Insane Clown Posse is described by most music journalists and almost all CD store clerks as the worst band in existence, in fact to ever have existed.
In fact, the whole concept seems to have come about from the kind of bet rich old white men make in back rooms, the sort of Trading Places wager in which lives are ruined just for the prize of winning. "So I have these two guys from Detroit. Real white trash. And they dress up like clowns, and they rap." "I bet you you never make a dollar with it." "Bet you I will." It's rather repetitive and childish - but considering that the two primary members never got higher than a Grade 8 education, this is easily explained.
For those unclear on what ICP is, it consists of Joseph Bruce, who renamed himself Violent J, and Joseph Ulster, who renamed himself first "2 Dope" and then "Shaggy 2 Dope". Originally calling themselves "JJ and the Inner City Posse" - they basically re-backronym'd "ICP" to be "Insane Clown Posse" to fit with the horror- and supernatural themes they started taking on after realizing they weren't really cut out for the Detroit gang scene. The hype man of their earlier gangsta rap efforts was painted up like a clown, but the pieces fit into place when Violent J had two dreams - one about being a clown running around the town of Delray, and another about a travelling carnival.
Sonically, they had become interested in the stylings of horror rapper Esham, but weren't really interested in copying Esham's Satanist angle. Instead they built up their own mythology, a sort of epic, prog-rock style multi-disc rock opera that drew from Alice Cooper, KISS, W.A.S.P and Motley Crue but without following the by-now tired formula of horror themes in rock. That being said, they WERE offering an escapist fantasy of sorts, which easily pulled in the same kind of demographic that had in years past taken out its adolescent frustrations in the decaptiation stage show of Alice, or the scowling corpse paint of Norwegian death metal. Testosterone is one hell of a drug, and for decades marketers have made a KILLING pandering to its effects on the suburban teenage boy.
Looking past the derivative "acid rap" tracks (seriously, listen to Esham a moment and you understand exactly where ICP gets its inspiration from) and tired lyrics about clowns with hatchets, and you'll see a story arc about a Dark Carnival, with albums being referred to as Joker's Cards, when the last of them have "dropped" (e.g. been released) there would be some kind of End Of World scenario. The Big Reveal at the end was that they were supposedly working for "God" all the time, etc. which ended up confusing their lstener base, considerably.
They ended up having a bit of a crisis of confidence - I mean, they were in the same spot that the Jehovah's Witnesses and Harold Camping were in after predicting the end of the world which turned out to be more whimper than bang. As a result, they ended up with a mythology that extended from the previous, referring to a "second set" of Joker's Cards.
Who knows. I mean, here's a band whose motto is literally "Fuck keepin' it real: we just keep it entertaining".
Keep in mind this is a band whose logo is a running stick figure carrying a meat cleaver that they refer to as a hatchet, not knowing the difference between a culinary implement and a primary tool in lumbering. Keep also in mind that this is a band who showed up to one of its first shows without microphones, playing a college gig where they showed up in clown paint and literally screamed out their lyrics over playing their backing tracks on cassette. Not only were they there at the wrong time, they were in the wrong building - explaining why the audience to that show did nothing more than stare at them in incredulity.
But I would argue that on many levels, they managed to produce a work of genius.
One MIGHT argue that coulrophobia is nothing new, and the idea of carnival clown as threatening figure - from the street-punk muscle of Batman villain The Joker in S&M bondage clown outfits to the horror film The House That October Built is a well-trodden trope. One of the reasons why clowns scare the ever loving shit out of children is that they haven't been trained yet to see artifice - what they see is an alcoholic ex-con glad to be paid in cash at the end of the day, and the fact that these two stick-and-poke tattoo covered ex-cons have painted up is just about par for the course.
