In the tradition of Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, an unforgettable account of fame, fandom, and the problem of making art in the twenty-first century
In his multi-hyphenate ambitions, the musician who calls himself Juiceboxxx couldn’t be more modern—you might call him a punk rock-rapper-DJ-record executive-energy drink-magnate. Journalist Leon Neyfakh has been something more than a fan of Juiceboxxx’s since he was a teenager, when he booked a show for the artist in a church basement in his hometown of Oak Park, Illinois.
Juiceboxxx went on to the tireless, lonely, possibly hopeless pursuit of success on his own terms—no club was too dank, no futon too grubby, if it helped him get to the next, next level. And, for years, Neyfakh remained haunted from afar: was art really worth all the sacrifices? If it was, how did you know you’d made it? And what was the difference, anyway, between a person like Juiceboxxx—who devoted his life to being an artist—and a person like Neyfakh, who elected instead to pursue a stable career and a comfortable, middle-class existence?
Much more than a brilliant portrait of a charismatic musician always on the verge of something big, The Next Next Level is a wholly contemporary story of art, obsession, fame, ambition, and friendship—as well as viral videos, rap-rock, and the particulars of life on the margins of culture.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When I saw him this past January, I asked Juiceboxxx directly if I was right to suspect that I had inadvertently ruined everything. I laughed as the words came out of my mouth, because the possibility that he would say, “Yeah, actually,” or even, “Yeah, kind of,” was too horrible for me to fathom with a straight face. Juice had been a free man before he decided to let me be his friend; he may have been living an uncertain, not very comfortable life, but at least he was in his own lane, his hands gripping the wheel even as he swerved, skidded, and stalled. Then I came along and made the myopic assumption that what was best for me, a journalist with a wife, a dog, and a savings account, was also best for him, a turbulent and ambitious artist with dreams I never had a chance at understanding. True, he had asked me to tell him if I heard about any job opportunities. Nevertheless, it was because of me that he ended up pursuing one, and in the process, became a participant in something almost unthinkably ordinary.
On paper it didn’t sound so bad: I had given his name to two former colleagues of mine, who had e-mailed everyone in their professional network saying they had just taken over a fancy magazine about contemporary art, and were looking to bring in new people who could work a few days a week for not very much money. Juiceboxxx, at this time, was making ends meet by writing TV jingles and DJing parties, and living in the basement of a house in Far Rockaway where he paid two hundred dollars a month to sleep on the floor behind a bar. A weekly paycheck, it seemed, would be useful to him. Among other things, it would allow him to finally pay the guy he had hired to put the finishing touches on his new album.
I thought I was helping. What I didn’t think about was the possibility that having an office job for the first time in his life, and spending his days writing articles and blog posts about other people’s art, could throw Juice into a seriously dislocating existential crisis. I began to worry, after he was hired and started going in to work, that the simmering sense of panic that had always infused his entire being, not to mention his music, would thin out, evaporate, and float away.
Among other things, the job meant doing work under his legal name instead of under “Juiceboxxx” for the first time in his life. It also meant that he soon had a room of his own in a decent Brooklyn apartment, and could predict with almost 100 percent reliability where he would be at any given time of day.
“Did I destroy you?” I asked as we sat down to dinner in Soho, both of us coming from our respective offices. Juice smiled and looked down at his food. It took him a minute to answer.
This little book, as you’ll see if you keep reading, is about the difference between being an artist and not being one, and the confusion many people feel as they try to figure out which one they are, or should be, or wish they were. It’s also about two guys colliding with each other at a crucial moment, and despite having roughly nothing in common, using one another as mirrors both for better and for worse.
During our early meetings in New York about two years ago, I spent half the time contorting myself in order to impress Juiceboxxx, and the other half resolving to present myself to him without fear or self-loathing, as the person I really was. The story here is about the ungainly and confusing grind that inevitably comes with shifting between those two gears.
More than anything else, this is a book about people trying to figure out what it is inside of them that makes them special, and then devoting themselves to the hard work of making it legible to the outside world. It’s both a portrait of my idol—a talented outsider who has spent his life, figuratively and somewhat literally, running away from home—and a memoir about defining yourself through your taste, only to discover that the things you love don’t easily fit with who you think you are, or who you were supposed to be. Juiceboxxx leveled with me, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident, during the months I spent following him around and interviewing him. In the subsequent pages I will level with you, and with him.
