I wish I could say that it’s been years since I’ve thought of Juiceboxxx when he tells me, out of the blue, in a text message one night in September, that he’s coming to New York. The truth is I have been thinking about him a lot — periodically checking his blog, wondering what city he’s living in, hoping he’s doing all right. A series of videos he has started uploading to YouTube every week, in which he stares in a sickly manner into a camera and talks in awful circles about his upcoming projects, has left me with the distinct impression that he is on the verge of cracking up.
What he says in his text is that he wants to “link” with me while he’s in town. I’m surprised but touched that he even thought to contact me. Although we’ve known each other a long time, I always figured he saw me as nothing more than a fan he happened to cross paths with at an early age. Occasionally he’d email me to tell me that he was playing a show somewhere in my vicinity or that he had a new song he wanted me to hear. But I always assumed his life was full of people he had that kind of relationship with — minor characters he had met once or twice, who stayed invested in him long after he moved on.
I wonder what’s bringing him here. Last I heard he was back in Milwaukee, where he grew up, after spending some time in Los Angeles. But aside from that, my main insight into his plans and state of mind has come from listening to the music he’s been putting out, a lot of which deals with getting older and becoming increasingly anxious about where his life is going. Although he still has a sense of humor about himself, he raps a lot about how fucked he feels for having devoted his entire life to being a “cartoon character” and about how stubbornly resolved he is to keep going. His most recent release, a rambunctious and turbulent mixtape he put up online for free, sounds like the work of a person teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but nonetheless trying — desperately, only sometimes convincingly — to channel an inspirational message about the importance of doing what you love, even when nothing is working out.
At 27 years old, Juice has been in this mode for a while, and while I could quote any number of his songs from the past few years to illustrate this, one in particular, from his one proper album, I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness, sums it up nicely: “On the road, you’re on the run / And you can’t stop till you are done / But you’re never done / And you’ll never stop / This is not for fun / This is all you’ve got.”
I met Juiceboxxx when I was in high school, through a guy named Willy who went to the same summer camp I did after tenth grade. Willy lived in Milwaukee, played guitar in a band, and wore a red knit hat everywhere he went. I thought he was the coolest person I’d ever met, especially because despite being super-smart, he had decided to pursue music instead of applying to college. After camp ended we talked a lot on AOL Instant Messenger.
One day, Willy asked me whether I knew of any place in my area (Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago) where his band could play an all-ages show. I had no idea but said I’d see. Before long I had succeeded in not only booking the basement of a local Unitarian church but also convincing the most popular band at my school to headline, which meant that people would actually come. The idea of presiding over the whole thing and introducing all my classmates to Willy’s band was thrilling, and I set about designing flyers and putting them up all over school.
A few days before the show, Willy asked whether I could make room on the bill for his friend Juiceboxxx, a white kid from the Milwaukee suburbs who had recently started performing in rec centers and open mics around town as a rapper. Willy sent me a few of his songs, including one that opened with a line rhyming “weenie” with “Fellini.” Another was about how much Juiceboxxx enjoyed various fast-food restaurants. The songs were silly but I liked them. I made new posters, some with a photo of Juice in which he looked extra pale and extra nerdy that said “Come see this man rap,” and some with his bespectacled face superimposed on the cover of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ by 50 Cent.
Agreeing to have Juiceboxxx play at the concert was a decision that ended up being pretty important to me and a bunch of my close friends. Seeing him perform that night exposed us to a species of teenager none of us had ever seen before, and in the years that followed his set, he took on the status of a mythical creature for us — a great, foreign force who had come out of nowhere, blown all our minds, and, with his first words into the mic (“What the fuck is up, Joke Park? My name is Juiceboxxx!”), left us with a nickname for our hometown that we still use.
Juice arrived at the church steps only about ten minutes before going onstage for his set; in between he asked me where the bathroom was so he could change into his jumpsuit, and then before I knew it he was introducing himself to the crowd — maybe twenty people total — and asking no one in particular to turn his fucking amp up. Our chaperone for the evening, a guy in his sixties named Dan who volunteered at the church and had been called upon to babysit us at the last minute, didn’t know what to make of this. As the beat kicked in and Juice bounced on his heels in anticipation of his cue, he looked like a swimmer or a track star poised on the starting blocks waiting for the gun to go off.
“You sure this guy is cool?” Dan said, glancing nervously at me without taking his eyes off the maniac in front of us.
“Yeah,” I said, conscious of the fact that even if I’d been confident in my answer, which I wasn’t, nothing was going to persuade Dan not to worry.
“OK,” Dan said. “As long as you’re sure all this won’t get too crazy.”
Together we watched as Juiceboxxx, who still had braces at the time, lunged from one side of the stage to the other as he rapped, tearing at his hair, throwing himself to the floor, and leaping at the wooden beams that ran along the ceiling.
