Groupies have always been a part of the music scene. The Grateful Dead and the Deadheads. Beatles and Beatlemania.
Juggalos like music called horrorcore rap and the main group they follow is the Insane Clown Posse. Many of them paint their faces to look like scary clowns. Some get tattoos with an image of a man running with a hatchet in his hand.The FBI has classified Juggalos as a hybrid street gang. Question is, who are Juggalos?
This story starts with horrorcore rap. Which is like hip-hop mixed with metal. The lyrics are dark, violent– graphic. Sort of like a script for a horror film, set to music. As a well-known horrorcore rapper called Mars once put it, “If you take Stephen King or Wes Craven and you throw them on a rap beat, that’s who I am.”
The most popular group in this genre is the Insane Clown Posse, or ICP. ICP is basically two guys: Joseph Bruce and Joseph Ulster. Otherwise known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.
So you’ve got horrorcore rap, and you’ve got ICP. Now for their fans.
They call themselves Juggalos.
HOTLINE: What up Juggalos. This is your homeboy J-Webb coming at you with another exciting edition of the Psychopathic Hotline.
J-Webb, or Jason Webber, is the PR person for ICP’s record label, Psychopathic Records.
HOTLINE: Let’s get right to it. As we speak Violent J and Shaggy 2-Dope are tearing it up across America on the Marvelous Missing Link Tour. This tour is taking place on both coasts and in the midwest and in the south. Basically everyplace except your mama’s ass.
This is pretty classic male Juggalo vernacular. There are female Juggalos–known as Juggalettes–but Juggalos tend to be pretty male-centric. Many of them talk like a certain kind of teenager–like that guy who sits in the back of chemistry class and makes mom jokes. The kind of guy most people don’t take seriously.
And then there’s the horrorcore aesthetic. A lot of Juggalos paint their faces like scary clowns, and have tattoos of what looks like a cartoon character wielding an axe. White guy cornrows are not a rare sight. They also walk around whoop whooping a lot. But until a few years ago, they were basically just a weird subculture. An internet joke.
Then in 2011, the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center classified Juggalos as, “a loosely organized hybrid gang.”
Detective Kenny Shelton is with the the Sacramento County Sheriff Gang Suppression Unit.
SHELTON: Gangs are the number one problem in America right now. At least in California and definitely in Sacramento. Gang members account for less than 1% of our total population in Sacramento but they’re committing 80% of our violent crime in Sacramento.
Detective Shelton says most of these gang members belong to gangs that immediately pop into your head. You know: Bloods, Crips, Nortenos. But the Sacramento Gang Unit also keeps an eye on Juggalos.
SHELTON: In Sacramento, we have in the ballpark of 40 documented Juggalo gang members. When you compare that to the total number of documented gang members in Sacramento, where we’ve got 20,000 documented gang members, it’s a small blip.
Detective Shelton says Juggalos have committed violent crimes. If you look online there are reports in other parts of the country of murders carried out with hatchets or meat cleavers by people identified as Juggalos. But in Sacramento, Detective Shelton says, the kind of crimes Juggalos generally commit have to do with narcotics and arson.
And most Juggalos aren’t committing crimes. They just like the music.
SHELTON: I would say the overwhelming majority of the individuals who align with the Insane Clown Posse, or Juggalos whatever the case may be, they just listen to the music. The problem is when they start following the music as a quote, unquote, religion. And the reason for that is the content of that music is ultraviolent.
When Shelton says ICP and other Juggalo music has ultraviolent lyrics, he means things like incredibly graphic descriptions of murder and rape. It can sound frightening–but the Juggalos I spoke to say the violence in their songs, is actually directed toward people who do terrible things.
MARS: It’s like they’re killing people that are like child molesters or people who do bad stuff so they’re like in a sense like these vigilante clowns.
Mars is a horrorcore rapper in the Bay Area. His real name is Mario Delgado. He’s the rapper who described his music as being like Stephen King or Wes Craven set to rap music. He doesn’t paint his face like a clown–instead he wears a Hannibal Lecter mask to concerts and interviews.
MARS: It’s like nobody forgets the guy in the Hannibal Lecter mask, you know what I mean? I have a persona about me that people gravitate towards if they’re into some weird stuff.
Horrorcore rap gets attention for its lyrics, as well as how artists in the genre appear in public.
MARS: It’s just so funny that all these people are probably some of the nicest people that I’ve ever met in my life. When you get them on TV and their faces are painted or on TV wearing a mask, we just look so crazy to normal people. But they don’t get, that’s the whole point.