Table of Contents
1 Do It Yourself 3
2 Affiliations 33
3 Genius vs. Critic 61
4 Stupid, Stupid, Stupid 83
5 Neon Hunk, etc. 101
6 You Are Invited 121
7 The Next Next Level 131
8 Dream On 153
Running with the Renegade: Leon Neyfakh on The Next Next Level
By Tobias Carroll
There's a vein of personal nonfiction that's as much about the author's relationship with the subject as it is about the subject itself. The apex of this might be Joseph Mitchell's Joe Gould's Secret, where Mitchell's reactions to the increasing eccentricity and elusiveness of Gould are as gripping as Gould's proclamations and secrets. Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty is a haunting portrait of Patchett's friend and colleague Lucy Grealy, but in their interactions, we learn nearly as much about Patchett herself.
Leon Neyfakh is the latest entrant into this sphere, and he's done so in a most unlikely way: by writing an affecting portrait of an indie hip-hop artist with a penchant for energy drinks, who goes by the name of Juiceboxxx. With roots in the Midwest and influences ranging from Bruce Springsteen to long-running experimental noise purveyors Wolf Eyes, Juiceboxxx isn't the easiest artist to pin down. (It probably doesn't help that a video of him contending with a horrible sound system went viral a few years ago.) He has ties to art collectives and experimental musicians; he's also toured with Public Enemy. That one of his songs is called "Never Surrender Forever" provides an indication of the hard-fought positivity he channels in many a song. In others, such as "Like a Renegade," he grapples overtly with depression and the ups and downs of being a musician on the margins. "I got a hole in my life that I can't escape," he sings as the song opens. What follows lyrically is a candid account of the ups and downs of his life, even as the booming music evokes mid-'80s Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.
The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up is the story of Neyfakh's fixation on Juiceboxxx's music, a chronicle of his fandom, and an account of how they eventually became friends. Writing about the book for Pitchfork, Michael Barron noted that "Neyfakh's commitment to an underground artist's work has the double-edged distinction of being a lonely endeavor." It's both a look at the condition of adoring the work of an artist few of your peers find interesting, and an account of getting older in a scene that values youth.
Neyfakh's beginnings as a writer involved keeping a foot in arts coverage and a foot in public policy debates. "I worked for the [New York] Observer when I graduated from college," he said one afternoon in a coffee shop near his Brooklyn home. "I wrote about the publishing industry for a while, then the art world and the tech industry in New York. Then I went to the [Boston] Globe and I worked on various public policy and academic topics." Nowadays, he makes his home at Slate, in a role that he describes as "reporting on policing and prisons. You know, various prosecutors and how the justice system works."
The Next Next Level raises a question inherent to many an intensive portrait of another person: whether or not the process of profiling someone ends up irrevocably affecting that person. (Or, possibly, its author: famously, Joseph Mitchell stopped writing after publishing Joe Gould's Secret.) When the book opens, Neyfakh has found Juiceboxxx a steady job in New York City, and he finds himself wondering if "I had inadvertently ruined everything." It's a powerful admission, made weightier by the fact that, by Neyfakh's own admission, this book began its life in a much more nebulous state. There are a few references in the book itself to Neyfakh working on "an article" the precursor to what became The Next Next Level.
"I didn't realize it would be a book until it became one, really," Neyfakh said. The project began to gestate when the two began conversing shortly after Juiceboxxx's arrival in New York City. "I was taken with him, as I had been many times before, but something about actually speaking to him and hearing him talk about the stuff he had been putting in his music, across the table from me . . . I felt activated by the conversation in a way."
Neyfakh was working for the Boston Globe, with a focus on academic research not exactly a logical place for a project about an underground artist whose music gleefully smashes together genres. As the project got underway, Neyfakh first envisioned it as a long-form piece with a digital home, possibly a start-up dedicated to publishing nonfiction works that weren't quite book-length. As he weighed his options, Neyfakh turned out to be prescient about where the book would end up. "At some point I realized, Oh, maybe Melville House will go ahead and publish it given they publish short novellas.
"There was no point when I was actually writing the first draft that I thought I was writing a book," Neyfakh recalled. But the longer space allowed him to expand on a host of related topics pertaining to art, creativity, and restarting one's life. As Neyfakh puts it, the book contains intimate details of his own family, and "my own youthful kind of ambitions to be a great songwriter."
