Excerpt: “The Next Next Level,” the Saga of Milwaukee Rapper Juiceboxxx
Milwaukee rapper Juiceboxxx was once called “the Buddy Holly of hip-hop” by Public Enemy’s Chuck D. According to his website, he thinks of it more like “Bruce Springsteen splattered through a punk rap lens.” He’s been performing since he was a teen, alternately shocking and fascinating audiences, including author Leon Neyfakh, who chose to put Juiceboxxx at the center of his new book.
The Next Next Level explores Neyfakh’s ten-year relationship with Juiceboxxx. The two met in high school, when Neyfakh organized a show in Oak Park, IL and added the 15-year-old Juice to the bill at the request of a mutual friend. Neyfakh was so taken with Juice’s performance that he’s followed his career ever since—though relatively few others have, with the rap-rocker building up a cult following but never quite breaking through. Still, Neyfakh’s admiration—and envy—never flagged, even as his connection to Juice made the leap from fan to friend.
The Next Next Level is more than a portrait of a struggling underground rapper. The author examines himself as closely as he examines his subject, asking important questions about creativity, authenticity, and what it means to be a “critic” versus an “artist.” Below, an excerpt from the book.
Images: courtesy Juiceboxxx
I was a sophomore at Harvard when it happened. Juice was playing a show in someone’s dorm room at BU, and I was there alone, because as usual none of my friends would go with me. Watching him from the back of the room, I was in awe of his energy, as I had been the half dozen times I’d seen him play up to that point. This time, though, something was different: For the first time ever, I found myself trying to think in concrete terms about what it was he was actually doing up there, and pictured myself in his place as I watched him.
I imagined what it would feel like to move the way he was moving, make the faces he was making, utter the guttural sounds that were coming from the pit of his stomach. As I watched him thrashing around on the stage and thrilling everyone in the audience, I wondered whether I, despite being a hyper-self-conscious dweeb, might have what it would take to do the same thing.
Afterwards, as I walked home I made a deeply embarrassing decision that I have never told anyone about, and have not forgotten even though I really wish I could: I too would become a rapper, and like Juiceboxxx, I would wow everyone who saw me with my genius.
It would be easy, I thought to myself. All I’d have to do was think of a funny stage name, write a bunch of amusing rhymes, buy a jumpsuit like the one I remembered Juice wearing the first time I ever saw him perform back in high school, and book myself a slot in the basement where Harvard’s student bands performed every Thursday night. I imagined myself jumping around frenetically and pouncing on people, bending my body at sharp angles and having my eyes bulge out of my skull so that I looked unhinged and a little dangerous, just like Juice himself always did. I would grab audience members and rap at them, and then I would end my set in a ball on the floor, panting and growling.
I figured Juiceboxxx wasn’t nearly famous enough for anyone to realize where I was getting my moves. I imagined my friends and classmates watching me, still and stunned, as I transformed before their eyes into a possessed, unsettling creature and overwhelmed them with my unbridled intensity.
What tortures me about this story, which Juiceboxxx will only learn about if and when he reads this, is that in the beginning, my dreams of tapping into some fount of artistic creativity deep inside of myself were mostly pure. As a small child, I painted and drew pictures; later, as a sixth grader, I wrote melodramatic short stories and chapter books about talking animals, and in high school I even composed a novella about a group of friends hanging out together as counselors at a summer camp.
Thinking of my plan to essentially plagiarize Juiceboxxx’s act today, at age 28, having become a newspaper reporter rather than any kind of artist, makes me sick to my stomach, and I consider it a great stroke of luck that my intentions evaporated before I could take any concrete steps toward realizing them. And though it’s hard to say now whether it was giving up on this pitiful plan, or hatching it in the first place, that decisively snuffed out any hope I still had at that point of becoming a person who created art, I nevertheless feel confident saying that the profound self-loathing that filled me afterwards changed the way I thought of myself. Like a person waking up from a painfully revealing anxiety dream, I had glimpsed a part of myself that was deeply shameful.
Worse, I had let it take over my thoughts for long enough to start thinking of possible names I could perform under, and to actually envision what I would look like going through the motions. It was the ultimate “critic” move: with no original creative instincts of my own, all I could think to do was try to copy someone else’s.