The music is popular–ICP has two platinum records and their annual gatherings attract tens of thousands of fans. But you aren’t going to see horrorcore act at the Super Bowl halftime show or hear it in the local radio station. The music exists outside the mainstream. Which is part of why fans I spoke to said they see themselves more like a subculture. Sort of like Deadheads. Except, instead of wearing t-shirts with skulls on them and listening to songs with peaceful lyrics that are mostly metaphors for doing drugs or resisting the man, Juggalos paint their faces like clowns and listen to music with violent lyrics–which fans and artists in the genre say are meant as ironic reflections on the state of the world.
Jeff Ferrell is a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University.
FERRELL: …and a visiting professor of criminology in Kent in the UK.
Twenty years ago Ferrell and some of his colleagues helped found the study of cultural criminology.
FERRELL: And what we argued then and now is that more and more of what we see really isn’t straight ahead criminality or straight ahead criminal justice, but often intertwined with media dynamics and misinterpretation of symbolism.
Ferrell says that subcultures like the Juggalos often emerge when people feel like they can’t win in mainstream society. So, he says, they create a world where they can win.
FERRELL: It’s really very much a kind of carnival-esque inversion of status. So instead of striving to be a doctor or a lawyer or to win at a game that is already rigged against you, they and many other subcultures redefine the game.
The code of that subcultural conduct, Ferrell says, is the using clown face paint and knowing the lyrics to the newest ICP song.
FERRELL: That makes you kind of both a holy goof, a kind of fool, in the eye’s of society, but that also can easily blend over to being seen as a threat or a kind of outsider who threatens mainstream values or morality.
Ferrell also says that there is a historical precedent for mainstream institutions–such as the FBI and local law enforcement–categorizing subcultures as gangs. Take for instance, the Pachucos.
FERRELL: Long ago in the 40’s, Pachucos who were 2nd generation Mexican American kids who formed their style through wearing Zoot Suits and long drapey coats and pleated pants, during WWII were defined as a gang.
According to Ferrell, many people justified calling Pachucos a gang by pointing to their unique style.
FERRELL: Their style was seen as unpatriotic and not supporting the war effort and they came under attack by the police and by service men and women as well.
Today, most people agree that groups of people wearing unusual clothing does not a gang make. But what about listening to violent music and making stylistic choices that recall horror movies?
In January 2014, the Insane Clown Posse, along with four Juggalos, and the ACLU of Michigan, sued the FBI over the gang designation. Their suit demands the FBI and law enforcement agencies across the country end their designation of Juggalos as a hybrid gang.
Michael J. Steinberg one of the ACLU lawyers, at a press conference:
STEINBERG: It is a quintessential civil liberties case challenging government abuse and supporting the right of people to express themselves without fear of police persecution.
In a nutshell, the Juggalos involved in the lawsuit say that they’re not a gang at all–and that the FBI can’t classify a group of people as a gang based on the violent actions of a small number of people who are part of the group.
According to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU, classifying Juggalos as a gang turned a lot of people’s lives upside down. This is Violent J–or Joseph Bruce–from ICP:
VIOLENT J: The FBI’s gang designation has caused real lasting harm to the lives of the Juggalos. Parents have lost custody of their kids, they’ve been fired from jobs, they’ve been denied housing, they’ve been subjected to illegal searches, and sometimes added to a gang database simply for walking down the street wearing an ICP t-shirt.
Gabe Gonzales is a Juggalo from Oakland, California. He says that the gang designation has changed the lives of some Juggalos for the worse. Gonzales said a friend of his who identifies as a Juggalo got into hard drugs and was sent to prison. But later, after he was released from prison, Gonzales says he put his life back in order.
GONZALES: He got his kids back out of foster care and his kids are now living with him. And he goes to his last probation meeting and it was a week after we had gotten labelled a gang.
Gonzales said his friend had a Juggalo tattoo.
GONZALES: And because he had a hatchet man tattoo, it was against his probation. Because he was affiliated with a gang now. Officially. And so he got sent back to jail, lost his kids, lost his job, and to this day he’s still in there. Just over a tattoo. Just over a hatchet man tattoo.
Gonzales says the hatchet man tattoo is misinterpreted by people outside the Juggalo culture. He says to Juggalos, the image represents a more equitable and just society.
