HogRock Campground in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois—where The Gathering, an annual five-day festival staged by Insane Clown Posse, has been held since 2007, after being rudely ejected from less open-minded and/or desperate venues in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio—is so remote that it doesn’t even have an address. It’s a barren, borderline-untamed realm where churches, which appear every few miles, represent the only real marks of civilization. It’s Southern and rural, socially and politically conservative. (Billboards decrying Obama as a political antichrist and agitating for a return to prayer are numerous.) Yet for four or five days every year, creepy, sleepy old Cave-In-Rock becomes the epicenter of the Juggalo universe. To borrow the parlance of Insane Clown Posse’s Dark Carnival mythology, it is Shangri-La, the eternal paradise Juggalos will ascend to if they lead virtuous lives—although the shape of paradise has changed during the three years I’ve attended The Gathering.
When I first visited The Gathering in 2010, the press presence was minimal. This year, it went beyond our nation’s borders. In front of the mainstage one afternoon, I talked to a middle-aged woman who explained that she was a journalist from Norway who was covering The Gathering for a piece about the vanishing middle class in Europe and the United States. The woman’s manner was polite and understandably confused, though in an adorably misguided attempt to fit in and go native, she sported the requisite clown makeup.
It was a sign of how much Insane Clown Posse and The Gathering has grown in profile, if not respect. ICP hasn’t exactly gone mainstream, but mockery of the group certainly has. A popular candidate for the dubious title of Worst Group In The World, Insane Clown Posse has always been the subject of derision. (They are high-school dropouts who perform in clown makeup and spray audiences with cheap soda, after all.) But it was the group’s attempt to do something positive and substantive via the song “Miracles” and its accompanying music video, released in 2010, that definitively placed a massive “kick me” sign on its back for the whole world to see. When Insane Clown Posse waxed incongruously sentimental about the wonders and mysteries of nature while profanely demanding to know how magnets work, the ripples of mockery that have followed the group since it first slathered on face paint built into a massive cultural tsunami of mocking laughter. A group that peaked commercially in the late ’90s was satirized, gently and otherwise, on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Workaholics, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Saturday Night Live. The group was spoofed so much the eminently respectable ninjas over at The New York Times ran an oral history of parodies of the group.
The same year the “Miracles” video went viral, Insane Clown Posse’s notoriety increased when its fans, shocking no one, responded to Tila Tequila’s spectacularly ill-conceived appearance at the 2010 Gathering by hurling bottles of piss and shit at her, then chasing her offstage and physically attacking her, an experience I witnessed firsthand. Tequila threatened to shut down the festival as a result, but the incident only served to fuel interest in both Insane Clown Posse and The Gathering.
“They call us a circus, we accept the role” Violent J raps on “Welcome To The Show,” but the culture at large had other roles in mind for Insane Clown Posse. The group’s Juggalo fan base has become, in the eyes of much of the public and seemingly the whole of the Internet, synonymous with meth-addled high-school dropouts. But the group’s fans were also perceived as a threat. In a hilariously histrionic, fear-mongering 2010 piece, Martin Bashir and Nightline presented Insane Clown Posse as a sinister entity that all but hypnotized suggestible fans into committing crimes with its lyrics and stagecraft, instead of working-class kids from Detroit who stumbled onto a neat gimmick and have been riding it ever since.
The following year, a hysterical busybody at the FBI made the preposterous leap of categorizing fans of a musical group as a “loosely organized hybrid gang” which is more or less a way of saying “poor people with visible tattoos who may or may not be up to something.” The Juggalos I spoke with during my trips to The Gathering expressed outrage over being portrayed as violent simply because of the music they enjoy, but there was often an unmistakable note of pride in their voice; it is better to be feared or hated than it is to be pitied and mocked. Insane Clown Posse is the self-professed “most hated band in the world,” but its fans are even more reviled. This hatred is at least partially class-based: Juggalos tend to be poor and uneducated, from economically depressed small towns and broken homes. But there’s also something visceral about the widespread hatred of Juggalos. People who despise Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse don’t just disdain the group’s music or find some of its lyrics offensive or inane; they’re repulsed by ICP’s fan base and aesthetic.
