It was just hitting mid-afternoon when I called into Insane Clown Posse's offices in their hometown of Detroit where the duo of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are putting the finishing touches on the second LP of their double-album extravaganza, the Marvelous Missing Link. I started the call in a somewhat functional bathroom nestled just off the main floor of the third story workspace I'm currently occupying at odd hours while in Prague. My voice ricocheted off the tiles in front of me, bouncing around like a gaggle of Juggalos moshing to the harder edges of "Vomit," the first single off the first MML album, Lost. "My ears are kind of fucked up but you sound like you're in a subway," Shaggy 2 Dope said before I switched to a more interview-friendly atmosphere. Born Joey Utsler, he and partner-in-crime Joseph Bruce (known in face paint and to Juggalos far and wide as Violent J) have been making music together for over two and a half decades. Needless to say, it hasn't been the kindest on their hearing.
They formed the Inner City Posse in the late 1980s, which gave way to the ICP we know today. Through a dizzying output of records and media running the gamut from direct-to-video films to their own wrestling promotion, they have endeared themselves to generations of Juggalos. "It's crazy because nowadays when we do in-stores [meet and greets], it's like there's so many people bringing their babies through and their families whereas back in the day it's the same kids but grown up their second generation Juggalos," Utsler says. "Three generations: a grandpa and a grandma or something, their kids, a baby, and a toddler. It's so flattering."
ICP's latest marketing plan for their addition to the second deck of the Joker Cards was to be an in-store meet and greet tour that was unfortunately halted due to probation issues that prevented Utsler from traveling the brunt of the tour. "It got taken care of," Utsler assures me. "Thankfully I didn't violate nothing. I just didn't have the proper permission to leave the state but I was able to get back and report. Hopefully I'll be off by mid-, end of summer. Now that everything is back on track, I'll be able to get permission to go out of state and travel."
ICP has their hands full this summer especially: they're marking the 16th Gathering of the Juggalos this year with the early release of MML: Found for those attending the Gathering. Their late release of the official Gathering announcement this year ended up as more of a Dr. Who parody, though Utsler says he's not a fan of the BBC megahit. "Violent J's brother wrote the treatment and directed that video and he's more into the Dr. Who type stuff. To be honest, I don't think that had anything to do with the subject of that video; it's just how everything came together," Utsler explains. Unsurprisingly, Juggalos are enmeshed in far-reaching fandoms outside of ICP.
The duo have capitalized on reaching fans of all stripes by dubbing 2015 "the year of the Juggalo." "Technically every year is the year of the Juggalo," Utsley says. "This year is kind of Juggalo's pick: all of the bands you like." Oh, and also the bands that like ICP, including the acclaimed DJ duo Flosstradamus, who first approached ICP about remixing their music. "They're fans of ours, so that's how the door got opened but you gotta understand; Juggalos aren't" Utsler says emphatically, "You can't put them in a box. There's not one way to describe Juggalos. There's people we meet who listen to strictly country besides us and there are tons of Juggalos that love that EDM shit getting their molly on."
In years past, the Gathering of the Juggalos was booked based on the personal taste of ICP themselves. "The Gathering was like how we would choose the artists," Utsley says. "It'd be handpicked: old school artists like rappers because fuck, man, we'd like to see that." Their Juggalo Championship Wrestling league has followed a similar trajectory while also managing to draw more mainstream names into a festival whose niche audience tends to be approached from an almost anthropological perspective. ICP are huge wrestling fans and have a storied history of putting their hands on any promotion in arms' reach: WCW, ECW, TNA, Ring of Honor, lending them credibility when approaching wrestlers to book for their annual Bloodymania event at the Gathering. Seeing the names of Matt Hardy, MVP, and Colt Cabana headlining this year's reads like a WWE throwback of wrestlers scorned. It's an indie promotion fan's dream card and truly a passion project for ICP. "We lose a lot of money running JCW; a lot of money," Utsler admits. "Especially when we take it on the road."
"In Pontiac, we were doing it once a month just holding it in one place and the turnouts are so low that it's a sinking ship," Utsler continues. "If we go on tour and to the Gathering itself, we try to have JCW as much as possible. All the guys on the road, they love doing it and everyone gets paid. We don't stiff nobody. It's good for everybody as far as the wrestlers go and we don't put no restrictions on anybody." Touring is exactly where ICP wants to be following this year's Gathering. They're eyeing the 20th anniversary of Riddlebox and looking to re-release the album as well as performing it in its entirety. All this comes after a planned tour for the Marvelous Missing Link albums, though.
