Nobody knows what to do with Juiceboxxx, the noisy rap-rock veteran who's overflowing with positive vibes, when they first encounter him. His constantly evolving pastiche of sounds means that he's often crammed into genres where he doesn't quite fit. For a while, he was labeled as nerdcore rap, which seemed to have nothing to do with the music he was making and more to do with just being a skinny white guy rapping. After seeing a show, one reviewer more aptly called it, "rap/rock that doesn't suck." A couple months ago, he appeared on a local news station in his hometown of Milwaukee, and the Internet jumped on the clip of his performance, which was plagued by technical difficulties, anointing Juice "the worst rapper ever."
Juiceboxxx, or JB, is not the worst rapper ever. But he's used to strong reactions. He's trying to make music that's different and that appeals to the artistic fringe, yet he also wants his music to be accepted as pop. "I think its really easy when you're involved in these niche music communities to forget what it means to make pop music," he explains. "And that means that you have to put your face in front of a lot people that are going to hate you." Not only is JB unfazed, not only is he irrepressibly enthusiastic and appealingly weird—he's getting better.
Juiceboxxx wants to make pop music. His aspirations are not unlike Miley Cyrus's: Her reviewers constantly point out that she's of a generation who grew up listening to hip-hop alongside rock and pop. At 27, Juiceboxxx is part of that same generation, even if he's been playing music forever. Rap is an unavoidable influence. "In my mind rap music has been happening for over 30 years," he says. "That's my Americana. Rap music was the predominant club music of the 90s, but it was also the predominant music to play in your car. Occasionally I meet someone who says they don't like rap music or never listened to rap music, and I just honestly can't wrap my brain around that."
For JB, touring used to mean hopping on a Greyhound and traversing America with just his iPod. But playing shows on the road with Public Enemy a couple years ago changed things. "Instantly when I saw them play live with a drummer on that tour, I started thinking about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who are another inspiration of mine, and I was like 'obviously Public Enemy are the rap version,'" he says. "They play for two and a half hours, they are so entertaining, they have so many hits, and they do so many fun things live. It was that experience. After, I was like 'I need a band.'"
Taking Mike and Willy D, his drummer and guitarist, on the road makes touring more difficult logistically. "I don't tour as much as I used to," says Juice. Not as much as he used to is still prolific. Last week, he embarked on the sixth or seventh tour with the band in only two years. "It's more complex but I can't go back because I feel like I'm just starting to figure out how to do that show that's in my mind—that Bruce Springsteen meets Public Enemy show."
When you talk to JB, he uses that phrase—just figuring it—out a lot, which might seem surprising coming from someone who's been making music under the same name for over a decade, since he was teenager in Milwaukee. But it makes sense when you think how Juiceboxxx is exploring unknown territory, attempting alchemy in trying to synthesize his favorite artists into a new pop music. "I'm just trying to make the most honest form of modern American music."
Along with Public Enemy and the Boss, Juiceboxxx's constellation of principal influences include the Beastie Boys and Suicide. He draws from rap, rock, and punk along with American noise, electronic dance, and power pop—he's transitioned from electro pop party anthems to a noisier place with more distortion in recent years. On his 2013 mixtape Beyond Thunder Zone, he samples Big Star—Alex Chiltin's voice tweaked to chipmunk range—and covers Wyclef Jean. "I think there is just a continuum of American music that I can draw from. I might be the only person making these crazy connections, but somehow I'm connecting the dots."
Juiceboxxx likes to call what he and a motley crew of other artists are doing Nu Americana. Fed up with being misunderstood and tagged onto a new, buzzing niche genre every couple of years, he started his own label, Thunderzone, back in 2011. On it he's released projects by Paper Rad-affiliated nu-metal ragers Extreme Animals and weirdo Baltimore DJ/producer Schwarz, and he sees DJ Dog Dick, Antwon, and B L A C K I E as like-minded kin. In addition to putting out tapes and records, Juiceboxxx also has Thunderzone-branded energy drinks and hacky sacks. The label's vibes are fun and funny but never ironic—there's an extreme humility and earnestness to everything JB does.
"I'm sick of being slotted into other people's lanes temporarily," JB says. "That's what Thunderzone is, I'm trying to create my own lane." He's also trying to create a movement, citing Insane Clown Posse and Factory Records as models.
At the same time, he has mixed feelings about community. "Communities breed a lot of middling music and culture. There's a hive mind at play that can produce boring shit that I'm not interested in," he explains. "I don't want to limit myself to fellow white twenty-something weirdoes." And, he hasn't. The first thing he put out on Thunderzone was a seven-inch for Huntsville Southern rappers G-Side. He's not content with just being some underground darling, either (He basically is already. At an art kid party in Manhattan a few weeks ago, I heard a girl gasp under her breath "Oh that's Juiceboxxx!").
Of course, exposing himself to a broader audience means opening himself up to situations like the disastrous TV performance. In spite of the hate, JB maintains posi vibes: "I don't even want to get defensive, if you think that's how I rap, fine. But it's positive because some people were confused enough by the whole thing that they went and checked out some of my other music and videos, and that's positive."
In our viral age, it's more than just the idea that all press is good press. Prior to the live news performance debacle, Jacob Ciocci, Juiceboxxx's good friend from Extreme Animals, wrote poignantly on how hate is the contemporary medium. "It's not like that is the first time I've gotten hate," JB told me. "It was definitely the most concentrated barrage of hate I've ever experienced, but it's not the first time. I feel like if you really want to be in this game you have to be ready for this shit in 2014 because it's such a crucial part of how the world works now—trolling, negative YouTube comments. It's a part of culture."
JB suggested that online hate is often just a visceral reaction to something new: "I think it's actually not hate, but it's confusion. And for a lot of people, the way their confusion manifests itself on the Internet is through hate or harsh criticism. Maybe the first time—or the first ten times—a lot of people saw anything Lil B-related they hated it. Probably a lot of motherfuckers out there on the 11th time, it clicked for them, once they figured out the context and saw enough videos."
Juice is okay with failure as much as he is with hate. "You have to be able to put yourself out there in a way that is fully honest and fully ready for ridicule," he says. "Every day I listen to Bruce Springsteen and Kanye West and the Replacements or whatever, and I try to get myself in the mind frame to make something as good as them. And I don't do that, but maybe I make something cool in failure."
Seeing him play live is seeing this ethos embodied in pure sweaty energetic raging. Juiceboxxx gives generously to his performances. On this tour he's hitting the road with his backing band and DJ George Costanza, (David Wightman, also in Extreme Animals) who, Juice explains, will be playing a lot of new country and power pop punk. "These Warped tour bands are writing undeniable pop music," JB notes. "To bring that kind of energy into an underground basement show is like the most confrontational thing you can do right now. I'm placing David in a context where he'll be DJing un-credible punk to credible punks."
Juiceboxxx kicked off the tour last week, and you can experience these strange positive vibes across the country right now. And like everything else in his career, Juiceboxxx approaches his show with an experimental mindset: When it comes to operating at the intersection of punk rock, hip-hop, and electronic music, the so-called worst rapper ever's live show is one of the best.
"There's plenty of bands touring and playing live music, but I'm trying to take that energy and make it not retro," JB says. "I'm trying to take parts of all these worlds and make something that's mine."
Whitney Mallett is the best writer ever. She's on Twitter - @whitneymallett
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