The vibe at the Gathering of the Juggalos, Detroit horrorcore duo Insane Clown Posse’s notorious yearly festival of art and culture, has historically been called a “bustling drug den in a surrealistic nudist colony.”
The Gathering has been feared and revered as a place where outside laws do not apply, and nudity, profanity and the open sale and use of illegal drugs aren’t just allowed—but actively encouraged. Hell, it goes beyond that. At Gatherings past, it was practically demanded that you use and abuse drugs.
So when Violent J, the gregarious leader of ICP, announced during last year’s “Seminar” at the Gathering (a yearly “State of the Juggalo” address where Insane Clown Posse’s Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J talk to their fans about issues relevant to the Juggalo Nation) that the next Gathering would be held in Colorado, where weed is legal, the move seemed charmingly pointless.
In what universe wouldn’t Juggalos be able to openly procure and use drugs at their own damn Gathering? Hell, the Gathering is as much a festival of drugs as it is a festival of art and culture.
Up until a few years ago, the Gathering was the home of the infamous Drug Bridge, where shameless dealers hawked their wares with signs and megaphones and deafening volume. A fatal heroin overdose in 2013 shut down the Drug Bridge, seemingly permanently, but the open sale and use of drugs of all kinds, primarily pot and Molly, remained a huge fixture at the 2015 and 2016 conventions in Thornville, Ohio—which is practically Paris compared to the Gathering’s old home in Illinois’ tellingly named Cave-In-Rock (which really does seem to have only recently exited the Neanderthal period)—but was far from an actual city.
The other major announcement from last year’s seminar was that in September of 2017, Insane Clown Posse would be following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and plenty of other down-ass ninjas from throughout the ages by marching in Washington, D.C to protest the FBI designating Juggalos as a loosely organized hybrid gang.
The idea of Juggalos attacking Washington, D.C in full face paint to party for their rights captured the imagination of Juggalo-loving and leaning journalists, who I like to call Journalistalos.
The idea of the march similarly found favor with leftists intrigued by the potential of Juggalos as a group of working-class, largely uneducated whites who could potentially be politicized, radicalized and mobilized to fight—not just for Juggalo civil rights, and the right to gather (otherwise known as the “Right to Free Assembly”)—but also for other issues affecting oppressed, underclass groups who are unfairly targeted by law enforcement, not for what they do, but rather for how they look, the music they listen to and how they choose to present themselves to the world.
The march, alas, did not seem to catch fire in the imagination of the average Juggalo, for whom the idea might have been appealing in theory, but on a practical level, involves an awful lot of preparation and time off and saving money for lodging and transportation and arranging for baby-sitters.
It’s a lot of planning and a lot of expense, especially for Juggalos who double-dip and plan to attend both the Gathering and the March, which are being held only a few months apart in different parts of the country.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when I covered the first-ever Canadian Juggalo Weekend in Calgary this year, and the only person who mentioned the March on Washington was Canadian rapper Madchild, who said he’d be there. Then again, he was supposed to perform at the Gathering this year, but was “sick” (which wouldn’t be so problematic or suspicious if he wasn’t famously a former addict who actually released an album called Dope Sick), so I would not count on his appearance.
That was Canada, after all.
They had good reasons not to care about the American FBI. The Gathering, on the other hand, seemed to be the perfect place for ICP to proselytize to the Juggalo masses about the march’s importance, and why it’s not just a natural and organic next step for the group—but an essential and inevitable phase in its evolution from widely, if not universally, maligned pop-culture punchlines to the politically engaged leaders of a fascinating and world-famous subculture.
Trump’s election politicized a lot of people.
He does not, however, seem to have politicized Juggalos, and Insane Clown Posse clearly seems worried about a potential backlash if they push the March on Washington to their fans too aggressively. That’s understandable. What’s less understandable is Insane Clown Posse’s seeming reluctance to agitate for the march at all. Forget soft-sell, at the Gathering in 2017, Insane Clown Posse instead pursued a policy of “no sell.”
Fliers for the March were non-existent.
The exquisitely homemade, hyperbolic program for the Gathering never even mentions the March on Washington, even in the portion devoted to the Seminar, where the announcement was first made. The only reference to the march I heard was from the lead singer of the regrettable metal band Dope, who went seriously off-message and said that it was super-cool that the FBI dubbed Juggalos a gang because that proved they were a bunch of badasses and that the FBI was afraid of them and they always stuck together, just like a gang.
Festival-wide radio silence on the big upcoming march was preferable to clueless stage banter like that, but talk of the D.C. March, either onstage or in conversations among Juggalos, was conspicuous in its absence. Open drug use was conspicuous in its absence as well. At previous festivals, it was easy to procure pretty much any drug whenever you’d like, openly and without shame or self-consciousness.
That was most assuredly not the case in 2017.
If I hadn’t stumbled upon a dude with a bag of weed for sale in the first hour of the festival I would have faced the surreal and not terribly appealing prospect of covering the Gathering of the Juggalos for High Timeswith nothing stronger than a strawberry Margarita in my system.
At the seminar tent, Violent J assured Juggalos that while the owner of the venue (Lost Lakes Auditorium) was, in Juggalo parlance, a down-ass ninja psyched to host the Gathering; however, the head ninja at the Oklahoma police department bought into the hype about Juggalos being a violent, anarchic gang whose rallies, like the Gathering, are marked with bloodshed, fatalities and rampant criminality.
In a sense, it didn’t really matter if the crowd was full of undercover cops ready to hand out twenty thousand dollar fines to people busted with harmless marijuana. It didn’t matter whether police helicopters hovered over the Gathering, spying on Juggalos from the sky. It didn’t matter whether cops were handing out tickets for public nudity (at the fucking Gathering!).
