BY MEGAN MATUZAK In 2011, the FBI and the DOJ issued a National Gang Threat assessment which designated the widely detested Insane Clown Posse’s fanbase of self-described Juggalos as a gang that was as dangerous as the Crips and the Bloods. The report cited violent lyrics, iconic symbols like the Hatchet Man and the fact that it seemed increasingly common for criminals to wear ICP shirts when they committed crimes.
“Police departments across the country were already figuring that the Juggalos were easy targets, marks for their well-funded gang units to justify their existence,” writes Steve Miller [pictured, below right] in his just-published book, Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made. “In this case, demonizing a lower-class fan base would work just fine.”
The largely invisible class war that is going on in America figures prominently in Miller’s book. He repeatedly asserts that the real reason that ICP is so hated isn’t their music or their antics, but the fact that they came up from poverty and poverty still defines their audience. Miller describes the hardscrabble upbringing of ICP’s frontmen, Violent J (Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Ustler): unstable home life, living off of welfare and being bullied at school. The pair found each other at a young age as members of a DIY back alley wrestling federation in the suburbs of Detroit. A rubber hose circumscribed the ring, they wore masks and made grand entrances, the duo were every bit like the WWE superstars “with all the glitz and performance art.”
Having been dealt a shitty hand, J and Shaggy turned to music and, after a few incarnations, became Insane Clown Posse and, shortly thereafter, the “most hated band in the world.” Miller is not a hater, and in the course of the book mounts a strong case for the First Amendment rights of musicians, including ICP. “It is the last American subculture and it stands alone,” Miller writes. ICP’s annual, corporate-backer-free festival just celebrated its 17th go around this past July. Recently, Phawker got Miller on the phone to get down with the clown.
PHAWKER: What inspired you to write this book?
STEVE MILLER: Well to be honest, I heard them, I got turned on to them about 20 some odd years ago. It just made it into my rotation. I mean it wasn’t at the top of the playlist but it was always in there, in the mix. When I started doing this, the thing of course that jumped out at me was the FBI gang designation. It became to me more of a First Amendment issue than a musical issue. It’s one thing to write a book about a band, which didn’t appeal to me, it’s another to write a thing about law enforcement and federal government and local governments trying to infringe on the rights of free speech.
PHAWKER: Throughout the book you really dig into the media and how they “hold hands” with local and federal officials when it comes to reporting. What does that make you, a sadist?
STEVE MILLER: [laughs] Probably, being a journalist myself you get plenty of hate thrown your way anyway, right? I mean, you’ll never win. I was probably just stepping outside of that. I’ve covered cops and you become beholden to the cops for information so you become very obedient. Really, we have to do more than just say ‘Well, this guy is a juggalo it’s a juggalo-related crime.’ i think we need to look a little further than that. As the Feds started gathering things for the gang assessment they would be querying these local departments and they would say ‘Oh we definitely have juggalos.’ Most of what the Feds got back wasn’t intelligence reports, it was press clipping. Then they would say, ‘Look, these are the problems we are having even the media agrees with us.’
PHAWKER: You seemed to have been given good access, you talked to everyone: J, Shaggy, J’s mother, cops giving anti-juggalo talks, Psychopathic Records people, and the fans at The Gathering. Can you talk about building a story with so many voices?
STEVE MILLER: You make a list of who can fill this part of the story out, who can tell me these things? Any time you are writing a story some people don’t just say no but ‘Hell no!’ — then you adjust.
PHAWKER: I’m going to read a quote from the book, “The industry vultures inevitably sweep in and pick the bones, the worst of the remnants, and next thing you know, Lindsay Lohan is wearing a Ramones T-shirt.” So when is Lindsay Lohan getting an ICP shirt?
STEVE MILLER: [laughs] You know, I’m going to be honest. I don’t know if that would really surprise me. I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
PHAWKER: You mention Herbert Gans and his study of class. Specifically, “how poverty feeds the upper class.” Can you explain how that relates to ICP and the Juggalos?
STEVE MILLER: If anyone went to a gathering they would see beyond all that. I think what you are getting at, is there a classism issue with the juggalos? I’m not sure. The outside world tends to look down on them. You know say “these aren’t people with means” and that is probably true. In the context I was referring to Gans how in general people are put down and kept down.
PHAWKER: I was watching American Juggalo [see below], have you seen that?
STEVE MILLER: I didn’t care for it. Here is the funniest part. The first time I went to a Gathering I expected to see things that happened in American Juggalo I didn’t really see a lot of that. Maybe at night or maybe I was oblivious to it. I would have liked to see the guy cut off his nipples. I think American Juggalo was fun to watch, but I didn’t let it shape me but I also didn’t really see a lot of the same activity.
PHAWKER: Well what about how the crowd violently turned on Tila Tequila at a Gathering? That pissed me off. It’s not that I think that she has more than 10 brain cell left. But did she really deserve that?
STEVE MILLER: That episode, it was so distasteful. If you have ever covered a mass action you can see the power of a group when they get out of hand. I wasn’t there for that, but the people who relayed it to me said it was so harrowing. They get so worked up and so crazed that this is what happens. Remember, they said Tila you don’t have to go out there. You really don’t want to do this. She wanted to do it. Credit to her for that.
PHAWKER: Playing devil’s advocate, doesn’t this play into the FBI’s notion that the Juggalos are a huge group that is capable of doing something extremely violent together?
STEVE MILLER: I have seen civil disobedience, I’ve seen people arrested in the streets. I’ve covered protests and riots. I was outside the Staples Center in 2000 when Rage Against The Machine played outside the DNC. I was covering the streets when everybody started throwing rocks and the cops moved in and they had huge clashes. That was really, really scary. I couldn’t tell who I was more scared of. To witness the power of crowd and the ire of a crowd is scary. That is what I picked up regarding Tila tequila. If you weren’t part of that group in taking on Tila Tequila you just wanted to get out.
PHAWKER: Can you explain what you mean by ICP and the Juggalos being the “last American subculture”? For me, it became a lens to see this book through.
STEVE MILLER: The same corporations own all the book publishers, they own all the record labels, they own every creative outlet there is. We’ve got Live Nation making sure that we have to pay 25% service fee on all tickets. Which puts the tickets out of the range of a certain social strata, you know? I can’t see it getting any better. ICP were a group that was so marginalized that no one could make any money off of them. Generally, either you can usually water down subculture and try to make some money off of it. But this one really managed to keep itself outside of everything else by being completely unmarketable.