At this point, in 2003, most white kids in our part of the country who were into music, including Willy and including me, were still starting rock bands. Some were beginning to make electronic music on their computers, but even that wasn’t so common yet. Despite the fact that Eminem was at the height of his powers, deciding to be a white rapper was still an uncomfortable proposition. It wasn’t until later, with the arrival of so-called frat rap, that a rapper’s whiteness was no longer the first thing anyone noticed about him. Some white rappers dealt with the awkwardness of being white by presenting themselves as ultraserious and cerebral — like Slug from Atmosphere, or Aesop Rock. Others turned it into a joke, which was the impulse behind consciously ironic hip-hop acts like MC Paul Barman — “I’m iller than the Iliad” — and MC Chris, who wrote songs about Star Wars and video games. The tongue-in-cheek approach these guys took to rap was known as “nerdcore,” and because Juiceboxxx had big glasses, looked like a skinny dweeb, insisted on writing funny lyrics, and had named himself Juiceboxxx, that’s what he seemed at first to be: an ascendant nerdcore rapper from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But if Juiceboxxx was making fun of himself the night we watched him perform in the Unitarian church, the joke was manifestly wrapped in a thick layer of earnestness. Even though his songs were littered with self-deprecating lines — “This mic I destroy / I’m not a real rapper, yo, I’m just a decoy” — he held himself in a way that left us no choice but to take him seriously. Moving around and yelling into the microphone with abandon, even hostility, he looked kind of like a singer in a punk band, even though he used his hands like a real rapper, stretching his fingers out and cutting the air with them. In this setting, the hammy punch lines that I had latched onto when I heard his CD faded into the background as he shouted his lyrics and convulsed. He didn’t seem angry, just possessed; with the jumpsuit and everything, he looked deranged, and when his top buttons came undone and he was left shirtless, there was something almost obscene about him, with his pink little nipples and his sharp elbows swinging wildly as he jumped and jerked around.
Three or four songs in, Juiceboxxx bolted over to where I was standing with Dan, grabbed me by the ears with his clammy hands, and rapped at me with the microphone dangling from the crook in his elbow. It was the first good look I’d gotten at his face, which was dotted with zits and topped with a terrible haircut.
As he delivered his lines — “You and I / Do or die / On the microphone I’m fly / Everybody in the place / Put your hands in outer space!” — he seemed to be in some kind of fugue state, staring at me and cupping my head between his palms. Then, all of a sudden he let go and, in a moment of apparent inspiration, launched himself at the ceiling with enough power to actually grab hold of one of the reinforcement beams and start swinging from it like a monkey in a tree. This, understandably, was a bridge too far for Dan, who ran over to me and said into my ear, with some urgency, “Buddy, you’ve got to tell your friend not to do that.” I didn’t argue with him. But to my great relief, just as I was preparing to yank on Juice’s pants, he got down on his own, collapsing into a pile on the floor as the backing track went silent. After a few seconds of him lying there motionless, it became clear the set was over. It had lasted maybe fifteen minutes.
I’m at my friend Max’s apartment on the first Saturday night in October when it occurs to me that Juiceboxxx, who has been in town for a few days by this point, might want to come over and join us, and that this would be a nice, low-pressure way for us to get reacquainted. The plan for the evening is to go hang out with Max’s little brother Sam, an incredibly handsome young guy who plays guitar in a band that recently got one of their songs onto the Girls sound track. I figure it would be fun for Juiceboxxx to meet him and talk shop, but before I text him, I decide I should ask Max whether it would be OK. This makes me realize that, because Max and I are relatively new friends, he is one of the few people I am close to who has never heard me talk about Juiceboxxx.
“Does he have a name other than Juiceboxxx, or is that what you call him to his face?” Max asks — a reasonable question. That first night Juice and I met, at the church, Willy had reluctantly told me his real name, but warned me not to use it because the only people who did were his parents.
Once I’m through explaining this to Max, I try to think of the most succinct possible way to describe who Juiceboxxx is and why I care about him. Having gone through this a number of times with different people, I decide to take a shortcut, and propose showing Max a few minutes of a video someone made a few years back, a sort of a mini-documentary of Juiceboxxx on tour.
The video, which follows Juice as he travels from Philadelphia to New York, was posted online in early 2012, right around the time I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness was released. I’ve watched it so many times that I know it practically by heart: from the opening shot of him in a mustard-yellow track jacket, sitting in a sun-drenched bedroom and telling the interviewer in a quiet, halting patter about why he only ever wanted to be a rapper, to the scene on the Greyhound bus where he takes out a portable radio and talks about how he likes catching local stations on it when he’s touring, to the closing montage of him onstage, giving a riveting, airtight performance in a Williamsburg basement.
“That’s what’s so fucked up about where I’m at,” Juice tells the interviewer at one point, speaking slowly, as if the act of putting it into words terrifies him. “It’s just like — you know, when you fucking kind of have this identity based on this totally absurd premise — like, where do you go if you want to stop doing it, man? Like, where do you go?”
Max is captivated by the video — so much so that he watches the whole thing, even though I offer to turn it off halfway through. “He seems like a pretty weird guy,” Max says when it’s over. “But yeah, let’s get him over here.”
Feeling victorious, I extend the invitation with a text message. Juice responds right away, saying he’s seeing some old friends at the moment but that if we’re going to be hanging out for a bit, he’d be up for stopping by and could take a train over soon.
He arrives a little after midnight, wearing jeans and a hoodie over a T-shirt that says HIGH ROLLER. He has a baseball cap on his head and white high-tops caked with dirt, and he looks a lot healthier, more robust, than in his recent video diaries.
After we say hi and look each other over to evaluate what’s changed since the last time we were in the same room, I walk Juice through the apartment and out into the backyard, where I’ve been sitting with Max, Sam, and a grad student who recently started playing bass in Sam’s band. “Guys, this is Juiceboxxx,” I say, and everyone says hello.
Juice sits down in a lawn chair and I offer him a beer, which he refuses. When I ask what brought him to New York, he tells me that he has always wanted to try it, and now seemed like a good time. The plan is to try to find a little work before going on an eighteen-date tour with Willy on guitar and another friend on drums. The tour, which he tells me he’s calling “The Thunder Zone Tour 2K13,” will begin on November 1.
In an attempt to involve the others in our conversation I ask Sam, who is smoking a cigarette across the table from me, whether his band has ever gone on tour. “Nah,” he says, looking and sounding a little sleepy at the thought of it. Hearing this, Juice gets interested, as I hoped he would, and follows up: “Oh, you play music?”
