In Conversation: Author Steve Miller on Where the Juggalos Roam
In his new book Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made, Steve Miller grapples with what it means to be a fan of the most hated band in the world.
What is a Juggalo? Succinctly put, a Juggalo is a fan of the Insane Clown Posse, the Detroit hip-hop group composed of Violent J (forty-four-year-old Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (forty-one-year-old Joseph Utsler). Their presentation has been remarkably consistent since their genesis in the early ’90s. The basics: Their world and mythology is known as the Dark Carnival. Their fans are Juggalos and Juggalettes. Their music is released on Psychopathic Records, their own label. They spray Faygo on the audiences at their shows (diet only, as they say the regular stuff can peel paint off a wall). They host an annual festival called the Gathering of the Juggalos. They are wicked clowns, and they paint their faces as such. They look scarier than they are.
According to the FBI in 2011, a Juggalo was also officially a gang member. Juggalos were noted in the Emerging Trends section of the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment and were characterized as “a loosely-organized hybrid gang.” Anyone identifying as a Juggalo, especially by wearing clothing or driving a vehicle bearing Psychopathic’s cartoon hatchetman logo, was a threat.
This is when journalist Steve Miller decided that something nefarious was up. Miller, a Michigan native, was introduced to ICP’s music by a friend in 1997. He later interviewed Bruce and Utsler for his 2013 book Detroit Rock City: The Uncensored History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in America’s Loudest City. His eighth book, Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made, spends a good deal of time on the fight against the gang label while offering an ICP primer for those who aren’t down with the clown.
If you’re familiar with the world of ICP, even as a cultural curiosity, Juggalo might not have anything new for you, save for the details of the FBI’s designation and ICP’s subsequent lawsuit against them. This could be because, for decades, critics and cops and lawyers have tried to make something complicated out of what, at its heart, is simple. Juggalos tend to have the same background as the guys from ICP. Speaking very generally, they’re lower-class and white, they come from single-parent households and shitty neighborhoods, and they’re not overly educated. But they wear that like armor, and they see each other as a family. The Dark Carnival is somewhere else to be, which is exactly why Joe Bruce created it years ago, in between waiting for deliveries of government cheese and working to help his mom. Miller has probably spent more time with Juggalos and ICP than everyone we know combined, so we called him up to get his perspective on a few things.
What was the moment where you decided that there was a book in all this that you wanted to write?
You know, I don’t know if there was an exact moment. It was kind of a convergence of things. I remembered something Jack White had said to me, how he’d always followed what they did. I perceived that they lived on the margins. I saw the FBI report about Juggalos being a gang (they had been a gang designated in four other states before the federal designation). And I think that was the moment where I thought, “Well, this is really wrong,” Juggalos being determined to be gang members on a federal basis—of course, another subject to enhance sentencing and so on—and then I thought about the very chilling effect on the First Amendment. So that’s when I really started pursuing it. Not to mention, over the years, you’d always had this anti-Juggalo, anti-ICP sentiment if you paid attention and listened to such things, and I liked how they pissed everybody off and turned everyone into their dads.
It feels like the book was written with…I don’t know about an agenda, but it feels like it was written from the perspective of a Juggalo empathizer. Is that something you did on purpose?
“I didn’t understand how ICP could be cast as being stupid and so on. I mean, they’re silly. Isn’t that what entertainment is?”
I can’t say I did it on purpose, but as you write, it’s whatever’s natural. You feel that way. And I definitely felt that Juggalos were under assault by everybody. The more research I did, I was like, “Holy crap, everybody hates these guys.” And as I got in the middle of it, I said, “Well, I just don’t see why.” I didn’t understand that, or how ICP could be cast as being stupid and so on. I mean, they’re silly. They’re entertainers. Isn’t that what entertainment is? I’m much more put off by what I would hear on a radio station than I am by a band like ICP or Twiztid or any of the Psychopathic bands.
Is there anything about ICP that bothers you?
No more than what bothers me, probably, about any other strata of the human race. I’m sorry if that seems evasive or dismissive, but I guess—
Not at all. It’s a fair answer.
Just plain folks, man. Plain folks that happen to be into a certain music and a lifestyle that was, at least to me, a little more extroverted than I could ever be. That’s where I came at it from. I couldn’t say where I was researching something and was like, “I can’t believe they did this.” But walking among them, of course, are murderers and deviants of all forms. Just like there are in any group.
It seems like they really don’t care if anybody else gets it, because it’s not for anybody else.
Yeah, you know, I almost thought that a band like ICP are celebrities, but they’re…really, in a way, they’re heroes. They’re doing something just for this small group. Celebrities, you want to do this for an audience, of course, but [ICP are] doing it for a fairly defined audience. I think they’re very aware that they’re not gonna appeal to everyone, but they’re sure going to appeal to their fans. And you notice that when talking to them—it’s about the Juggalos. I think that’s kind of neat, in a way, to have your fan base in mind at all times.
The band drew attention in 2009 for the song “Miracles,” with the infamous line “Fuckin’ magnets—how do they work?” You talk about the fans of ICP getting what they were trying to do with that song, and the fact that it’s supposed to be from the perspective of a wide-eyed child looking at the world. What do you feel like everybody else is missing when they’re looking down their nose at ICP?
