One of my earliest memories of the Insane Clown Posse was the release of their single “Chicken Huntin'” in 1994. It’s not that it’s particularly good or bad. In fact it’s quite possible that it alienated a large segment of their potential audience from the get-go, as the song’s lyrics imply that Southerners are brain dead inbred yokels who sleep with their sheep. “Chopping up hilly and Billy Bob Billy/cause I chop motherfuckin’ rednecks silly.” You might question why ICP would release this song in particular to promote “Ringmaster,” but purposefully offending people is inseparable from their marketing strategy and very arguably led to their success.
The fame of “Ringmaster” has long since exceeded the album’s merits. It’s become an integral part of their Dark Carnival mythos, and as the group’s fame and recognition increased in the 1990’s, a re-release of this early work by Island Records would subsequently go gold. “Why do we do, the things that we do? Who the motherfuck asked you?” ICP had a ready made response to their critics on this album long before they became mainstays on talk shows and in pro wrestling promotions. “Who Asked You” made it clear that Insane Clown Posse were entertaining themselves and their growing fanbase any way they felt like regardless of what the Tipper Gores of the world thought of them.
Their resilience in the face of criticism is as admirable as their subsequent success in all forms of entertainment, but a lot of “Ringmaster” is hard to listen to. It isn’t because of their wanton lust for depravity and violence, which certainly isn’t unique in the horrorcore genre, nor far from the norm for gangster rappers of the era. I’m sure there are WASP soccer moms who were horrified by this music (which again is their not-so-subtle strategy) but the truth is that songs like “House of Mirrors” are just boring. The slow pace, the lack of bass, and the insistence on being creepy carnival clowns just doesn’t elicit a response. I neither love it nor hate it. It just exists.
The success and/or failure of the album can be attributed to Mike E. Clark too. His production definitely gave ICP a much needed polish and contributed to their ascent to mainstream recognition, but at 70 minutes long this album is bloated with tracks and skits that could have been cut altogether. Conversely when a good grove gets going on a song like “Get Off Me, Dog!” it winds up only being 1:47 long. One of the few tracks to find a perfect balance between these extremes is the funky “Wagon Wagon.” The sound is prototypical 1990’s rap complete with scratching on the hook.
This review may seem harsh on its surface but I’ll give ICP the credit that they are justly due. They had improved substantially from their amateur Inner City Posse days, and “Ringmaster” was the first album to actually give name to the Dark Carnival and make it the block their entire Juggalo empire was built on. Clark’s production doesn’t exceed the norms of the day but it also doesn’t drag the Posse backward into obscurity. It builds on what they did with “Carnival of Carnage” and “Beverly Kills 50187” but doesn’t exceed the standard they set. There’s a minuscule amount of improvement here, but any step forward is a positive.