Gettin' jiggy for whitey. In his The Birth of Bebop, jazz historian Scott DeVeaux calls it the art of versatility: "a mask that could be worn to deflect white hostility." Jazz luminary Lionel Hampton called it "a long, honorable tradition of clowning in black performance." In Hampton's day it meant taking the Sambo myth and putting it on the swing shift. Since then it has informed the genius of countless performers, from Dizzy Gillespie to Busta Rhymes, and has given white America an image of the Afro-American entertainer as, in the words of pianist Teddy Wilson, "a clown, a buffoon, an illiterate, happy person who jammed all day." Of course, in doing so, it has also helped "Negro America" relieve what Wilson called the "white world" of rime upon rime of its disposable income.
And it's finally been co-opted--by idiots. The Insane Clown Posse--white rappers in whiteface who've just gone gold with their third album, The Great Milenko--have stumbled into becoming one of the first white acts ever to get mileage out of what had previously been a definitive form of black expression. Dreadlocked (à la Busta), self-consciously cray-Z (à la Cypress Hill), and steeped in a horror-flick semiology not unlike the Wu-Tang's kung fu shtick, the Clowns--Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope--are, on paper, the worst kind of marketing gimmick. And the papers are what they make.
If Vanilla Ice and Kiss had a bastard spawn, raised him on 2 Live Crew, and sold him to a white, teen, lower-middle-class demographic whose ideal rap is Gallagher doing "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," he wouldn't be any less offensive than ICP's gangsta glop. Milenko existed for only six hours before its "inappropriate material" was recalled by weak-willed Hollywood Records because of pressure placed on the label's parent company, Disney, by the American Family Association. And still enough copies lingered in stores for the banned record to reach No. 63 on Billboard's Top 200 before surfacing again on Island.
But if you've got them pegged as (yawn) an amalgam of Mötley Crüe and 2 Live Crew, then try again. They're wigger minstrels: the ICP don whiteface, allowing their virtually all-white audience to laugh, both at the Clowns themselves and the angst that comes with being young, male, white, and too unworldly to know how to make sense of their own teen alienation. "Yeah bitch/It's all about clown loves!" they bellow. Promoting oneness among "juggalos" (that's juggle + gigolo), they invite their confused constituency to embrace the "wigger" epithet it's been saddled with, not unlike the gangsta rappers who turned "nigger" into "nigga" 10 years back. What the New York Dolls (and later Kiss) did for early-'70s gender-transgressives, the ICP do for white kids marginalized by both the Beasties' good taste and Semisonic's sensitivity. And the margins are full: Tonight the Clowns are headlining at the 5,000-seat Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
Really, what's a better way to deal with your teenage identity pathos than to smother it in cheap war paint and jacked street mythos? On Forgotten Freshness (a just-out collection of outtakes), every gangsta cliché is inflated. Originally born as the Inner City Posse, the Detroit duo trumpet gangland roots, and shower each oh-so-suspecting audience (à la Gallagher) with 600 liters of a low-grade "poor man's pop" called Faygo soda, reportedly to remind the kids of ICP's "poverty-stricken background."
As carnival goes, this makes the Illinois State Fair look like Twelfth Night in the park. In being so plainly weird, the ICP send the whole wigger phenomenon flying through circus hoops. The term wigger is as ingrained in the culture as hippie, used by everyone from the classist echelons of the hipoisie to the racists who deploy it to differentiate themselves from their black-identifying friends, neighbors, and younger siblings. Americans are so aware of it they're ready to see it sent up and/or properly manipulated by a trustworthy honky like Warren Beatty in Bulworth.
Set against Warren B's white negro and rapper/producer Warren G's liberal ego-massaging, the Clowns' carnivalism keeps it real like O'Neal. These are kids from disheveled Detroit--whether the inner city stuff is crap or not, they're entitled to as much contempt for the Man as Silk the Shocker. This can lead to some good old class-based contempt: "Anyone who gets killed on an Insane Clown Posse album is either a racist or a rich guy," says Violent J. Their catchiest tune, "Willy Bubba," is about a grade-school beatdown on a racist hick.
You also get a shared sense of alienation between consumer and consumed. These are, after all, clowns, figures to be simultaneously feared and laughed at. By being as loutish to the world at large as the mass of misfits who make up its fan base are to the female species, they're soldiers in the same struggle.
"Are you prepared to feast your eyes on visions of mayhem accompanied by the merriment of zombies, ghouls, and freaks?" asks a press release announcing ICP's current tour. Freaks indeed. Come one. Come all.
It's at this point that ICP invite in a different tradition--punk tradition. "I don't wanna be a pinhead no more/I just met a girl that I could go for," sang another Dolls-inspired cartoon-band, the Ramones, 20 years ago. The pinhead image, a reference to the carny mutants in the 1932 cult film Freaks--who band together to take vengeance on an insensitive trapeze star--helped sculpt not only the angry 'n' ugly punk rocker but the pinhead minions he played for. But for all its racket and reek, punk was sexy--still is, even as it wanes. One sniff of the sweet waft of hidden culture, and even the pretty girls start kicking around the funhouse.
There is no sex in the 3,000 or so ICP fans currently lined up outside the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, zits pulsing, sweat teeming beneath a gasface of clown makeup. These kids have a hard time approaching girls. And I hope that after they get done chortling at ICP's pseudo porn and gangsta violence, they'll ultimately identify with Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J because they give them what Master P or Warren G cannot: a voice. OK, fine, a mask. But clown love is tough love to come by, and we should take it as it comes. Gabba Gabba Hey.
Insane Clown Posse plays Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Wednesday, September 9; 989-5151.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.