This is partially due to the intense physicality of Insane Clown Posse fandom: Acolytes often paint their faces in clown makeup and delight in being sprayed with Faygo at shows. To use an inelegant term, proper folks tend to find Juggalos gross, disturbing on a biological level. At The Gathering, this sweaty physicality is even more pronounced, since it involves 10,000 Juggalos camping in the woods in 100-degree heat with limited access to showers and bathrooms and widespread access to mind-altering drugs, sex, and stomach-churning circus food. Factor in prison-style homemade tattoos—often of Insane Clown Posse’s Hatchet Man mascot—spectacularly unflattering hairstyles, and inadequate health and dental care, and you have a group of people that just plain look different from everyone else and are treated accordingly.
Yet while Insane Clown Posse and its fans are regarded as a threat and a misanthropic joke, the duo has stuck around long enough to become something of a cultural institution. In an environment where nobody is selling records and major labels teeter on the brink of collapse, Insane Clown Posse has managed to not just survive but thrive in an environment that’s many steps beyond hostile. Even people who revile the content of ICP’s music have to respect the longevity and persistence of an outlandish clown-themed novelty act that was never supposed to last, yet has grown in influence and notoriety for the past two decades.
I became interested in Insane Clown Posse as a sociological and cultural phenomenon, but I eventually developed a deep, unironic affection for the group’s music, The Gathering, and Juggalos, which my friends, family, and colleagues seem to find puzzling at best and troubling evidence of a total disconnect from reality at worst. (Hell, at this point even I am beginning to find my affection for Insane Clown Posse puzzling at best and troubling evidence of a total disconnect from reality at worst.) Yet despite these reservations, my new bride agreed to drive seven hours down sometimes-perilous, roadkill-heavy, partially unpaved roads from Chicago to Cave-In-Rock for her third Gathering, making her the real hero of this strange journey.
During our visit to The Gathering this year we stayed at The House Of Nahum, a lovely Christian bed and breakfast whose aesthetic might charitably be described as Norman Rockwell kitsch: flowery yellow wallpaper covered with sun hats, lace doilies, and other bric-a-brac. It looked, my wife suggested, like a pastel Easter egg had vomited up home furnishings, so it was jarring commuting everyday from an almost perversely old-fashioned and wholesome world to a sleazy space saturated in drugs, sex, and profanity.
The schedule at The Gathering is usually an exercise in wishful thinking, and Thursday night’s mainstage schedule proved an exercise in delusional wishful thinking. DMX, who once co-headlined a Def Jam package tour with Jay-Z (and regularly upstaged him), was scheduled to perform before Psychopathic artist Anybody Killa, as was West Coast purist turned incorrigible shit-starter The Game. But just as DMX’s set was supposed to begin, host Jumpsteady optimistically announced that, as a special treat, metal band Soulfly would be performing instead. Jumpsteady then announced that The Game wouldn’t be making it either, spinning the no-shows in a way that reflected one of the dominant themes of The Gathering and flattered the Juggalos’ conception of themselves as feared outlaws: “They aren’t here because they’re scared! They’re scared of you,” Jumpsteady joked. “They think you’re all a bunch of gang members!” The lineup at The Gathering sometimes seems too good to be true for a reason: It often is too good to be true. DMX and The Game’s no-shows began The Gathering on a note of disappointment that continued when we made our way over to the comedy stage to wait for a performance by Cheech And Chong, who delivered the kind of dispiriting, half-assed performance that gives mercenary cash-in reunions a bad name.
