Violent J Breaks Down Insane Clown Posse’s ‘Joker’s Card’ Box Set
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are some of pop's most unlikely heroes: self-proclaimed wicked clowns who built an empire rapping the most gruesome stories they — or anyone else — could think up. The pair, better known as Insane Clown Posse, are usually remembered for their intimidating face-paint and intense fans, the Juggalos. Musically, however, their greatest accomplishment is the so-called "first deck" of Joker's Card LPs, a seven-album cycle that introduces, plunges the depths of and ultimately reveals the secret behind a mythical allegory called the Dark Carnival.
"The Dark Carnival is our religion," Violent J tells Rolling Stone, shortly after the release of The First Six, a box set compiling the entire deck. "It's talking about serial killers and the killing of racist people and the killing of pedophiles, and somehow the bottom line is magically apparent to Juggalos."
The group began to outline this world on 1992's Carnival of Carnage, the debut LP that introduced them to Detroit's underground rap community. By the time they brought the series to a shocking (even by their standards) close, Insane Clown Posse had become notorious around the country. Here, J takes us through the entire unlikely journey, sharing the wild stories and wilder symbols behind each card. It isn't always simple: "If the Dark Carnival and the Juggalos could be explained that easy," he says. "It wouldn't be half as magical as it is."
‘Carnival of Carnage’ (1992)
What did the Dark Carnival mean for you back then?
When we started the very first Joker's Card, I didn't know that it was going to be what I'm doing today. But I knew artistically that we were gonna do the six cards, and it gave me permission, somehow, to be a total bad guy and feel alright about it — to totally come with a fat dose of negative and ruthless cussing, rapping about scary shit, but not have a guilty conscience about it because I knew that what we were doing was fresh. Here we were coming in with this super crazy wicked shit, but yet, we're good guys. We just fuckin' schooled it!
What made you the good guys?
Because we were pointing people to religion, you know what I mean? In a way, we were pointing people toward living a better life. But it wasn't all just a big message, it was so much entertainment. The entertainment almost came first to the message— like, the wicked shit came first but there was a positive message underneath it.
On that record you talk a lot about bringing the violence of the inner-city out to richer suburbs.
That's what was going through our mind back then: the traveling carnival that takes itself out of these fucked-up neighborhoods and into the wealthy ones, bringing destruction and craziness throughout. It's like a haunted carnival, you know what I mean? It's coming to the racist people and fucking them up and punishing the evil! Getting the fucking wealthy ones, the evil, no-good suburbanites that don't fucking give a shit about what's happening in the city, in the ghetto neighborhoods. That's where that's where we were living when we were making that music, so that's what was going through our mind.
How did you combine punishing the evil but also indulging it with these really crazy stories? Do you see a contradiction, or does it all go together?
Well, you know some of the stories had a purpose to them and there was a message in the song, and some of them didn't. Some of them were just entertainment, and what we're doing is reaching people like us. We're reaching out to people that find this kind of entertainment cool, you know what I'm saying? This is what was cool in Detroit for kids our age! It was just rappers trying to outdo each other with these crazy gimmicks: There was the guy that was the satanic devil guy, you had a cowboy redneck and we were the wicked clowns. We were the face-painted wicked clowns from Del Ray, from southwest Detroit, and that's what we are today.
‘The Ringmaster’ (1994)
Where does The Ringmaster fit into this story?
The Ringmaster was where the Joker cards became a little more clear. The Ringmaster is a beast that you have to fight when you die. And the size of that beast is based upon how you've lived your life. Sins you've done make the Ringmaster larger and more deadly; and the good things you've done, the peaceful ways you've lived your life, make it weaker and smaller. The question is, when you die and you have to face your Ringmaster, would you be able to defeat him? Or would he just crush you or dominate you?
The listener has to think, like, "Well, damn, let's see. I fucking beat my wife. I fucking smoke crack with most of my work money, and you know, and I'm listening to this fucking ICP record here, and it's asking me if I died today and had to face my own self in sins would I be able to defeat him or not? And hell no, the Ringmaster — my Ringmaster — would kill me! And probably stomp me to hell." That's what it's asking you to do, to look at yourself like that.