Sam explains his situation: he plays guitar in one band, but his main focus is a solo project he’s been writing songs for in anticipation of a gig next month. When Juice asks him why he doesn’t want to tour, Sam says he doesn’t really see the point right now, since there wouldn’t be anyone in most cities who would go see him. He’d rather just record music and put it online, he says, until someone notices and writes about it; that way, if he went on tour, people would actually show up.
I can see Juice isn’t really into this answer, but he responds diplomatically, telling Sam that, basically, yeah, that’s the smart way to do it, but that he, Juiceboxxx, has a different outlook on it, as someone who decided years ago to make touring the backbone of his career. The problem, Juice says, is that all the years he has spent on the road are a liability for him now, because the way things tend to work on the internet, an act with a long past is a lot less likely to break out than a super-fresh one. For the most part, people who write about music online are so invested in discovering stuff no one else has heard that if you have twelve years of history like Juiceboxxx does, chances are no one’s going to bother saying you’re any good.
Sam backs him up on this, saying that friends of his in bands who were picked up by labels or managers are instructed to take down all their old music from the internet before they put up any new material, so that when they do, bloggers feel like they’re breaking news of them to the world by linking to it. One guy who recently came in for a lot of attention, Sam says, changed his name every time he put out a new project, so that each one looked maximally alluring to potential champions.
Juiceboxxx says he’s been told a million times that he should change his name — that friends in the music business have been trying to convince him to do so for years, but that, “for whatever stupid fucking reason” he keeps not doing it. This prompts Max to ask Juice whether he knows of a young country musician I’ve never heard of who used to be called Jonny Corndawg. “Oh, sure, of course,” Juiceboxxx says. “I know Corndawg really well.”
It turns out that Corndawg, like Juice, spent a good chunk of his twenties as a proud and devoted road warrior, playing tiny shows all over America and establishing himself within select circles but never getting truly famous. Then one day he adopted a more sober moniker, Jonny Fritz, and soon after got signed to a huge indie label partly owned by the Dave Matthews Band. Although he is no longer Corndawg, he is now an adult who makes good money writing and performing music for a living.
As I walk Juice to the subway, I wonder what it was like for him to meet Sam, who seems so much younger than him, not successful yet but poised for it in a way Juiceboxxx hasn’t been since he was 18.
The first CD Juiceboxxx had professionally pressed was R U there God?? Itz me Juiceboxxx, an eight-song EP that was released in 2005. Juice was a senior in high school when he put it out, and in the months surrounding its release, he gained some serious momentum. First the electronic-music magazine XLR8R published a short article about him headlined “The Next Big Thing.” Then the Chicago Reader ran a piece about his monthly DJ night in Milwaukee by the prominent music writer Jessica Hopper, who called him “the best DJ to come out of the Midwest since Tommie Sunshine.”
The summer after graduation marked the first time that Juice went on a real tour, performing over the course of a summer in basements, galleries, and DIY spaces in cities he had never been to, in front of people who had never heard of him. He even played a show in a Williamsburg art gallery. In the fifty-five-second video of the show that someone uploaded to YouTube, you can see that it’s daytime, and there are maybe fifteen people standing in the small, well-lit room while Juice performs.
After that tour, Juice came home and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he spent two miserable semesters. He dropped out after a traumatic experience in which a sandwich delivery guy was shot by a mugger while standing on Juiceboxxx’s porch. In the wake of that incident, which Juice says convinced him that he did not have any time to waste, he resumed touring, and has remained almost continuously in motion ever since, subletting rooms for a few months or even weeks at a time, paying his friends a hundred bucks to stay on their couches, and going on tour as much as he possibly can.
I saw him play multiple times during the roughly four years that followed his decision to, essentially, become a professional musician — in Boston, while I was in college; in New York, when I was a summer intern there; in Chicago, while home visiting family. He continued using his iPod for backup: he didn’t need much more than beats, and it kept the tour pretty simple, just Juiceboxxx on a bus with his iPod.
His music evolved, changing from what could have been uncharitably but accurately called novelty rap into something more original. For several years he took a detour into dance music and released four singles inspired by obscure genres of regional DJ music I never even knew existed. The biggest and best of these songs was “Sweat,” which was built around a jangly, cheerful synth line and featured Juice chanting dance steps in a guileless tone that brought to mind “Pump Up the Jams” by Technotronic. Much to Juice’s surprise, “Sweat” turned into a minor hit in the UK, getting him booked at all kinds of crazy, glitzy clubs full of sweaty Europeans — a far cry from the dingy venues he was accustomed to playing.
His dance phase lasted maybe two years, and ended with a song called “100MPH,” in which the chorus consisted of Juice simply repeating the phrase “One hundred miles per hour / One billion miles away” over and over. I remember writing it off as depressingly lazy, but in retrospect it was the beginning of Juice’s real flourishing as an artist: the moment when he started writing about himself and what it felt like to be Juiceboxxx.
I remember this came into focus for me in 2010, when Juice started his own record label (Thunder Zone) and put out a mixtape called Thunder Zone Volume 1, which was accompanied by a branded energy drink by the same name. The tape, which showcased Juice’s now genuinely impressive skills as a rapper, opened with a one-minute intro consisting of the horn-heavy, up-tempo Bruce Springsteen song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” playing at high volume while Juice, sounding deeply angry, determined, but also kind of joyful, delivers the following monologue:
I know it’s been a long time, man! I know I’ve been doing this shit for a long goddamn time! But if you think for one motherfucking second that I’m gonna give up now? After all the fuckin’ shit I’ve been through, man? Well, let me tell you, mister: you’ve got another motherfucking thing coming.
