroy New York to the point that would represent a million deaths collateral damage as they wreck the city in a fight between these two superheroes. Part of what became ICP culture was that they took from anything that appealed to them: Pro Wrestling, Country Music, Rap, Horror Movie iconography, superheroes, gangsters, or anything that came from this knowable scene. In the great polyglot of America it all worked together and started its own vernacular.

In 1994 at a live show, as ICP performed their song The Juggla about a juggler who was part of The Dark Carnival, one of them spontaneously referred to the audiences as Juggalos and the audience really responded to it so they went with it and kept riffing. Female Juggalos are referred to as Jugalettes. Luckily the song was not about spaghetti, otherwise their fans would have been the SpaghettiOs.

As ICP got bigger and bigger and their fanbase expanded a lot of people you wouldn’t expect identified as Juggalos, like for example Charlie Sheen, and a lot of people were starting to feel a sympathy with Juggalos.

Their music was easily mocked in mainstream culture because it drew from so many influences, because it was unintelligible and ridiculously violent, and because they were in clown makeup. Also, neither guy gives great interviews. Their language is knowable by their fans but sounds not super-smart to people in the more mainstream culture. It is not a put-on in any way, they are not exploiting a pre-existing audience as two outsiders, there is nothing ironic about the clown makeup, the monster tropes or anything. It feels all very real and very cool.

There is a tongue-in-cheek-ness and a recognition that this will be baffling to people. You don’t put on clown makeup without realizing that you are doing a bit. Clown-makeup is also a feature in serial-killer movies and is meant to be menacing and to communicate a feeling of being an outsider, but not an outsider who is painting with oils in a garret, but someone who is capable of violence and who would maybe be committing violence if they hadn’t found this place.

The girl with the ironic juggalo tattoo (OM188)

The first person who ever booked an out-of-town show in the early touring days of The Long Winters was a young lady named Stephanie. She was an early adopter of their sound and as she saw that they were headed out on tour and were playing their first show in Minneapolis she knew they had to drive through Milwaukee, Wisconsin in order to get there and she offered them to book a show for them in advance of the first show of their tour.

She was only 20 years old and was not even able to book it at a bar, but she found a venue for an all-ages show. John had never been on tour before and he assumed that your fans will just come out of nowhere and book shows for you, they were flattered and agreed, and their first ever on-tour show was in Milwaukee for Stephanie and her friend Laura who were the only two people who came. They stayed at her house that night and John noticed that she had tattoos of the Juggalo hatchet man, the logo of Psychopathic records. Back in 2001 John recognized it as a thing, but he was not aware of ICP at the time.

John asked her about it and she said that the tattoos were ironic because Juggalos were a thing on the street in Milwaukee and she got those as a way of both mocking them, which is a weird thing to get a tattoo about. She hadn’t modified it to be something hilarious, it was probably a form of appreciation. As a hipster she had seen this as something in the culture worthy of recognition, but John doesn’t think that she now has a tattoo of The National.

In the early 1990s John worked with a guy who hat The Monkees logo on one forearm, big from his wrist to the crotch of his elbow, and on the other arm he had it in reverse. He explained that it was referring to the opening title scene in Kung Fu where Kane lifts the super-hot iron with his forearms and indelibly burns two scars into his forearms. The tattoos were like that, except with The Monkees. He truly believed in them and he had a very specific idea.

The Gathering music festival (OM188)

The culture of Juggalos evolved somewhat naturally and they started to refer to themselves as a family. Robert was still very involved and he put together a music festival called The Gathering, headlining ICP, but it was also bringing together a lot of different acts who were part of the same overall family. The first one happened in 2000 in Michigan and brought thousands of people to this 4-day festival.

For a while they went to a different place every year, partly because they weren’t welcome to the same place the second time around. In the early/mid 2000s they were outside of Garrettsville and they booked dozens of bands who played 24 hours a day, a whole cross-section of Rap and Rock that resonated with their followers.

The Gathering and the Family grew until one of The Gatherings in the 2010s peaked at 20.000 attendees or more, which is a really big festival. There is an anarchic quality to it although the Juggalos themselves feel very governed by a set of rules that it clear to them. Crucially one of the defining qualities is that Juggalos are deeply anti-racist and anti-bigoted. The fundamental premise is that everyone is accepted and they try not to be exclusionary, although it is self-exclusionary by the fact that the culture is very hard to penetrate as an outsider. If you feel drawn to it at all, which a lot of people do, you are welcomed by the Juggalos.

