|Photo by: Kevin Rutherford|
I am standing roughly four feet away from Insane Clown Posse's Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Behind me are hundreds of Juggalos, all packed into a tent for ICP’s Friday afternoon seminar and hanging on every word that comes from the mouths of their family patriarchs.
“I want to talk about the mainstream media presence,” says J, with a hint of menace in his tone. “There are people out there in the woods watching, studying, trying to comprehend what the fuck this is.”
He is referring to the Gathering of the Juggalos--the twelfth annual and the first with a heavy media presence.
“It’s something they don’t understand, but we do.” He is interrupted by a chant of “FAMILY! FAMILY!” from the crowd and continues, “You’ll never put your finger on it, unless you’re a part of it.”
I can feel a hundred pairs of eyes on me. Me: blonde, 19 years old, raised in the suburbs, sporting a press pass and clutching a pocket notebook--all indicators that scream: “I am one of the people he is talking about.” It doesn’t matter that I think I have an open mind. It doesn’t matter that I’m still young enough in my journalism career to think that objectivity is a reachable and honorable standard. In their eyes, I am the enemy.
J’s next words put me slightly at ease. “I like the press being here,” he states. “Because Juggalos are news.”
That they are. Their story deserves covering. I’m not sure I’m the right one for the job, but I’ll do my best--starting with three days ago.
I’m sitting on my back porch, wasting away another summer afternoon. My cell phone vibrates. It’s a text from my friend Kevin Rutherford, editor here at ACRN.com and a contributor at Billboard.com. Apparently Billboard is sending him to Illinois to cover a music festival and he has a plus-one. He wants to know if I’m interested in tagging along. “Of course,” I respond.
“Okay, before you agree you should know that it’s the Gathering of the Juggalos.” I look down at my tie-dye Bob Dylan t-shirt. Great, I’ll fit right in.
My knowledge of Insane Clown Posse comes strictly from Saturday Night Live parodies. The only thing I know about Juggalos is that they had the nerve to throw things at Method Man. I have no idea what to expect but years of reading entirely too much Hunter S. Thompson have taken their toll. Cover the story. “I’m in.”
It is now Thursday afternoon. I’ve packed all the essentials: tent, PB&J, tape recorder, extra pens, Marlboro Reds as conversation starters, some nondescript clothing strictly in neutral colors, and my best poker face. We’ve just driven six hours to Cave-in-Rock Illinois, picked up our passes at will call, and I am about to have my first encounter with a Juggalo.
He is wearing an orange staff vest and motions to me to roll down my window so that he can tell us where to park. I do so and he pulls out a pocket knife blade. I can’t help it, I instantly think of the last post on my Facebook wall, a dire warning from a friend of my older brother: “These people stab outsiders. You will not be safe. You will not be clean. You will not have fun.”
The Juggalo, who I will find out is named Danny, cuts the excess off my wristband with his blade. “There you go, darlin’,” he says with a smile. “Now it won’t be in the way as much.”
This is Danny’s sixth year attending the Gathering and he has helped out with security every year. “The thing I love about it is that every year I get to celebrate a birthday,” he says. “I’m 22 again this year,” he adds with a wink. Happy birthday, Danny, thanks for the help and the reality check.
After setting up our tent and checking in at the media trailer we are given a quick tour via golf cart. We go past the JCW (Juggalo Championship Wrestling) ring, the “Spazmatic Hangout” (a bar in every sense of the social function except instead of serving alcohol they sell Faygo and Psychopathic’s own brand of energy drink that gives the bar its name), and what our tour guide Andy--Psychopathic’s media liaison who is also a lawyer--explains is called “the drug bridge.”
The drug bridge is exactly what it sounds like--a place where every vice imaginable is there for the taking if you’ve got the right change: Weed, shrooms, acid, cocaine, Molly and Ecstacy, DMT, OxyContin, Xanax, and even pre-rolled Jeffries. I knew we weren’t in Kansas any more, but this concrete slab that spans a creek in rural Illinois makes Amsterdam look like the DEA Headquarters.
Other points of interest on the tour were the seminar tent, the midway whose Ferris wheel, Tornado and Scrambler give the Gathering its nickname of the “dark carnival,” and the main stage where the festivities would begin in just under one hour.
It’s about 7:30 p.m. when the emcee for the night takes the stage. He announces that Paul Wall, the opening act, has not shown up.
