They get off on vampires and horror movies and brutal deaths. It's all part of the hell-hop scene.

"I hate people on the whole," Muerte goes on. "People are killing people, raping old women and shit — that's retarded. To rap about it, that's a different thing. That's how you feel, what you'd like to do to this motherfucker, because he's out doing this stupid-ass shit."

Muerte's heroes are the Insane Clown Posse. In their songs, brutal deaths are ladled out regularly — not to innocent bystanders, but rather folks who, as Muerte says, "deserve" it, like child-molesting priests and bigots.

Muerte's music also doles out vigilante justice. There's an untitled song about a Madison, Illinois, man he claims made unwanted sexual advances on his sister four years ago. He and labelmate J-Rok served jail time for viciously assaulting the man — Muerte for a few days; J-Rok for a month.

"They had to put some 50-odd staples in his skull to sew the outside of his head shut," remembers J-Rok.

Raps Muerte in the song:

What's it like to have a gang of killers on your lawn?

Staring at you bitch about to crack open your dome?

Stomped his fucking ass while his family screamed and cried

Let them feel the pain that she must have felt inside

J-Rok says something inside of him snapped when his mother passed away. He was eleven when she died from complications related to breast cancer.

"There's a very, very dark side of me that I didn't have before that," says J-Rok, who is part of the group Maddhouse Clique. He asked not to be identified by his real name because he sells pot for a living.

J-Rok no longer speaks to his younger half-brother, after an argument on how to spend his father's inheritance. "If I see you again, bitch, blood's gonna spill," J-Rok raps on "Come Take a Walk with Me."

The Wet Grimlinz's Brian Stringer goes by the name B-Skandalus and has the letters "FTW" ("Fuck the World") tattooed on the inside of his lower lip. His autobiographical contributions to the Grimlinz's library include: "Don't Know What You Got Till It's Gone," about a longtime friend who committed suicide, and "Only You," that speaks to his father's abusive behavior toward his mother.

In 2002 B-Skandalus' best friend robbed him at gunpoint. That same year he got into a brawl on a Columbia, Illinois, basketball court. After one of the guys he was fighting with called him a "nigger lover," B-Skandalus fired at him with a .380 pistol. The shots missed, but B-Skandalus was later arrested. His mother had to put up the family's house as collateral to get him out of jail. He was sentenced to probation and the judge ordered him to stay out of Illinois for five years.

He says his songs are part reality, part fiction: "Literally, if I went out and did everything that I'm saying on the CD, I would be in prison — or dead."

B-Skandalus says his ruffian days are behind him, and now he uses his music to channel his anger. Dark imagery, he says, has universal appeal.

"Everybody's got that time when they want to grab somebody and just choke them," he says, his tone suddenly furious. "At your worst moment, you've thought about killing somebody — that bitch that wouldn't leave you alone and she's threatening to fucking tell your wife that you've been cheating on her. Or, it could be road rage when you're driving on 44 and somebody cuts you off."

Hell-hop's roots include gangsta rappers like Tupac Shakur, Tech N9ne and DMX — the cover of whose album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, features him drenched in the red stuff — and goth-industrialists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

Heavy metal's gothic imagery and shock tactics are an integral part of the genre. Alice Cooper wouldn't look out of place at a Havok show, nor would Ozzy Osbourne, who famously bit off the head of a live bat during a 1982 concert.

Hell-hop's undisputed godfather is Insane Clown Posse, formed in the early '90s by a pair of white Detroit rappers named Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Morphing out of a group called Inner City Posse, they revealed that they'd been infected by something called the "Carnival Spirit," and that the apocalypse would follow the release of six "Joker's Cards" albums.

ICP's ascendancy began after Disney-owned Hollywood Records refused to release the band's second major-label effort, The Great Milenko, citing its obscene content. Island Records issued the record instead, and the band went on to sell more than ten million albums.

"I have mad respect for them because they did it on their own," says Havok, who sports a tattoo of the group's trademark "hatchet man" — a running man carrying a hatchet — on his back. "They didn't have to sell out and do no poppy-ass shit."

He attended his first ICP show in 1997, which was heavily promoted by The Point (105.7 FM). Before the show, the station's assistant promotions director, Tom O'Keefe, drove the performers from their downtown hotel to an autograph-signing session in a parking lot across from the Kiel Center.

Arriving to an overwhelming crowd — "the million-clown march," O'Keefe calls it — ICP refused to get out of O'Keefe's Geo Prism, fearing for their safety. O'Keefe peeled out after angry fans dumped Faygo root beer all over his car.

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