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Juicing up a Storm! On Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up

By Stephen Lee Naish.

Sometime in the mid-naughties I accompanied the savagely brilliant, now sadly defunct, punk band Public Relations Exercise to London to film some footage for a potential music video. We drove along the motorway in a crappy old postal truck that had been expertly adapted into their tour van. On the journey down to London I got a small glimpse of what it was like to be in a touring rock band, crammed into a confined space, surrounded by gear and instruments, sipping on cans of cheap lager, making jokes about penises, and stinking of cigarette smoke. It was a heady experience, one I couldn’t imagine repeating anytime thereafter. Unlike the lads of Public Relations Exercise and many other girls and boys who spend their lives in bands, I’m not hardwired to actively seek and experience that much intimacy and discomfort. The musician’s life is not for me. In order to film Public Relations Exercise perform that night I first had to test my patience with a line-up of support bands. One of the first onstage was called Score One for Safety who looked like a fey indie concern. Each member was barely pushing twenty years old, Skinny black jeans, luscious curly afro hair. Before they’d even played a note I wrote them off as resembling The Kooks, and therefore shit. But then they did actually play. My initial reaction was to stand slack jawed, wide-eyed, and utterly dumfounded. A slow steady post-rock build exploded into a fierce and frenzied screech of brilliant noise. The singer, a wiry lad, whom I could have hugged with the inner circumference of my thumb and finger, looked like he had been possessed. Screaming and lurching around, not just the stage, but the space that was now vacated by the tiny audience, who had backed off for their own safety. The gig blew me away and also blew away certain Public Relations Exercise conceptions I’d held about music and class. Score One for Safety were well-to-do kids from the London suburbs. That night I slept on the singer’s parents living room floor with the rest of Public Relations Exercise, surrounded by lovely family portraits, wondering how these lads from this place had made that noise. Despite the fact I’d filmed Public Relations Exercise’s performance after Score One for Safety and then spent the subsequent weeks editing together the footage, it was Score One for Safety’s explosive performance that lodged itself in my brain.

I start this review of journalist Leon Neyfakh’s book The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up (Melville House) with the above anecdote because from reading the introduction, Neyfakh had a similar first encounter with Juciceboxx, the white boy rapper from Oak Park, Milwaukie, who he first saw performing when Juice was just a high school kid. Through encounters and interviews Juciceboxx forms the basis for The Next Next Level. The impact of this 2004 show and the subsequent friendship with Juiceboxxx has rippled throughout Neyfakh’s life. His recollection of the first Juiceboxxx show matches my own experience with Score One for Safety:

“what I kept coming back to at the time was how Juice had made everyone feel that night at Cornerstone Church – the effect his performance had had on me and my friends, with his gut-level physicality and the sense of chaos he had managed to conjure over the course of just a few minutes.”

Indeed, for me, Score One for Safety had managed to conjure a mini typhoon within the small London venue that left everyone breathless.

Before reading The Next Next Level I gorged on YouTube videos of Juiceboxxx’s performances and interviews from over the years, most of which are uploads from live spectators or clips from weird American cable television shows. I was trying to put a face and personality to the book’s subject matter. Juiceboxxx has a weird lanky physicality that is reminiscent of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. He flays his long arms and contorts his body in the same manner as Curtis. His rap style sounds like Beck after five cans of Red Bull and weirdly enough his ‘signing’ voice reminds me of Ash’s Tim Wheeler, when he adopted a New York drawl for their 2001 Nuclear Sounds album (listen to Juice’s immortal ‘Never Surrender Forever’ and Ash’s punky ‘Jesus Says’: uncanny).

