Alternate title: In the Court of the Trash Bag Prince. Yikes. It only gets weirder from here. Do Part 1 first or you’ll miss finding out how many of ICP’s members are named Joe.
With their sign fixed halfway through “Hokus Pokus“, ICP got down to the real business of their live show: methodical, aggressive rap punctuated by an absolutely constant barrage of soda pop. With rare exception, every ICP live setup is largely the same: Violent Jay and Shaggy 2 Dope, in their trademark clown makeup and presumably disposable athletic wear, descend upon the stage. The crowd loses their goddamn minds. They rap in that special way they do, which is by yelling competently and methodically about crude jokes and violence.
And then, so importantly, they turn to the two drums of pre-shaken 2 litre pop bottles center stage and they Let. The. Fuck. Loose.
Bottles are opened and dumped onto fans in the front row, or tossed out, heavy and full. They’re cracked open and sprayed like gooey champagne flumes. They’re inverted, cracked, and released like beautiful floating balloons… until they depressurize and go 20 miles an hour through the air like missiles. This is incredible. Shaggy in particular is so good at this grip-flip-pop-rocket maneuver that he can loose one behind his back jetpack-style – with mic in hand rapping – directly into the lighting rig 25 feet in the air. Or the swinging disco ball they hit countless times. Or the coat check, 60 feet away and in another room. Within three songs, they’d sent a Freedom Rocket of diet root-beer directly through the clear plastic sound-board tent and out the other side. Within half an hour they’d fired one over my shoulder and into the back-bar beside me, missing the bartenders but careening through the bottle display.
By the hour mark I’d caught one with my good hand and given it to an excited Jugalette nearby; I didn’t drink it because by that point drinking Faygo was as inevitable as breathing and triggered by the same reflex. It was absolute howling aspartame chaos. I’ve never been to a show that triggered the fight-or-flight in quite that way. They went through a couple dozen two-litres per song. J and Shaggy claim that they go through a couple hundred bottles of Faygo per show – with the rate that their costumed minions were refilling the Faygo drums behind them, that number seems modest.
Here’s a video from 2012, to give you some idea of what they’re capable of. Picture this, in a space a thousandth the size. Track around a bit, get sticky.
By a third of the way through their set – full of hits from their 25+ year career – the purpose of Venue’s garbage bag defense field was clear: every surface was coated in a veneer of sugary Detroit goo. At this point, ICP took the first of their two Faygo breaks, which exist in case some members of the audience feel unfairly deprived of Faygo. During a Faygo break, the terrifying Faygo Song is played and different adults in clown makeup run out on stage with tubs filled with Faygo, giant super-soakers filled with Faygo, buckets filled with Faygo, and hearts filled with Faygo. When the wobbling tubs of pop hit the stage, experienced juggalos took it as an intermission to run full-tilt outside and smoke soda-coated cigarettes. Many also chose to do this indoors.
During all Faygo breaks, anyone that isn’t already dead or diabetic from sugar intake is offered a moment to reflect while being showered with calming, therapeutic Faygo.
There are 55 flavours of Faygo commercially available across the United States.
There are 54 flavours of Faygo that are irrelevant to this story: all Insane Clown Posse-related Faygo is Diet Root Beer.
A Faygo break looks like this:
During this Faygo break, a clown-faced couple sloshed out of the pit past me – she covered in tears and Faygo and bruises, him sticky and guilty. Moments later they rushed back in, running makeup disfiguring their gleeful grins. This process would repeat itself dozens of times with dozens of couples: rush up, get soaked, get beat up and hit with a half-pound Faygo, go outside to cry and smoke about it, rush back in like kids on Christmas.
All night. Forever. As a family. Whoop Whoop.
Like the Willy Wonka metal show it eventually devolved into, The Faygo Ritual was repeated every 35 minutes or so. It was the same every time. The fans got stickier, the makeup got runnier, the bruises more brutal, the boyfriends guiltier. The root beer was just as diet each time. Of the dozens of Faygo varieties, it must be the hardest to sell by legitimate means.
Insane Clown Posse is an incredible spectacle by any stretch of the word. There is, literally, nothing like it, save those groups spawned directly by it. Generally speaking, they play at The Dark Carnival of Souls every summer. Whether or not ICP is a good live act is difficult to determine by conventional means. Even a quick glance at their Youtube channel is going to tell you that they lack natural talent – but rap as an art form has never been the hook for Wikkid Clownz Joseph and Joseph. They sell a lifestyle, an aesthetic. Their straightforward stage show of stomping and soda pop is spiced up with various actors: trash-demon costumes for fan-favourite “Boogie Woogie Wu”, actual hatchets for their love song to hatchets, a living female woman for dating-game take “The Neden Game” (one of their fun slang words. They have a lot.).
During “The Neden Game” there’s a series of lines in which Shaggy and Jay diss the hell out of each other’s super bad dating strategies: he’s more misogynistic than usual, he’s more violent than regular. According to script, it leads to a Faygo fight between the two rappers on-stage. To do this, they shoot each other in the face with Faygo from point-blank range in a perfect recreation of that one clown flower/water-gun gag.
You know the one.
