Insane Clown Posse
Insane Clown Posse
The Insane Clown Posse, two Detroit rappers with a devoted Midwestern following, garnered substantial national media attention during the summer of 1997 when their label, Hollywood Records, shipped The Great Milenko to record stores and then six hours later recalled it. Apparently, label executives—Hollywood is a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Corporation—learned a bit late of the obscenity-laden and, in some cases, violence-advocating songs and became nervous. The Insane Clown Posse controversy was an unusual one on several fronts, but most interestingly because many record stores simply ignored the recall order. Also, the anti-Disney backlash served to elevate two rappers known for their crude lyrics into unlikely First-Amendment heroes. Though critics lambasted Milenko artistically, the Insane Clown Posse, known to fans as ICP, has attracted a massive cult fan base, comprised primarily of suburban youth. Detroit Free Press writer Brian McCollum termed them “Halloween hip-hop,” but also reflected that they remain “just possibly the wildest show to come out of the Motor City since Iggy Pop contorted himself and frolicked in busted glass two decades ago.”
The Insane Clown Posse, whose records have also earned comparisons to those of the early Beastie Boys, is the creation of two Detroiters, Joseph Bruce (“Violent J”) and Joseph Utsler (“Shaggy 2 Dope”). Both grew up in poor, single-parent households in a rough section of Detroit, that by the late 1980s was attracting a mix of residents. Whites of Southern origin, Hispanics, and African-Americans shared shaky ground in Detroit’s notorious Southwest corner, and the evident tension could be charted by the plethora of teen gangs that sprang up. Allegedly, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope formed a gang known as the “Inner City Posse,” which soon evolved from a social fraternity into a rap act. Using the same name, they began making homemade tapes of rap songs they penned themselves that reflected their violent and tense surroundings.
In time Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were performing live; but in a subterfuge against retribution from other gangs, they wore heavy black and white clown paint, which was also a nod to the appeal of their rap genre across color lines. “We put on the makeup because people in the suburbs view gang kids in the city as clowns,” Violent J told Detroit Free Press reporter Carol Teegardinin 1994. From basement-made tapes Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope progressed to self-released records on their own Psychopathic label. These included 1992’s Carnival of Carnage, the 1993 EP Beverly Kills 50187, and the 1994 EP Terror Wheel. The lyrics were disturbing and gory, and attracted many teen male listeners. Tracks like “Crime Pays, “Guts on the Ceiling,”
Members are Shaggy 2 Dope (born Joseph Utsler, c. 1974) and Violent J (born Joseph Frank Bruce, c. 1972).
Band formed as Inner City Posse in Detroit, MI, c.1989; signed with Jive Records, 1995; released The Riddlebox on Jive/Battery, 1995; negotiated out of Jive contract, signed with Hollywood Records, c. 1996; released The Great Milenko, June 1997; record pulled from stores the same day; negotiated release from Hollywood Records and signed with Island Records, July 1997; re-released The Great Milenko on Island, August 1997.
“Ghetto Freak Show,” and “For the Maggots” reflected their preoccupation with carnage, mass murder, and other typically scream-flick fare. “The music we do is horror rap,” Violent J told Teegardin. “It’s extremely violent. We use four-letter words, and we get hate mail. But some people like us because we rap about the anger you feel in your everyday life. It’s not a pretty thing.”
Yet it was also partly because of their outrageous live shows that ICP gained local renown. Playing all-ages shows, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope offered a form of adolescent performance art, tossing rubber chickens into the audience—made up of devoted fans who showed up for concerts dressed as their favorite ICP rapper simply to wait in line hours beforehand—and spraying them with bottles of Faygo-brand carbonated soft drink, a Detroit-made product. The Faygo became a focal point of the entire ICP act, and soon the promotion-savvy company was trucking up to 150 twoliter bottles to the stage doors, free of cost. Other ICP crowd-pleasers include jumping from a trampoline into the audience, but when the act was signed to Jive Records in 1995 and was sent on a national tour, the red-soda-pop-and-clown look did not translate. “In some cities, we still get booed off,” Violent J told the Detroit Free Press’s McCollum in 1995. On that tour, they opened for Onyx and Das EFX.
ICP’s Jive/Battery release, 1995’s The Riddlebox, did well both locally and nationally, selling over 80, 000 copies. But Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were dissatisfied with the label’s marketing efforts, and managed to terminate their contract in 1996. They were then signed by Hollywood Records, a former suitor before the Jive/Battery deal. When they questioned the Disney-owned label’s policies on lyrics and content prior to inking the deal, ICP and their management were assured complete artistic freedom. After studio sessions with renowned Detroit producer Mike Clark, ICP submitted the completed The Great Milenko to the label. Hollywood Records executives then requested that some lyrics be revised. Violent J told Billboard writer Chris Morris that at that point, he informed executives “’I’m not gonna change it,’ and they said ‘Then the record’s gonna be shelved until you do.’”