The ‘white rapper’ has a somewhat undignified status within popular culture. Vanilla Ice fooled us for a while, whilst, bar Eminem, the rest have been shelved under the rather derogatory and self-consciously ironic ‘nerdcore’ subgenre, Juiceboxxx included. However, whilst Juiceboxxx’s lyrical rhymes can be embarrassingly awkward and often self-deprecating there is something entirely earnest, and contagious about his enthusiasm for rap and the lifestyle he has chosen. Neyfakh defines this:

“when you watch him play live, the main thing you pick up on is that he appears fully invested in and committed to what he’s doing, and also that he looks almost feral as he’s doing it. He is what you might call ‘pure id’: a lightning bolt of human being who looks to be in free fall, and who is authentically himself…”

For over a decade Juiceboxxx has been in a constant state of touring and recording. Jumping on a Greyhound bus to play shows from coast to coast when the desire takes him, with only his iPod to back him up, and being paid just enough money to make it to the next show in the next city. We all know friends or have acquaintances like Juiceboxxx. The kid from school who grew up to live the artistic life, in which poverty, malnutrition, thrift store clothing, and barely a penny in their pocket somehow works and endears you to them. An acceptance of fate makes them untouchable. Yet this book comes at a transitional point in Juiceboxxx’s career. When Neyfakh reconnects with Juciceboxx he is about to head on an extensive U.S tour with a real live band, but as he nears thirty years old his thoughts are turning to settling down, getting a real job, earning some regular cash, getting an apartment of his own – something he has yet to achieve – in affect ending the Juiceboxxx dream. His wandering life calls to mind staples of the American Dream. The search for meaning and ultimately freedom in the land of opportunity. His travels by Greyhound bus from one city to the next are reminiscent of the travels of folk heroes of American literature; Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Poe Ballentine, yet his musical underdog status recalls the indie rock minstrel Daniel Johnston.

But, whilst The Next Next Level is a book predominantly about Juiceboxxx, it’s also a book about Neyfakh, and his life growing up as an émigré to America, trying to adopt the latest trends, clinging to people who are effortlessly cooler than him, gaining acceptance and reverence from his peer groups, and igniting the burning desire to be an artist, when you crushingly know you posses very little artistry. Neyfakh takes up the story of his adolescence, his desire to make music, his musical education under his peers, and the disapproval of his traditional parents of the people he hangs with. We’ve all been there and it’s an awful sensation to realise that the feelings you so desperately wish to express will not come because you have not the talent, nor the resources, to express them adequately. We’ve also had to suffer the brutal truth that our parents bestow on us, and the realisation that they will never understand our creative ambitions. There’s a scene in the book where the teenage Neyfakh plays his dad a rough recording of a song he’s made. His dad cuts short his ambitions by saying “it’s fine that you’re doing this. But you have to ask yourself: is it really the thing you are better at than other people.” Surely no denouncement of talents has ever been so crushing. In my early teens I knew that the music I was starting to listen to, and the culture I wanted to be a part of was slowly putting distance between myself and my own parents. At this transitional point in my life I still wanted them involved even though I was moving on. I recall playing my mum some of the more tender songs by Pearl Jam, REM, Blind Melon and Nirvana, desperately hoping she’d find redeeming features in at least one of them. She never could and her disinterest in ‘my’ music burned. Neyfakh’s own disappointment shimmers under the surface of this exchange.

The Next Next Level, along with Juiceboxxx’s career, is a testament to those bands and artists who continued in the face of adversity. Whilst the reality might not have matched up with the original intentions of world domination, they marched to their own beat nonetheless. It is also a testament to failure, and that failure is not always the soul crushing defeat it’s played up to be, but a learning curve to be embraced. It’s about the artistic desire to create, to burn brightly even for just a few moments, but also to stand back and allow, and indeed encourage the geniuses that surround you. For allowing yourself to acknowledge talent is an ability in itself. Like Neyfakh does a number of times throughout the book when watching or talking about Juiceboxx, I also watched bands like Public Relations Exercise and Score One for Safety and imagined myself in their place, making brutally honest artistic statements. I hung around dingy practice rooms hoping to soak up some of the creativity that was in abundance. But also like Neyfakh, I had to admit I lacked the drive to make it happen. Juiceboxxx has that drive hardwired into him, and The Next Next Level is a book, that like the best forms of documentary, goes beyond its subject to fully explore and understand this drive.



Stephen Lee Naish is a writer, originally from the UK, but now living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books), and two forthcoming books, one on Dennis Hopper, and the other on Dirty Dancing. He has had essays and articles published in numerous magazines and journals. Follow him on twitter @steleenaish

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 26th, 2015.