That was the moment that it clicked, more than any other, that these doofuses know exactly what they’re doing. For all the dumb bullshit and the soda and the body humour and fantasies about cartoon murder, ICP knows what they are at heart. They’re clowns. They want you to laugh, they want you to know they’re violent and goofy, and (to anyone outside the community) they absolutely want to be hateable. This only fuels their resolve, it bonds their fam-uh-ly. Their madness, combined with their keen awfulness, is the glue that bonds their family and galvanizes their haters. It’s weirdly perfect and it’s probably intentional. The crowd was eating it up, rapping every word, losing their minds – they know it’s a joke or they don’t care. For the 2016 Juggalo, it can be both. Clowns expose absurdity by demonstrating it, and goddammit Insane Clown Posse does that in spades. For all their violence and hatred and lazy misogyny, Insane Clown Posse is two entertainers throwing a dumb carnival with what they feel is a chewy Christian moral center. It’s mind-boggling, but they’ve been around for 27 years. They have fan dedication essentially unmatched in entertainment. The plan – to dress up like clowns and rap about wacky murder in one of America’s most dangerously impoverished areas and somehow turn it into a lucrative phenomenon – has worked. They did it.
Now before I lose track and accidentally start praising the Insane Clown Posse(!!), I have to tell you about the finale.
After a ridiculous greatest-hits set, two Faygo breaks and countless fan-favourites, it was time for the ICP to say goodbye. Like everything else they do on and offstage, there’s a catch. You can probably guess what the catch is.
It’s called The Faygo Apocalypse.
If you’re willing to pay $70 more on top of your $55 ticket, you too can be a part of the Meet and Greet, Exclusive Merch Sale, and Faygo Apocalypse, whose exact nature is not explained in the promo information. It can be Youtubed pretty easily – maybe this appeals to you. In concert, it’s sometimes kicked off by the opening of literal actual Surf Rock hit “Bang Pow Boom”, which is about a magical sentient eternity-nuke killing ‘rapists and abusers’ forever in a supernatural death carnival in hell. Just like in Grandma’s stories.
Thanks to the magic of Youtube, I knew the FA was coming, and backed up instinctively. So did the rest of the room. With a noise like a crashing sweaty wave, two dozen fans(!) that had paid The Faygo Price rushed the stage alongside Violent Jay and Shaggy 2 Dope, wielding as many Faygo bottles as they could get their eager hands on.
Then, madness ensued. Again. It was a long night.
From what I can tell, the purpose of the Faygo apocalypse is to bring about a soda pop flood of Old Testament proportions, drowning everyone and leaving the venue reborn, raw and clean. It is, somewhat literally, a rap-rock soda baptism. For one last time, the happiest drunkest crowd went absolutely insane, climbing on tables and chairs to get hit with Faygo and Faygo accessories (bottles.), now launched not only by ICP but by their supremely drunk fans, launching half-pound bottles out by the ton, some as unopened cannon-balls of cheap death. Every single person in that entire room sang every single word of that last song and was soaked in a tidal wave of sugar-water as one. As a family, which is the exact word we chanted as ICP sloshed off-stage to throw away all of their clothing and call their wives.
In its way, it was perfect.
I’ve had a while to think about this one now, and it’s been a journey. On the one hand, Insane Clown Posse are not good rappers. That’s full stop. They’re awkward with words, they can’t always keep up with their beats, and they’re at their best when production, not lyricism, takes the fore. Their sense of humour is also basic to the point of laziness. Fine. The other side is that they simply don’t care: they don’t care, their fans don’t care, their super successful record label doesn’t care, no one sits around arguing this point. What’s simply true is that they’re beloved by a massive audience of extremely devout fans, some of whom bought into their mythology 28 years ago, because ICP is 3 years older than Wu-Tang Clan.
Let’s put it another way. The night after ICP, the night of ICP show number two, I was across the street at Commodore Ballroom for ECCW’s Ballroom Brawl 16. This was a professional wrestling event, my first ever. It was a different kind of silly evening, and it’ll get its own essay later. I could see the same Juggalos from the previous night outside, waiting for ICP’s doors, gazing longingly at the wrestling line but just as excited to see their heroes a second time.
A thing you won’t know about professional wrestling if you’ve never attended it, is that no one in the room sits around sweating over its legitimacy. Talking ‘Kayfabe‘ isn’t a thing at these events, it’s an invitation to get called an asshole. No one cares if its real, everyone is having fun because everyone is into it, cheering at every signature move and booing every heel. You don’t see serious critics at these events because criticality gives up its usefulness in the face of blind adoration, or love. Or fanaticism. It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. The same is true of Insane Clown Posse: you can sit around dumping on it really easily. Like you really can and you probably have – I’ve been doing it for 5000 words. That said, at the end of the day, at an ICP show, there’s no denying it: they love what they do, their audience loves what they do, and with that much positive energy in the house it doesn’t matter who can’t rap or whose entire schtick is incomprehensible and idiotic. Those clowns gave it their all, and their fans ate it up in a way I’ve never seen before.
Are they good rappers, do they write good songs and perform with talent and grace? That’s a hard No. Do they get up there and give their fans exactly what they want, 27 years in a row, without missing a step and with their entire hearts in it? Yup. They don’t have to be good to be great.
It’s true that I kicked through a slush 4 inches deep to help a man in a wheelchair get out of the pit after that show, with Venue all around us literally dripping with soda pop. Twenty minutes previous, that same guy in the wheelchair was crowdsurfing over shoulders on a sea of Faygo and clown-face. He was the happiest guy in the room, but every bruised and sticky face I passed oozed joy. And soda. There was laughter in the streets.
I’ll never like Insane Clown Posse, but really I don’t have to. Go see them. You’ll see what I mean.
…And now, some aftermath, photo credit mine. True story.