- - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Their horrorcore hip-hop — pervaded by profanity and violent imagery — has been called degenerate, depraved and disgusting. Their fans, the Juggalos, are derided as a dangerous, clown-makeup-wearing cult. Blender magazine once even voted them the Worst Band in Music History.

What could anyone possibly say about Insane Clown Posse that’s any worse?

How about calling them Christians — evangelical Christians, at that.

That’s the unfamiliar position in which Detroit rappers Violent J (Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler) find themselves, following one of the strangest years of their long, strange, 20-year trip through the music industry.

Not that they are, actually, evangelical Christians. Far from it. Neither attends church or claims any biblical knowledge. In fact, neither man can even pronounce “evangelical.”

“We’re not envelichiculous … I can’t even say it!” sputters Shaggy 2 Dope, laughing. “That’s how you know we’re not that!”

Of course, casual followers of the group’s frequent headline-making outrages would never have mistaken Insane Clown Posse for pious Christians. After all, this is a group which has always chosen to illustrate the dark side of human nature in the most graphic terms possible.

From ICP’s early days, when the group aroused the wrath of the Disney company through tracks like “The Neden Game” (a super X-rated “Dating Game” parody) and “Boogie Woogie Wu” (which imagined the boogie man in particularly horrific form), Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope have courted controversy on a consistent basis.

It’s not easy to claim they’ve mellowed, either: The duo’s last album — 2009’s “Bang! Pow! Boom!” — included “To Catch A Predator,” which vividly imagined entrapping and torturing a sex offender. And thanks to the occasionally violent behavior of ICP fans — a few of whom, like cop-killing Massachusetts teen Jacob Robida, have been charged with murder (in a 2006 incident ICP publicly denounced) — the group has managed to stay infamous throughout its time in the spotlight.

However, the sweeping vision of ICP also includes a stern moral code (at least for lawbreakers); a pro-American outlook; and belief in God, even if not of the Christian variety.

It’s that last view that has put ICP back in the critics’ crosshairs, following the release of a song, “Miracles,” that dares to suggest science might not have all the answers.

“Number one, I don’t know what an inveligecal (sic) Christian is. I don’t even know what an inveligecal is,” declares Violent J, during a break in recording sessions for ICP’s next album. “But number two, I think it’s sad that in today’s world, all you gotta do is say you believe in God, and people freak out on that. Well, I’m proud to say I believe in God, y’know?

“At the end of the day,” he explains, “I was always taught by my mom, that the good people go to heaven, and the bad people go to hell.”

That heaven-or-hell choice has run through ICP’s mythology for years, via its Dark Carnival and Joker’s Cards, which offer the band’s own conception of the afterlife. “There’s an all-around message to the Dark Carnival (and) the Joker’s Cards,” says Violent J. “And that’s what it is: that we wanna see all the Juggalos in Heaven.”

The relationship between Insane Clown Posse and their Juggalo (and Juggalette) fans is one of the most remarkable in music. It began when the group emerged from Detroit in the early ‘90s, donning clown makeup, mimicking the excesses of pro wrestling, and making no lyrical subject taboo. Although they were dumped by the Disney company, they went on to mainstream success. And even after leaving Island/Polygram, which released hit albums like 1999’s “The Amazing Jeckel Brothers,” the band continued to serve its loyal, Faygo pop-swigging fan base into the new millennium through a series of independent releases, as well as the annual “Gathering of the Juggalos” festival.

That changed with “Miracles.” A song that went viral online last year after the band augmented it with a video, “Miracles” was ICP’s most overt admission of the belief in God they’d first revealed almost a decade earlier.

It also stirred up a fresh wave of controversy by suggesting that everyday events like fog and rainbows shouldn’t be taken for granted. The most infamous line was Shaggy’s “F***in’ magnets how do they work?” but the remainder of the verse, which insisted “I don’t wanna talk to a scientist,” raised the ire of many media types, who jumped into the fray on the side of science.

The British newspaper The Guardian called the group “a magnet for ignorance.” MTV.com dutifully supplied scientific explanations of all the phenomena mentioned in “Miracles,” and multiple commentators tried to tie the song to alleged American narrow-mindness and credulity.

One response did win the band’s approval: “Saturday Night Live” parodied the tune, raising ICP’s profile to perhaps its highest level since the group’s early days.

But last October, the already bizarre story took an even stranger twist when British journalist Jon Ronson (the author of “The Men Who Stare At Goats”) visited the group in Milwaukee and reported in The Guardian that ICP were secretly evangelical Christians.

Mr. Ronson says now he probably should have used a different term. “They spoke so freely about their covert love of God,” he wrote in an e-mail, “it didn’t cross my mind that they wouldn’t like the term Christian.”

In fact, says Shaggy 2 Dope, the sometimes-outraged media response to the story might be telling. “Even if we were Christians, what’d be wrong with that? Would that offend somebody if we were?”

Violent J admits that ICP has probably mellowed, with both men now pushing 40 and with families and success as consolation. That, he says, makes the frequent criticism of the band less important than ever.

“When we started rapping, we were broke as could be. And we were pissed off about everything,” he says. “But for the last 20 years, there’s so much love around us from Juggalos that I can’t walk around being salty about everything, and think this world sucks, or this country sucks. Because we don’t feel that way anymore.”

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