Monday, November 7, 2011

Leadership Secrets of The Insane Clown Posse

Humans are pattern-seeking animals. When presented with partial information, our brains fill in the blanks. This pattern-seeking behavior has served us well in the past. It gave us an advantage over Homo neanderthalensis and is part of the reason why we were able to give him the middle finger and become Earth's dominant hominid (in your craniofacial morphology, losers!).

But in modern times, pattern recognition can cause us to find patterns where none exist and give rise to myth-sustaining belief systems.

Like the myth that mimes can't feel pain.

We assume they can't feel pain because they're so damn creepy and must, logically, be undead. Mimes can indeed feel pain, a fact I discovered in Montmartre where I accidentally stumbled upon two warring mime schools putting each other into invisible shrinking boxes. To this day, it remains the most vicious and eerily silent thing I've ever witnessed.

Or how about this myth: The Insane Clown Posse can't teach me anything worth knowing.

What?! You still believe that one?

In the immortal words of Victor Hugo, au contraire, mon frére.

You've made an evolutionarily advantageous but completely reality-free leap based on inadequate data. The Insane Clown Posse, known as ICP round there parts, has plenty to teach you.

To prove it, I've brought in some specialists. Please say hello to today's instructors.

Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope - anyone notice the resemblance to insane mimes? No? Just me?

The Insane Clown Posse was started in 1991 by two Detroit rappers, Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utstler, who perform as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, respectively. They pioneered a rap style known as horrorcore which uses crude humor and violent imagery (or exactly what you'd find in most contemporary horror movies) to reveal the struggles, hopes and fears of the poor, the defeated and the outcast.

They've clearly struck a nerve. Over the past two decades, the group has accumulated two platinum records, five gold records and six million album sales.

Their modern fan base may number in the millions but in 1991, J and Shaggy were just trying to stay out of jail and keep a roof overhead. Just like you and me, am I right? How did they go from having a rap catalog more akin to a rap sheet (and of interest only to the Detroit PD), to commanding a global presence and overseeing a media empire?

Many factors played into their success, of course. But today we're going to focus on just one: voice.

Voice is like porn. Hard to describe but you know it when you see it. If you want to know what it means to have a unique, confident voice, read anything by China Miéville (I need a shower after the first paragraph of Perdido Street Station – his voice doesn't speak to you, it soils you). So how do you develop one?

Here are some of the ways ICP did it.

Don't follow convention – Realizing that gangsta rap was oversaturated, J and Shaggy discussed how to distinguish themselves from all the other early 90's rap upstarts. If you're trying to sell your Twilight-esque vampire YA in 2011, you know how they felt. Violent J squinted through his monocle and, over hot brandy and flavored pipe tobacco in the front parlor of his refurbished Victorian*, suggested to Shaggy they use horror-infused lyrics.

ICP's new direction not only made people notice, it also dovetailed with the themes of pain and despair they were trying to showcase.

Lesson: The struggle to find a unique voice will help you stand out but it could also accrue one additional benefit: an instrument tuned to the music you want to play.

Extra Credit: Try ICP's "Vera Lee," the haunting story of a young woman who appears to Violent J after her death. He realizes she was the sickly girl who often smiled at him and said hello, betraying a crush he never acknowledged.

Create a Secret Society – Masons, Templars and fantasy football enthusiasts long ago recognized the appeal of received wisdom, words and rituals only revealed once the individual becomes an acolyte (or pays the monthly website fee). Similarly, ICP developed a secret language so that fans could identify one another and speak without eavesdropping by the uninitiated.

Words like Juggalo (a hardcore ICP fan), MCL (Mad Clown Love, used as a sign-off), and Ninja (a greeting, as in, “Pardon me, ninja, care to join me for a shopping spree at
Harrods?**”) serve as a secret handshake between fans.

Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Panem and all high schools have their own language and rituals. Your world should feel like it belongs exclusively to your characters and, by extension, your audience.

Lesson: Create a secret language that gives your readers access to an imaginary world and they'll come back to explore again and again.

Extra Credit: Listen to "What is a Juggalo?" which tries to answer that question as lewdly as possible and introduces the word Juggaluggalocoroni.

Use humor – If your chosen voice is filled with angst, pain and heartache like much of ICP's darker canon, remember to add some humor to give those moments time to breathe. In addition to in-song humor (like pop-locking zombies doing the sprinkler), ICP includes funny skits between songs. Taken as a whole, they help lighten what would otherwise feel like a serial murderer's court hearing.

