(Web Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the March 11 issue of Dayton City Paper. Whoop whoop.)
In December 2013, Aaron Spencer left work early because he wasn’t feeling well. By the time he made it to the steps of his upstairs apartment, his body wouldn’t allow him to climb them. A call to 911 and the resulting trip to the hospital ended in devastating news. Spencer’s liver was operating at 20 percent capacity and failing rapidly. Doctors told Spencer and his fiancée Carmen Bratton his chances of living until Christmas were grim.
“He fought longer than they thought he would; 15 days into 2014,” nearly life-long friend Philip Rindler recounted. “Aaron was a fighter and he fought until his last breath.”
Rindler and Spencer met at age 13 through friends, bonding over their love for music. Spencer’s undisputed favorites were much-maligned Detroit rappers Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J, the Insane Clown Posse, and others on the Psychopathic Records roster.
“ICP played a major role in his life,” Rindler said. “When he moved here from Denver, he discovered a Riddle Box tape and from then on, it was what he was about. We would go to shows together and Aaron would be the livest person there. He was always one homie coming back to the car after the show in a ripped shirt, Faygo soaked, bragging about how he fought his way to the front. Those were the best of times for us.”
Recognizing his homie’s deep-seated love for ICP and their compatriots, Rindler took to Faygoluvers, an online fan forum, sharing the story of his friend’s brave fight and failing health. Robert Bruce, a rapper and professional wrestler more commonly known by his stage name, Jumpsteady, and also the older brother of ICP’s Violent J, caught wind of the post.
“His friends were able to reach out to me with the help of faygoluvers.net in the hopes I would call him,” Jumpsteady recalled. “I went to the Faygoluvers post pertaining to Aaron and read he was very sick and he considered me to be his favorite artist on Psychopathic and he had a dream to one day see my song ‘Ninjas in Action’ performed live. I called him on Christmas Day and told him I had the same vision and came close once to actually making it happen.”
Spencer and Jumpsteady also talked about his escalating illness. Spencer told him he’d chosen to return home from the hospital to spend his final days among his loved ones. “I could tell just by that one phone conversation he was a fresh ass ninja who remained strong even when faced with the twilight of his life,” Jumpsteady said. “I can’t explain it in any other way except somehow [visiting him] became the single most important thing for me. On the eve of my departure, I told my brother [Violent J] about my mission for the first time and he immediately joined me. So we drove to Troy, Ohio.”
Two days after the phone call, Spencer’s fiancée contacted Rindler to announce their visit and extend an invitation. “We were just thinking [Robert Bruce] was coming and maybe someone was driving him,” Rindler said. “In walks Jumpsteady, Violent J [Joe Bruce] and their homie Will Sigler. Aaron was sleeping when they arrived and asked if they could wake him. So Rob and Joe are standing beside him and he turned his head and saw who it was. He said, ‘Oh my God,’ like he was going to faint, and with no hesitation he was on his way out of bed.”
“It put a smile on everyone in the room, and for a moment it felt like everything was going to be ok,” Rindler said.
The gravity of the gesture wasn’t lost on Jumpsteady.
“They say you can measure your own worth by the quality of friends you keep,” Jumpsteady said, “and even though Aaron was having difficulty speaking, the quality of Aaron’s strength, personality and freshness was evident in all those who stood in that room and in the glow emanating from his own aura.”
“It’s hard to explain how much love was in that room at that time of their meeting with Aaron,” Rindler said. “It was like they were just another friend. It was like they had known us their whole lives. And, yes, after that spirits were high!”
“I’m a very emotional person and I wanted to be there and bring happiness to his family, and to him,” Violent J recalled. “I know his mom is going through something most people can’t ever come out of, can’t ever survive, you know? The moment was nice and peaceful. There was a lot of love in the room, but in my head and in my mind I felt very sad for them.”
During the visit, Violent J extended an offer to participate in a benefit show that would help with Spencer and his family’s mounting medical expenses. “There was a mom losing her son and I wanted to do something for her. We wanted to take a little bit of that and switch it on something positive, if that’s even possible. We want to let her know people care, that strangers are stepping up … I wanted to try.”
“We felt for him, we feel for her, we don’t want anyone to go through that,” Violent J added. “He was a fan of our music and that puts us all in common. That makes us more than friends. It is losing a family member out of the big, wide Juggalo family. We lost one of us.”
A week after the visit, Jumpsteady texted Rindler and they began planning the event.
“I told them we had a place and a date on hold, but we ran into problems with the venue,” Rindler said. “So I handed off the show to a friend of mine, Dave Johnson [of Menace 2 Sobriety], who is also a promoter.”
Johnson and Rindler quickly located another venue, Dayton’s RockStar Pro Arena, and on Saturday, March 15, the wicked clowns will perform, with all proceeds from the show going to the Spencer family to assist with medical and funeral expenses. Also performing will be Psychopathic Records’ Big Hoodoo, Johnson’s group Menace 2 Sobriety and Rindler’s From Silence to Violence.