Though I can’t claim to have realized it when I first listened to it, I’ve come to see this as one of the most invigorating opening tracks I’ve ever heard — an electrifying declaration of purpose that manages to sound both bulletproof and vulnerable.
Some people really responded to it, including a number of prominent figures in music and art, like Cory Arcangel and Todd P, the New York promoter known for throwing DIY concerts all over the city. And while it was hard for me to tell, from the outside, how much success he was having, there were unambiguous moments of triumph: collaborations with fashionable DJs, guest verses from name-brand rappers, shows with popular acts like Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. The high point of this period came when he spent a week on tour in Canada opening for Public Enemy. “SOMETIMES,” he wrote on his blog afterward, “WHEN YOU KEEP ON RUNNING AND DREAMING GREAT THINGS HAPPEN.”
For all those achievements, it remained a fact that not one person I knew who didn’t grow up in Milwaukee or Joke Park had ever heard of Juiceboxxx, and his music never got written about on Pitchfork or any of the popular hip-hop sites. And though I tried to play Juice’s music for my friends all the time, in private and also drunkenly, obnoxiously, off my iPod at parties, no one I knew was ever converted to his music, not even once.
The problem, if I were to guess, was that Juice made people uncomfortable — that his songs sounded abrasive to them, or worse, ridiculous, because despite his self-deprecation, Juice refused to present himself apologetically. At the same time, he was a rapper who had come up performing mainly with people in noise and hardcore punk bands, and the inspiration he took from that scene mixed strangely with his intense love of pop music. Aside from any racial complications inherent in trying to make sincere hip-hop while white, Juice made himself systematically unpalatable by lacing his music with the confrontational tendencies of the difficult, alienating music he grew up on. The result was that most of the people who embraced Juiceboxxx over the years were enthusiasts of extreme, experimental art — but even they could never be reliably counted on to support him, since in their eyes his affection for pop was just as alienating as his commitment to extreme, experimental art was to everybody else.
Juice wasn’t entirely satisfied with this state of affairs, and it was because of this dissatisfaction, I think, that he entered his latest phase — one inspired in part by Public Enemy, whose performances he watched in awe during his Canada tour, and in part by Bruce Springsteen, whose big, transcendent concerts he watched on YouTube. With those two touchstones in mind, he moved to replace his iPod with a live band, and began making what he described — openly, without embarrassment — as rap rock.
Juice’s room in New York is on the border of Bushwick and Williamsburg; he is subletting it, he tells me, from his friend Jacob, part of a noise band called Extreme Animals that is coheadlining during the upcoming Thunder Zone Tour. One day I go to visit Juice, because I want to see how he’s living and because he promises to play me some of his new material on his computer. On the way over I listen to a song called “Never Surrender Forever,” which stands out from Juice’s catalog because it’s one of the very few songs he’s written — maybe the only one, actually — that someone who isn’t already rooting for him can be expected to like immediately.
What’s special about this song, which appeared as the last track of I Don’t Wanna Go into the Darkness, is that it contains absolutely no rapping. Instead it’s basically an indie-pop song built around a really pretty, wistful chord progression and a touching, intimate vocal melody. The lyrics are all about chasing the best possible version of yourself and not giving up even though no one else believes in you. Singing them, Juice sounds so tired and so beaten down and so alone that as the song wears on, all you can wonder is how long he’s going to be able to keep it up. But the real power of “Never Surrender Forever,” besides its catchiness, comes from the fact that, by the time you hear the soaring, heroic guitar solo by Willy that plays through to the end of the song, you begin to feel convinced that the halfhearted pep talk Juice is giving himself is, somehow, true:
Ain’t nobody gonna keep it alive
But you’ve got that dream inside.
Living in a town that don’t even care
So you go for a ride.
And for just a little while everything’s all right
Searching for a dream that lives in the night
Never surrender forever, never surrender forever, never surrender forever.
It’s trite on paper, but walking down the street with it in my head, hearing him sing these words in a voice that expresses the truly precarious footing on the border between despair and hope, it’s easy for me to imagine Juiceboxxx standing in front of a crowd of thousands and leading them in a rousing, cathartic sing-along.
When I arrive at his apartment, talk quickly turns to New York real estate. “It never occurred to me this was a place where I could actually live,” Juice says. “Somehow it always just seemed unattainable for me . . . I guess because I was just too much of a spaz. For years I was like, ‘I can live in Milwaukee and pay next to nothing in rent and jump in a van with another band or jump on a Greyhound bus and tour and come home with a little bit of money in my pocket.’ And that just seemed ideal, and I figured if something would happen I’d take it from there.”
He says that finally being in New York is exciting to him, especially after living in Los Angeles without a car, where he had a ninety-minute commute from his house to his practice space that involved two buses, a train, and two miles of walking. In New York everything’s so close, he says, and it’s so easy to see everyone, even if they live in, like, Far Rockaway, where a bunch of his artist and musician friends share a house. New York strikes him as hospitable to “alternative lifestyles,” Juice says — unlike LA, which felt to him like a city for grown-ups who probably should have been living in the suburbs.
Of course, it’s not cheap here, and Juice tells me the only reason he could afford to leave Milwaukee and spend this month in New York was that he got paid $8,000 for writing a jingle that ended up being used in a Microsoft ad. He has a hook-up at a firm that hires musicians to do that kind of thing, he tells me, and every once in a while his guy there throws him work. He’s also been helping out around the offices of a record label run by his friend Dre Skull, doing stuff like uploading YouTube videos and mailing out packages. It’s a little weird for him, I can tell, because just a few years ago, when he was making dance music, this guy Dre Skull was one of his main musical collaborators. Since then Dre Skull has found real success as a label owner and producer, scoring a big notch on his belt by putting out an album by a guy Juice tells me is “the Lil Wayne of Jamaica” and, more recently, producing a bunch of the songs on Snoop Dogg’s reggae album.
