Knox covered over 2,000 miles to reach the middle of nowhere. This really is the Middle of Nowhere, USA: HogRock Campgrounds, 115 privately owned acres in the rural village of Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. Buried deep in a Midwestern national forest, encircled by rolling farmlands and the Ohio River, the local population is 318. Reliable Internet access requires an hour’s drive. The nearest liquor store is 14 miles away.
It took Knox, left, a boyishly handsome young man with lean musculature and an impish smirk, about a month to get here. Not long ago, the Oklahoma native met a girl from the Pacific Northwest whose brother was a medical cannabis grower and followed her up there to cultivate marijuana professionally. “Fourth of July, she robs me,” he says now. “Cash, my tattoo equipment—she took me for everything.” The words come out in a froggy rasp. “I was like, ‘Fuck it, I better start walking now.’”
On July 8, 2012, the 24-year-old left Portland, Oregon with a bag, a map, and this destination. Following interstate highways across the Western American states, he traipsed along roadsides for seemingly countless hours each day, passing the Rocky Mountains, detouring by the Grand Canyon, and sleeping “under the stars” every night. In Kansas, Knox got caught in a bad storm, “some tornado-status shit.” It’s Sunday, August 12; he finally arrived here earlier this week.
Under nearly all other circumstances, this tale would sound blusteringly tall. Yet one look at this kid makes his pilgrimage not only feasible, but very likely. Knox’s once-white running sneakers are tinged grey, the blanched color of concrete, with sallow tongues and rubber soles that flap like banana peels. Small cuts, scrapes, and red welts mark his lower left arm. His fingernails are dirty crescents, his fists are constellations of bruises. Knox is also toting around a nearly drained litre of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, fitting self-medication for someone who just walked halfway across America to a family reunion.
Knox’s real name, as it turns out, is Cody Perez. That’s how he identified himself to photographer Daniel Cronin in 2011 when Dan shot the shirtless portrait of him. When Dan met Perez in this very same place, the young man was meatier. He still owned a belt. Like now, his skin was an inky archive of crude tattoo experiments: the phrase CLOWN LOVE on his upper-right shoulder, the demonic ram’s head above his navel, the miniature Betty Boop sketch above his left hip. But when I met Perez in 2012, these drawings had multiplied, joined by CODY on his right knuckles, KNOX on his left, and the tiny letters ICP under his right eye. And now he was homeless.
Knox is one of about 10,000 like-minded souls who’d migrated to the 13th annual Gathering of the Juggalos. Strictly speaking, the Gathering is a live music festival for hardcore fans of the widely mocked cartoon-rap duo Insane Clown Posse. For five summer days, HogRock Campgrounds becomes an aggressively independent music festival of rap and metal performers (past highlights include Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Lil Jon, and Drowning Pool), celebrity hosts (Charlie Sheen appeared in 2011), after-hours comedy sets (Gallagher smashed watermelons during an early-morning lightning storm in 2010), and theatrically brutal wrestling matches. But the Gathering’s secondary activities, both official and unofficial, are just as ridiculously compelling: nude oil grappling, open-air drug bartering, tentside tattooing, nitrous balloon sucking, dance party barbecuing, and swimming in the murky scum pond, amusingly known as Lake Hepatitis.
Cosmically speaking, the Gathering is a remote Dionysian homecoming for social, economic, and cultural outcasts, a publicly detested demographic organizers have described as the "most misunderstood people of all time.” Juggalos tend to be dropouts, orphans, survivors—the lowest members of America’s silent caste system. They are people like Knox, who says he was stabbed for being a Juggalo and lifts his shirt to show scars marking the 270 permanent stitches in his diaphragm, where he’d been shanked after a fight. They are people like 19-year-old Kelsie Ray, the freckled girl in glasses and a sports bra Knox has been wandering around with today. She is a self-described “gypsy” who talks about her parents moving her around so much as a child (fifteen different schools by the sixth grade, thirty-five total by the time of her high school graduation), she’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at the age of 13. People like them come here, find each other, and ascribe a near-religious transcendence to this communion.
The two men who are ultimately responsible for all of this are Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Together, they comprise Insane Clown Posse, the American horrorcore duo who have built a multi-platinum career spanning more than two decades with no radio play, no mainstream support, and no critical adoration. (USA Today handed them "Worst Album of the Year” not once, but twice. NME called the band’s 2012 release, The Mighty Death Pop!, “a uniquely awful affront to good taste” and gave it one star.) They market themselves as “the Most Hated Band in the World”, and that very well might be true.