As recently as 2014 The Gathering had to move again and they wanted to move it to Kaiser, Missouri, but the citizens rose up and prohibited it. Then a guy by the name of Steve who has been described as a down-ass ninja, who identified as a Juggalo and had been to a prior gathering, owned 140 acres (570.000 sqm) in the Legend Valley in Ohio and made it open to the Juggalos and gave it to the Juggalos as their Shangri-la.

Accidentally killing a butterfly (OM188)

At one point very early on in their lives when they were still poor teens Robert and Joe saw a beautiful butterfly and captured it in a jar, studied it, and were mesmerized by it. The plan was to release it back into the world the next day after they had enjoyed its company, but over night sealed in a jar the butterfly died and they were both traumatized and it felt to them like having committed a murder. They swore that they would never kill again and when they got to heaven they would find that butterfly and apologize to it. Every ICP album to this day is dedicated to the butterfly.

John leading panel discussions at Bumbershoot (OM188)

A few years ago John had a series of talk event at Bumbershoot in Seattle where he invited people from different walks of life to do counterpoint discussions with a Q&A. One of the panels was a man from the Midwest who described himself as the world’s manliest Bronie, a motorcycle mechanic and a very buff burly guy who came to describe the world of values as projected by the My Little Pony television show, which was a phenomenon a few years ago. Eventually it went the way of all television shows and Bronie culture has somewhat dissipated.

The other person on that panel was a Juggalo from the South West. It was somewhat posited as: ”Which is better? Juggalo or Bronies?” During the Q&A there was a lot of hostility from the audience directed towards the Juggalo and a couple of people, one woman in particular, got up and quoted several ICP lyrics that were indefensible violence against women and she asked him how he could possibly defend this.

His nom de guerre is Matt the Dragan and he was in the process of making a documentary about the Juggalos. He was very much a member of The Family and told the audience that people who join The Family find an outlet for the ugliness in them with neutralizes that ugliness. Rather than being in isolation and feeling hateful feelings with no place to put them, this music and this Family attracts people through violence and the Family embraces them and they end up abandoning violence as they become a member of this life-long community.

Being declared a violent gang and march on Washington (OM188)

During the mid-2010s the FBI declared the Juggalos a violent gang, partly because they were traveling the world while looking like they were wearing gang colors. They acted and functioned as a gang in the way that they are a family or a community that was preaching violence and the FBI declared them a gang, which certainly increased their persecution complex, but it also really functions to persecute them.

If they are a violent gang the FBI isn’t going to stand idly by while 20.000 of them converge on Cave-In-Rock for a crazy 24 hour music festival. Once you have met a Juggalo you can tell a Juggalo because they have a very strong unmistakable and indescribable vibe. There is an insanity that feels like not a put-on, and they seem often joyous and unpredictable and fuelled by their subculture.

Lots of Juggalo lyrics are indefensibly bad, not just in terms of what they espouse, but they are just bad lyrics. When you look at what Juggalos do on the other hand: They are inclusive to a fault, they accept everyone, and within Juggalo culture there is no question of whether or not you and your identity have equity. Women are equal, although equally self-exploiting.

In response to this declaration of gang status the Juggalos staged a march on Washington to protest being declared illegal. They scheduled it in 2017 on the same day as Trump’s Million-Trump-March, which is an example of how they aren’t great at scheduling things, but for a brief period of time the unified deplorables were all descending on Washington.

Although there are surely a lot of Juggalos who are Trump supporters and vice versa, the inclusivity of Juggalo culture is antithetical to the Trump value system. There was a lot of speculation that there would be a clash and Juggalos and Trump supporters would meet in front of the Lincoln Memorial and have a battle royale.

It didn’t pan out that way, partly because not as many people as were expected attended either rally. It is too bad because John was watching it in real time, just super-duper hoping that there would be the battle of the American Flag Durags, but it didn’t pan out.

Conclusion (OM188)

The ICP has sold more than 6.5 million records, they have 2 Platinum and 5 Gold records, and they continue to be a real force in America, a subculture on par of subcultures that we know a lot better. Unfortunately they are a demographic that doesn’t buy a lot of stuff and it is extremely hard to market to people who are resolutely poor and ultimately anti-capitalist.

In most cases there is no way for them to ever be conformist. Juggalos are body-modifiers and once you have a face-tattoo and split your tongue in half and pierced both sides (you have made a definitive decision). There was a famous instance where someone said: ”I bet you won’t cut your ear off for $20” - ”Sure!” and the guy cut his ear off, which happened on camera and John has seen it. There is a crazy dare- and prank-culture!

Because the Juggalos had gone to battle for their rights against the FBI, they attracted the ACLU as fellow traveler and they had become a cause célèbre for a certain segment of society that looks to the outsiders and now that includes the Omnibus.

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