Dre Skull is not the only one of Juice’s longtime friends who has broken out in some way. But for every one who has achieved even a modicum of success, like that guy Corndawg, ten others have quit or resigned themselves to doing music as a hobby and nothing more.
“A lot of my friends are like, ‘Yeah, I’m done, I don’t care about playing,’” Juice says. “And in a way that’s the logical, right thing to do when you’re 27 or 28 — to say, ‘Yeah, I’m kinda over this . . . I’ve had some fun but I don’t really see a future in this.’ Sometimes I try to say that shit but I feel like I’m just fucking kidding myself.”
When we enter Jacob’s tiny room, Juice sits down on the edge of the bed and I shift my weight from one leg to the other before finally perching on the edge of a dresser. There’s a pair of boxers emblazoned with little Dark Side of the Moon prisms hanging from a hook beside the bed. “Are those yours?” I ask, figuring I can use it as an occasion to make conversation and tell him about how I used to love Pink Floyd as a third grader. But the answer is “No, they’re Jacob’s,” and I imagine what it must be like to live in a place where someone else’s underwear is dangling above you while you sleep and you don’t even care enough to move it.
The room is dark and smells like a sleeping person; there are records and DVDs everywhere, and a suitcase flung open on the floor that’s piled high with clothes. I ask Juice whether it’s all he brought to New York and he says yes. He is wearing a hoodie and a jacket with the NBC logo on the back, and something about seeing him in this context, living with other people in a Williamsburg apartment, makes me imagine walking past him in the street not knowing who he is; I realize that I’d probably dismiss him as a typical hipster dressed in corny thrift-store scraps. When Juice asks whether I want to hear some of his new songs, I wonder how many of the people I write off in this way go home to a room where they make things they’ve devoted their lives to.
He opens his laptop on the bed and puts on an as-yet-unreleased music video for a song called “Front Seat,” which he filmed shortly before coming to New York, on a beach alongside Lake Michigan.
As the video starts I see that Juice looks positively glamorous in it, standing against a beautiful rising sun, and wearing black jeans and an unzipped denim jacket exposing his bare chest. In the moments before the beat kicks in he wades into the water with his shoes on, and when the song starts, he keeps time with his hand against his outer thigh and gazes with intensity and concentration out at the horizon.
“Front Seat” asserts itself as a true rap-rock song right away, with a heavy-metal guitar riff and big 4/4 drums. As Juice starts rapping, the first thing I notice is that he sounds more confident in his style than I’ve ever seen or heard him — in control, revved up, certain that the song is sounding out loud the way it did in his head when he wrote it. I try to listen for the words, and though I pick out only a few lines over the running commentary Juice is providing about the filming of the video, what I do hear is personal and funny and specific. At one point the guitar falls out and Juice raps, in a tone of voice that sounds more adult and more conversational than he’s ever sounded on a recording, “I don’t know how I haven’t given up yet / I don’t know why I don’t give a fuck yet / Nothing in my life is a fucking safe bet / Can’t stop, but I prolly won’t make it!!!”
I punctuate that last bit with three exclamation points because that’s how he sounds when he delivers the line — unafraid, sure-footed, defiant. The video, most of which Juiceboxxx spends with his hair wet and his shirt wide open, makes him look, in my opinion, extremely cool.
“That was really good,” I say when it’s over, but he doesn’t react to the praise at all, his eyes stuck on the computer screen, where he’s clicking around in what looks like a piece of recording software and queuing something else. He then plays me eight versions of the Target jingle he’s been working on — tryouts for an ad they’re planning to put on the air in time for Thanksgiving. As the jingles play, I look around the room and see posters for Extreme Animals, and by way of making small talk while Juice fiddles with his laptop I ask what kind of music they play. He seems surprised that I’ve never heard of Extreme Animals before and explains that they make a hybrid of video art and noise music. He pulls up one of their videos, and what I see after he hits play doesn’t make sense to me at all. I guess what you’d call it is video collage, played over a crunchy interpolation of the theme from the Harry Potter movies and cut with all kinds of seemingly random, vaguely creepy clips. There are women dancing in a circle, there is a guy holding a cat with a crucifix around its neck, there are flashes of text that say things like “WHO AM I?” and “I AM YOU” that don’t seem to correspond to anything.
Juiceboxxx mercifully doesn’t wait for my reaction once the video is over before asking whether I want to go get dinner.
“Look,” he says later, when I admit that the Extreme Animals stuff hadn’t really done it for me, and that noise music in general has always utterly mystified me. “You have to understand . . . I feel embarrassed that this is what I’ve spent my life doing. In a way, it’s really bleak. Like when you’re so deep in the vortex of a certain kind of niche culture, it’s easy to take it as your reality. But when you step outside of it, it can just look so dumb, you know?”
A lot of times, Juice says — and he’s careful to clarify he’s not talking about Extreme Animals, a band he admires and believes in — noise shows end up being de facto competitions for who can be the most off-putting, the most out there: the noise olympics, he calls them. “That’s why pop music has always appealed to me,” he says. “It transcends some super-petty things that often exist in niche cultures.”
When he was a kid, he tells me, he glommed on to a whole array of subcultures at once — not just noise and punk but also genres of electronic dance music from around the country — instead of building his whole identity around one in particular. His problem now is that all his friends still come from those scenes, but more and more he feels like he has to separate from them if he ever wants to achieve real success. “At a certain point I probably should have been like, ‘OK, I shouldn’t be touring with noise bands and punk bands anymore.’ But I’ve always tried to have it both ways.”