From Neyfakh's book come powerful glimpses of his childhood. He's the son of Russian immigrants and grew up outside of Chicago. Repeatedly in The Next Next Level, he alludes to lessons learned through his upbringing, but also to the gulf between "high and low culture" that his parents both strongly believed in. One of the most heartwarming moments in The Next Next Level comes when Neyfakh's mother, likely not a fan of artists who bridge hip-hop and rock music, says that Juiceboxxx's story seems compelling: "If you think he's interesting and no one else does, to me that is a good sign." Neyfakh did get some familial criticism for including aspects of his life in his book, however. He recounted that "my mom read the book and was like, 'You really want to put yourself out there like this? Why don't you make it a novel? Just pretend it's about someone else. "
As for the other half of the duo around which Neyfakh's book pivots, Juiceboxxx remains both an elusive presence and an imposing one. That contradictory nature is part of Juiceboxxx's appeal, says Neyfakh:
He's writing about himself, and his life as an artist, and his really conflicted state of mind. He's pessimistic about his career, and really self-loathing and kind of scared and panicked. Simultaneously, almost in the exact same breath, he's very driven to continue, and he can't fathom giving up, even though he can't be continuing either.For Neyfakh, that dissonance is the core of Juiceboxxx's appeal. "Tension is what I really respond to. And I think that tension exists in all of us in some way or other," he said, "especially people who are creative. The way he carries those two things . . . they're a little closer to the top, a little more raw and more extreme maybe than other people." Equally compelling is the sense of a life on the margins, both economically and artistically. There isn't a one-to- one corollary between the rise of the "sharing economy" and the financially strapped career that Juiceboxxx has carved out for himself, but there are certainly similarities, and throughout the book, the contrast between Neyfakh's relatively stable life and Juiceboxxx's uncertain one is made clear.
That isn't the only aspect of Neyfakh's book in which questions of technology and society show up. This being a book about a contemporary musician released in 2015, technology's effect on the music industry also factors into the narrative. Juiceboxxx takes an older approach, for better or for worse. "I think he took a now somewhat outdated approach of building up a fan base," said Neyfakh. "Touring a ton, tiny shows all over the country. He took this analog approach to it, a very low-efficiency approach. It's a really key part of his self-conception as someone who's sort of like a journeyman."
Some of that is also specific to Juiceboxxx. "I think he likes winning people over one-by-one," Neyfakh contended. "I think he feels that even if his fan base is relatively small, he's more secure in a way than some kind of a fly-by-night, viral moment."
Neyfakh and Juiceboxxx both possess abundant self-awareness, each working in genres of their respective media in which that quality is paramount. So what, exactly, does its subject think of this book as a finished product? "He read it once and was totally into it," Neyfakh said. "I think it was interesting for him to read, because anytime someone focuses in on you to this extent, it's kind of scary. I can't imagine what it would be like to have a book written about you."
Neyfakh mentioned that Juiceboxxx had "more mixed feelings" about an earlier draft of his manuscript. "It became real in a way that it wasn't before," he said. "The other thing is his name is in it. He's in control over how his name is used to a great extent throughout his entire career." There are glimpses throughout of Juiceboxxx's methods: his debates on whether or not to perform with a full band; the way his music, at its best, bridges the hip-hop, experimental music, and art worlds; and the questions of sincerity (and perceptions of sincerity) that his performances can prompt from certain listeners and critics.
"To have someone from outside come in and say what I think about you," said Neyfakh, "describe you, quote you, and go into the intense personal stuff that he and I talked about . . . at its worst, it could feel like a real intrusion. At its best, it feels like you're captured. But even that probably still feels weird." In a joint interview that Neyfakh and Juiceboxxx did for The Fader, Juiceboxxx confirmed those mixed feelings. "There's things I don't like in the book, absolutely, but I think it's positive," he said.
For Neyfakh's part, that shift in their relationship may have been an inevitable one. "He and I became friends over the course of my doing the book, and I won't lie, after he read it the second time, it hasn't been quite the same. Friends don't write books about each other, you know what I mean? You can't write an honest book about someone and have them love everything about it."
A bittersweet note to close on, but an accurate one. Perhaps Neyfakh's book will help raise the profile of Juiceboxxx, whose album, Heartland 99, was released in early June. A running bit in the book involves Neyfakh trying (and failing) to convince friends to embrace Juiceboxxx's music.
The more big-picture aspects of The Next Next Level even provided the spark for Neyfakh's next project. "This book made me appreciate talent as a concept," he said. The Next Next Level brings together two artists, each of whom has a brutally candid story to tell about the struggles sparked by their internal narratives. Beyond the abundant self-awareness possessed by each men, there is also the singular insight provided by having a friend tell your story.
July 13, 2015