DETROIT — In 1994, a New York record executive caught a glimpse of a Detroit music kingdom in the making.
Jeff Fenster, a vice president with Jive Records, had jetted into town for a show by Insane Clown Posse, a hometown rap duo with a fetish for Faygo and painted faces. He was struck by the sight: hordes of Michigan teens decked out in ICP gear, many in wicked-clown makeup like the group’s Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.
“We just watched these kids at the merch table, buying multiple T-shirts for a band most of us had never heard of,” he recounts. “They were ponying up to buy into this culture.”
Hours after the concert, a group of teens spied Fenster at a nearby diner and promptly confronted him with an offer: $100 for the backstage pass around his neck.
For Fenster, who went on to release the group’s third album, the tale still encapsulates the indelibly deep bond between ICP and its audience. It’s a lucrative love affair that has become one of Detroit music’s enduring success stories — and a triumph for a group often scorned by the showbiz establishment.
“ICP created this vibrant business outside the mainstream, and they’ve managed to keep it going,” says Fenster. “You look at the longevity of it, and it’s quite amazing, actually.”
Amid a crummy Michigan economy and a crumbling music industry, ICP’s achievement stands out. Enjoying the top revenues of its career, the group now commands an entertainment empire that pulls in up to $10 million annually: Wrestling exhibitions. An annual 20,000-person festival called the Gathering. Comic books. DVDs. A second feature film, “Big Money Rustlas,” due in January. A twice-weekly Web radio show.
And there’s a dizzying array of branded collectibles — from apparel to action figures — lapped up by fans (who call themselves Juggalos) with a fervor to rival the Kiss Army.
“The rest of the industry is dying,” says Violent J. “And we’re still here. We’re still putting in lots of hard work.”
“Bang Pow Boom,” the group’s latest album of horror-show rap with a wink, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 last month. The release included three separate covers and an online 3D game.
Such frills aren’t new. The pair discovered the power of collectibles early on, when a 1994 comic book drawn by Shaggy quickly sold out. It pointed the way to an ICP future where non music merchandise — merch, in industry parlance — would get star billing.
“We weren’t trying to be brilliant businessmen. We were just trying to come up with things that were cool,” says Violent J. “Because the first thing to understand about ICP is that we’re fans of the band ourselves. We can step out of it and look at it that way. We’re just always thinking of ways for Juggalos to have fun.”
ICP has carried a dicey reputation since emerging nationally in the mid-1990s: Snubbed by critics, reviled by social conservatives, mocked by the rock and rap establishments, the duo has relied on the grassroots energy of its fans .
Evolving characters and supernatural story lines have kept the rapt attention of fans, who proudly play up their outsider status. ICP gear is a way to assert membership in the tribe.
“It’s about the culture,” says Steve Ross, merchandising chief for Psychopathic Records, ICP’s label. “This is how they proclaim to the world that they’re Juggalos.”
Keeping it in-house
Many music acts extol independence. But when it comes to solo control, say industry experts, the ICP operation is unusual, even unprecedented. From its Farmington Hills headquarters, the group runs its own manufacturing and distribution operations, with nearly 30 full-time employees handling the business of ICP and Psychopathic Records.
Since coming aboard in 2006, manager Bill Dail has rebuilt the company’s financial structure, resolving debts and cutting out middlemen to leverage ICP’s selling power.
The group’s 4,500-square-foot warehouse is lined with towering shelves of Psychopathic stock, including merch for acts such as Twiztid and Boondox. Forklifts negotiate big pallets of boxes destined for retailers such as Spencer’s Gifts and Hot Topic, while staffers process Web-order sales.
Overhead is a new embroidery shop, where machinists stitch ICP’s distinct hatchet-man logo onto jackets, shirts and hats, all made in-house.
Most acts farm out merch duties to specialty firms, who take a cut of revenue. Keeping it in-house likely saves ICP up to 20%, estimates merch industry veteran Bill Blackwell.
“It’s a pretty unique situation. I think ICP realized early on that it helped to control their merchandising,” says Blackwell, president of Blackwell Productions. “A third party risked losing that fan connection.”
As ICP rolls through a 64-city club tour, the future looks bright. And the world may be starting to come around to ICP. Violent J, now a 37-year-old father of two, points to an upcoming positive article in Spin magazine — which once trashed the band in cartoon format.
“We’re not done. We’ve got a lot more to say,” he says. “We have a new goal in our career: We want to be an arena band. If we work hard enough, if we get the right breaks, I think this thing could become even more incredible.”
PARCELS OF THE ICP KINGDOM
The Gathering: Up to 20,000 fans gather each August at a Midwest site for this camping fest, which features ICP and like-minded acts. The vibe is wild but peaceful, says Violent J: “The word ‘family’ is the only way to describe it. It’s just this warm feeling that comes over everybody.”
Psychopathic Records: ICP’s label dominates the hip-hop genre known as horrorcore, which blends rock-laced rap with edgy if sometimes cartoonish, imagery, much of it cut at the group’s Farmington Hills studio. Top acts include Twiztid, whose latest album notched a Top 10 rap showing; Georgia rapper Boondox, and the supergroup Dark Lotus, featuring ICP and several label mates.
The merch: Few acts have nailed the merchandising game like ICP, which keeps fans invested via limited-edition releases, new fashion lines and an ever-evolving array of collectible items. T-shirts are the reliable top seller, followed by jerseys and hooded sweatshirts. But those are just the tip of the iceberg: The group has issued ICP-branded energy drinks, action figures, ski masks, liquor flasks, jewelry and sneakers. Says manager Bill Dail: “We’re always looking for a new adventure over here.”
Wrestling: ICP’s love of wrestling inspired the duo to stage and host 1997’s Strangle-Mania in Detroit, filmed for DVD. The group linked up with circuits such as WWE and WCW and continues to promote its own events under the Juggalo Championship Wrestling banner.
Multimedia: The group’s big-screen debut came with “Big Money Hustlas” in 2000, an urban-crime exploitation flick with ICP in leading roles. Its follow-up — the Western-themed “Big Money Rustlas” — will premiere at the Fillmore Detroit on Jan. 23. This year saw the release of “A Family Underground,” a gritty chronicle of the annual Gathering. At the group’s Farmington Hills headquarters, staffers produce a twice-weekly Web radio show, along with custom Web videos.