It is 2:45 on a Saturday afternoon in Cave-In-Rock, Illinois, a small town filled with beautiful parks and untouched wildlife, located about three and a half hours southeast of St. Louis. The sun has finally poked out from behind the clouds after days of overcast skies and intermittent rain, driving the temperatures into the mid-90s.
"Come on, when is this thing going to get started?" inquires a heavyset man standing amid a crowd that has assembled in and around a large tent, dabbing his forehead with the T-shirt from which he has divested himself. Staining the shirt along with his sweat are smears of black and white clown makeup that are melting off the man's face in the heat.
This is the Gathering of the Juggalos, an annual music festival, now in its fourteenth year, produced by Insane Clown Posse, a Detroit-based rap group largely responsible for revitalizing the "horror-core" genre of hip-hop in the 1990s. ("Juggalos," for the uninitiated, is a term that fans of the group and their related acts use to refer to themselves.) The affair, which transpires over a five-day summertime stretch on private land in middle-of-nowhere Cave-In-Rock, brings thousands of face-painted fans to the tiny Illinois town. The Seminar Tent, which occupies primo real estate at the center of the Gathering, serves as a platform for performers to address their fans at scheduled times. ICP's seminar is the biggest draw, with hundreds jammed into a space designed to accommodate far fewer.
See Also: - Our Complete Gathering of the Juggalos Coverage
At about three o'clock, nearly an hour behind schedule, two men whose faces are obscured by clown paint take the tent's minuscule stage. Immediately the beach balls that had been batted about overhead to pass the time are forgotten and left to fall.
Joseph Bruce, better known as to this group as Violent J, is first to speak. "We'd like to thank all of you for coming to the seminar," he says. "We think about this — this exact moment — all year. Because we see you guys as the most elite juggalos on the planet. There are juggalos all over the world, but you guys are the ones that came here. It's like you've come to Mecca, and we're gonna tell you some shit, and that shit is going to be spread throughout the whole juggalo world."
The crowd cheers in approval, yelling "woop woop!" as is the custom.
Bruce and his stagemate Joseph Utsler, better known to the crowd as Shaggy 2 Dope, comprise ICP. Despite a lack of mainstream assistance, the two have built an empire for themselves. Their Psychopathic Records label is said to bring in $10 million in gross annual revenue, according to the group in a 2010 interview with Nightline. In addition to music, the company has interests in merchandise, professional wrestling and video production.
"Nah, I can't," Bruce says to a fan in the front row who's offering him a hit off of a blunt. "We perform tonight, and my voice is sounding good so I don't want to fuck it up." Even as he is declining, he is reaching his arm forward, seemingly subconsciously, toward the kid. "All right, fine," he relents, grabbing the joint and taking a long drag. "You don't have to ask me twice."
The crowd screams its approval.
The ICP seminar plays out like an infomercial: There's the upcoming tour's itinerary, which includes Albuquerque — despite that city's then-mayor having banned the group after its last visit, according to juggalo residents in attendance — and Canada — "Believe it or not, Shaggy is finally off probation, so we're headed to Canada!" Bruce announces. Following the tour, the group will reenter the studio to record the followup to 2012's The Mighty Death Pop! Fuse TV is airing a new TV show, ICP Theater. ICP's streaming audio show, hosted by artists on the Psychopathic roster, will take up where it left off when it went on hiatus last November.
"We don't make money on it," Bruce says of the show. "It has always been a loss for us, but we do it anyway, for you guys! For the juggalos!"
Bruce says the Gathering itself is a money-losing proposition. That might be so, but there's definitely money to be made here.
It's virtually impossible to walk ten feet on the festival grounds without being approached by someone selling something. Offerings range from illicit (drugs, moonshine) to run-of-the-mill necessities (toilet paper) to...truly bizarre.
Like the young man near the entrance who traveled all the way from Maine to attend but had failed to make arrangements for the return trip.
"Kick this kid in the balls for five dollars!" a man with a megaphone bellows on the kid's behalf. "Fifteen dollars to fuck him in the ass with a Sharpie!"