In that particular case, that really struck me as odd. To find the miraculous in the common, to me, was really a mark of some insight. And then everybody else found that really stupid. I didn’t get it; I still don’t get it. Anytime you look down your nose at something, you’re going to be missing something.
You write about how at the Gathering of the Juggalos in 2010, Tila Tequila was pelted with rocks and beer bottles during her performance until being removed, bleeding, by security. What are your thoughts on that?
That was really rough. I found Juggalos who were going, “That was a terrible way to act, that was terribly inhospitable”—I don’t know if that word was used—but “that was a terrible way to act.” And I do think that a lot of people, Juggalos and non-Juggalos, would agree: that was not the right way to react. She was advised not to go on, and she wanted to anyway. I can’t figure out why she would want to go on, being advised not to.
“To find the miraculous in the common, to me, was really a mark of some insight. And then everybody else found that really stupid.”
I think she wanted to show that she could do it, and that she wasn’t afraid.
I kind of dig that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where people get out of control, if you’ve ever been to a street protest—
I’ve covered protests in the streets, I covered the national party conventions in 2000 and 2004, and it’s actually [scary to imagine] what a group can do. And you don’t realize it until you see it. That’s probably what happened here. People were so aroused by the actions of their colleagues that they behaved in a way that they wouldn’t ordinarily. And I’ve seen this before. As I wrote about this and talked to folks about this, I sensed that’s what was going on, similar to what I’d seen in street protests, where you’re watching this and you’re totally freaked out by what everybody’s doing. I think there was a lot of that. And obviously it’s always the actions of a few that cause most of the damage and the problem.
It’s hard for me to ignore the misogyny that comes with ICP’s territory. You mention that one of the Faygo marketing reps didn’t want to give them an official sponsorship because of it, and then there’s the female employee who sued Psychopathic Records for harassment. Juggalos are opposed to racism and bigotry, but it seems to me that women get the short end of the stick here. Can you speak on that at all?
I really can’t. That wasn’t something I was actually looking for. I didn’t have those sorts of lenses on. I think they became sensitive to that, [though]. I know, for example, Ron Jeremy, allegedly, had been approaching girls and they felt he was getting inappropriate and they told him to leave. This was in the middle of the Gathering.
My overall feeling is that they were somewhat sensitive. If it came to their attention, they would do what they could—I’m talking about Psychopathic as a group—to address it. I wanted to speak to the former publicist because I thought that would be really enlightening. Those are strong allegations. Man, I’ll tell you what, that’s some heavy stuff. And of course I called her and I got no response. I felt bad. To me, if there was some merit to that, I’d really like to examine that. But she did not return my calls.
I think there’s one law enforcement official who agreed to talk to you for the book?
There were a couple, but the best was Bernard Plaskett, the Las Vegas gang squad guy. He was great. He was very open about it. He was very convinced that there was organized Juggalo gang activity.
Without stereotyping too much—and you might have mentioned this in the book—there’s always going to be that Venn diagram of fans of a certain band and people who commit crimes, and there’s going to be overlap no matter what. And it does seem like, with Juggalos, that overlap is higher. But it’s also because of the places where they come from and the things they have in common: broken homes, maybe not a lot of guidance, maybe not a lot of education. And again, I don’t want to stereotype, but it seems like maybe these people are more likely to commit crimes, but it’s not because they listen to ICP.
“I would run into people who’d say, ‘What’s your next book?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s called Juggalo.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.'”
Well, it’s definitely not because they listen to ICP. But also, these stories become clickbait. A cop or a prosecutor throws out to a local reporter, “We went to their house, and they had Juggalo stuff.” And that—man, oh man. I was astounded when I went through clips in smaller papers. The newspaper reporter would just repeat that. They’d have Juggalo stuff at home, t-shirts, so on, so forth. That kind of irritated me. And you can influence a jury that way. They’re using it in all kinds of unfair ways.
You mention several times in the book how, if you repeat something enough, if you disseminate something enough, it just becomes fact. And that’s what people know about ICP.
I think so. Again, I would run into people who’d say, “What’s your next book?” And I’d say, “It’s called Juggalo.” And they’re like, “Oh.” Immediately. Like, “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” And I’d say, “Well, have you ever heard them?” “No. No.” [Laughs.] How do you know anything about it? You haven’t even heard ICP and you’re going to judge Juggalos? It doesn’t make any sense to me. And I ran into that a lot. That’s OK. It’s part of human nature. You hear something and you say, “Well, this must be the way it is.”
Do you echo the VICE writer who described his experience at the Gathering as “a cartoon that I took part in sometimes”?
[Laughs.] I think that’s great. You know, I never got that feeling [though]. At the Gathering, I never felt anything but comfortable. I did feel like, “These guys are here once a year, this is their journey.” At times, I felt a little envious, I suppose. It was cool to watch people belong. It was really kind of fun. It was totally non-threatening, and I just felt kind of…I don’t wanna say honored, but I just felt happy. I would defy anybody to walk around there and not feel some form of gratitude that people can be like this and can enjoy themselves like that. And I think you’d probably find that at any gathering of people. You could probably find that at someone’s family reunion, which is really what this is. Just a big family reunion. FL