Oh no, this is not going to go over well.
“We’re going to give you a little more time to drink and talk and smoke,” says the emcee--Dustin Diamond of "Saved By the Bell" fame. The crowd answers with a “Whoop, whoop!” and the atmosphere remains completely jovial.
...what? I’ve seen hippies get more pissed...
A DJ entertains the crowd with a dubstep mashup and aside from the occasional joking “fuck Paul Wall!” chant that breaks out, the crowd seems willing to wait for the next act, E-40.
The crowd seems to enjoy E-40 well enough, but he is just a warm-up in comparison to the next act: MC Hammer. Hammer is most well known as a '90s one-hit wonder in parachute pants. He’s older than my parents. I don’t exactly have high hopes for his set.
Again, I am proven wrong. Say what you will about his rhymes, but MC Hammer still has the moves. His energy is staggering. He’s jumping around on the stage, off the stage, into the crowd, back on stage bringing some of the crowd with him. At one point there are at least a hundred Juggalos on stage with him, dancing right along to “Can’t Touch This.” This show is insane.
Busta Rhymes goes on next. I am standing along the barricade toward the front. “Let me take you back to ’92,” he says a few songs into his set. “That was a good year,” murmurs the woman next to me, almost wistfully. “That’s the year my baby was born.” I look into her face and see a universal expression I recognize as a mother’s proud smile. I was born that year. This woman, in a different time and place, could be my own mother. I am nothing short of humbled.
I am in hell. My body is on fire and I am in hell. I have to be. That is the only conceivable explanation for this oppressive heat bearing down upon my sleeping corpse. No, that’s just the 9 a.m. sun turning my shadeless campsite into a natural furnace. It’s clear that sleep is going to be problematic. The sound of a megaphone interrupts my groggy thoughts of heat stroke. “WHO WANT TO THROW DOWN ON A JEFFREY? I’VE GOT MOLLY, COKE, AND XANAX! WHO WANT TO THROW IN? WE WAKE AND BAKE WITH JEFFRIES DOWN HERE!” I overhear the woman in the tent next to me, “I’m 36. I’m getting too old for this.” I’m only 19 and I’m getting too old for this. Time to start the day.
We head to the WFuckOff Radio shelter house so that Kevin can type up his Day 1 coverage for Billboard and I can sit in some blessed shade. Juggalos are sitting on the banks of what is affectionately known as “Lake Hepatitis” and at the picnic tables in the shelter house, enjoying the lazy morning. One couple is wake-and-baking with a bong. I over hear two middle-aged men talking about the existence of God and swapping stories from the army. But my favorite overheard quote comes from a kid sitting on the stage where the radio DJs will be spinning later. He’s talking about the gathering with a group of people. “You don’t piss on someone unless they piss on you. That’s why we all come out here.”
There’s something haunting about his words to me. Something telling about why this festival seems to exist in the first place--about why this group of people calls itself a “family.” This is a place to go where, as long as you are willing to be just as accepting, you can be accepted. A place where society’s rules, expectations, and general norms do not apply. It’s easy to understand the appeal.
Events go on throughout the day. The Juggalo Championship Wrestling contest is a big draw, as is ICP’s memorable afternoon seminar. In the evening, the main stage kicks off yet again. The first big-name act is Juvenile, but he leaves the stage after just a few songs, fed up with the projectiles--water bottles, Faygo cans, and the occasional shoe--that make their way from pop-corning in the audience onto the stage. Much like with Paul Wall, the crowd seems more amused by the artist’s reaction than upset or disappointed. He was not the act that they were waiting for--that slot belongs to the Kottonmouth Kings.
As their name implies, the Kottonmouth Kings are some kind of stoner rock-rap royalty. They are clearly a crowd favorite. Weed plants are raised up like picket signs at a football game in the crowd. The cloud of smoke wafting out of the pit is surreal. I have never in my life seen so much weed smoked at once and I am a Grateful Dead fan. They play a slow jam entitled “Tangerine Sky” and nearly everyone in the crowd raises up their lighter flame. A still shot of this again looks oddly familiar to me. I think back to photos from Led Zeppelin concerts where the crowd commits this same show of musical solidarity for a song named after the same citrus fruit. I smile at the comparison.
