A couple years ago, I remember I was riding in a car with my buddy. And I think we were going to play basketball or something. I can’t remember. And I was looking out the window, man, and I was in California. And I was trying to figure out what the fuck I was doing with my life.
I wasn’t feeling real good, man. In fact, I was probably feeling lower than I’ve ever felt in my entire goddamn life. And I looked at him and said, "Man, we’re going to look at this some day and be like, 'I’m glad this is over. I’m glad this fucking part of our life is over.’"
But it’s not over. It’s not over, man. Maybe it’ll never be over. If you got something inside your head, something inside your heart that you want to get out, man, that’s a life sentence.
—Juiceboxxx, “Highway to the Heartland"
The big thing with music is: does it heal, does it help? Does it do that for you when an artist karate-kicks the air, knocks their forehead with a mic, and yells at you to follow your dreams, to never surrender? It does that for me. I feel less afraid of my life, and in a big sense that’s what makes their work worth it. To improve some person's lot is why the jump-kick is worth the jumping.
But you can look at the other side of the balance sheet. What does it take to make some people happy? All the unpaid time for that artist between shows, all the gigs that don't go off. Gear is broken and stolen. It's a pain in the neck to sleep on people’s couches and just as unwelcome to pay rent. Bad things happen to resumes, health insurance, and health in general. Part of the deal with music, particularly DIY music, is knowing sacrifices are being made for the audience’s benefit. How deranged would you have to be to devote your life to this? And isn't it kind of holy?
This summer sees the release of two essential works that grapple with these very questions: Heartland 99, the new album from the 28-year-old rap-rocker Juiceboxxx, and The Next Next Level, a nonfiction book that’s loosely about him, by the journalist (and writer behind The FADER’s Migos cover story) Leon Neyfakh. Their projects are distinctive yet all tied up—together, they paint a complex, intimate picture of what it’s like to be an artist, and what it’s like to like art.
The two men first met as teenagers in the early 2000s, when Neyfakh booked a church-basement rock show in suburban Illinois, for a friend of his from summer camp who requested he add a white rapper named Juiceboxxx to the bill. That concert, seared in Neyfakh’s memory and immortalized in his book, neatly illustrates the unfolding of each of their ensuing years. On the one hand there was Juice, clambering up the rafters and collapsing on the floor, wholly committing himself to tumult. On the other was Neyfakh, facilitator and fan, watching in simultaneous enthrallment and paralyzing fear that something might go wrong.
Ten years later, they remain real-life foils. Juiceboxxx has honed in on a wholly original strand of American music—rap-rock, in a poppy style that weds Bruce Springsteen and Public Enemy—though his audience has remained small. Still, he’s incorporated his own shortcomings into his music, namely the endless psychological teeter-totter between self-doubt and the creative drive, such that, for a lucky few, he’s making songs that are hugely relatable and inspiring. That's certainly how it was received by Neyfakh, who, in the years since they first met, graduated from Harvard, got married, and settled into a career that’s as stable as any journalist’s, all the while keeping up his fandom for an unsung artist who once, and again, blew his mind.
I met the pair recently for a joint interview about their respective work. The conversation, as you might expect from people looking back on a decade, quickly became sprawling, so I’ve condensed it a bunch here. It's self-evident, but I give both of their projects my highest recommendation: Heartland 99 is available for download now, pay-what-you-want, with a vinyl edition forthcoming. The Next Next Level comes out July 7th, and is available for order now.
First, here's Juiceboxxx at his best, doing 2012's "Like a Renegade."
“Saying it’s rap-rock is obviously confrontational, but there are a lot of alternate realities where rap-rock can be sick.” —Juiceboxxx
How did the whole Juiceboxxx thing begin? Your sound seems to have been well-formed when you were a teenager.
JUICEBOXXX: By the time I started doing Juiceboxxx at 15, I’d already been going to shows for, like, four years. My parents would drop me off. When I was 13 or 14, I started playing in punk bands. I would actually rap at some of those shows—it was pretty natural, everything about it. The bands I played with were often very political or very serious, both within underground rap music and punk music, and I started Juiceboxxx as a reactionary move.
One of the first Juiceboxxx shows I did was at this Christian coffee shop in Rockford, Illinois, and I got the entire crowd to strip down to their underwear, and we got into a fight with the owner, and he tried to scald me with hot coffee. It was such a release for me at that point to play shows, and there was so much pent-up shit.
The funny thing is, I stand by everything I’ve done when I was a teenager, even if it’s absurd or insane, because I know that there’s a sprit encased in that that’s really positive. It’s about being confrontational and entertaining at the same time, about being on the line between entertainment and insanity.