GONZALES: It’s a guy with an ax running after bigots. People that look at people differently because of the color of their skin or the way they look.
Gonzales is soft-spoken and somewhat introverted. As a Latino teenager he says he experienced racial discrimination. So, he says, he spent a lot of time at home watching pro wrestling. He felt like an outsider. Then he discovered the Insane Clown Posse and in 2000, he attended his first ICP concert. For the first time, he says, he felt like he belonged…somewhere.
GONZALES: I grew up with a lot of bigotry in my life. I grew up with a lot of people doubting me cause I was Mexican, talking down to me because I was Mexican. So when I saw this culture that was, that had no bigotry in it whatsoever, it was a free culture. Everybody was equal. It felt right. I may be Mexican, but I don’t consider myself a Mexican. I consider myself a Juggalo.
In 2012, Gonzales was at the annual Juggalo music festival when ICP announced they were planning on suing the FBI for classifying Juggalos as a hybrid gang.
GONZALES: Right when they said it I just bursted into tears. And I looked around I saw people also tearing, but they were chanting family. A big old chant of family rang out for a good like 3 minutes straight. The whole place erupted. Everybody’s hugging each other and it was just like finally there might be some hope.
Farris Haddad is one of ICP’s lawyers on the case. He’s also a Juggalo. He said until the ACLU announced it was going to join ICP in challenging the FBI, he hadn’t realized how much the gang classification was affecting Juggalos.
HADDAD: I had no idea that I’d be sitting there for about three days straight with a line out the door and around the corner of people just filling out statements and telling their stories and sort of crying in my little trailer office.
In the end, lawyers representing the case said they picked four Juggalos to join the suit. And even though these four had spotless criminal records, they said they had been harassed by law enforcement, and felt their service in the US Armed Forces was threatened.
Haddad says shortly after they filed the suit, he filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to find out exactly what evidence the FBI was using to classify Juggalos as a gang. He says he was surprised by what he got back.
HADDAD: The first thing we received, which was the main thing that they gave us, was about 20-30 internet articles. It was almost as if you gave the assignment to like a highschool student and they just went online and googled and printed out a few articles and they sent us.
Haddad says those articles were local news stories where a suspect in a crime was identified as a Juggalo. He also says he received copies of emails the FBI sent to local law enforcement agencies asking them if they knew of or thought there was a Juggalo gang in the area. The responses were usually just a sentence, and were all redacted.
Brandon Bradley, one of the four Juggalos represented in ACLU case, is from Sacramento. He’s said publicly that he experienced harassment and has been identified as a gang member for nothing more than wearing Juggalo clothing and having hatchet man tattoos.
Detective Shelton–the Sacramento police detective–says that he’s documented less than a dozen Juggalos as gang members, and that all have had criminal records.
SHELTON: Every person who I have documented as a Juggalo gang member has a criminal history. They’ve been arrested at some point, usually pretty recently. Not all Juggalos have a criminal history but all of the ones that I’ve personally contacted and documented as Juggalos have.
Some Juggalos ARE committing crimes. That much is clear. But what is NOT clear is whether they’re committing crimes because they’re Juggalos. Or, if people who commit crimes also happen to be Juggalos. And that’s the crux of the issue.
SHELTON: We tend to be very picky and choosy about what crimes we say are gang related particularly with the Juggalos because it’s such a hot topic right now across the US.
Detective Shelton says at one time he listened to horrorcore rap, as a teenager–and that it wasn’t for him. He also says that anyone who chooses to identify as a Juggalo is taking a risk by affiliating themselves with a group that make many people in the local community anxious.
SHELTON: If you’re presenting yourself in a particular way, you’re going to be looked at in a particular way. Whether it’s fair or not fair. People know what Juggalos are. A lot of it because of media attention. So if you’re out there painting your face, walking around with a hatchet, wearing all this stuff, you just have to accept that’s the way you’re presenting yourself. Whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent. That’s the way society is based.
In their lawsuit the Juggalos and the ACLU say this kind of profiling–and the associated street gang identification–is exactly the problem they’re trying to fight. They say their civil liberties are at stake, and this is about more than the civil rights of Juggalos. Again, Farris Haddad.
HADDAD: So the problem is if they get away with this, then this sets a precedent. Then who’s next? It’s such a slippery slope and that’s the problem.
For Life of the Law, I’m Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle.
HOTLINE: For now I’m J-Webb and I’m out of this piece. Peace and mad clown love. Whoop, whoop.