The MML double album draws heavily from Riddlebox-era themes of duality in the scope of good versus evil, this time subbing the karmic fight of leading a good life with choosing how you fill life's inherent emptiness. In that regard, Lost is the far more nihilistic album. It's the second LP, Found, that gives way to positivity. "What is that missing piece in your life? What was lost? And now with that, you figure out what's lost. Just like every other Joker's Card, it's up to the individual," Utsler explains. "You can talk about it all day but nobody knows you better than you."
ICP have already established that they're not a Christian band and that the misconception lies in broader interpretation versus an individual's listening of their albums. Their discography isn't so much a biblical parable as it is a choose your own adventure. Perhaps that's what's kept fans coming back after the big revelation of "Thy Unveiling" at the end of The Wraith album, which initially spawned the questions of proselytizing. Utsler doesn't go to church and he's certainly not going to judge you either way.
"It just boils down to what you believe personally. You can never judge a book by its cover," Utsler says. "You could see two guys fighting. Somebody might be beating the shit out of someone, something could've happened, and a cop could roll by. Who's gonna get arrested? Tons of people in prison are down to earth great people who might've made a mistake but there's a lot of people who are truly evil people and something doesn't click in their head. And if there is a hell that's where they're obviously going. Who's to say what's right and what's wrong? There are so many religions but what's the real, true one? It's whatever you believe in. It all boils down to are you a good person or a bad person?"
Utsler promises Found will still be a traditionally carnival macabre ICP record despite its uplifting message. "We've still got plenty of violence and murder and killing," he reassures me. The duo owe their inspiration to the muse they call the dark carnival, which has helped them release a dizzying 14 albums with plenty more to come. They liken their process to Paul McCartney's of waking up with a song folly formed in his head. "It helps us along the way," Utsler says of the dark carnival. "It molds what we do. It's a pure example of that. Of course we're in there [the studio] pushing the buttons and everything and it takes form so naturally and organically that it's something besides us."
Fans dissect each record and put the ICP catalog back together as their personal soundtrack. Sure, some acts have just as much material but very rarely do they have such fervent fans; the type who say that music has saved them and really, truly mean it. Recalling the brief in-stores that ICP were able to do following the release of Lost, Utsler says the experience was at once humbling and overwhelming. "To have that kind of impact and influence, it's wig-blowing," he says. "We'll do in-stores and kid after kid after kid will come through crying, talking about how we change their life; how we got them through these rough times like drug addiction and you don't know how to say thank you. Some people come by with a mural of your face on their back and it's crazy. It's hard to react. It's like an eight hour therapy session."
The personal sharing certainly takes a toll. Utsler has seen his share of hardships, has been in rehab, and struggles with his own mental health issues, to say nothing of Bruce's experiences. They're unlikely but relatable ringleaders. "It gets hard just hearing story after story. It's tough to process and get a hold of. Wellbutrin definitely helps," Utsler says somberly. The band has taken their outreach efforts to Make-a-Wish foundation and provided the feel-good story of the 2013 summer when they helped bring a teenage Juggalo in need of a liver transplant to the Gathering for the first time. "We've done a lot of Make a Wish foundation stuff," Utsler says wistfully, admitting it's been some time since the organization contacted them. "The reason we're not in contact with them no more? I couldn't tell you. I don't know. We've done lots of Make-a-Wish foundation stuff and we love doing it. Who wouldn't? There's a lot of people who do say no to that but I just can't comprehend why."
It's not until half an hour into our call during a discussion on the state of the music industry that the phone cuts out. Utsler tends to shy away from tech so it's weird to think that our interview was able to work in the first place thanks to some advanced computing and a VPN. He has no email address, no Facebook, and usually gets his kids to look things up on the internet for him if need be. "Can't give you shit as advice because I don't know how to do it," Utsler marvels. "Nowadays, I don't know how we're still selling records or how we're still afloat."
Marvelous Missing Link: Found will be released July 31 and available early at the Gathering of the Juggalos taking place July 22-25 in Thornville, Ohio.