Of all the ways I thought I would be describing my first Gathering of the Juggalos, “like my first rave” was not on the short list. But after less than 24 hours among the fans of Insane Clown Posse, that's how I'm feeling. It's as if I've traveled back in time to 1998, except the pacifiers and progressive trance have been replaced by horrorcore hip-hop and cans of Natty Light.

I had expected to experience the Gathering, which takes place in a sleepy corner of central Ohio on a picturesque piece of rolling green countryside named Legend Valley, with a mix of bewilderment and terror, flashing my press pass to protect myself from the marauding locals like a war correspondent scurrying back to the green zone after curfew. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Juggalo, and I figured they would treat me with suspicion at best and hostility at worst. I was looking forward to the challenge of navigating it all, but I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself exactly, or find myself making new friends.

Instead, everywhere I turned were friendly faces and good vibes. One person after another described to me the ethos of the Juggalo “Family,” which basically consists of looking out for one another, treating every fellow Juggalo with love and respect, and maintaining a safe, peaceful atmosphere at the Gathering. It all sounded suspiciously like the old-school raver creed of PLUR — peace, love, unity and respect.

Today's EDM festivals still pay lip service to PLUR but seldom achieve it — not, to be fair, through any fault of their own, but just because they've gotten too big to sustain any real sense of community. But the Gathering, with only about 10,000 or so attendees, still feels like a truly underground event — and, once you can see past all the scary-looking vampire contact lenses and neck tattoos, its denizens are brimming over with PLUR. All around me, I saw hugs and high-fives, often between people who clearly didn't know each other.

The Gathering resembles a rave in other ways, too. There's a lot of dancing, most of it awkward but totally unselfconscious. Drugs are openly offered and consumed. (I myself was offered weed, shrooms, hash shatter and nitrous, all of which I passed on because I'm a working professional covering the event for a major publication. OK, I may have done a little nitrous.) There are poi spinners and devil stick twirlers and hula hoopers. Passing out in a camping chair at the edge of the dance floor is no big whoop. Outrageous and/or revealing clothing is plentiful and warmly received, regardless of body type. Fat topless women and fatter topless men strut around as proudly as the impossibly sleek young things (guys and girls) wearing similarly scanty attire.

I bet they know what PLUR stands for.; Credit: Nate "Igor" Smith

I bet they know what PLUR stands for.; Credit: Nate “Igor” Smith

Even some of the fashions, to my surprise, reminded me of raver attire, past and present. There were girls in furry boots and fairy wings. A dude sauntered by at one point in an ICP hockey jersey and JNCO fat pants as wide as a Victorian hoop skirt. I didn't see anyone waving glowsticks, but I did see quite a few girls with blinky lights woven into their hair extensions, and lots of those lightsabers that are basically glowsticks on steroids.

Because of all the parallels, I found myself getting even more excited for Wednesday's late-night blacklight dance party than I already was. “Kuma's Blacklight Bikini Smoke Party” was described thusly on the Gathering website: “Witness the magically glowing crowd all bobbing to DJ Kuma's electronically fused Juggalo music! Imagine a bevy of sexy bikini-clad Juggalettes gleefully smearing fluorescent body paint all over your skin before you even know what's happening!” I mean, that already sounded amazing, but what if it also turned out to be a full-blown Juggalo rave?

After rapper Tech N9ne closed down the main Big Top Stage with a heartfelt shout-out to his mother and one last “I fuckin' love y'all!” to the crowd, I made my way over to the Fun House, where DJ Kuma and his bevy of bikini-clad Juggalettes would be doing their thing. At first, I have to admit, it was a little disappointing. Yes, there was a good-sized crowd in its usual jovial mood, and yes, there were cute girls (again, of all body types) in fluorescent hair falls gyrating on a blacklit stage. But apart from the girls onstage, no one was dancing — and Juggalos, it turns out, wear way too much dark clothing to look particularly festive under blacklight.

Rave on, sister!; Credit: Nate "Igor" Smith

Rave on, sister!; Credit: Nate “Igor” Smith

Then the fluorescent body paint started coming out, and the mood changed. The Juggalettes were mostly just flinging ropes of the stuff at the crowd from the stage, rather than gleefully smearing it on our skin as promised. But getting viscous substances flung at them is kind of the Juggalos' thing, and they responded by finally breaking out some of those awkward dance moves. A couple of beefy guys in front of me even half-heartedly tried to start a mosh pit, but the body language of everyone around them was basically, “Chill out, bros — mosh pits aren't very PLUR.” (I did see mosh pits elsewhere at the Gathering, but your average Juggalo pit is pretty organized and almost hoedown-like compared with the flurry of flying elbows I've seen at metal shows in L.A.)

So OK, maybe Juggalos aren't literally the new ravers. The music is pretty different, for starters — I won't say better or worse, because that's all a matter of opinion, but Kuma's blacklight party was less “electronically fused” than advertised (unless all they meant by that was, “beat-matched by an actual DJ”) and more just the same ICP and Psychopathic Records stuff we'd been listening to all day. The crowd, though definitely freaky and more racially mixed than you might expect, appears to be 100 percent hetero — and though raves back in the day could be het-fests, too, they were rarely unwelcoming to LGBTs. Also, the late-night drug vibe at the Gathering is less shrooms and molly (“I love you guys! Look at the moon!”) and more nitrous and alcohol (“Fuck yeah dude! Anyone seen my beer?”).

But in most of the ways that matter, Juggalos are clearly carrying on the old raver tradition of partying hard not just as an act of rebellion or escape but as an act of love — even an act of personal transformation. At Gathering of the Juggalos, you can wear whatever the fuck you want and be whoever the fuck you want. Not to get all hippie-dippie PLUR about it, but with the real clown show happening up in Cleveland, just 2½ hours away, that's the kind of attitude and energy our society needs now more than ever. So rave on, Juggalos — and thanks for making this aging ex-raver feel right at home.

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