Where did you guys come up with these elements?
We feel like they were given to us by God [laughs]! Like, this shit comes into my head, and I don't know where it's coming from. I also grew up watching pro wrestling. We created our whole storyline, and maybe that does come from wrestling. Instead of going out there to wrestle like an amateur wrestler — like, Dave Johnson — we tried to create a character out of it. The Ultimate fucking Warrior, you know what I'm saying?
‘Riddle Box’ (1995)
What is the story behind Riddle Box?
Riddle Box is one of the most classic Juggalo records. And the Riddle Box is "turn the crank," simple as that. If you were to die today and you had to turn the crank, what's coming out of that motherfucker. [Sings jack-in-the-box melody] What's gonna pop out? God or the devil? The Riddle Box is like a toy box, but he's also a snake.
What's coming out for you, when you turn your crank?
Shit [laughs], fuck if I know! I'm not walking around this bitch like I'm saved. I'm fuckin' scared to death! Because I feel like everything's comin' from God, but at the same time, I'm constantly questioning myself. The older I get, the more I question myself. I still fully believe, at the same time, that what I'm doing is for the good, and what we're doing is for the good. I would never do something — and put this much heart and time and effort into bullshit — if I didn't truly believe in it, you know what I mean?
If you only knew how many times Juggalos have said to us, "You saved my life." Those words. Those fucking words, we hear them every time we do an in-store or every time we do a meet-and-greet — we hear those words coming from fucking human beings. People with real lives out there, saying, "You saved my life." That shit is real. Then they're getting together at the Gathering — total strangers treating each other like family, all weekend long. I mean, that stuff's good shit. I don't even have to question it!
‘The Great Milenko’ (1997)
What is Milenko's role?
Milenko is an illusionist. Like, if you don't have nothing, he creates the illusion that you're sitting behind the wheel of a car. So next thing you know, he makes you have the urges to go and take somebody's car. He creates illusions for you to do fucked up things, you know what I mean? He shows you how you'd be living if you did all these fucked up things and got away with them. But here's the question: Do you believe in Milenko's magic, or not? That's what this joker card is asking you. If you don't believe in his illusions, you don't even see them. But if you fall for his magic, then you end up doing the shit, and you end up in jail and going to hell and all that.
How did this record come to almost get released by Disney, then pulled at the last second?
You remember Jive Records? We were on Jive Records for Riddle Box, and then we refused to do another record for Jive because we felt like they only worked our record in Detroit, you know? We had done that before we signed with Jive, so we thought signing with Jive would take us to some new level of freshness. Hollywood Records came and got us off of Jive Records, somehow. Next thing you know, we're on Hollywood Records, and that's owned by Disney. And they were the fucking shit, man! Their A&R's name was Julian, and they'd take us right to the Disney lot and be like, 'We ain't gonna ask you to change anything. Bring that shit.'
When the record came out, Hollywood Records had meeting with Disney and said, "This is what's coming out today." The Disney people fucking freaked out for some reason and pulled our record out of the stores and threw us off the label. But the shit came out in the press and it blew up everywhere. It was crazy! A huge bidding war broke out. We signed our next contract for seven figures. We bought a wrestling ring. We each bought a house. Even Jive was trying to get us back [laughs]. We were flying from New York to L.A., back and forth, back and forth. Anyway, we ended up signing with Island, and that's when we put the Jeckel Brothers out. It was dope.
‘The Amazing Jeckel Brothers’ (1999)
So the Jeckel Brothers. Who are they?
The Jeckel Brothers are Jake and Jack Jeckel — they're jugglers. Jake is your positive side and Jack is your negative side, and they're juggling these fireballs that are actually your evil deeds, your sins. The question is: Can they juggle the amount of sins you have? If they can't handle it, then boom, you're off to hell. If they can handle your sins and maintain a juggle, you get accepted into heaven.
Who were you listening to at this time? What music were you into?
