In 1994, a New York record executive caught a glimpse of a Detroit music kingdom in the making.
Jeff Fenster, a vice president with Jive Records, had jetted into Detroit for a show by Insane Clown Posse, a rap duo with a fetish for Faygo and painted faces. He was struck by the sight: hordes of Michigan teens decked out in ICP gear, many in wicked-clown makeup like the group's Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.
"We just watched these kids at the merchandise table, buying multiple T-shirts for a band most of us had never heard of," he says. "They were ponying up to buy into this culture."
Hours after the concert, a group of teens spied Fenster at a nearby diner and promptly confronted him with an offer: $100 for the backstage pass around his neck.
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For Fenster, who went on to release the group's third album, the tale still encapsulates the indelibly deep bond between ICP and its audience. It's a lucrative love affair that has become one of Detroit music's enduring success stories — and a triumph for a group often scorned by the showbiz establishment.
"ICP created this vibrant business outside the mainstream, and they've managed to keep it going," says Fenster. "You look at the longevity of it, and it's quite amazing, actually."
The band will perform Saturday at the Cotillion.
Enjoying the top revenues of its career, the group now commands an entertainment empire that pulls in up to $10 million annually: Wrestling exhibitions. An annual 20,000-person festival called the Gathering. Comic books. DVDs. A second feature film, "Big Money Rustlas," due in January. A twice-weekly Web radio show.
And there's a dizzying array of branded collectibles — from apparel to action figures — lapped up by fans (who call themselves Juggalos) with a fervor to rival the Kiss Army.
"The rest of the industry is dying," says Violent J. "And we're still here. We're still putting in lots of hard work."
"Bang Pow Boom," the group's latest album of horror-show rap with a wink, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 last month. The release included three separate covers and an online 3D game.
Such frills aren't new. The pair discovered the power of collectibles early on, when a 1994 comic book drawn by Shaggy quickly sold out. It pointed the way to an ICP future where nonmusic merchandise would get star billing.
"We weren't trying to be brilliant businessmen. We were just trying to come up with things that were cool," says Violent J. "Because the first thing to understand about ICP is that we're fans of the band ourselves. We can step out of it and look at it that way. We're just always thinking of ways for Juggalos to have fun."
ICP has carried a dicey reputation since emerging nationally in the mid-1990s: Snubbed by critics, reviled by social conservatives, mocked by the rock and rap establishments, the duo has relied on the grassroots energy of its fans .
Many music acts extol independence. But when it comes to solo control, say industry experts, the ICP operation is unusual, even unprecedented. From its Farmington Hills headquarters, the group runs its own manufacturing and distribution operations, with nearly 30 full-time employees handling the business of ICP and Psychopathic Records.
As ICP rolls through a 64-city club tour, the future looks bright. And the world may be starting to come around to ICP. Violent J, now a 37-year-old father of two, points to an upcoming positive article in Spin magazine — which once trashed the band in cartoon format.
"We're not done. We've got a lot more to say," he says. "We have a new goal in our career: We want to be an arena band. If we work hard enough, if we get the right breaks, I think this thing could become even more incredible."
If you go
insane clown posse
What: Hard rock band with opening act (hed) p.e.
Where: Cotillion Ballroom, 11120 W. Kellogg
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat.
How much: Advance tickets $26.50, $29 day of show. Tickets available at Select-A-Seat outlets, the Cotillion, House of Sight & Sound and employee clubs, unless otherwise noted. Credit card orders, 316-722-4201 or www.thecotillion.com.