After the Kottonmouth Kings, a Juggalo kid comes up to me. He’s a bit stoned and/or drunk, but he is the jolly type. “Can I grab your ass?” he asks me, as if it is the most reasonable question ever presented.
I laugh at the proposition, “I’d prefer it if you didn’t.”
“Come onnn, just once? It’s the Gathering.”
“Really, no thanks.”
He admits defeat and instead offers me a parting bro-shake. As far as drunken hit-ons go, I’ve had worse.
Lil Jon’s set is exactly what you would expect. He plays all the hits I haven’t heard since middle school and says “Whaaat?” a few too many times. It’s fun and something I never thought I’d see live. Ice Cube spends most of his set referring to his NWA days, talking about inventing west coast gangster rap. He fails to mention his acting career and recent role in the kids movie “Are We There Yet?” ABK headlines and Day 2 ends much like Day 1 did--in the wee hours of Day 3 as the menacing sun starts rising in the sky and my tent cowers in defeat to its rays.
Saturday is hot and by mid-afternoon I am in a very dark place--internally. I could only wish to find one physically. The morning shower I took was all but pointless as I am already covered in a layer of sweat and festival grime. The vendors are typical in that they are overpriced and heavy on meat and fried food and so I, a broke vegetarian, have eaten nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and a bowl of rice topped with somehow greasy vegetable since our arrival. Cat calls of “Show me your titties!” yelled from sawed-off school buses that drive around the festival grounds like hay-rides, have gotten old and my patience has worn thin. Kevin makes the executive decision to head to the nearest Walmart 45 minutes out so that we can use the internet to file his story and I can get some much needed sustenance.
Two calm, relaxing drives, a half hour spent stealing Burger King’s Wi-Fi, and some serious produce consumption later and I am ready to take on the Gathering yet again.
Costumes seem to be out in full force on Saturday--my favorite is Where’s Waldo--as is Charlie Sheen (who is set to emcee the night) apparel and signage. The first act I catch is Vanilla Ice.
Vanilla Ice has just officially announced his signing with Psychopathic Records. “Nobody has ever embraced who I am today like the Juggalo Family.” His words echo Violent J’s from yesterday’s seminar: “Vanilla Ice and us have always gotten along. If we’re the most hated band by the mainstream media, he is the most hated rapper.”
His set is a display of showmanship. He brings a Juggalo and a five-foot bong on stage and sporadically takes hits from it. The rock critic in me sees a last ditch effort to save his career. It sees a mediocre-at-best one-hit wonder. It takes note that it took him two tries to hit that bong to begin with and it notices that he didn’t even take a full load. The crowd doesn’t seem to notice these things. Which I suppose is fair--I won’t deny that he is entertaining. The pyrotechnics he has for “Ice Ice Baby” steal the show for me but I imagine the 30 or so maybe-legal-but-probably-not topless Juggalettes that he brings on stage as impromptu background dancers are the highlight for most of the male audience members.
After Ice’s spectacle, I am proud to say that I am in the presence of a living legend: George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. In terms of imagery, he fits in with the other acts. The cloak covered in pot leafs helps, as does the alien background dancer smoking a blunt. He even makes “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” have a harder edge.
But George Clinton is still the same funk mastermind he always was and his set proves it. I am proud to say that I saw him live. “Maggot Brain” even gets a lighter salute--not quite Kottonmouth Kings, but certainly no Tila Tequila.
The only question on everyone’s mind at this point: “Where is Charlie Sheen?” The tour bus that pulls up halfway through George Clinton’s set holds the answer. When he makes it out on stage, the crowd explodes with chants of “Whoop, whoop!” and “Charlie! Charlie!” At one point, he catches a flying Faygo can and everyone, including myself, erupts in surprised cheers.
That being said, Charlie Sheen was the worst emcee of the weekend. He showed up late, was on stage for a cumulative time of about five minutes, mumbled a few token phrases into the mic, and left before the headliner had barely taken the stage. That being said, most of the crowd doesn’t seem to care.
After Sheen’s late arrival is Blaze and then Tech N9ne, a rap artist whose set I am pleasantly surprised to enjoy. At one point he says to the crowd, “Raise up your middle finger to all the haters that ever hated on you.” Then, he launches into his song “Red Nose,” the lyrics of which offer an insight into the difficult side of being a Juggalo: “People act a different way with me / I feel don’t nobody wanna play with me / And that’s ill 'cause they treat me like a stain on their clothes / the industry are my foes / they treat me like I got a red nose.” Everything from the disillusionment to the clown imagery of a red nose makes perfect sense in this environment.