When I was in college, my best friends and I had a game we liked to play where we divided people into “critics” and “geniuses.” Critics, as we defined the word, were calculated and careful and conducted their lives with effortful competence, but in the end could do nothing more than react to the geniuses in their midst. Geniuses, meanwhile, were not necessarily great at what they did, but they were intuitive and couldn’t help but be the way they were. They had original, immaculate visions, we said, that poured out of them as if by magic.
Now that it’s been a few years, I can say we might have been overthinking it a bit — that all we were really saying was that some people have the souls of artists and other people don’t. And while that’s not a trivial observation — there are plenty of people who would refuse to acknowledge the distinction — it no longer strikes me as all that revelatory, except insofar as it helped me and my friends to determine which side of the divide we were on.
Juiceboxxx, to me, was always the embodiment of a “genius”: a guy who couldn’t be anything other than what he was. Unlike me and everyone else I know, he resisted all the forces that demanded he conform to the trappings of adulthood — he didn’t graduate from college, he never took a service job so he could pay rent, he didn’t even join other bands so he could diversify his creative portfolio. Being Juiceboxxx was the only thing he ever learned how to do, and he was utterly invested, to the point of being invested in nothing else, in seeing it through.
The idea of Juiceboxxx giving up on being Juiceboxxx makes me very sad. For one thing I’d miss having him as a figure in my otherwise steady, professional-grade life whom I could root for and support (and proselytize for, however unsuccessfully). But more important, it would feel to me like someone with a special power had been defeated — something that should never happen, because “geniuses,” even if they’re not geniuses, come in short supply.
When I see Juiceboxxx again, he fills me in on his time in New York so far, which he has spent going out a lot — attending dance parties and clubs with Dre Skull and other old friends — and rehearsing with his new drummer at a practice space deep in Bushwick. In preparation for the tour, Juice orders a lot of merchandise that he plans to sell between sets: Thunder Zone hacky sacks, Thunder Zone energy drinks, plus copies of a new video by Extreme Animals, released on VHS only. Every day the mailman brings new stuff to his apartment, including a huge vinyl banner that says WELCOME TO THE THUNDER ZONE that’s going to be pinned above the stage at every venue they play. All this stuff has been trickling in via UPS over the past few days, Juice says, which has been horribly stressful because he accidentally gave some of the vendors the wrong address.
Juice really likes being in New York, he tells me — he works faster, he feels competitive with other artists in a way that’s inspiring to him — and he’s trying to think of a way he could afford to stay. He mentions that his friends from the noise-music scene who live together in Far Rockaway invited him to join them there for $200 a month, and that this was an option, at least temporarily. When he tells me this, I can’t help but think about his stated intention to extricate himself from the marginal artistic communities he was once a part of. Would Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz move into a house full of noise musicians?
I ask Juice what he thinks going “pop” the way Corndawg did would require of him — whether it would mean changing his name, changing his sound, giving up on some of his instincts and creative aspirations. After thinking it over for a second he says he doesn’t really think he could do any of that if he wanted to — but that, in his opinion, trying to graduate from underground music and become more broadly resonant wouldn’t work anyway if he entirely abandoned his past. What he wants — what he thinks he’ll need to do to succeed — is to stay on the fence, and to force the foreignness of the various niche cultures that have influenced him into a collision with his populist impulses, to create a “new kind of American music” that wrings accessibility out of the uncompromising, tough-as-nails aesthetic that characterizes so much of the music and art that he loves.
He has an idea in his head of what he wants to achieve, he says, that comes from a trip he took a few years ago to Australia, during which he opened for Big Freedia, a drag queen from New Orleans who is the top dog in a New Orleans subgenre of dance music known as sissy bounce. Big Freedia is a local legend who spent years whipping rooms into a frenzy with her idiosyncratic and queer form of sexy block-party pop. She debuted in the late ’90s, winning attention with singles like “Azz Everywhere!” and “An Ha, Oh Yeah,” and over the course of twelve years built herself into an underground institution with a cult following. Then, in 2010, she stepped onto the national stage, putting out an EP on a record label/lifestyle marketing brand controlled by Toyota Motor Corporation, getting written up in the New York Times, playing summer festivals, performing on Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly. Today she has her own reality show on Fuse.
“Having to open for her every night, I felt like I was touring with Little Richard or something, truthfully,” Juice says. “Just seeing her completely devastate these Australian rooms for the first time ever and people just fucking climbing on the walls or whatever, just flipping out . . .”
The high point of the tour, Juice says, was getting to play a festival in front of 15,000 people — the biggest crowd he had ever performed for by a factor of at least ten. The set didn’t go that well, he says, and there were scattered boos at the end, while he and Willy played the two minutes of feedback and headsplitting noise that they’d been closing all their shows with at that time. But even before that, he felt like he just couldn’t get the crowd’s attention by doing what he usually did. And as painful as it was during the twenty minutes he was up there, he says, it made him realize, in a very visceral way, that if he wanted to get to the next level, and really reach people on a large scale, he’d have to learn how to be a whole new Juiceboxxx.
He asks me if I’ve ever seen the show Kitchen Impossible. It’s a reality show in which people who own failing restaurants are visited by consultants who help them rebrand their establishments by telling them what to change on the menu, how to redecorate, et cetera. And usually the restaurant owners don’t want to take the advice, because they’re so stuck in their ways and don’t realize it’s for their own good.
If there was a Rapper Impossible and he was on it, Juice says, the same thing would happen to him — and has, in fact, in the sense that every time some friend or fellow musician has told him to change his name, ditch all his baggage, and start over fresh, he has resisted even though he knows they’re probably right.