Tickets for the event went on sale on Feb. 5 and quickly sold out.
For the uninitiated, the story of a big time musician, like those in the clown camp, coming to the aid of a distressed fan is unusual, if not unheard of. Further, it is probably baffling for the uninitiated to imagine one of the most hated and controversial musical acts of all time would be the most connected and charitable with their fans. For ICP and their Psychopathic kin, this is business as usual.
Not only is ICP doing this benefit for the Spencer family, the group has a proven legacy of philanthropy. The group regularly holds canned food drives at their concert performances and they donated every bit of their royalties from the Bizaar/Bizzar albums to charity.
“We are just trying to do good and trying to be a help in some ways,” Violent J said. “We were on welfare growing up and got food from the hunger barrel. They brought us food for Thanksgiving. Now I’m a rapper, living my dream, and I wonder what I can do for people. When there is a way that we can help some people, we go for it.
“When I do things like this, I’m looking for points with God,” Violent J added. “Was I a help on this Earth? When it is my time to be judged, I want people to say I did more good than harm on this planet.”
Early this year, Insane Clown Posse and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan held a press conference to announce a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and ICP on behalf of the band’s fans against the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The lawsuit’s origins dated back to 2011, when, as part of the DOJ’s National Gang Threat Assessment, the FBI classified the Juggalos as a “loosely organized hybrid gang.” The lawsuit claimed “their constitutional rights to expression and association were violated when the U.S. government wrongly and arbitrarily classified the entire fan base as a ‘hybrid’ criminal gang.” ICP said they receive hundreds of letters a month from fans who say they’ve been harassed by law enforcement for having
ICP-inspired tattoos, while wearing the band’s clothing or for driving a vehicle with the band’s “hatchetman” logo on it.
At its core, the classification reeks of prejudice and classism – phenomena not uncommon to the clowns and their fans. Truth be told, some of the band’s fan base is comprised of underprivileged white kids – regular blue collar “people of Walmart” type folks, who are largely reviled and dismissed by the mainstream. Therein also lies the strength of the band/fan bond and appeal for many fans, who find kindred spirits among ICP and their followers. They consider each other “fa-mi-ly,” a chant widely used at the group’s concerts.
The FBI’s interest in ICP also resembles other music and counterculture witch hunts; the Drug Enforcement Agency’s targeting of Deadheads, the heavy metal trials of the ’80s that plagued Twisted Sister and Judas Priest and the Marilyn Manson fallout as a result of Columbine. Again, the common denominator: a misunderstood, largely blue-collar fan base.
“The classification was specious at best, especially when reading into exactly what ‘hybrid gang’ means,” Brett Callwood wrote in a recent article in the Detroit Metro Times. “The same blanket could be thrown over, say, Red Wings fans, folks who like fried chicken or Bronies. Find enough individual crimes, find a common interest among the perpetrators, and – boom – you have yourself a hybrid gang. Juggalos just happen to be an easy target.”
Also present at the press conference was self-described Juggalo Brandon Bradley from Sacramento, Calif., who said he was stopped and interrogated by police on three separate occasions due to his ICP clothing and tattoos. Not only did the stops force Bradley to waste time with the unnecessary hassle, but he also said he was humiliated.
“I hate to think of the cars passing by, thinking I’m a criminal,” Bradley said at the conference.
This, and other fan accounts, is why ICP announced in August 2012 – at their annual Juggalo Gathering festival – they’d be taking action. For the clowns, fear, hatred and abuse of “the other” – in this case the socioeconomically different – isn’t just misguided, but also morally wrong.
Although ICP has sold millions of records, the act and their record label are still largely a grass-roots, independent endeavor, making the lawsuit the kind of the David and Goliath story only a clown with major cajones would be willing to endure. It also strengthens the group’s legacy and reverence among its fans who see their heroes going to bat for them.
“We owe our fans,” Violent J said. “My kids’ college is paid for because our fans buy our records and come to our concerts. And we love doing this shit. We are honored to do this shit. This shit is fun. It is an amazing life and we owe it all to the Juggalos.”
And it has taken a toll on their pocketbooks. Not only has the classification damaged their bottom line by way of merchandise sales, they’ve also been billed for hundreds of lawyer hours since 2011. For ICP, it is a battle worth fighting – and they’re prepared to go broke pursuing it.
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, Dayton’s Juggalos are feeling the love and spirit of family as evidenced by the lengths their heroes are going to for the Spencers.
“This means a lot to every true Juggalo,” Rindler said. “They are touched by this even if they never met Spence. People were sending their thoughts and prayers from all over the world and I thank the Juggalo nation for that from the bottom of my heart. I made it my soul mission to make sure he went out with a bang and what better way than with a show for his family and friends with his favorite group performing.”
Insane Clown Posse will perform at RockStar Pro Arena, 1106 E. Third St. on Saturday, March 15. Also on the bill are Big Hoodoo, Menace 2 Sobriety and From Silence To Violence. The show is sold out. For more information, please visit insaneclownposse.com.