That’s why I’ve kept the same name, even as the project has developed. I think there is a certain through-line, and I’m constantly cross-referencing everything I’ve done in the past, lyrically and aesthetically. I’ve built up this body of work, and it’s like a conversation with whatever fucked-up shit has ever happened in my life. It’s not like this is my hardcore hardware techno project, and before that I was making psychedelic rock. Do you know what I mean? To me, that is far more cynical. I’m more interested in carving out room that I can call my own.
You two met as teenagers, then reconnected a few years ago in New York. How did those meetings become a book?
LEON NEYFAKH: It didn’t occur to me that it’d be a book when I started. I think when I texted him for the first time, it was, “I want to write a long thing.” But it started preoccupying me more than I expected it to, pretty much more than anything I’d reported up to that point. I just found that the conversations I was having, and the things I was thinking about afterwards, and the things I was thinking about listening to the music—I was surprised to find that a lot of the things that surfaced were pretty much everything I ever cared about or felt strongly about.
The book is about Juiceboxxx and me, but on a more abstract level, the book is about what I think a lot of artists go through when they end up doubting themselves, and they have to search their souls to see if what they’re doing is really in line with what they’re good at. That’s something I’ve been trapped with myself. What are my talents? As a kid, I recorded music, and my dad listened to one of the songs I recorded and was like, “Look, this is fine, but is this what you’re better at than other people?” That was painful to hear, but it’s what everyone has to do.
Whatever you decide to devote yourself to, you have to decide if it was the right thing or not. That’s what I saw in what Juiceboxxx was going through, and that’s the level at which anyone can identify with what he’s doing in his music. Because he talks about it in his music. His music is about that.
“Whatever you decide to devote yourself to, you have to decide if it was the right thing or not.” —Leon Neyfakh
A big part of the book is this dichotomy that, Leon, you once felt between critics and geniuses. Can you explain that idea?
NEYFAKH: In college, my friends and I played this game deciding if someone was a genius or a critic. We used those terms in a way that was sort of divorced from what those words actually mean. In our definition, a genius was someone who couldn’t help but be the way they were, someone whose greatness or awfulness was unfiltered in the way it came out from where it started inside of them. And a critic was someone who couldn’t help but process the world from somewhat of a distance, and couldn’t help but second-guess how things are seen by others. And I identify with the latter. In the book, I say that I don’t think we were wrong to make that distinction, but I think it might be as simple as: some people are artists and some people are not. And I am not. The work that I do in my professional life isn’t art. Journalism isn’t art.
I would say that creative nonfiction is art.
NEYFAKH: I’m just telling you how I self-identify. To think of myself as an artist didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now. Juiceboxxx, to me, is an artist incarnate. And in talking to him, I realized that he was really deliberate about his art, and how he wants it to be received, and he has really specific and sophisticated ideas about it.
JUICEBOXXX: I don't know if I think of myself that way. I think it’s a combination of being deeply intuitive and deeply visceral but also having a body of influences to cull from. It’s never been an either/or for me, even when I was 15. Even though, like, I was in my underwear rolling around on the ground in a punk house, it was still informed of the history of people rolling around on the floor in a punk house. It’s deeply visceral and hard to explain, but the preparation and research and work that goes into it has to do with me being a fan, and wanting to be a part of the continuum of stuff that I was affected by, and wanting to add something to that history.
“I don’t give a fuck whether you like it or not, nobody else can do what I do. That’s not even a statement on whether it’s good or bad, it’s just a fucking fact.” —Juiceboxxx
Another central theme of the book is an idea that Leon has about how, with certain changes, like a better name or some poppier flourishes, Juiceboxxx could become more accessible—
NEYFAKH: I felt like I had no business having those opinions, in a way. It’s true that there are songs Juicebooxx has written that play better with my friends, and I was stoked that he made more songs like those, but it’s none of my business.
JUICEBOXXX: The thing with me, too, is that since I’m crisscrossing through a lot of different worlds, different people like different things from me better. There are people that like the straight-up hip-hop stuff that I do, and people who like the new-wavy power-pop stuff. The very nature of the music I make is pretty eclectic. Different people, often, when they give me feedback, want to pull me in one direction or another. That’s probably smart. I don’t think that’s not right of them. But personally, what I think is interesting about my music is that it crisscrosses through all these genres with this thread linking it all together, ideally. Like, the project would be a lot more easily understood if I just focused on one side of what I do. But then it wouldn’t be me.
I think I’ve always wanted to go out on a limb. Like, why is rap-rock a loaded term? Obviously I could answer that for you, but they’re still the most relevant forms of American music for the past fifty years. For what I do, it’s some weird synthesis of going on a limb and trying to combine these super-canonical influences. Yeah, saying it’s rap-rock is obviously confrontational aesthetically, but there are a lot of alternate realities where rap-rock can be sick. Let’s think about Detroit, let’s think about The Stooges, let’s think about Kid Rock. When I play live, I’m touching on punk rock and classic rock touchstones, and I’m melding that with things that are off-limits. It’s some mixture of next-level cultural influences with easy-to-understand things like The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and Bruce Springsteen.