On the last night of October, Juice and his band, plus Extreme Animals and a DJ from Baltimore named Schwarz, leave for tour in a rented van. They go to Ithaca, Boston, Providence, New Haven, then Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Toronto. Somewhere along the line, Juice develops some kind of rash on his body, but he carries on.
I consider asking if I can come with them. But I have a job, and also I am far from certain that Juice would want to spend that much time with me. When Juice announces the dates on his blog, I write the Brooklyn show — which will take place at a Bushwick nightclub called the Passion Lounge — into my calendar, and start counting down the days.
The morning of the show I stand in the shower and turn over a question that’s been on my mind since the night before: Should I send an email to all my friends and encourage them to come with me to the show, or not? I imagine it first in the abstract, me watching Juiceboxxx by myself vs. me showing him to people who have never seen him before, and playing a role in filling up the room in a way that might make him happy. The latter seems more fun until I start thinking about who I’d actually invite, and how I would explain why this was something they should see. How would I get past the radioactive words I would have to use — “rap rock” chief among them — to describe what Juiceboxxx even was? On top of that, the show is at 11:30 PM, on a Tuesday. I decide to go alone.
Before getting on the subway I duck into Wendy’s to pick up a few Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers for the ride and, after receiving a text from Juice that says “ur on the list,” I briefly consider asking if he and Willy want me to bring them any food before deciding they probably have it covered. As I sit on the subway and eat my burgers, I listen to the entirety of I Don’t Wanna Go Into the Darkness and feel inspired by the circumstances to try as hard as I can to hear it as if for the first time. One song jumps out at me that never has before: a laid-back, summery one with a bassline sample that sounds like a slowed-down version of the opening riff from “My Girl.”
Hanging out, chilling on my porch up front
Nothing to do so we let the beat bump
Snackin’ on pizza, messin’ around
Just killing some time in this wasted town
And things aren’t looking up
Yo man, they’re looking down
Try to get a job but there’s nothing to be found
But it’s not as bad as it seems
’Cause you can still dream.
I won’t apologize for these lyrics. I think they’re great, and the way Juice delivers them is great. And the end of the song, which comes as a complete surprise, takes my breath away, as the whole happy thing grinds to a halt and suddenly all I hear are these clipped ethereal notes and someone’s raspy voice saying, over and over again, as if to bring me back down to earth, “Why are you even alive?”
By the time I arrive at the Passion Lounge it has started raining hard, and I’m soaked. But the venue, I can see right away, is perfect for Juice, with a stage about twenty feet above the dance floor and a Y-shaped staircase leading up to it. It’s dark and hazy and there are neon lights in every color moving around the room from every direction. As I’m pulling out my ID to show the bouncer, I spot Willy and get so excited that I forget to say I’m on the list and pay the $10 cover.
When I spot Juice I can tell he’s stressed out but making an effort to be as friendly as he can, because he’s grateful to everyone who has come out despite the crappy weather. “I’m so fucking glad we’re not playing at some DIY space,” Juice says, kind of to me and Willy, but kind of to no one in particular. “No disrespect to those places, man, but this is just a different vibe.” After that Willy and I lose him until around 11:15, when he comes over and says in a quiet voice that he’s not feeling great about the turnout. “I’m a little worried, man,” he says, looking around at all the empty space on the dance floor.
In a fit of regret I decide that I was wrong not to invite any friends to the show. I pull my phone out and try to think of who lives nearby, who could get here in fifteen minutes, and more importantly, would be willing to. I text about ten people but no one gets back to me; finally I call Max, who owns a car, and tell him to drive over right away, but he tells me he’s sick. I beg, but he says no until I give up and put my phone away.
As the evening creeps toward midnight, a kindly waitress gives Juice the five-minute warning. He glances around the room and pleads for her to let him wait another ten, so a few more people can arrive before he starts. Willy takes this as a cue to start setting up, while I find a place to stand near the foot of the stairs and glance at the crowd. There are pretty girls in front of me and to my left, including one tall blonde with a backwards hat who has been dancing really hard to the DJ set since the moment she walked in.
Finally the music from the DJ booth goes quiet and is replaced by a drumbeat and the monster riff that Willy plays to open “Like a Renegade,” one of Juice’s biggest hits on YouTube. I take one last look around before things really get going and see that the dance floor is, if not packed, then adequately crowded. There are people here who are extremely excited to see Juiceboxxx play, awaiting his arrival onstage with as much anticipation as I am.
When Juice comes out, he holds a cordless mic as he stalks around the stage, practically skipping every few seconds as he finds his rhythm. He looks huge up there on the balcony twenty feet above us, and as he moves from one side of the room to the other, the corners of his unzipped denim jacket flapping and his pale skin glowing through his white sleeveless undershirt, he looks better than I’ve ever seen him, physically — lean, tall, broad-shouldered, his hair fashionably short. At some point he takes his jacket off, and when he raises his arms I can see the hair in his armpits — something he has obviously had for years at this point, but which strikes me in the moment as evidence of some internal growth. He raps his first verse, delivering it with clarity and focus, and punctuating every line with a triumphant fist pump.
I had to get out of my town for a bit when it all went down, yo, I couldn’t quite face it!
I dropped out and went on the road
Nowhere to run, I got nowhere to go
But I’m at the show, and I’m playing, and I’m slaying it
Tomorrow I just don’t know where I’m fuckin’ staying at
And I know the choices that I have made . . .
LIVING LIKE A RENEGADE!