A passerby in her twenties plunks down a five-spot and promptly levels the poor fellow with a sneaker to the crotch. "Thank you," he says, wincing, as onlookers happily throw in dollar bills for the privilege of having borne witness. The woman tries to double down, insisting that she should get two shots because the kid flinched the first time, but the crowd is having none of it. "He's suffered enough," she's told.
Then there's the guy with the cardboard sign that reads, "Bet you can't hit me with a quarter." His pockets sag with the weight of his hard-won change, which jangles as he walks.
"I've had this sign every year for the last ten," he says proudly. "Well, not this one exactly, but you know — the same words." He began working the line before he even got in, managing to pay the $175 entry fee in coin, and he will keep up the hustle for the entire event, dodging quarters for all five days.
Elsewhere a small cardboard sign outside a tent advertises "Titty Burgers." There are many Gathering-sanctioned food sources on the grounds, from chicken-on-a-stick to giant turkey legs, but this is not one of them. An amateur operation from the charcoal-fueled grill to the store-bought ground beef, Titty Burgers offers a massive one-pound patty, with all the trimmings, for a mere $8. Or, if equipped to do so, a customer could opt to simply flash her boobs and dine free. This is not the titty stand's first Gathering, and over the years it has become a favorite among attendees.
Another much-talked-about food operation, "The Burrito Man," proves harder to track down. Rumor has it that somewhere on the sprawling grounds is a food truck that purveys the most delicious burritos a juggalo will ever have the pleasure of eating. The truck is parked in a different place every year, and the only way to find it is to walk around asking people whose directions are often confusing and/or conflicting. After hours of wandering around aimlessly, the situation starts to feel more and more like a snipe hunt, a practical joke to be played on first-timers and Gathering poseurs. But this is not the case: The diligent hunter will eventually encounter Bill Huntsmen and Bruce Wayne Hall, Alton, Illinois, natives who sling culinary delights out of a retooled fire truck on behalf of owner Jesús Ayala. "We park somewhere different every year," Huntsmen imparts. "They want you to buy a vendor's license, and those are expensive."
Juggalo, of course, does not live by burrito alone. A woman offering "boob squeezes" for $3 apiece sees no shortage of comers. A man will allow you to hit him with a whip for $2. Another man deploys a megaphone to hawk something related to sniffing underwear: "Tell you what, he said he'll put on the thong and let you smell it."
And then there are the drugs.
It is true that drugs are a part of every music festival. It is true, for that matter, that drugs are a part of life — the weekend-warrior mentality that infects concert attendees is, to coin a phrase, amplified in a festival setting. Juggalos and others at the Gathering don't like to hear their fest boiled down to a haven for drug use, rightly arguing that bigger-name events such as Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza contend with illicit substances as well.
Still, none of those events has a "Drug Bridge."
At the Drug Bridge, one can purchase virtually any mind-altering chemical imaginable. Ecstasy, mushrooms, cocaine, sleeping pills, Adderall, nitrous oxide — all laid out neatly and advertised on cardboard signs. Marijuana too. Oh, and heroin, offered for sale by a man with a megaphone. You can even buy a T-shirt that says "Meet Me at the Drug Bridge."
Nor are vendors above the high-pressure sales pitch. (Overheard: "I will rape your mother if you don't buy our drugs.")
On the afternoon of day three, Friday, August 9, a man is found dead in a tent. The tent's owner tells emergency medical personnel that a few hours prior, at around midday, 24-year-old Cory Collins had approached from the direction of the Drug Bridge, said he felt sick and requested to crawl in and sleep for a while. The owner, who admitted that he was tripping on mescaline at the time, assented. When he returned later to check on Collins, rigor mortis had already set in — a discovery that came as a surprise to the tent's four other occupants, who'd been asleep.
Needle marks on the dead man's arm indicate that heroin overdose is the likely cause of death.
The Drug Bridge closes up shop for the rest of the weekend.