But Cheech And Chong weren’t the biggest disappointment of the festival. The lineup for the Friday night’s “Shaggy’s Beast Of The East Party” promised an embarrassment of riches: Rahzel, Biz Markie, Raekwon, and The Fat Boys all performing under the same modest tent at 2 in the morning for the benefit of discriminating Juggalos. My expectations rocketed when Shaggy 2 Dope, in his role as the evening’s host, announced that Rahzel and Biz Markie would be appearing together. But the two giants of beatboxing performed mere minutes of freestyling and introductions before Biz Markie launched into “Just A Friend” before forgetting the third verse of a song he has probably performed thousands of times, improvising “blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah” in place of the forgotten lyrics. The set lasted well under 10 minutes. On that night at least, it appeared that just about anyone could beat the Biz. Further souring the evening, The Fat Boys didn’t even bother showing up (though Raekwon delivered a solid set).
It’s easy to get jaded at The Gathering, a festival of arts and culture, but also sex and drugs. A goodly percentage of the female attendees walk around topless, drug-dealers wander the grounds with signs advertising their wares, and most of the perpetually thriving drug sales take place on a bridge that has more or less been set aside exclusively for that purpose and is consequently known as The Drug Bridge. But it was still a little shocking to watch an angelic-looking boy who appeared to be around 12 years old buy a packet of molly and take a long hit of weed on a glass pipe while older folks who appeared to be his parents looked on approvingly. We occasionally saw children at The Gathering, and it never stopped being disturbing, especially when a girl who looked to be about 4 wandered into Violent J’s West Coast Block Party at 3 in the morning and began dancing enthusiastically to a rapper named Glasses Malone, who had just performed a song that involves him vowing to “beat the pussy up like Rihanna.”
Later that night, as we prepared to return to the godly world of the House Of Nahum, we walked past a bikini-clad Juggalette with brightly colored string in her hair (the default look for many of the nymphets at the festival) enthusiastically performing oral sex on a man in the middle of the road, her head bopping up and down cartoonishly. Many of the people we talked to at The Gathering witnessed similar acts, though the accounts seemed to grow more outlandish with each telling. One gentleman we spoke to even proposed that the police had planted the woman at The Gathering and had her dispense blowjobs indiscriminately to make Juggalos look bad, which may be the single least-likely conspiracy theory of all time, though the notion that the Harrisburg police might have set up an elite undercover Juggalo Blowjob Squad is amusing.
The preponderance of no-shows and folks barely mustering up the energy to phone it in made it all the easier to appreciate the slick professionalism of veteran acts like Warren G and The Pharcyde’s Imani and Bootie Brown, the latter of whom performed a spirited set of numbers from Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and Labcabincalifornia despite the absence of founding members Fatlip and Slim Kid Tre (who are also, somewhat confusingly, performing together these days). But the most memorable performances acknowledged the uniqueness of The Gathering and Juggalos without pandering too much to the crowd. I’m no fan of Master P, but he owned The Gathering stage on Friday night with a performance full of brusque, rowdy bravado. Throughout the festival, artists flattered the crowds extensively and pledged undying family love, but only P was bold and blunt enough to holler, “I love you white-trash motherfuckers!” early in his set.
The great Bobcat Goldthwait was similarly gifted at simultaneously engaging and playfully insulting Juggalos, albeit in a much wryer and more subversive fashion. “So it’s come to this” is the secret subtext behind many of the performances at The Gathering, but for Goldthwait, “So it’s come to this” was overtly the theme of his performance, a virtuoso exercise in lacerating self-deprecation that gained additional power from the unlikely and bizarre circumstances under which Goldthwait performed. Goldthwait was equally scathing in his treatment of Juggalos, the culture at large, and a life and career that had somehow landed him in the comedy tent in Cave-In-Rock at 2 in the morning in front of a bunch of lunatics in clown makeup. On his return to stand-up, Goldthwait deadpanned, “There’s just something about the connection between a performer and an au—” before conceding, “I just need the money.” When a woman hollered, “I love you Bobcat!” he responded, “So a Juggalette whore loves me: That’ll keep the gun metal out of my mouth tonight.”
