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Talking to Milwaukee rapper Juiceboxxx about his almost defunct year-long vlog

Talking to Milwaukee rapper Juiceboxxx about his almost defunct year-long vlog

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The terminally underground rapper known as Juiceboxxx has been making music for around 15 years now, which is basically half of the time he’s been alive. When you’ve been doing something for that long, you’re bound to rack up some kind of history, and Juiceboxxx’s is the stuff of cult legend. The Milwaukee-by-way-of-Brooklyn rapper is a musician first — his two most recent albums, I Don’t Wanna Go Into the Darkness and Heartland 99, land somewhere between the nerdy American pop of Jonathan Richman, and something I can only describe as "rap rock except good." But he’s got a few side projects only tangentially related to Juiceboxxx the musician. There’s his energy drink, and The Boxxx Report, a weekly newsletter roundup of Juice-approved tracks. But the strangest and most memorable is State of the Thunder Zone.

In 2013, Juiceboxxx bought a smartphone for the first time in his life and decided to start a vlog. He was going through a rough patch: living in LA, sleeping on couches, getting fucked up more often than not. The vlog, dubbed State of the Thunder Zone as a reference to Juiceboxxx’s Thunder Zone label, was updated every week for one year — a monotonous long-term project Juiceboxxx described to me as "a dare to myself." At the end of each week, he would stare into his phone’s camera and talk about whatever came to him. Although many of the videos focused on details about Juiceboxxx's shows and Thunder Zone merch, Juiceboxxx often started to ramble, sometimes talking in circles about nothing in particular, and yelling into the camera. "It ended up becoming this weird circular thing where it was actual torture to do," he said, "but that became part of the project."

A year-long dare

This past April, Juicieboxxx posted a State of the Thunder Zone reunion video to his YouTube channel — the first one he’d made since the fall of 2014. It opens, as many State of the Thunder Zones do, with Juice in a bedroom, eyes half open, and lids heavy. "You thought that fuckin’ State of the Thunder Zone was over man, but guess what motherfucker? This is the reunion tour," he says. "I look like just as much of a piece of shit as ever. I’m fucking losing my mind just as bad as I’ve always lost my fucking mind man, nothing changes man, but everything changes."

State of the Thunder Zone might just be one rapper’s anti-passion project, but it’s a testament to how rapidly our modes of communication on the internet can change. Even when it first began, State of the Thunder Zone already felt dated, because vlogs were something that suburban teens did on YouTube in 2006. But the urgency with which Juice delivers them makes each video about merch, show dates in Wisconsin, and the monotony of the day feel like a missive from a man running out of time. Juice’s videos mimic his career: no matter how dark things seemed to get, the videos never stopped coming until he said they would.

All of the Thunder Zone videos still live online. Now, three years after they were originally published, they’ve become a time capsule of that year in Juice’s life. Juiceboxxx told me he’s not going to take the videos down; even though he has no plans to rewatch them anytime soon, he likes that they’re there. "I’m excited about the idea of transcending my baggage, and my history becomes this weird thing that people can try to figure out."

Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to start State of the Thunder Zone?

The goal was to do it every Sunday, once a week for an entire year. It ended up becoming this weird circular thing where it was actual torture to do but that became part of the project. I should back up and say that the project originated because I finally got a smartphone in 2013 (I’d had a flip phone up until then) and I just wanted to do some sort of project that incorporated this new technology that I didn’t previously have access to.

So you recorded it all on your phone?

Yeah it was all done on my phone and I would upload it in standard definition, or whatever, kinda low-res.

Was that an intentional aesthetic decision or just the smallest file size?

It was a little bit of both. On some level it was a hat tip to the pioneers of vlogging pre-HD. In a way the project is part of that history, but it’s kind of my own take on it.

Did you know what you wanted to talk about beforehand or were you just spitballing?

I had a general idea of bullet points I wanted to hit. Essentially the only thing that really tied it together on a week-by-week basis was, Thunder Zone was pretty active that year. And I always had something to talk about, be it a new Lil Ugly Mane shirt or a new Juiceboxxx video or merch. There was always a little bit of news to keep it timely but beyond that it was just the ramblings of a fucking mad man. I was living in LA at the time and I was going through some deep shit, and straight up, I was not in a good place. Emotionally, mentally, physically. I mean, I wouldn’t say that I am now either, but it’s improved slightly. So in a way it was the most constructive form of self-hatred I could figure out at the time. It was a way to focus all the shit that happened to me into an insane four minutes of hell.

Forcing you to spend time with yourself?

Yeah, well I was feeling insane so I figured I should just focus that insanity into this weird project. It felt more constructive than just not doing it. To this day, the tone of State of the Thunder Zone mystifies me. It strikes some weird, awkward, hard-to-figure-out middle ground between news, entertainment, and um... torture.

