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Juiceboxxx, a rapper, made me care about guitar music again

Or, how one 13-minute set at SXSW was the best show I've seen in years

Amelia Krales

Everyone eventually hits a point at which they stop caring about something they once loved. I don’t mean in a romantic sense, I mean in a practical sense: the well-worn sweater that doesn’t fit right anymore, the once-comforting movie you’ve gotten sick of watching. For me, that thing was rock music, or guitar music, or bands, in general. It sounds insane to say I’ve lost interest in bands, but in the past five years or so, the feeling of joy and adrenaline that used to bubble up during live shows has mostly faded to boredom. But last night, after watching Milwaukee musician Juiceboxxx scream and writhe through 13 minutes of grimy punk-rap (stick with me here), I got that feeling back.

Juiceboxxx began his only set at SXSW by asking the audience if they wanted an energy drink. The 16 oz. can he clutched in his left hand was his own branded beverage, Thunder Zone Energy. Hawking an energy drink before your show sums up SXSW, a place where nothing escapes the tyranny of the logo. But once Juiceboxxx’s set began in earnest, the entire room felt like it had been transported out of the festival entirely. Juiceboxxx was joined by one guitarist and one drummer, there were maybe 50 people in the room, and the bar’s wood-paneled walls made it feel like a cramped, suburban VFW.

Amelia Krales

By the time Juiceboxxx hit the middle of his very short set (which was maybe three songs in) I realized I hadn’t been this excited by a live show in years. I started laughing out loud — not at him, but at his sheer, unfiltered energy. Nothing about Juiceboxxx’s performance felt contrived: the spitting on stage, falling into the crowd, rolling around on the floor. In the hands of another artist, the self-aggrandizing drama of the performance would’ve seemed like an embarrassing homage to a dying genre, but Juiceboxxx made late ‘70s punk feel like a new discovery. With his eyes cocaine-wide, his grey hoodie unzipped to the center of his pale chest, and his slim body pulsing like a dashboard Hula dancer, he looked like some hallucinatory combination of Richard Hell, Ian Curtis, and Hedwig.

A hallucinatory combination of Richard Hell, Ian Curtis, and Hedwig

You might know Juiceboxxx because he once went on tour with Public Enemy, and Chuck D called him "the Buddy Holly of hip-hop." Juiceboxxx calls himself a rapper, but recently he’s moved away from his mid-2000s sound of lo-fi computer rap and landed somewhere closer to post-punk. His 2015 album, Heartland 99, channels the Beastie Boys as much as Gang of Four. You may have heard of this book by Leon Neyfakh; it’s about artistic struggle in general and about Juiceboxxx (who’s been rapping to relatively minor acclaim since he was 13) specifically. He’s toured in Europe and Japan several times, but in the grand scheme of things, only a small group of people know who Juiceboxxx is. But those who do call themselves fans tend to be cultishly devoted. I listened to some of Juiceboxxx’s mixtapes briefly in high school but gave up quickly, and now I suddenly care more about him than any guitar-centric musician in recent years. Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s unfair to pin my rock music salvation on an artist who doesn’t play an instrument, and who says he’s a rapper.

Amelia Krales

Even the term "rock music" seems stale now, but I’m not sure what else to call it. In high school and college I obsessively listened to what I called "dumb garage rock" from every era: Television, The New York Dolls, Hunx & His Punx, Jacuzzi Boys, Bad Sports, UV Race, Mean Jeans. But over the years, my fandom turned to hip-hop and electronic music, and I found myself frustrated whenever I encountered yet another foursome of boys with two electric guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. I doubt this experience is unique to me; anyone who pays attention would agree that rock just doesn’t matter as much as it once did, and when white men yell about their feelings it’s hard for me to invest in their anger.

Juiceboxxx’s set was angry. He performed with physical aggression; pushing the crowd out of his way, his mouth knotted into a perpetual snarl. But somehow, his performance lacked the tropes of traditional masculinity that might have made this aggression discomfiting. "Fuck life," he said, more than once. "It doesn’t fucking matter." It might’ve come off as petulant if his music itself hadn’t recently started to mimic this apathy. His mixtape Highway to the Heartland, released a year ago this month, features songs like "Alone and Insane on a Friday Night," and "Might Stop Rapping." The track "Juiceboy Never Get Away" opens with the line, "I just don’t fucking give a shit anymore, man. My whole life is a fucking dumbass joke. Whatever."

Juiceboxxx’s story comes with a dark side, as that of any dedicated musician who toils in obscurity for more than a decade is likely to. At the start of 2013 he began releasing a series of videos on YouTube called "State of the Thunder Zone," almost all of which showed him sitting alone in a room, dead-eyed, foggy-headed, slack-jawed. Watching those videos now makes my stomach drop, because they’re visual proof that doing what you love for so long can really fuck you up. Juiceboxxx’s own lyrics would have you believe he’s abandoned almost everything to make this work. "Got a lotta dumb shit / That I haven't worked out / Every single month / It's a different couch / Garbage bag / For my clothes / I got no clue where I'm gonna go." It’s hard to know how to feel about being able to watch an artist apparently crumble in real time under the desperation of trying to make it. How can the one thing that draws me to a person be the same thing that might be destroying them?

Amelia Krales

Before his final song of the night — "Follow Your Fucked Up Dreams" — Juiceboxxx said the band was driving to Arkansas after their set, presumably to play yet another show. For maybe two seconds a look of exhaustion fluttered across his face; it was the only time he looked less than manic the entire night. "I’ve been doing this for so fucking long," he said, "I don’t know what else to do."