About two songs into headliner Twiztid, the skies open up and mother nature’s own pyrotechnics light up the night. I have gotten separated from Kevin and, after looping the festival grounds, I decide the best bet to find him is back at the camp sight. Hood up, press pass tucked in, poker face, go.
As we are sitting in the car drying off I explain that rain doesn’t usually bother me. In fact, one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever been to was in the pouring rain: Gregg Allman and Steve Miller Band. No sooner than five minutes after sharing this anecdote, we hear from the Twiztid stage a cover of Steve Miller Band’s “ The Joker.” I bust out laughing at the coincidence. Day three has been another sobering reminder of the similarities between two allegedly different worlds.
When 20,000 people camp together for four days, tempers are bound to flare eventually. Three days of hard partying, little sleep, and undesirable lodging conditions will get to anyone and so I am not surprised when we are met with more hostility than we have been up to this point. After two or three exclamations of, “Fuck the press!” I suggest that we tuck the press passes in and fly under the radar as much as possible. It is a wise decision, as is our decision to head back into town for a bit to use the Internet.
At McDonald’s, Kevin has the mobile technology lab up and running and is doing his job. I am pounding coffee like it’s my job and I manage to strike up a conversation with the people at the table next to ours--an 18-year-old Juggalo and his straight-edge, 50-year-old father, both of whom have also gotten away from the festival for a bit to seek caffeine and to charge their phones.
The father, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me that he has worked as a security guard for 20 years. He says that his son, Anthony, doesn’t understand the inherent dangers of a festival like this and so he came along for the ride. They white water rafted at national parks on the way down for the father’s enjoyment and now are attending the festival for the son. They are an unlikely pair with two completely conflicting opinions, but the love and respect they have for each other despite that fact is immediately apparent.
“It’s not a family. It’s a profit situation. When the money and the profit stops, the camaraderie will go with it,” the father says regarding the Juggalo culture that ICP has created.
He talks to me about the bands he loves--the Rolling Stones come up a lot, we’re both fans--and how much he has seen change in American culture in his life, particularly the rise in the divorce rate.
“It’s a cult instinct that they exploit,” he says of ICP. “They use that tactic and get away with it because we have a dysfunctional society. Homes are broken from divorce. These kids grow up with acceptance problems. But they wouldn’t if not for the underlying societal cause. It’s dangerous.”
He is also concerned by the open drug use on the festival grounds and he is openly critical of Vanilla Ice’s stunt with the Juggalettes. Ever the Devil’s advocate, I ask him how that is any different from the hippies with Haight-Ashbury. Was there not just as much open drug use? Just as many young girls exploited sexually under the guise of “free love”? He sees my point but maintains that this is different, more intense and all the more dangerous.
Anthony disagrees. He sees the Juggalos as his friends, the Gathering as their party. He tells me that he was one of ones up on stage for MC Hammer.
“I’m in the YouTube video,” he says excitedly.
“I’ve started calling him Little Hammer,” says his father jokingly.
When everything is charged, we part ways but I am grateful for the conversation.
When we return to the festival, it’s clear that many people have arrived just for the final night. Face paint is much more prevalent today than any other day. Everyone seems to be eagerly awaiting ICP’s closing set.
I spend most of the night talking with Juggalos and Juggalettes around the main stage, focusing more on interactions than on the music as I have the other nights of the festival.
We meet a friendly Juggalo kid named Nathan who tells us about how he almost won one of the contests at WFuckOff Radio. We tell him about the father we met earlier and what he said about the family being a profit driven scam. He surprisingly seems to agree with the father, citing the grocery as explanation.
“They’re charging 10 dollars for a pack of cigarettes,” he says. “I’d give family cigarettes for free.” He is honest with us but adds that the profit aspect doesn’t diminish the experience for him.
I sit down along the fence next to a young Juggalo who tells me his name is Josh. We talk about the Gathering--it’s his first year as well. He came solo but tells me that he’s been having a blast.
“I wish I’d met more cool Juggalettes like you,” he says and I’m surprised to find myself flattered.