I’m singing along to every word and so are a bunch of people in my immediate vicinity. But it’s when Willy and the drummer start in on a warm and upbeat song called “21 on the 101” that the place really comes alive and Juice makes his way into the crowd for the first time. As he launches himself down the middle of the room I worry for a second that he’s about to start crashing into everybody like he used to in the old days and acting like he’s in a noise band again, but instead he comes to a standstill, strikes a pose with his hips out and his arm way, way up, and I realize this is a very different Juiceboxxx from the one I remember.
Everything about his body language exudes deliberateness — from the way he’s holding his mic stand as he leans over the banister, to the exuberance of his scissor kicks, to the way he puts his arm around Willy and puts his head next to his so that they can sing together. At one point he leaps onto an amplifier, his shirt off and his jacket back on, and he stands up there shaking his hips and pounding the air with his fist. He looks like a total pro. More than once he runs back into the crowd, which parts for him as if he’s been shot from a cannon. He’s on his knees, then he’s in the air, then he’s standing with his legs spread three feet apart and his right hand behind his back.
About three quarters of the way through the set he crouches down in the middle of the dance floor and looks up at Willy and the drummer and makes some kind of signal. Almost immediately the beat evens out and Willy starts palm-muting. “All right,” Juice says, perched on one knee as the music continues to simmer behind him. “What we’re gonna do right now is we’re gonna go to that place called the next level. How many of you motherfuckers know about that?” Everybody, including me, roars in approval. “That next level,” he repeats, talking quickly, “that’s what your fuckin’ parents warned you about. That’s what your teachers warned you about. That’s what your local city alderman warned you about! They said, ‘Hey man, don’t go to that next level, ’cause if you go to that next level, you’re gonna never come back!’”
With that he gets up on both feet and there is more screaming, more roaring, as he turns to face the crowd. “Well, I’m here to tell you, folks, that tonight, and only tonight, at the Passion Lounge in Brooklyn, New York, not only are we gonna go to the next level, we’re gonna go to the level above the next level.” He’s sounding more and more like a carnival barker with every word and the room feels like it’s hanging on for dear life. Finally, after a beat, Juice says, “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen,” and hits the punch line: “We’re going to the NEXT NEXT LEVEL!”
As the crowd explodes into yelling and clapping, Juice mounts one of the speakers and stands up straight. He is now towering above us as he finishes out the song; moments later I hear the opening chords of “Never Surrender Forever,” and Juice rejoins his bandmates on the balcony. The next four minutes are beautiful: Willy bangs his head as he plays guitar, Juice cradles the mic in his hands and wraps the Thunder Zone banner around his neck like a flag. When he wanders out into the crowd during the guitar solo people tousle his hair and jump up and down like they’re at a pop punk show; everybody’s singing, “Never surrender forever / Never surrender forever / Never surrender forever.” As the last chord rings out Juice has his fist in the air.
The rest of the tour goes well too. After it’s over, Juice moves back to New York, having agreed to sublet some floorspace in the basement of the house in Far Rockaway. A few months later, during a trip home to Milwaukee, he makes his first live television appearance to promote a small music festival he’s playing while in town. The local news brings him in for an interview about the event, to talk a little bit about his career as a rapper and perform one of his songs.
The segment turns out to be a disaster. During the Q&A portion, Juice looks dazed, and the skin around his eyes is disconcertingly dark, like he hasn’t slept in a week. Tall, lanky, dressed in all black, he sways languidly back and forth, smiles a lot, and chatters in an unintelligible, rambling cadence about what it’s like spending his life on the road as a touring musician. The two newscasters, a middle-aged man and woman, aren’t sure how to react to him. “We love your energy!” one of them says.
Things go wrong almost as soon as he starts his performance. First his earpiece falls out, which means he can’t hear the backing track he’s supposed to be rapping over, and when he gets it back in it becomes clear that the music is playing so softly in the studio that it’s basically inaudible, both to him and to the people watching at home. All that comes through is Juice’s shaking voice and his panicked breathing, disguised as laughter, as he tries to get through his lines. He can’t use his full range of motion without popping the earpiece out again, so he fumbles with it several times, struggling to perform while keeping still. The producers end up cutting him off after about thirty seconds and go to commercial.
I only see the video later, when Juice informs me by email that it has “gone viral,” popping up on a number of big sites, including the Huffington Post, as an irresistibly horrifying glimpse at an on-camera train wreck. “Wisconsin, you owe the world a very serious, heartfelt apology,” one blogger writes, in a post that declares Juiceboxxx to be the worst rapper of all time. “It’s so fucking bad, we can’t stop laughing at it,” writes another. Before long the clip makes its way onto a late-night talk show, giving Juiceboxxx more exposure in under a minute than he has had since he became who he is more than a decade ago.
As a result of all this attention, a bunch of people in Milwaukee start saying terrible things about Juiceboxxx — about how he doesn’t represent the city and besmirched the local hip-hop community’s name. But an elder statesman of the local scene named Doormouse, who ran a record store Juiceboxxx went to as a kid, writes a long Facebook post defending his honor, as does DJ Kid Cut Up, who helped Juice with his first EP when he was still in high school.
A few weeks after things die down, Juice addresses the video on his blog. “I have never been a part of what you might call a ‘viral shitstorm’ but I guess that’s what happened to me after this performance,” he writes. “I got a lot of hate/love and felt some pretty intense feelings coming my way. I don’t really want to dwell on this minor blip in my insanely long, weird life of music but it is noteworthy.”
“Ego annihilation isn’t a bad thing and I’ve come out of this experience more excited about making and performing music than ever.”
And just like that, he announces he is working on a new album, tentatively titled “Heartland99,” and that he is about to go on yet another tour. This time the show will be called “Business As Usual,” he writes. It will start at the beginning of May and last approximately three weeks. He will be performing, as always, as Juiceboxxx.