But he and Shaggy 2 Dope held out until “the pressure got to us,” Violent J admitted to Billboard. They capitulated and changed the lyrics, and in June of 1997 Milenko, after a large promotional effort, was shipped. Six hours later, after Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope came home from autographing copies of it at a local record store, they received a call that Hollywood had recalled the album because Disney had deemed its contents “inappropriate for a product released under any label of our company,” according to a press release. ICP had been assured that Disney played no role in its music division’s decisions, but supposedly Disney chair Michael Eisner personally gave the word to recall the record.
Interestingly, many record stores did not comply with the unprecedented recall, and The Great Milenko became a top seller in Detroit. The story was even more complex and at times slightly baffling: supposedly one Hollywood Records executive, Joe Roth, had been shown a video for one of The Great Milenko’s tracks—a song in which ICP urges brutal retribution for men who abuse their wives. In essence, the two rappers, both raised by single moms, were speaking out against domestic assault. Yet Roth spoke to Eisner and voiced concern about the entire LP, and the flap grew from there. Other events also conspired against ICP—just the day before, thepowerful Southern Baptist Convention, convening nationally in Florida, condemned Disney for its “anti-family value” stance, sparked in part by the television sitcom Ellen (ABC is also part of the Disney entertainment empire). Coincidentally, there was a song on The Great Milenko mocking preachers who ask for money from their flocks.
There was more on The Great Milenko than just controversial lyrics, however. Violent J. Shaggy 2 Dope, and Clark, their producer, had invited some outstanding musicians to help out, including-the original shock-rock star, Alice Cooper, along with one-time Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and Slash of Guns ‘N’ Roses. It was soon at No. 63 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, and became one of the best successes for the Hollywood label—which had become infamous in the music industry for its notorious string of failures. (The back catalogue of British pop-rock act Queen is its only moneymaker.) Yet executives remained determined to wash their hands of ICP, and canceled all scheduled tour dates and the band’s contract as well, which incited a huge bidding war. Hollywood Records then tried to block ICP from negotiation talks, and eventually forced them to pay $1 million of the act’s $2.5 million deal with Island Records, ostensibly to recoup production and marketing outlays.
Critics have never been kind to ICP. In the Detroit Free Press, McCollum noted that “while purporting to rail against the evils of racists, rednecks and suburban gang poseurs, the group rolls around in heavy-duty death, misogyny and scatological, um, humor.” A December, 1997 Spin magazine piece, drawn by Detroit artist Mark Dancey and written by Spin contributor and onetime Detroiter Mike Rubin, lambasted the group and its devoted fan base. More trouble plagued Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope as a rough year came to a close. Around Thanksgiving, an overzealous Albuquerque, New Mexico, fan came onstage and grabbed Violent J’s hair and reportedly would not let go; the singer then hit him with a microphone and afterward was arrested on aggravated battery charges, but was later released on bail. And in early 1998 the ICP tour bus slid down an embankment near the Indiana/Ohio border, although no one was seriously injured.
“Dog Beats” (maxi-single), Psychopathic Records, 1991.
Carnival of Carnage, Psychopathic Records, 1992.
Beverly Kills 50187 (EP), Psychopathic Records, 1993.
The Ringmaster, Psychopathic Records, 1994.
Terror Wheel (EP), Psychopathic Records, 1994.
“Dead Pumpkins” (limited-edition cassette single), Psychopathic Records, 1994.
Carnival X-mas (EP), Psychopathic Records, 1994.
“Chicken Hunting Slaughterhouse” (CD single), Jive/Battery, 1995.
Forgotten Freshness, Jive/Battery, 1995.
The Riddlebox, Jive/Battery, 1995.
“Mr. Rotten Treats” (limited-edition cassette single), Psychopathic Records, 1995.
Tunnel of Love (EP), Jive/Battery, 1996.
“Witches and Warlocks” (limited-edition cassette single), Psychopathic Records, 1996.
The Great Milenko, Hollywood Records, June 1997, rereleased on Island Records, August 1997.
Detroit Free Press, October 28, 1994, p. 10D; December 22, 1995, p.1D;May5, 1996, p.2H;June22, 1997, p.4G;June 27, 1997, p. 1A; December 14, 1997.
Detroit News, June 27, 1997, p. E1; September 11, 1997, p. F3; November 21, 1997, p. C7.
Rolling Stone, November 2, 1995, p. 40.
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