In real life, they are Joseph Bruce and Joey Utsler, two self-described “scrubs” who grew up dirt poor in inner-city Detroit, Michigan. Abused by relatives, neglected by institutions, and left to fend for themselves against the injuries of class, the lifelong friends followed their seemingly impossible dreams of becoming rap music stars by assuming the fictional personas of serial killer clowns. Their weapon of choice was a hatchet, which became the basis of their record label’s omnipresent hatchetman logo, a kind of Juggalo family crest. They channeled their homicidal impulses into lyrical fantasies about murdering racists, pedophiles, wife-batterers, and bullies. "The Juggla," an early ICP track from 1992 that birthed the term “Juggalo,” gives a fairly accurate read on the narrative point of view: “I’m that nerd in the back of the class / That went psycho and killed your ass / I slash and cut and hack / With a ‘Kick Me’ sign on my back.”
In representing this perspective, Insane Clown Posse aligned themselves with a previously ignored group of people, a margin of the population who’d never before been embraced by American society at large: The teenage son whose alcoholic father routinely beat his mom. The homeless high school student. The child predator victim filled with vengeful rage. The Southern white kid trapped among rednecks that identified with hip-hop more than freedom rock. The mother of three with a restraining order against an ex, working at a fast food joint. The class pariah about to snap.
This is all very serious stuff. But since the message comes from the mouths of white rappers in clown makeup, there’s comic escapism and humor therapy at play. This jovial softening is evident during an Insane Clown Posse live performance. First of all, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope always spray soda pop throughout the show, drenching their audience in a storm of Faygo, a Midwestern cola brand that’s become a Juggalo’s symbolic nectar. Second, a cavorting troupe of evil clowns joins the pair onstage intermittently, like Broadway backup dancers. Third, while singing about chopping off heads, Insane Clown Posse also talk happily about butts, nuts, and sluts. It is all very spectacularly absurd.
The Gathering is meant to be an underground catharsis. Sometimes, this release has come through chaos. In 2000, the inaugural festival took place in Novi, Michigan, at an indoor convention center. About 300 fans rushed the stage during ICP’s set, parking lot fires burned, and pandemonium collapsed a full-scale wrestling ring. The next year, after being forced to relocate, the Gathering moved South to Toledo, Ohio, where a mini melee broke out, the venue got trashed, riot cops showed up with billy clubs, and someone punched a police horse. Banned again, the Gathering set up in Peoria, Illinois, where local law enforcement interfered with a young woman publicly flashing her breasts, the booing crowd threw things, and the cops responded with teargas. And that was just the first three years.
In 2007, the Gathering found its way to HogRock Campgrounds, an ideal setting for self-contained rampage. Here, local laws require no permits. Since the land is private property, police can’t enter legally without probable cause or explicit invitation, which fosters a kind of Wild West self-regulation. For example, at the 2012 Gathering, a suspected thief from Covington, Kentucky was allegedly caught stealing from his fellow campers. They chased the individual away, while an angry Juggalo mob exacted revenge on the car he’d left behind. Over the course of an afternoon, a rotating cast of clown avengers painstakingly dismantled the vehicle, pounded its chassis into a flat metal hunk, and later paraded the demolished heap around, a veritable head on a stick. That weekend, Juggalos carrying auto part trophies, spoils from an enemy discovered among them, became a common sight.
Funded and executed entirely by Insane Clown Posse’s homespun label, Psychopathic Records, the Gathering has no corporate involvement, no advertisements, no sponsorships, and no mainstream influence. For a string of blissfully anarchic summer days, HogRock mutates into an amusement park shantytown refuge, a temporary sanctuary for underground loyalists to be entirely free from the nagging constraints of bills, laws, clothes, sobriety, marketing, judgment. Within this unregulated freedom, there’s celebration, but there’s also serenity. Dan’s gorgeously prodding Juggalo portraits, mostly shot during the day, tend to capture these quieter moments—the dirt, the exhaustion, the peace, the intimate interludes between all the endemic physical and emotional extremes. People, for once, at home.
Of course, there are naked people too.
When I met Knox, he was brandishing a rusty catalytic converter from the destroyed car. He was hoping to sell it outside the gates—he had to get money somehow. “I don't really have no real family,” he told me, his voice stripped hoarse from days of dust and drinking. “All I have is Juggalo family." Then Knox added indignantly, “That's all I want anyway."
The Gathering of the Juggalos by Daniel Cronin is published by Prestel