After 30 years, Insane Clown Posse finds respect

On the eve of its new album, out Friday, the Detroit duo finds itself no longer the world's most hated group

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Insane Clown Posse was used to being hated, and even learned to embrace it. But then things started to change.

The infamous Detroit-bred rap duo was side-stage at an all-90s concert at DTE Energy Music Theatre in 2016 when their longtime friend, Vanilla Ice, invited them to join him. The stage was already crowded with audience members who had jumped up from the crowd, and ICP’s Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope made their way through the throng to the front of the stage. Nerves were setting in and J wasn’t sure what kind of reaction to expect.

“I’m thinking we’re going to get booed, because that’s all we’ve ever known,” says Violent J, seated inside the recording studio of ICP’s Farmington Hills headquarters last week.

But when their familiar painted faces hit the venue’s video screens, he received a welcome surprise.

Violent J, aka Joseph Bruce of Insane Clown Posse, talks with Detroit News' Adam Graham about their upcoming new release "Fearless Fred Fury."

“The whole place popped. We couldn’t’ believe it! We were shocked,” he says. “That’s never happened in our life.”

After nearly 30 years of making music, ICP has finally worn down the mainstream.

Katy Perry fans aren’t going to suddenly start coming to their shows and identifying as Juggalos, members of the group’s extremely dedicated, hardcore fanbase.

But those outsiders know enough about the horrorcore rappers — through 2010’s viral video for “Miracles,” the group’s parodies on “Saturday Night Live,” and news of the group’s much-publicized battle with the FBI — that ICP has at long last earned the respect of casual music fans.

“This is a new day,” says J, his face covered in his signature black-and-white greasepaint, drinking from a sugar free Red Bull on a Wednesday afternoon. “We’re not hated like that no more. We used to just get so much hate, instantly. ‘The most hated band in the world.’ But we’ve been around so long that I think when people see us, they’re like, ‘man, that’s cool.’ They’re not the type to go buy the CD but they’re like, ‘give it up for them.’ And it wasn’t always like that. It was the opposite.”

In recent years, ICP has walked through doors that were previously closed to them. In 2017, the group appeared on New York radio station Hot 97’s popular “Ebro in the Morning” program, where they were introduced as “legends” of rap music. Later that year, ICP sat down with “Sway in the Morning” on SiriusXM’s Shade 45, the hip-hop station founded by the Clowns’ one-time rival, Eminem.

Last month, ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” weaved the plot of an episode around ICP, and TV shows like “Workaholics” and “American Dad!” have made references to the Clowns.

“There have been so many moments like that, where we can stick our head up out from the underground and look around and it’s not like it used to be. It’s not like the war zone no more,” says J, real name Joseph Bruce. “Everybody’s got respect for us, you know? And we can go pretty much wherever we want. And that’s so much different than anything we’ve ever experienced.”

Rudy “Rude Boy” Hill, a long-time associate of the group, chalks up the group’s staying power, at least partially, to the fact that their facepaint allows them to remain ageless.

“ICP will always have a stable in pop culture,” says Hill, who compares them, in that regard, to Kiss. “I’m always telling the guys, you need to accept your role as icons. That makeup never gets old.”

Still, not all is rosy in the world of ICP. The group’s new album, “Fearless Fred Fury,” is inspired in part by the “epic betrayal” the group felt when their one-time protégé, James “Otis” Garcia, left the group’s record label Psychopathic Records and signed with Majik Ninja Entertainment, headed up by their former friends-turned-rivals Twiztid. The departure came after J found out Garcia was secretly dating his niece.

“It was like a physical pain,” J says of the 2016 revelations. “I felt so much betrayal that it hurt. Like, hot tears shooting out of my eyes. I couldn’t even believe it.”

The anger he felt is manifested in the aggressive sound of “Fearless Fred Fury,” out Friday. The Fred Fury character is the personification of regret; fighting back and taking control of your destiny is a major theme of the album.

Violent J, aka Joseph Bruce of Insane Clown Posse shows off costume storage where outfits and various paraphernalia, including a hand grenade prop, is stored from their elaborate shows and tours. 
Violent J, aka Joseph Bruce of Insane Clown Posse talks with Detroit News' Adam Graham about their upcoming new release, Fearless Fred Fury, in Farmington Hills, Michigan on February 6, 2019.  (Image by Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

“Fearless Fred Fury” is the group’s 15th full-length studio album, and its first since 2015’s double album set “The Marvelous Missing Link,” which was produced by Garcia. Physical copies of the album will be accompanied by a bonus disc, “Flip the Rat,” which includes 12 additional tracks.  

“Fearless Fred Fury” was originally due out in October but took longer than expected to finish; the nearly four years between albums marks the longest stretch between ICP releases since the group’s debut as Inner City Posse in 1990. Violent J canceled a solo tour last month to continue to tinker with the album; Shaggy, born Joe Utsler, is currently on a solo tour.   

The set ranges from the unadulterated rage of tracks like “WTF!” and “Fury!” to more playful tracks like “Low,” which interpolates the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and “West Vernor Ave.,” which borrows from Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.”

“We poured our guts into this record,” says J, a 46-year-old father of two. “This is the best ICP is right now, in 2019. This is the best we got.”

ICP shows no signs of slowing; there are two more chapters due in its current album cycle, and the group plans a five-album series to close out its epic “Dark Carnival” saga of good vs. evil. “We’re going to end it probably when we’re, like, 60-something,” says J, who speaks in the bass-heavy cadence of a professional wrestler cutting a promo.

But the hunger for new experiences, both career- and life-wise, continues to push ICP forward.  

Last year, the group performed an acoustic set at its annual Big Ballers Christmas Party, a first for the pair, and they’re planning more unplugged performances in the future, including at this summer’s 20th annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival.

Violent J, aka Joseph Bruce of Insane Clown Posse, talks with Detroit News' Adam Graham about their upcoming new release, "Fearless Fred Fury."

“Maybe we’ll get on a late night talk show doing that. Why can’t we? Why can’t we ever get on Jimmy Fallon?” J asks.

It’s one way the old Clowns are learning new tricks.

“We’ve always fought not to be old-school,” J says. “When we started getting old school, we fought to stay relevant. But once we were old-school and had to admit it, it’s been the most rewarding time of our career. We haven’t been prouder or had more great response since we became old school. What we feared our whole life is actually the best," he says. 

“I can’t lie and say it doesn’t feel good to be included and be respected by the rest of the world. To be welcomed is an unbelievably wonderful feeling. Because we never changed, we kept doing what we do. They changed.”


Insane Clown Posse

"Fearless Fred Fury"

Psychopathic Records

In stores Friday

"Fearless Fred Fury" album release/ listening party

7 p.m. Friday

The Crofoot, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac

Tickets, $10, includes a copy of the new album