Pearl Jam, like crazy, and Michael Jackson. Shaggy didn't really like Pearl Jam too much, but we both liked Michael Jackson.
What did you learn from Michael Jackson?
I learned how to make crystal-clear music. We don't really like our stuff gritty; we like it crystal clear like a Michael Jackson record, like a Dr. Dre record. Not like a gritty, New York Wu-Tang record, even though Wu-Tang is the shit, don't get me wrong.
What's your favorite Michael Jackson song?
I like the shit he did that most people don't know about. All the unreleased shit that I found on the Internet throughout the years. There's a song called "Morphine," about the drugs he was doing — it was so fucking fresh to hear him singing about that shit. He was making music about it, and people just weren't listening. He made music so personal, about what he was going through and shit, and it was just so crazy watching him growing up. He was such a character — we read so many books about Michael Jackson.
What led you to write "Fuck the World"?
When Milenko came out it got dissed crazy hard! We had a stack of reviews on our desk that looked like two phone books. Man, they were all tearing us up, just saying, like, "worst music ever made." Nobody was like, "This shit is dope." Everybody was just like, "Two white kids acting like assholes, blah, blah, blah, blah." Meanwhile, Milenko went platinum, so we were like, "Fuck the world, fuck what the world says. This is the underground."
Was there a point when critics started taking ICP more seriously?
Yeah, when "Miracles" went viral [in 2010]. That's when things started to change.
Why do you think that song did it?
It made everyone look at ICP again, but this time, it's a new day and age. This time the technology is much different, and this time you can look into ICP's world. Back in the Nineties, it was only the die-hardest ICP fans that had ever seen our videos. Now, it's easy to see what's going on, so when "Miracles" went viral, everybody kind of just said, "Who are these guys?" Or the older fans were like, "I cant believe these guys are still doing it." Then they read about the most important thing, the thing that's most crazy fresh about ICP, and that's the Juggalos. There has never been anything like a Juggalo in the history of rock & roll.
‘The Wraith: Shangri-La’ (2002) and ‘The Wraith: Hell’s Pit’ (2004)
How much anticipation was there for a follow-up to Jeckel Brothers?
After Jeckel Brothers, we kind of let the drum roll play out for a while, and then we released a double album called Bizzar Bizaar, which wasn't a Joker's card. It was just a double album of craziness, you know? By the time we did the sixth Joker's card, people were ready. We released The Wraith, the first of the two, but it's The Wraith: Shangri-La. Shangri-La is heaven. Then two years later The Wraith: Hell's Pit came out, and that's the other half of the sixth Joker's card. What it is is heaven and hell. Shangri-La and Hell's Pit, that's the end of the story. That's the end of all of our fucking stories! It's Hell's Pit and Shangri-La, which one [laughs]?
When we released the Shangri-La album, that was just a great time of our lives, because we made a record about heaven and it was all positive. Hell's Pit was a crash landing from Shangri-La — it just was a depressing time. Making a record about Hell's Pit, it was just very drab, very shitty weather.
What was the reaction to that end of the Joker's cards.
On the sixth Joker's card we flat out came out at the end of the song and said, "The Carnival is God." Man, the Juggalo world split in half. Some people were crazy in love with it, and other people were like, "Man, that's bullshit!" People just went into shock. We were signing autographs in record stores all across the country, and Juggalos were crying, man! People were bringing their parents! That's what was so weird, the parents were like, "Thank you for saying that," you know what I mean? Then Hell's Pit came out, and anybody that thought we were all of a sudden gonna be holy rollers, they got their wings split instantly. If anybody thought we were gonna start making religious music, all of a sudden Hell's Pit came out and that just put everybody in their place.
Of all these records, which was the craziest to record?
Probably Milenko or Shangri-La. Shangri-La was hands down the greatest years of my life. I hope to one day live that again. Man, I sat next to Pam Anderson and almost swept her off her feet because I was glowing so tough, brother. I was so positive, and I felt like it was raining diamonds all around us, and I sat next to Pam Anderson one day at a titty bar and I almost swept her off her fucking feet.
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