By many accounts, this year's Gathering is more sparsely attended, and the overall mood darker, than in years past. Some attribute this to the lack of major headliners, while others cite the December departure of the group Twizted (a fan favorite) from Psychopathic Records' roster.
Most agree that the drug element has gotten out of hand.
"It didn't used to be like this," observes one veteran juggalo. "It used to be about family and coming together for the music. Now there's just so many drugs." Indeed, many bridge vendors seem less like part-timers and more like professionals.
All told, over the Gathering's five-day run in 2013, police will make thirteen arrests, down from twenty last year. The majority of offenses are drug related. (The Hardin County Sheriff's office tells Riverfront Times that large quantities of LSD, meth and marijuana were seized. Twelve suspected overdoses were reported, up from zero last year, all from individuals who had ingested a new designer drug known as "25I," whose effects mimic that of LSD. "This year was different, in that Hog Rock security really worked with us," a sheriff's spokeswoman reports. "Anything we needed, they gave us. They even allowed police on the grounds, which they hadn't done before. And the vehicle searches they performed helped to prevent the large quantities from making it into the festival.")
If the drug activity seems reminiscent of another regional music festival, that's because it is. In June of this year, 45-year-old Schwagstock founder Jimmy Tebeau reported to the Yankton Federal Penitentiary in South Dakota on charges of "maintaining a drug involved premises," following a four-year investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Also known as the "crack house statute," the law permitted the feds to seize Tebeau's rural Missouri property, Camp Zoe, 330 acres near the tiny town of Salem about 150 miles southwest of St. Louis, on which Tebeau and his family lived and hosted concerts headlined by his Grateful Dead tribute band, the Schwag.
Tebeau was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his role, even though he was never witnessed selling or buying drugs.
The law allows federal authorities to file charges against a property owner for facilitating drug sales that take place on his or her land. So Tebeau's case — the first of its kind against a festival promoter — could have serious repercussions on the music-festival landscape. One key distinction: Tebeau owned the land on which his concerts took place. The Gathering of the Juggalos takes place on property owned by Hardin County resident Tim York, who leases the land to Psychopathic Records and allows them to handle the details. Hardin County police do not enter the grounds unless they are called, citing the fact that their small-town force would be dramatically outnumbered if they were to do so.
Mike Wilson, a security guard tasked with standing at the Drug Bridge following the death of Collins, says he and fellow festival staffers tried to prevent dealers from entering the grounds. "We stopped a few people from bringing things in," he tells RFT. "One guy had a lot of drugs. He was a drug dealer or something and had no business being here."
Despite the drugs and lack of police presence, the Gathering functions better than one might expect, owing to an overwhelming shared sense of community. Being a juggalo consists of two unifying concepts: a love of Insane Clown Posse and a devotion to being yourself. The community is self-policing. If a fight breaks out during the festivities, onlookers will form a semicircle around the rowdy participants and begin chanting "Fam-i-ly! Fam-i-ly!" — a reminder that they're all in this together. Cooler heads tend to prevail, and those in conflict will either wind up shaking hands or going their separate ways. Last year attendees chased a thief off the grounds — after hotwiring his car, popping his trunk and finding numerous items that had been stolen from tents and other vehicles. The thief's car was eventually run over by a monster truck. A video of the incident is titled "Juggalo Justice." At the close of the video, the amped-up crowd reprises the "Fam-i-ly" chant.)
Knottier disagreements are addressed at Juggalo Night Court, a loosely organized and debaucherous event held in the wee hours that allows people to settle their differences with the help of a jury of their peers — i.e., whoever happens to be in attendance renders the verdict by cheering for either the plaintiff or the defendant after each has stated his or her case. One trial deals with the theft of a Psychopathic golf cart, another with a four-wheeler that caught fire while in the care of a man named "Amy." (The latter is decided preemptively in favor of the plaintiff, solely on the basis of the defendant's name.)
On this night, in a brightly illuminated tent reeking of burning cedar and marijuana, members of the jury sit on bales of hay in front of a judge named Upchuck Tha Clown to hear the matter of Monroe v. Chris F.
