Over the course of the past week, I’ve been attempting to make sense of my trip to the Gathering of the Juggalos, an event I found myself inexplicably drawn to by the sudden resurgence of a deeply buried middle school love of the Insane Clown Posse which kicked in just after FORM Arcosanti. I can’t explain the parallels except to say that FORM, by virtue of its intimacy, the environment, the diverse nature of its performances, and the community it’s fostered, shares the purity of enthusiastic participation and co-creation of the vibe. That idea was summed up in a conversation on the subject with a fellow OG raver Vivek Srinivasan of Production Club (live production for Skrillex, ZHU, and more) when I told him I’d gone and was writing this story. He said, “It makes perfect sense to me that the Gathering of the Juggalos would be the last bastion of purity in music, that’s how far out you have to go to find it now, at least in the US.”
And far out it was, the absolute furthest I’ve ever been in my many years of music festival-ing. I’ve tried to unpack the whole thing so many times, but I think the secret sauce that makes the Gathering such a magical experience is what Larry Harvey set out to create with Burning Man: it seemed that Larry wanted to de-commodify the human experience for one week a year so we could remember our true nature, so we could create and be a witness to creation for its own sake without seeing the whole operation through the dirty lens of money. The Gathering is wholly artist owned and operated with no corporate sponsors: the only commodities present are ICP, to a lesser extent the other performing artists, and independent vendors. It makes for such a different vibe when you’re walking through the place compared to other festivals; perhaps when you’re not constantly being sold something, you pay more attention to the party.
It’s hard to put into words quite exactly what the rave lost when so many were bought up by Live Nation in 2012-2013, but those of us who lived through it could see how drastic the change was. There was an element of community that played out in the form of co-casual friendliness, co-creation, and personal responsibility; everyone looked out for each other to make sure everyone was handling themselves, and most everyone had some kind of DIY outfit or accessory, with mere kandi being bare minimum. Sometimes independent warehouse and forest raves got raided, so it felt like there was a greater emphasis on staying conscious and making sure your friends did too. That feeling of co-creating conscious mayhem with kind, highly imaginative people is the so-called aforementioned “last bastion of purity” I experienced at The Gathering of the Juggalos last month in Legend Valley, Ohio.
I want to begin my story by encouraging you to never attend this event, unless of course you truly love the music. It would break my heart to be part of the hipster press movement that inadvertently disrupts the purity of “the greatest family reunion on Earth” as ICP calls it (Vice has been a staple at the Gathering, but this year High Snobiety came through as well). However, as someone who grew up on the Clowns and G.W.A.R., I absolutely loved it. And after seeing those two acts perform the first night we were there, I felt inspired to give myself to the Dark Carnival for a few days, not knowing what that would mean. But I do know a true underground subculture as robust as the Juggalos, and a scene as big as 10,000 people at a horror circus-themed, wholly artist-owned music festival, untouched by corporate money, is so rare these days I had to know for myself what it felt like to be part of it. (Also, check out G.W.A.R. on Jerry Springer in 1997, it feels a lot like most of ICP’s interviews where they end up saying less and coming off as more intelligent than the interviewer.)
The first order of business was to get way out of my comfort zone, which was immediately necessary. The very first human life we encountered while walking into the Gathering were a group called Jesus Loves Juggalos, founded by an ex-addict and community member. I don’t know what I expected from them, but it was not a free sack lunch with Faygo and water, a hug, and a dope T-shirt, but I got all that. The ladies I spoke to working the JLJ booth posed a very self-aware, existential inquiry at the crux of their mission: “Why would anyone want to be helped by someone who judges them?” The entire goal of their presence was to let the Juggalo community know they are loved and if anyone needed anything at all – food, water, a hug, a Band-aid, or personal help – they had a place to go.