“I’ll be honest with you,” I say. “I’m not a Juggalette.”
“No shit!” he exclaims and refuses to believe me at first--I must be doing my job properly. When he finally believes me he says, “Okay, when I tell my brother about you I’ll just say I met this really cool homegirl.” I say that sounds good to me and we take a picture to remember the moment.
A bit later, Kevin and I begin talking with a Juggalette who wants to be credited as Rexanne Greenfeather. She is a proud, kin, and well-spoken young woman I consider myself lucky to have met.
“They talk about the make-up and the drugs and the horror but they don’t talk about the good things we do,” she says. “They don’t talk about our community service. They don’t talk about our commitments to our family.”
She tells us that her “Juggalo Club” back home volunteers at soup kitchens weekly. At one point, she apologizes for the tears in her eyes saying, “I’m sorry, I’m just very passionate about this.”
She thanks us for our media presence and for sticking out the course of the festival--unlike some of the media, camera crews especially, who she’s noticed have already called it quits.
“If they want to get their one-side story, fine. But that’s not what this place is really like.” She explains that there is good and there is bad, but before you can judge it you have to go and you have to stay the whole time before you can form an opinion on it. I can only agree.
By this point in the night, only ICP themselves are left to play. The atmosphere is full of tense excitement and anticipation. The photographers are outfitting their cameras with plastic bags for when the inevitable Faygo shower begins. The security crew is getting pumped, jumping and fist-bumping one another, limbering up for what will be the most intense show of the weekend.
Another press woman I have yet to meet comes up beside me where I stand on the sideline to the left of the stage. She tells me that she is 36 years old and just had a baby boy. She’s been filming an independent documentary on Juggalos with another woman for the past four years.
We talk about the festival atmosphere.
“This year’s been pretty chill,” she says. “Just a bunch of hippies. But two years ago was scary. I literally feared for my life and thought I might get raped. And that says a lot, because I’ve worked rock concerts my whole life.”
“This is about to get unreal,” she says nodding toward the crowd. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
I don’t catch her name but I’ve started referring to her as “my festival mom.” She tells me everything she’s learned since she was my age, how having a kid changes things, the benefits of having an iPhone, not showing one's titties, the necessity of a good cup of coffee, and what it means to be “a badass rock and roll chick living a mother’s lifestyle.” She even promises to protect me if the show gets out of hand.
“Girl, if things get crazy you just get behind me and we’ll fight ‘em off with this camera tripod.” We both laugh, but I can tell she’s serious.
And now, we wait.
A demented version of the national anthem plays through the monitors and clowns dressed like Uncle Sam ride big wheels onto the stage. Then, the men themselves come out of the shadows. ICP is officially on stage. So it begins.
The Faygo starts to fly almost immediately. The energy in the crowd is astounding. Crowd surfers make their way to the front, are lifted out by security, and sent out the sides in a constant stream. Some are clearly tripping on drugs, some are just high on pure adrenaline.
Confetti, Faygo, props, dancing clowns, fireworks, pyrotechnics. ICP isn’t just pulling things out of their bag of tricks--they’ve dumped the bag on stage, shaken the contents loose and are now employing MacGyver-like ingenuity in their use.
The crowd is loving every minute, singing along to every song.
Anthony from McDonald’s comes out of the post-crowd surf pit and we share an exclamation of recognition and fist bump. A Juggalo tripping hard on something rages out after him and I am unashamedly gripped with fear. My “festival mom” pulls me out of the way and stares him down before he disappears back into the crowd.
ICP goes hard for over an hour before their set ends in the triumphant explosion of fireworks and Faygo. The 12th Annual Gathering of the Juggalos has officially come to a close.
In the aftermath of such an experience I struggle to make sense of what I have seen. Much of it is unexplainable, a good portion of that is not graspable. Violent J was right, I can’t quite put my finger on what it means to be a Juggalo. I doubt I’ll ever be able to. I know that I unquestionably met some people this weekend who wouldn’t have thought twice about stabbing me. I know even more so that I met just as many who would have given me the shirt off their back to use as a tourniquet and rushed me to the first aid tent. I know that you can’t always trust a Juggalo--just like you can’t always trust what others tell you about Juggalos.
In the end, Violent J said it best himself at the Friday afternoon seminar, “Juggalos are like finger prints. No two are the same. But we all work on the same hand.”
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