News, entertainment, and torture

Do you go back and rewatch the old videos?

No. Maybe someday. I want to keep them up as a document. And it’s funny, the new record, I actually… the last time I needed them, I was going to transcribe them all for a book and I still might do that. But on the new record a lot of the scratching is stuff I said in those videos. Because you know, traditionally, DJs scratch other rap songs, but to use my own voice from a totally separate project on the record felt cool.

And you revived State of the Thunder Zone this year.

Yeah, I did a little reunion, and I kind of want to reintegrate it into my overall thing in some sort of way but that has yet to be seen. I’m not done vlogging yet though, sadly. There’s something perverse about it. There’s something deeply perverse about doing State of the Thunder Zone every week. If you actually dig in and just watch one of those things, you can tell that I’m torturing myself and I’m torturing the viewer. A weird form of energy comes through that. I was kind of influenced in a way by the stand-up comedian Steven Brody Stevens, which is essentially, it’s just this circular thing where you’re talking about yourself endlessly to the point where it just becomes nonsensical. And then it spins back into itself or something.

I feel like in a lot of the videos you’re talking about how shitty everything is, but you still come off as motivational in a sense.

Oh yeah, definitely. That’s always been at the core of Juiceboxxx, and I think that’s lead to a lot of misunderstandings, but I’ve never been blindly positive. I deviate from a lot of peers in that I acknowledge a certain darkness, but I choose and attempt — and I’ll just fail — but I’ll still attempt to break through that darkness. And I think you need a level of pathos, or else it’s just hollow. In a way there’s a motivational speaker element, but I want it to be more demented and dark and fucked up, and that’s where my friends and I now find a lot of kinship. It’s a positive reminder of what we do but cut with a heavy dose of pathos.

Something about that is really relatable.

I think most people feel that way. I’m just out here, I’m eating fast food, just trying to take it one day at a time. It’s not glamorous and it is self-destructive. And sometimes when you acknowledge that destruction that can be an interesting area creatively. Essentially to not take a side. Sometimes I feel like with Juiceboxxx, I’m not taking a side. I relate to a kind of pure positive energy in music but also I can’t help but be drawn to the more destructive end of noise and punk.

Do you feel like you came to any personal revelations while doing this?

No, I don’t really think so honestly. Doing it every week was just a dare to myself. I had to fulfill it and it was deeply grating and deeply hard, but that was part of it. And another part of it was me acknowledging that in the videos. I was just laying it all out there. This is a cheesy analogy but it felt like running a marathon. The thing that kept it going was, I traveled a decent amount that year and I had a lot of stuff going on, so I always had something to talk about besides just saying I hate myself and life is shit. I like the idea of fucking flagrant self-promotion and self-hatred. It was interesting to me to be so self-promotional but also acknowledge my personal problems. It seems like it’s either one or the other most of the time.

Do you feel like State of the Thunder Zone had a specific audience?

It was probably a group of kids who follow Juiceboxxx and also people who were genuinely concerned for my health and safety. I barely promoted it. I think I tweeted it once a week and maybe put it on Facebook once a week. It wasn’t supposed to be something that was in your face. Each video or new record, I would promote that with much more vigor. State of the Thunder Zone was just supposed to be this weird project that people stumbled upon. It’s the same with the Boxxx Report. The things that happen on the periphery of the Juicboxxx universe, I kind of allow it to get more weird and abstract. Ultimately it makes the universe richer — not the universe, but my created universe. If I were a fan, that’s what I would want out of an artist, just sort of ride the fence, and do a lot of different things that maybe contradict themselves but at the same time for a cohesive aesthetic.

I think another appeal for fans would be, some of those videos are very intimate. I think you’re allowing people into a personal part of your life you might not have otherwise.

Yeah that’s definitely part of it. The very nature of the project, which was that it had to happen every week for a year, contributed to it. It would be like 11PM on a Sunday night, and I was partying super hard last night and I feel fucked up, I gotta do State of the Thunder Zone, I have no choice. There was never a thought like, 'Oh I could skip State of the Thunder Zone this week.'

"There was never a thought like, 'Oh I could skip State of the Thunder Zone this week.'"

Was anyone worried about you?

I think some people were worried about me at that point in my life. I think also people know that this was my way of processing. I think healthy would be an overstatement, but it was a healthier way of trying to figure out what’s going on in my life. I would argue that there’s something inherently constructive about a project like this, because it channels something that might not have otherwise been channeled. If I’m feeling this way, this energy is up in the air, I can write songs, and that’s really important, but this project was almost supplementary to the songs. If you listen to the record and you watch State of the Thunder Zone, there’s a thread that runs through everything I do. That’s somewhat abstract. It rewards the deep dive. As a fan, I’ve always admired artists that have a populist core, but the deeper you go the weirder it can get.