Remember that there are only so many deaths, breakups and garrotings your reader can handle in a row. The corollary is that if your voice is humorous and irreverent, some thoughtfulness will cleanse the palate like ginger between sushi bites. The TV show Scrubs did this particularly well.

Lesson: Whatever your chosen voice, variety in tone mirrors the human need for emotional rest.

Extra Credit: Try the hilarious "Juggalo Island" which posits a private, fan-only archipelago full of weed, Faygo soda (which is sprayed liberally at ICP concerts) and boobies. In other words, Juggalo heaven.

Cultivate Disparate Influences – Just because you want your voice to be different doesn't mean it can't benefit from paying tribute to those who inspired you to write in the first place. In fact, the more confident your voice, the more obvious you can make the reference without taking the reader out of your story.

Can you guess who Violent J's favorite artist is? No, not Satan (the Prince of Darkness is a notoriously lazy lyricist, preferring soft, sound-alike rhymes in his rap). It's Michael Jackson. J also likes Prince, Ice-T and Pearl Jam. Listen carefully and you'll hear their influence in ICP's work.

The Beatles honored the Beach Boys, JJ Abrams honored Steven Spielberg, Rebecca Stead honored Madeleine L'Engle. All have singular voices. 

Lesson: Don't shrink from the voices you love while trying to discover your own.

Extra Credit: Check out "Supernatural" which, I swear to Jesus, has poetic threads first explored in Nobel Prize-winning poet Wysalawa Szymborska's "In Praise of Dreams***."

Look, there is no question that horrorcore is not the path for most of us. But ICP has succeeded in a business at least as competitive as the one we've chosen. Surely they've made a few right moves along the way. Hopefully you've found something in their success that might be useful to your own creative development.

More importantly, now that we've peeked behind the veil of evolutionary barriers to reality, maybe you can help stem the tide of illogical groupthink which argues that men in clown makeup who sing about zombies have little to offer non-fans. This is a complete myth.

And myths tend to wither in the harsh glare of reason. Just like the myth we learned in that popular lullaby we all heard as kids:
Goodnight, sweet child
Dream a dream of love and light
Goodnight, sweet child
Never goad a mime to fight
Shoot and stab with gun and sickle
To a f***ing mime it's just a tickle  
Lesson: Don't be fooled. Not only can mimes feel pain, Paul Curtis mimes will cut you for spare change.

Until next time, Mad Clown Love, Ninjas!


*If you called shenanigans, you'd be right. Shaggy prefers his brandy at room temperature.

**If you called shenanigans a second time, correct again! Everyone knows Violent J only wears bespoke clownwear.

***Actually, this one might not be shenanigans. Check out this poem by Polish poet Szymborska and then compare it to sample lyrics from ICP's "Supernatural":

In Praise of Dreams — by Wislawa Szymborska

In my dreams
I paint like Vermeer van Delft.
I speak fluent Greek
and not just with the living.
I drive a car
that does what I want it to.
I am gifted
and write mighty epics.
I hear voices
as clearly as any venerable saint.
My brilliance as a pianist
would stun you.
I fly the way we ought to,
i.e., on my own.
Falling from the roof,
I tumble gently to the grass.
I've got no problem
breathing under water.
I can't complain:
I've been able to locate Atlantis.
It's gratifying that I can always
wake up before dying.
As soon as war breaks out,
I roll over on my other side.
I'm a child of my age,
but I don't have to be.
A few years ago
I saw two suns.
And the night before last a penguin,
clear as day.

Supernatural – by Insane Clown Posse
Mutha fucka, I can speak to crows,
I see through their eyes
I can hear the truth behind the wickedest lies
I can snap my finger and make fire appear
I see visions of the future through a crack in the mirror
I’m supernatural, I turn water to ice
With my bare hands, I don’t need a freezer device
I can bend a spoon, tie it up in a knot
Without touching it once (true powers I got)
I can spit hot acid, I can see in the dark
Because I’m supernatural and I’m livin' my part
I can levitate cards but I’m not a magician
Cuz my magic is official while these others are wishin'
I can read your palm, I got the telekinesis
Concentrate on a piece of fruit and blow it to pieces
I can see through walls and guess the color you wearin'
Before you walk in the room (my super psyche is blarin')
I can close my eyes and read the page of a book
I can tell you where your keys are and don’t have to look
I'm supernatural, it's in the beat of my heart
The only bone that comes with it is the hard part

Copil Yáñez goes Juggaluggalocoroni for ICP. Complaints and Mad Clown Love should be forwarded to copil [dot] yanez [at] gmail [dot] com.


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