Insane Clown Posse enjoys an unusually intense, symbiotic relationship with its fans. At its yearly seminar talk (a sort of State Of The Juggalo address), Insane Clown Posse announced that it was fighting back against the FBI’s classification of Juggalos as a gang by suing the FBI and agreeing to handle, pro bono, the cases of Juggalos who feel they’ve been discriminated against because of their lifestyle, clothes, tattoos, and taste in music. It was an exquisitely quixotic gesture perfectly in keeping with Insane Clown Posse’s underdog mentality. The most hated group in the world was taking on the law-enforcement establishment, essentially agitating on behalf of Juggalos as an oppressed subculture. A duo that had long preached family love was now promising to look after its metaphorical children in a compassionate, if largely symbolic, gesture that doubled as a nifty publicity stunt.
Of course, Insane Clown Posse isn’t exclusively concerned with protecting the civil rights of its fan base; it’s also a musical act. (Seriously!) This year, ICP decided to switch things up a little and perform its big climactic set on Saturday night instead of Sunday, out of deference for fans who had to return to work on Monday.
On Saturday night, a frenzy of excitement swept over the field in front of the mainstage as a U-Haul trailer made its way across the grass en route to the backstage area, toting a strange mass of metal behind it. At first I assumed it was the Love Train hayride that’s been a perennial Gathering attraction, but upon closer inspection I discovered that it was a Grand Am that had been ripped apart and stripped so that it was now a strange husk of a vehicle. When I asked the Juggalos riding on top of the stripped car what had happened, they explained that a Juggalo had been caught stealing and a vengeance-happy mob decided to exact revenge on the thief’s car by ripping it apart, then proudly distributing its various elements—a disembodied steering wheel, a tailpipe—as trophies of their conquest. I found it remarkable that a group of people could so dramatically and thoroughly tear apart a car without instruments specifically designed for that purpose.
“Can I get a whoop whoop for Juggalo justice?!!!” shouted a member of the ecstatic crowd.
The incident seemed destined to become a cherished piece of Gathering folklore even before the mangled corpse of the car made it to its final destination behind the mainstage. In the years to come, it will be held up as a stark warning of the dangers of robbing thy fellow Juggalo. People will doubt that such a thing could happen—hell, I doubted it could happen and I saw it myself—and their friends will assure them that, no, they totally knew a guy who was there and saw it firsthand.
The spectacular murder of the thief’s car contributed to the sense that The Gathering was a world unto itself, with its own customs, vernacular, codes of conduct, laws, mythology, and even a makeshift justice system of the feral variety. It was also in line with the mythology of the Dark Carnival, which is all about creatively punishing the wicked and rewarding the good—but with a strong emphasis on punishing the wicked.
At The Gathering, the usual hip-hop and cultural hierarchy wasn’t just changed, it was reversed. While hip-hop might revere Geto Boys, and especially frontman Scarface, as pioneers, at The Gathering the audience seemed to view them as weird old dudes whose loose and lively set afforded viewers an opportunity to head back to their tents for a smoke break before Insane Clown Posse took the stage. (Willie D was the only member of Geto Boys to not perform in clown makeup, which leads me to believe that the “D” in his name stands for dignity.) Late in the Geto Boys’ set, a painted-up Scarface hailed Insane Clown Posse as one of the most underrated groups in hip-hop history, which is a hell of a cosign, even coming from an artist who’d been paid handsomely to perform at The Gathering.
After clearing out during the Geto Boys’ set, the crowd returned with a vengeance for Insane Clown Posse’s performance. The ceremony was about to begin. Backed by DJ/producer Mike E. Clark, a coterie of dancers dressed like zombie clowns, and ever-present 2-liter bottles of Faygo soda, Insane Clown Posse didn’t just perform music; they put on a spectacle, a three-ring circus of a hip-hop show. The performance built in intensity, force, and fun until it all came to a head with a closing performance of “Bang! Pow! Boom!” that entailed firehoses raining giant blasts of Faygo over the overjoyed crowd as confetti fell. As the set drew to a close, the stage filled with Juggalos, Psychopathic employees, and assorted hangers-on spraying Faygo into the crowd until the stage looked like the ICP equivalent of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Naming a song and an album “Bang! Pow! Boom!” gives Insane Clown Posse an excuse to close every Gathering with an elaborate fireworks display—but since when did ICP ever need an excuse to make shit explode all pretty-like? After the song and the set concluded, the fireworks continued for a few more minutes, to the delight of the intoxicated crowd. Say what you will about Insane Clown Posse—and if my 15 years writing for The A.V. Club are any indication, you are going to do just that—but Insane Clown Posse puts on a hell of a show. There’s a reason 10,000 people gather every year in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not just about the drugs and sex—though, to be fair, a lot of it has to do with drugs and sex. And community. And family. But also drugs and sex.