"I was drunk as shit last night, on the real. I fucked up and didn't know where to go, so I went to the car," proclaims an earnest and apologetic Chris F. He was supposed to meet his friend Monroe at Spazmatic, a small area with benches and a bar that serves Faygo, the off-brand soda of choice for juggalos.
"How are you damaged?" Upchuck Tha Clown, wearing a white barrister wig, inquires of Monroe.
"I can't walk today because I was looking for him all last night," the plaintiff replies.
At the judge's prompting, the two exchange words, openly expressing their disappointment and concern for each other's feelings. Ultimately Chris F., the defendant, is deemed by the jury to have prevailed. "Honestly, you're kind of being a bitch," Judge Upchuck upbraids Monroe, who is then compelled to spin the Wheel of Bone, a device that might pass for a fourth-grade art project. The sentence — "Permanent Peon" — calls for four fellow juggalos wielding semi-permanent tattoo markers to spend 90 seconds inking the loser's head and chest with scrawlings of penises and phrases such as "I suck dick."
Juggalos exhibit conflicted attitudes toward sexuality and gender. Psychopathic's roster is exclusively male (one female rapper, Tali Demon, records on Hatchet House, a subsidiary), and many lyrics (including songs penned by ICP) come across as downright homophobic. Yet fans will tell you the usage is purely metaphorical and that juggalos as a group despise racists and bigots. And while many female ICP fans refuse to identify themselves as "juggalettes," arguing that the term is degrading and implies promiscuity, others wear the label with pride.
"Girl, I would break your neden," a too-young juggalo is heard yelling at one woman in attendance. The term neden (pronounced ned-den) refers to the vagina, and in juggalo lingo is interchangeable with the word "pussy." The object of his affection smiles, seemingly flattered. Many women go topless at the Gathering, but their state of undress may well be due to the weather.
Another philosophical debate pits old juggalos against new juggalos. Some fans believe ICP has compromised its integrity by no longer regularly professing its love for Detroit. Others scoff at the duo's religious coming-out, expressed in a 2002 song called "The Unveiling."
By the same token, a website called Juggalo Holocaust stereotypes old-school juggalos as gang members who throw rocks and asserts that newer acolytes are polite and friendly fans of the music. The Gathering gives off the opposite vibe: The older fans in attendance are more talkative, welcoming and purposeful (having come to hear music and/or make money), while the young crowd seems more intent on screaming and ingesting psychedelic drugs.
At any rate, no one of any age was seen throwing rocks at any of the acts — though that has transpired in the past, most famously at the 2010 Gathering of the Juggalos, when the crowd pelted Internet-celebrity-turned-pop-singer Tila Tequila with rocks and feces. (One-man party machine Andrew W.K. suffered a similar fate in 2008, when he was hit with cans, plastic bottles and other objects, all the while exuding his trademark positivity, yelling, "I love you no matter what you think of me!")
It may be a coincidence, but performers at this year's Gathering seemed to make a point of pausing to introduce almost every song by thanking the crowd for welcoming them into the family.
And juggalos are, without question, a family. Scorned by people who do not understand them, maligned as crude freaks who live in piles of trash, they respond by celebrating and reveling in their outsider status. Much like the legions of counterculture movements that came before them, their "us versus them" stance is the tie that binds them together. The character of the "juggalo" itself, so openly ridiculous, is undeniably reminiscent of, say, the punk rocker, whose studded leather jacket and snarl obscured a wounded person looking for a way to cope with the sense of being a misfit.
The tarnished glory may have faded from the term punk, but in 2013 juggalos remain what they've always been: outcasts. And most of them wouldn't have it any other way.
Back at the Seminar Tent, Insane Clown Posse's session is drawing to a close. "Anybody want the notes?" Bruce asks. The crowd cheers as he wads up a sheet of paper and throws it. Fans scuffle for the artifact, and a lucky juggalo emerges victorious.
"We'll see you at ICP live tonight," Bruce concludes. "We love you, juggalos!"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.