If I have references that record collectors can understand, that’s great. But I don’t think it matters at all to Leon. But maybe he wouldn’t be interested in me if I didn’t have those influences. When he saw me when I was 16 he probably wasn’t thinking about whatever weird punk band I was into back then, but I think that energy resonated with him, and the fact that it was cut with something more accessible. I don’t think my influences have to track to people who watch me. I think it’s easily transcended by the physicality of what I’m doing.
In 2008, when I was touring and playing dance clubs, I could have probably started making instrumental dance tracks and culled that into a decent career as a working DJ, but that’s not my essence. Someone else can do that, but no one else can do Juiceboxxx. I don’t give a fuck whether you like it or not, nobody else can do what I do. It’s only me. It’s 100 percent singular. That’s not even a statement on whether it’s good or bad, it’s just a fucking fact. What I do is my own, and that’s why I’ve continued to do it, knowing that failure is continuously happening and it will keep happening until I finally quit.
“On some level, it is a young people’s game, but it takes a long time to get good, sometimes.” —Juiceboxxx
You talk about quitting a lot in your music, too. Do you really think it’s inevitable?
JUICEBOXXX: I don’t know. The scary thing for me is that the live show is getting better and better and better. Certain feelings and certain songs I’ve been wanting to write, I’m writing them, but I’m also getting closer to, like, really writing them. I would have stopped a long time ago if I wasn’t continuously getting closer to this thing I’ve had in my head since I was, like, 18 and I got into Bruce Springsteen. I’m self-aware to know that I’m doomed, but I believe in what I’m doing enough to keep going.
NEYFAKH: A couple older people have said to me, “He’s 27 in this book, and you’re 28. What are you talking about? You think you’re going to be the person you are right now for the rest of your life. Are you crazy?”
JUICEBOXXX: I think those people are totally right, but with that said, if you’re a pop musician in the general sense, that’s not going to get out of your fucking head. There is a thing with rock & roll and rap music where youth is held at a precedent. It’s like that Dan Graham, Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty. It comes from a hippie thing where you have to strike young. It’s less and less true now, but it looms large for me. As a student of the game, of course it looms large. It’s always felt like a race against the clock for me, even when I was 23.
On some level, it is a young people’s game, but it takes a long time to get good, sometimes. It’s about having something in my head and trying to actualize it. That doesn’t happen overnight. I just feel like I’m out on a limb trying to do something that’s totally idiosyncratic and doesn't fit into any one zeitgeist. I think I should give myself a little more time to develop this thing, because it’s not fully with precedent in some way. When I boot up Spotify, the exact record I want to listen to isn’t in there, so I make it, you know. There’s plenty of music I love. There’s so much good music happening now, and I’d never say otherwise, but to me there’s very specific things I’m trying to laser in on.
And [having that history] it always gets me psyched if a kid wants to follow the bread crumbs and follow the trail. Even this stuff with me and Leon. As a kid, that’s what I got psyched about. This shit is confusing, and you have to figure it out. I didn’t just come on and make a couple singles and get a record deal. This is my life. You’re seeing my life unfold in music and culture, and there’s something sick about that.
Did the book change anything?
NEYFAKH: One of the stories in the book is about us becoming friends. When you’re a reporter, the more traditional scenario is you write about someone and never see them again, and you don’t care what they think. But I care a lot what Juiceboxxx thinks about the book. It matters to me that he feels like he was represented in a way that was fair and true to his own experience. That said, I also recognize there’s a bunch of stuff in the book that’s about me, and what the fuck do I have to do with his story? The answer is only what he made me think about and feel. The second thing I recognize it’s that it’s hard for someone to be written about. I can’t imagine someone writing a book about me. It’s just weird to be observed that closely, and I was really grateful for Juiceboxxx letting me in. I’m not going to act like it doesn’t matter to me what he thinks.
JUICEBOXXX: Well, obviously no one has ever written a book about me before. If somebody writes another book about me, I’ll have done something right. I’m not expecting it. With that said, it’s going to take a long time for me to sort out a lot of things in regards to this project. There’s things I don’t like in the book, absolutely, but I think it’s positive. It would be great if any of my friends who have had similar lives had a project like this happen for them. I think I belong to a crew of people who have put it on the line and slipped through the cracks, and followed whatever weird impulses we’ve had. I just think it’s really, really, really complicated. Any time someone is talking about you and the life you’ve built your creative life on, you’re going to have some disagreements. But it makes me feel like at least my life hasn’t been a total waste.