Part rap group, part societal phenomenon, Insane Clown Posse grew an unlikely cult around their cartoonish and critically loathed horrorcore rap styles. Loosely connected themes of psychopathic clowns, Faygo soda, and the importance of friendship was enough for thousands of die-hard fans to don clown make up and proclaim themselves "juggalos," part of a community of Insane Clown Posse superfans drawn to their lowest-common-denominator humor and shock-factor rhymes. Staunchly independent, ICP only had brief and controversy-heavy associations with major labels around the time of their 1997 album The Great Milenko, but spent much of their decades of existence releasing their albums (as well as the music of an extended family of artists) on their own Psychopathic Records label. The group's grassroots approach resulted in millions of album sales, with a creative and commercial peak happening around the time of their highly conceptual late-'90s/early-2000s output. A loose narrative exposed over the course of several albums — records like 1995's Riddle Box and 1999's The Amazing Jeckel Brothers — was presented as different "joker's cards," culminating with the spiritual reveal of 2002's The Wraith; Shangri-La.
Down to a duo, ICP were originally formed in 1989 as a hardcore Detroit rap group called Inner City Posse. After combusting in 1991, the only members left, Violent J (born Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (born Joseph Utsler), slightly altered their name to reflect the fact that they had been visited by the Carnival Spirit, who ordered them to carry word of the impending apocalypse by touring the nation and releasing six "joker cards" (popularly known as LPs) with successive revelations of the final judgment. The first, Carnival of Carnage, appeared in 1992 on their own Psychopathic Records label. The group became notorious in Detroit's underground scene, but several tours around the region failed to ignite much more than the rage of community leaders.
After the release of 1994's The Ringmaster, ICP began to get a bit of attention as a possible follower of cartoon metal bands like GWAR and Green Jelly. Jive Records signed the group and released The Riddle Box in 1995, but the record bombed and ICP returned to the ranks of the indies. Just one year later, Hollywood Records gambled on the band and spent more than a million dollars while ICP recorded their new album, The Great Milenko. On the day of its release in 1997, however, Hollywood pulled the record, citing obscene lyrics and gruesome content — possibly a move by its owner, Disney, to deflect criticism of its practices by the Southern Baptist Federation. In a bizarre twist, yet another major label, Island Records, stepped in to release the album and capitalize on ICP's notoriety, which continued to increase thanks to several incidents that kept them in the headlines: J was arrested after clubbing an audience member with his microphone in late 1997, and shortly thereafter, the group's tour bus ran off the road, leaving J with a concussion. Next, the group and its entourage were involved in a brawl at a Waffle House in Indiana, and both members eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges.
All the chaos took its toll, as J suffered a panic attack in April 1998 while on-stage in Minnesota. However, all of the publicity helped expand the group's cult following to the point where their next album, the 1999 concept record The Amazing Jeckel Brothers, debuted in the Top Five. As evidenced by the numerous different collectible covers for The Amazing Jeckel Brothers, ICP had become a virtual merchandising machine, complete with comic books to flesh out their elaborate Dark Carnival mythology. They also wrote and starred in their own straight-to-video movie, Big Money Hustlas, and made guest appearances at wrestling events. The group spent the summer of 1999 bickering with various tourmates (Coal Chamber in particular) and played at the ill-fated Woodstock '99. Early in 2000, Shaggy collapsed on-stage, but the cause was deemed to be nothing more than a combination of the flu and low blood sugar; however, while staging a wrestling event several months later, Shaggy fell off a steel cage, breaking his nose and cheekbone. Still, ICP managed to make it into the studio to record a follow-up album, and Big Money Hustlas was finally released.
In the 2000, the first Gathering of the Juggalos festival took place in Novi, Michigan. Organized by ICP, the two-day show included live wrestling and performances by ICP, Twiztid, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, and other Psychopathic Records performers. Thousands of juggalos flocked to the event even at its beginnings, and it would grow to become an annual summit for fans of the band and participants in the strange subculture that was the juggalo. By 2009, attendance at the gatherings was in the tens of thousands.
On Halloween 2000, the group issued its sixth album, which apparently did not count (as all the other albums had) as a joker card (in the ICP fantasy world, the sixth joker card was supposed to signal the apocalypse). Similar to Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion, the album was released in two completely different, separate versions, titled Bizzar and Bizaar. Finally needing to live up to the years of hype, 2002's The Wraith: Shangri-La revealed that the hidden message of their music was always to follow God and make it to Heaven. Considering the murder fantasies of "Beverly Kills 50187" and the necrophiliac overtones of "Cemetery Girl," this may have been a shock to longtime fans.
In August 2004, the band released the sixth and final joker card, Hell's Pit, in two separate editions; both had the same CD but were packed with different DVDs. Nevertheless, the Dark Carnival wasn't fully shuttered. Spring 2005 found ICP hyping a new direction for the mythology, to be revealed with the May release of Calm. The EP also prepped Insane Clown Posse's devoted fan base for the sixth annual Gathering of the Juggalos that July. Their 2007 effort, The Tempest, found the duo reuniting with producer Mike E. Clark, the man behind the first four joker card releases. Clark stuck around for their 2009 Bang! Pow! Boom! album. That same year, the duo presented a second feature-length film. This time exploring a western motif, Big Money Rustlas featured the clowns in gunslinger garb and was again released outside of theaters.
Featuring Freshness, a two-disc collection of the group's work with other artists, arrived in 2011. A year later, the conceptual The Mighty Death Pop focused on their detractors and other "certified hoes," with Clark returning as producer. In 2015, The Marvelous Missing Link (Lost) landed as the first of that year's two albums, while The Marvelous Missing Link (Found) landed later in the year. In 2017, while recording the next joker card, the duo released a pair of solo albums, with Shaggy 2 Dope's F.T.F.O.M.F. arriving months before Violent J's American Life/Lives. In mid-2018, the group announced that their 15th studio album, Fearless Fred Fury, would be released in October of that year, but it was ultimately pushed back until February 2019. An eight-song EP, Flip the Rat, was scheduled for release on the same day. ~ John Bush