What would State of the Thunder Zone be like if you did it today?

I’m in a different place in my life now than I was back then. Which is not to say I don’t want to do this again, but State of the Thunder Zone in 2013, that was like, that was… in the eye of the storm. I was living in LA, sleeping on couches, subletting rooms, whatever, I was not in a stable place in my life in any way. And... obviously you can see that. I would never, there’s some artists who I think romanticize a certain era of their life. But that’s not me, I’m always looking to the future. I think it would be pathetic if I kept doing those State of the Thunder Zones forever. For me, that project represents a very specific time and place. It’s like a time capsule for me. That’s why I can’t watch it now, because it’s probably too painful honestly. I mean, even though the videos are lighthearted most of the time, even when they’re dark, it’s not something… it’s something I’d want to revisit 15 years from now. I don’t romanticize my past. I write songs about it because it’s all I know, but I have very mixed feelings about a lot of it. I have all sorts of crazy mixed feelings about growing up, and a life in rock n roll, and all sorts of stuff, and State of the Thunder Zone is just one piece of the larger puzzle for me.

And now you’re doing the Boxxx Report.

It’s just a weird little newsletter that started primarily for just a couple of friends of mine so I had a focused way of not bugging them to check out music. But if you read it, it shares things with State of the Thunder Zone, it’s a different level of darkness. I’m using it not just to write about music but to write about my life. It’s a very personal project.

Are you just planning to keep doing it until you get sick of it?

Yeah I don’t really see ending that anytime soon. In fact, I would like to keep adding more features and making it longer. Like I added a Mix of the Week feature a couple weeks ago. And Boxxx Report is so low stakes. I stumble upon music constantly, so anytime I find something or my friends put something out, I make a note of it and I write it up. It’s a very low-impact project for me.

Even aesthetically, it looks very minimal.

Well it’s informed by a very classic Web 1.0 aesthetic that I always will love. It’s pure old-school HTML. I’ve been doing it for a year now and it’s far less painful than State of the Thunder Zone. It’s really kinda cool, it’s not hard for me to find five songs I really like in a week. I’m gonna keep doing it.

In a way it’s inspired by this radio DJ John Peel. He was a BBC DJ from the '60s to the 2000s, and I have an archive of a ton of his shows that I listen to all the time. And his show was always so eclectic, he’d play like, a rave song followed by a punk song followed by a reggae song. And there’s really no rhyme or reason to it. It wasn’t supposed to be a comprehensive overview either, it was more like, "Here’s a smattering of songs that I like right now." He was such a great on-air personality that his personality kind of tied it together. So essentially the Boxxx Report is super influenced by John Peele. That spirit of 'Hey, I’m just one person and here’s a bunch of songs I like from different corners of the music universe.' I feel like a lot of people try to put some weird curatorial heft on what they do, but this is more like, 'Here’s some weird stuff, and here’s some pop stuff.'

Part of it is, I just find so much music, even just on Twitter or YouTube. And I think everyone does. But I just felt the pull to write about it, and make it super personal. Super personal in the way that mp3 blogs were a decade ago. That kind of energy. Because I’ve seen the trajectory of these mp3 blogs and they get very professional and the music media acts like print media, which is fine, but I do remember this crazy era when I was coming up, when some weird little French blog would post a Juiceboxxx song and then within like a week or two it was on the BBC. It was this weird little era of mp3 blogs where it was just so chaotic and important and decentralized or something. Essentially, instead of complaining I just wanted to do something that felt like a positive thing in music.

I like that both the Boxxx Report and State of the Thunder Zone in some way exist in isolation from your music.

Throughout the years I’ve had many smart, successful people tell me I should change my name, because there’s so much baggage tied to Juiceboxxx. I’ve been doing it since I was 15, and I’ve gone through all these different phases, and different people associate me with different stages of music. People say, why don’t you change your name and start over, because you sound so different than you did a decade ago.

"I’m excited about the idea of transcending the baggage"

But I think one of the reasons why I’ve been so hardline about keeping the same name throughout all these years is I’m interested in that baggage and I’m interested in creating a history for myself, because I think it makes the work richer. A song like "Never Surrender Forever" is only deepened by State of the Thunder Zone. If I were to change my name and start an indie pop band and wrote a song like "Never Surrender Forever," I don’t think it’d have the same resonance. In my 20s it was possibly a foolish choice from a more pragmatic standpoint, but as a creative person, I’m excited that I have this history and the baggage. I’m excited about the idea of transcending the baggage, and my history becomes this weird thing that people can try to figure out.