In situations like these, perception becomes reality, and the perception in Oklahoma City was that the police were keeping a close watch on everyone at the festival. This had a chilling effect on festival-goers. A place of near total freedom became a place of limited freedom. A crazy Wild West world where the laws didn’t apply, and were certainly not enforced, suddenly became a world where the laws regarding nudity and drugs are strictly enforced.
The only naked breasts I saw at the Oklahoma Gathering belonged to a mother nursing her baby.
Hell, even the participants in the wet T-shirt contest had to wear pasties. Pasties at a wet T-shirt contest: it would be hard to come up with a blunter metaphor for the dispiriting effect of rules and regulations on the spirits of the frustrated revelers at the Gathering.
The lack of drugs and naked boobs weren’t the only bummers for Juggalos.
Longtime fan favorites and former psychopathic acts Twiztid, Boondox and Blaze Ya Dead Homie were nowhere to be seen, nor were Juggalo-friendly cult stars like Tech N9ne or Kottonmouth Kings, who I had seen at pretty much every Gathering I’ve attended—and this was my sixth.
There was a sense that the festival was scaling back. In previous years, for example, the Comedy Tent hosted some huge names, like Bobcat Goldthwait, Tom Green and Cheech & Chong.
This year the Comedy Tent didn’t feature big names so much as random novelties: Ventriloquist! Hypnotist! Weird dude who does some mime-like physical act with elaborate projections! In a shameless bit of Juggalo chicanery, the Gathering program added face-paint to ventriloquist Marc Rubben’s dummies via photoshop to make it look like he was a Juggalo ventriloquist with Juggalo dummies and an act catering to Juggalos, when he was actually a super-slick veteran of corporate gigs who probably had never heard of ICP before his agent booked him for the gig.
In previous years, I’ve seen headliners like Ice Cube, Geto Boys and Busta Rhymes perform at the Gathering, but this year the biggest names were people like Vanilla Ice and Waka Flocka Flame.
In 2011, I watched with excitement when former-mega-star MC Hammer won over the Juggalo crowd by inviting everyone onstage with him when he performed an ecstatic version of “U Can’t Touch This.”
This year I experienced a profound, joyous sense of déjà vu when former mega-star Vanilla Ice, Hammer’s one-time rival at the top of the charts, performed what appeared to be a 20 minute techno/ambient/electro version of “Ice, Ice Baby,” alongside a similarly ecstatic group of Juggalos thrilled to be onstage with an icon of their childhood while he performed a song every knows, and, whether they’re willing to admit it or not, loves.
The Gathering is all about the interaction of fan and artists, Juggalos and ICP.
So it made sense that the most memorable performances of the Gathering obliterated the barrier between fan and artist. Vanilla Ice partied with Juggalos onstage for half his set, as did Insane Clown Posse, who ended a riveting closing set with “Down with the Clown,” the ultimate anthem of Juggalo pride and Juggalo unity.
Waka Flocka Flame pursued an antithetical, but equally effective. approach. Instead of inviting the entire crowd onstage, he performed part of his set from within the crowd and part of it from within a mosh pit. I figured this was a 41-year-old father’s only opportunity to cross “Mosh with Waka Flocka Flame” off my bucket list, so I entered the fray, but headed out when I saw a look of concern creeping across Waka Flocka’s face.
After a rough start, Juggalos found a way to have fun and connect—even without the drugs and nudity and freedom and artists that have historically defined the Gathering. That sense of connection between artist and fans is always at its most powerful and pure during ICP’s yearly seminar.
This year Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope faced a lot of questions, some of them fairly hostile. The duo showed up fashionably late, and J disarmed the crowd by asking if he could tell a series of long, rambling, digressive personal anecdotes that they’d probably find boring. The crowd enthusiastically hollered their approval, and J lived up to his words and told rambling, Grandpa Simpson-style stories about getting into a car accident and trying to get treated in the hospital without an I.D, getting arrested years back and his van getting stolen.
J acknowledged that Oklahoma City was a huge headache to Juggalos but that their very nearly wasn’t a Gathering at all because the port-a-potty industry, which functions as the gross, gross, backbone of the live festival world, has a very low opinion of Juggalos. With the exception of the one company they ended up using, the port-a-potty people weren’t about to let Juggalos defecate inside their gross, gross outhouses.
Even people whose business is literally shit have standards, and Juggalos and ICP did not meet them.
Needless to say, it is an interesting time to be ICP, as they face the twin challenges of politicizing and mobilizing their base and convincing the shitter rental people to let them use their port-a-potties.
J didn’t get around to bringing up the march until after he had told a lot of rambling stories, but when he did, his reasoning was sound.
J argued that Juggalos didn’t need to be told that law enforcement treated Juggalos differently because they could see that oppression with their own eyes. They didn’t have to be told that the cops had it in for them because they were experiencing it themselves, first-hand.
When you want to win over hearts and minds, it’s generally important to show, rather than tell, but in the case of Juggalos and law enforcement, it probably would be a good idea to both show Juggalos the oppression and profiling they experience every goddamn day of their life, as well as to tell them why the March on Washington is important.
In fact, it couldn’t hurt to tell Juggalos over and over and over again why the march is essential, but ICP seems understandably gun-shy about alienating their fans by pushing their agenda too hard.
“Juggalos will never die!” was a popular chant at the Gathering, heard immediately after ICP’s closing performance, as blissed-out Juggalos tried to extend the ecstasy of being onstage with their favorite artists and their makeshift family. Somewhat tellingly, however, it was not quite as popular of a chant as “Fuck Oklahoma!”
The resilience of Insane Clown Posse borders on super-human, and if they, and the Gathering, can survive the oppression of Oklahoma City, they can survive anything. Hopefully that includes a March on Washington, which looms as a giant question mark that, hopefully, will receive a satisfying answer in September.