But that had never made its way into rock. Again, the path there was either the dented-toaster-oven Dungeons and Dragons pose or the horror movie "Satan, Satan, Satan" thing. The idea of something else, even if it was a confused jumble of chicken ninja hatchet wielding wizard Goosebumps-level ramblings about "darkness" was kind of novel. ICP have realized, fundamentally - that music is no longer about music - the money is in the merch, cross-promotion, being producers rather than artists, and that what people seek in terms of belonging to music is selecting an identity. It's why music snobbery and music clique-ism is a thing - you're not critiquing someone's taste when you say you just can't get into country, you obviously hate the troops and are some kind of "real America" hating egg sucking pinko. And when we're talking about selling artifice - sure there are kids in the inner city who can believe that through basketball skill, "hustle", small time drug dealing or "lyrical dominance" they'll end up paying for a Bentley with hard cash (for the record, there are quite a few small time rappers in the Atlanta area that have done exactly that). But the white kids in South Dakota stuck in trailer parks with rotting teeth and no education are under no delusions that they'll some day be farting through silk and living in a seven bedroom house. So they had to be sold another fantasy - and either by design or by sheer luck, ICP have managed to find an all encompassing, alternate reality, pose and mask for them to wear where they can step outside themselves and their own miserable, beta-male and beta-female lives and belong to something bigger and pretend to be something cooler. Clown paint costs about $5 at Wal-Mart. $1 if you buy in on All Saint's Day.
And boy do those cash registers ring. Keep in mind that everything - from the T-shirt sales to hatchetman pendants to their direct to video movies, concerts, wrestling promotions, festivals, and so forth - are all property of their very own Psychopathic records label, which they OWN. Cross-marketing? They wrestle. They do video. They have movies (not very good ones, but no worse than the Adam Sandler Netflix stuff).
They also have ancillary bands. Twiztid, the Kottonmouth Kings, Boondox, and others are signed to their label and in a Wu Tang Clan collective kind of way are supported by and support the band, gaining fans and garnering fans. Remember cross-promotion? If you hadn't heard of the band, seeing them wrestle on the WWF might give you some exposure. And given it's the same target market, it works out for both sides.
Live shows? More than that. They hosted first Hallowicked, but then the grand festival of all Juggalo festivals - the Gathering of the Juggalos, an event so delightfully tacky that Reddit's /r/trashy subreddit says it's shooting fish in a barrel to pull content from. Somehow they turned a field in the middle of nowhere into the most incredible family gathering of all the flotsam and jetsam of the runts of the litter, losers in life, D-list celebrities, fat small breasted women, hefty tobacco-stained guys with rotting teeth and porcine faces, trailer park strippers with Daddy issues, and worse. All of whom dress like clowns and indulge every whim of their collective, horrifying ids.
Whereas Burning Man is a bunch of good looking Californians being nudist in the desert and showing off their toned, six figure Bay Area salary creativities, you're likely to see sexual displays from... people who have every right to be as sexual, only not given permission by society to do it anywhere else. The place is an open air drug market, with "The Bridge" being a place where everything other than heroin is not only for sale but openly advertised by people holding placards. The Bridge is over a rapidly garbage-filled and aptly named "Hepatitis Lake". There's music. There's wrestling. There's wet T-shirt contests. Gallons upon gallons of the band's favorite drink, cut-rate soda Faygo. And tons of photos that are slightly rated above literal junkie porn in terms of masturbatory potential.
But every human being has the right and the human need to belong, to be family with someone. And the two band members have lived hard lives in poverty with absent parents, abandoned, locked up for stupid teenage decisions, and worse. And they've made an entire industry out of giving those everyone else kind of hates a place to hang and be loved and accepted. Just about everyone who's been to an ICP festival or show Editor's note: I have NOT will admit that it really is an accepting, wonderful environment. The kind of place where two guys will square off, and it will be defused by others gathering around them and simply chanting the word "Family".
The FBI proved their complete incompetence by labelling the whole affair a street gang, and wonder why people mock law enforcement. But seriously, there's no crime in any of this. Oh, they're terrible. They truly are. Their fans are god-tier trashy. But then again, what's the harm? It's a huge fantasy world, and they're playing at being clowns in the middle of a field, listening to their music and keeping to themselves.