The first edition of this column covered The Great Milenko, the fourth full-length album from Detroit, MI rap crew Insane Clown Posse. Therein, the author waxes nostalgic about growing up in a suburban sprawl devoid of cool local music. A cultural nadir. Cool sounds had happened, in Detroit, and would happen, again, but there was no one in the mid-90s repping the Mitten.
The mid-90s were a time when kids in Michigan needed someone to look up to, too: the closure of the GE plant in Flint started a ripple effect of poverty across the state. Detroit itself had long since stopped booming, the industrial districts largely abandoned and left to rot. In the suburbs, places like Zug Island were mythical destinations you didn’t quite believe were real. Detroit was a distant continent one only visited for brief glimpses of culture. Eight Mile Road was the dividing line.
Out of the shadows rose the Insane Clown Posse: two loud, vulgar MCs in garish face paint, bottles of Faygo in hand, rapping about killing bigots and deadbeat dads. Every odd couplet out of their mouths was a proverb, thinly-veiled beneath a veneer of cartoonish murder. The even couplets were about Detroit. Whether mythologizing the industrial wasteland of the south-west side or openly saying, “Michigan fans are the best,” Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope gave ghetto kids (and their shabby suburban analogs) a “band” to look up to.
You wouldn’t exactly consider ICP role models, to look at how they’ve been perceived in the media, and public eye, though. Alice Cooper expressed regret for having appeared on The Great Milenko, the Hollywood Records debut that was pulled from shelves six hours after it was released. Juggalos-the colloquial nickname for ICP fans have been classified as a gang by the FBI; the name “Juggalo” itself has been defined by at least one media outlet as a play on the word “jigaboo.”
All of which is conjecture and bullshit speculation on an emergent culture that the media and the government can’t understand. Except for brief stints with Jive, Hollywood and Island, ICP have been an independent entity, working under the in-house label Psychopathic Records. Shunned by radio, and MTV; hell, even Faygo-the sweet and cheap Toledo-based soda company ICP rep on record and throw at the crowd, in concert-doesn’t want anything to do with them. Insane Clown Posse have remained, at heart, true to their hometown, and true to their roots.
Well, they didn’t exactly stay true to their roots-iest of roots. Before ICP were visited by the Dark Carnival and charged with warning the world of the coming apocalypse, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope (and Dope’s brother, John Kickjazz) tried their hands at making conventional early 90s hip hop. Dubbed Inner City Posse, after the neighborhood gang Violent J had formed in Southwest Detroit, they released two demos of pre-Dark Carnival rap.
Bassment Cuts came first. For many years, it was a lost album, shrouded in mystery. Something like 19 cassette copies were sold, and promptly vanished. The ICP themselves didn’t even have one, for a long time.
Eventually, bootlegs started to get around. The legend was much more alluring than the reality. Many tropes are present that J and 2 Dope would use later to great success; including an opening sample of the Dukes of Hazzard theme which careens into a funky breakbeat, over which J invites the listener to get down with his stolen beats or hit the fucking road. There are numerous nods to mainstream rap of the era: a heavy sampling of Lyn Collins’ “Think About It,” rumbling bass lines on “Lock Down” which calls to mind “It’s Time For The Perculator,” and some choice scratching from 2 Dope.
But, while competent, Bassment Cuts doesn’t exactly set ICP apart from any other early 90s also-ran rap crew. It’s not that J and 2 Dope can’t rap. They rap about as good in 1990 as they do in 2017; which is to say they, they’re good. Technically able, wordy, etc. But the group hadn’t found their real horrorcore sound, yet. ICP’s real bag of tricks, the charisma, the personalities, the PERFORMANCE, hadn’t even begun to grow into their sound, yet. While a cute time capsule, Bassment Cuts is by no means essential listening, and truly for fans, only.
By 1991’s Dog Beats EP, ICP had begun to grow in confidence and style. Still known as Inner City Posse, and still rapping about life on the streets of Detroit, the production is a little more adept, and J pulls a few lyrical stunts that are exhilarating enough to be recycled on later albums. “Violent J servin’ ghetto hard street shit, you know it’s potent, when the funky ass beat hits,” the opening couplet followed closely by an ominous, Halloween-style melody which belies the horror movie motif they’d adopt, the next year. “Ghetto Zone” is all ominous and dark on the verses, and then juxtaposed against a well-timed sample of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” and some Flavor Flav-style hype man antics from 2 Dope.
On EP closer and title track, ICP’s deeply-seeded sense of humor starts to rear its ugly head. An opening skit depicts a yokel trying to place an order at a drive-thru, wherein the cashier rejects everything he’s asked for, responding that all they’ve got is the “Dog beats.” Over a pretty corny sample of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” (which nevertheless predates Snoop Dogg’s sampling of the track by two years), J, 2 Dope and John Kickjazz rap about their thieving skills and their rhyming skills.
While the ICP had grown a little between the first two EPs, both in production skill and in rap skill (not John Kickjazz, though, he never really got it), they needed two things in order to take their career to the next level. The first was a better producer, to guide things behind the scenes and give the group a distinctive sound. The second was a theme that belonged to the two of them, alone. ICP would soon find the former in Mike E. Clark, and Violent J would find the latter in a dream.