Earlier, while waiting for Goldthwait to perform, we struck up a conversation with a man who managed to convey an air of dignity and even gravitas despite wearing a ghoulish fright mask and rapping professionally under the name Spooky Z. Spooky Z’s partner in rhyme was a similarly friendly, engaging fellow who went by the moniker DieNasty and gushed about his six children, including a boy named Malachi Morpheus whose precocious intellect was a source of intense pride for his doting dad. The pair recently won a regional Emmy for music they’d composed for a piece about a children’s hospital, and represent Juggalo culture at its most thoughtful and empathetic.
Spooky Z and DieNasty were just two of many attendees with performing aspirations, but at a place where the Juggalo is king, the line separating fans from performers is borderline non-existent. Nearly everyone made a spectacle of themselves, and the most entertaining performances often couldn’t be found on the Gathering schedule. There’s something incredibly infectious about the ebullient enthusiasm of Juggalos celebrating themselves and each other during a five-day break from being judged and ridiculed by a world that still holds them in contempt.
After Insane Clown Posse’s performance climaxed with literal and figurative fireworks, we wandered over to an open-air Faygo bar that housed a tiny little stage where up-and-comers and assorted no-hopers performed before a tiny smattering of drunk, stoned, half-comatose Juggalos mostly just looking for a place to sit. The contrast between the big talk of the performers and the sad, rinky-dink nature of the makeshift venue bordered on the tragicomic. When a duo calling themselves Hatchet Boys—an incongruous pairing of a good-looking teenager and a chubby middle-aged man with the requisite twisted-braid Juggalo hairstyle—called for sexy Jugalettes to dispense with their tops, the only person who acquiesced was a large, matronly woman in her mid-50s riding a motorized scooter. Later, when an enthusiastic teenager opened his set with a song about having sex with a corpse, his lyrics seemed more reasonable and plausible than those of the acts who rapped about cars, money, and fucking models while performing before 10 people at the 17th-most-prestigious stage at The Gathering.
When Hatchet Boys’ performance ended they literally couldn’t give their homemade CD-Rs away, so they ended up simply hurling them on the ground in front of the stage. As we waited for the next performer to dazzle us, a grizzled man with the wild-eyed look of someone who has taken so much acid the world becomes a kaleidoscopic blur lurched over to our table, proudly brandishing a sign that read “First Gathering. Keep Me Messed Up” in one hand and a bottle full of glow-sticks in the other.
“Oh man! This is my first Gathering,” he slurred. “And it’s my birthday!”
“Great! It seems like that sign sure is working for you, eh?” I replied.
“Yeah! I’m 18!” he announced happily, even deliriously, before moving on to tell more strangers how exquisitely fucked up he was on this, his 18th birthday, though to be fair, he didn’t look a day over 40.
The guy who ran the stage at the end of the Faygo bar cut an incongruously clean-cut appearance. He looked normal, which made him a freak at The Gathering, where the glow-stick-festooned, cape-wearing little person at the table next to us waving around a rainbow-colored light saber represented the norm more than an Abercrombie & Fitch type who looked like he had accidentally stumbled into a very weird internship while studying business at the University Of Michigan. The clean-cut man’s deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery made everything he said wryly hilarious: After Hatchet Boys left the stage, he picked up the microphone and unenthusiastically announced, “I guess we don’t have any more rappers or people who want to rap, so now I guess we’re going to have, uh, yo-yo tricks?”