I figured the Christians were placed at the front gate to throw off the rural Ohio police force, who were ever present at the Gathering and completely chill. The Juggalos were classified as a gang by the FBI in 2011, which means employers and courts can use affiliations with that community as a lawful reason to withhold rights. It’s an absurd, largely baseless classification, but in rural Ohio when it came to interfacing with local law enforcement, I imagined setting the tone of Jesus Saves! right at the front door was perhaps just a smart business. It turns out the cops were cool and the other vendors wanted JLJ as far away from the festival itself as possible because everything available at their booth is free.
So pure, the whole situation; I can’t get over it. And as I write this, I realize there’s some qualities to that purity I’m not going to be able to put into words. But it’s very specifically something I remember feeling in my early raving days from 2005-2010. Even ICP shamelessly auctioning off their own memorabilia, old merch and products, personal shit – for real money – felt blissfully pure. The afternoon I attended the auction, which consisted of about 150 people that included two apparently wealthy Juggalos buying the majority of the lot, they made a robust five figures. At the merch store, amidst at least 100 different pieces of product, was a shirt with a drawing by Violent J’s 12-year-old daughter Ruby Bruce Lee of the band looking cute AF that said this on the back: “Thanks to the Juggalo rockin this AWESOME shirt, THE HUMANE SOCIETY GOT PAID!” More pure goodness, so, of course, we got the shirt.
The Gathering venue at Legend Valley is on a hill that looks out over beautifully green farmland, so it gives the feeling that there’s layers to the party because you literally go deeper and further down the hill all the way to the main stage, carnival rides, and wrestling ring. The next major comfort zone hurdle I had to clear was accepting that despite the fact that “No Fireworks” is the number one rule, fireworks go off everywhere, unexpectedly all the time — it’s insane. Which is apparently the point, but I quickly got very good at trusting my gut when it came to getting out of the way. Yelawolf was not so fortunate: someone shot a Roman Candle in his face during his performance, but he had sunglasses on and kept going! He didn’t miss a beat. Insane. Again.
My absolute favorite part of the entire weekend was the rap battle Friday afternoon, which had extremely stiff competition in one-on-one battles, was ultimately won by a rapper in a wheelchair called Less Legz (pictured in the gallery below) who had, you guessed it – no legs. He won over said extremely stiff competition and thrill-a-minute to witness. And the Juggalos are also the most effective self-policing crowd I’ve ever seen — during the rap battle, at one point the sound was slightly turned down and the few hundred people in the Fun House Tent were not having it. They simply would not let the show go on, instead chanting things over and over like “Fix your shit!” or “You fucked up!” Fucking up is actually a sacred act in Juggalo culture; it’s something that seems to be celebrated along with the encouragement to overcome the fuck-up at hand. And after about three attempts to re-start the show, the sound guy just turned it all the way back up and everyone settled down.
I could write a lot more anecdotes about crazy shit that happened casually at every turn, like getting green-pissed on by a mastodon-looking creature with two dicks during G.W.A.R. and my skin being stained for a whole day (pictured below). Or the crazy shit people would shout all around, all in good fun, thank goodness, but crazy nevertheless. There was a Juggalette I saw in a hijab (also pictured below), who I really wanted to talk to but felt like it was disrespectful for me to disrupt the purity of her experience. And I imagined coming there for her might be a really brave act of both radical self-expression and inclusion (see Burning Man’s 10 Principles). My Burner friends may be miffed at me for comparing The Gathering of the Juggalos to Burning Man, but I think it serves a somewhat similar purpose in the lives of its attendees. At least once in a Muslim person’s life they’re asked to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca — in a very conceptually similar way, it’s a sacred journey and Juggalos going back to their Family every year is akin to the metaphor Burning Man uses, that coming back to the Playa means coming home. Yes, I just compared the Gathering of the Juggalos to both a holy religious pilgrimage and Burning Man.
As I said, there’s a lot more stories but since a picture is worth a thousand words and we took a grip of analog, throwback photos, we leave you with the Disposables Gallery from this year’s Gathering of the Juggalos – Whoopstock 2018, and another reminder to never go unless it’s with a pure heart.