A pleasant young man in raver pants with a backpack then hopped onstage and requested music to accompany his performance. He asked the clean-cut man what music he had on hand, and the man once again deadpanned, “Uh, ICP, mostly.” The yo-yo master then unleashed a virtuoso display of yo-yo acrobatics that reflected the weirdly childlike nature that characterizes so much of The Gathering. The celebration is full of clowns, hayrides, yo-yo tricks, fire-breathers, moon bounces, cotton candy, magicians, fireworks and constant chants of “Family! Family!,” yet the sum of The Gathering doesn’t even remotely approach family-friendliness. It’s less about actual children than indulging an inner child focused on its most transgressive needs.
It was freezing our last night at The Gathering and we had neglected to bring warm clothes, so we wandered from the bar to the campgrounds and asked if we might huddle around a fire where a pair of dour, intense-looking men sat in stony silence. An old-school Juggalo whose disillusionment with Insane Clown Posse and the scene didn’t keep him from attending The Gathering anyway stoked the fire. He spoke derisively of other acts on Psychopathic and noted that he hadn’t listened to Insane Clown Posse since the days of the Joker’s Cards—a six-album cycle that preached rigorous self-improvement so that listeners might ascend to the heaven of “Shangi-La” and avoid the torments of “Hell’s Pit,” which ended with 2004’s Hell’s Pit—and complained that the soul of The Gathering had been lost. In a variation on rhetoric we’d heard throughout our adventures, the old-school Juggalo argued that The Gathering used to be about family, community, music, and reconnecting with similarly ostracized friends, but that over the past few years it was overtaken with non-Juggalos and first-timers who come to the festival for the drugs, the scene, and the notoriety. He complained about the detrimental effects the emphasis on drugs had on the festival in between hits on an opium pipe.
For the old-school Juggalo, The Gathering was no longer about Insane Clown Posse or Psychopathic Records; it was about solidarity, camaraderie, and strength in unity. “I’m here for the ’Los, not the shows,” he said, a little sadly. His brooding intensity was undercut by the puppy-dog eagerness of a buddy who bounded up to the campfire in a frenzy of excitement to wax upbeat about everything related to The Gathering, especially Blaze Ya Dead Homie, whose name was tattooed on his stomach. “Oh man,” the energetic friend enthused brightly, “Before I even got here, I was missing this Gathering and looking forward to the next one.”
He wasn’t alone. The Gathering wasn’t even over and the anticipation and planning for next year’s extravaganza had already begun. I was not immune from this infectious excitement, even as I suspected this Gathering might be my last. I still enjoyed The Gathering and Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse, but I also found the experience draining in a way it never felt before.
As we prepared to disembark for the second day of The Gathering, a twinkly-eyed sixtysomething man at The House Of Nahum came up to our car and cheerily confided that if he were a younger man, he might attend The Gathering himself, because as part of the Woodstock generation he understood what it was like to “ride that generational wave.” He was sweet and sincere and refreshingly non-judgmental, though that might have changed if he’d known exactly what The Gathering entailed. But his words resonated with me. I’d been riding the Insane Clown Posse and Juggalo wave hard for the last two years, a wave that now seemed to be cresting. In the years since I first started attending, the media has developed a fascination with The Gathering, leading to media coverage that I fear is approaching a saturation point, when non-Juggalos will tire of outrageous accounts of debauchery and carnie-style publicity stunts. The Gathering will just have to keep getting wilder and crazier and more out of control to live up to its legend, and eventually the bar for wanton wickedness will get too damn high.
Or maybe not. Juggalos are currently at a strange crossroads. They want to prove to the world that they’re not the criminals and gang members the FBI makes them out to be, but there’s also pressure for The Gathering to live up to its reputation for over-the-top craziness, and that’s not going to happen if Juggalos assemble quietly at their campsites, sipping Earl Gray tea and politely inquiring about each other’s families and business concerns. Yet I suspect that outside attention will fade in the upcoming years and the festival will once again belong primarily to the diehards who, to borrow their parlance, come for the ’Los and not the shows, for the family and not the fascinating freak show.