Juiceboxxx is a senior at Homestead High School in Mequon, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. But his weekends, his posthomework nights, and his summers are taken up with the business of being the Juice, DJing--rapping, producing, and promoting the monthly all-ages Milwaukee dance party Get Wacky, now in its sixth month. While he could be just another precocious teen anxious to make a name for himself, Juiceboxxx has something beyond determination and kid guile, something most scene entrepreneurs twice his age would kill for: talent.
Get Wacky is held in a 15-by-40 storefront currently decorated to look like a cave: every surface is painted dark gray; there are stalactites and stalagmites and a bevy of ferns and potted trees. At the March installment Juiceboxxx--known to his mom as John Chiaverina--seems unaware of just how good he is, furiously finessing the records and mixer with long, wiry arms that he's yet to grow into. A geeked-out missing-tooth smile spans his baby face when a crowd calls his name. But he's got impeccable taste and a preternatural ability to sustain a wall-to-wall leg-humping frenzy for the duration of his sweatsational sets. Watching him behind the turntables, I get the feeling I'm seeing something big while it's still kicking around in its amniotic sac.
"I've only DJed out, like, I dunno, under ten times. No, maybe exactly ten," Chiaverina says. "Just at Get Wacky and some parties around Mequon." This is hard to believe. He might be the best DJ to come out of the midwest since Tommie Sunshine. His familiarity and comfort with a breadth of genres--from German minimal techno to Chicago house to R & B hits from when he was in sixth grade--make Sunshine an easy comparison. But I ask him about his influences, and he's at a loss: outside of what he's read in magazines, his primary exposure to other DJs has been at school dances. At 18, he's still too young to get into clubs.
"I have been buying records like crazy since I was 13," he says. "Maybe two and a half years ago I got some shitty Numarks [turntables] and a mixer. I have not really dedicated myself to DJing, it's just kind of happened." Guided by a ska-loving cousin, Chiaverina began listening to local college station WMSE, hearing for the first time and falling in love with the sounds of multiple undergrounds: house, techno, punk, midwestern hip-hop, postrave music from the UK. "I started going to Massive Record Source, which was a local record store owned by Dan Doormouse, a local electronic fixture," he says. "And through him and the store I got into drum 'n' bass and started buying hip-hop. It was the tail end of the rave scene, and there was a lot still coming out of the midwestern underground, acid and house. I was picking up the UK imports I was taping off all these radio shows."
"John has always loved music," says his mom, Ginny. "In middle school he played in bands, so there was a lot of picking up and dropping off. I come from a musical family--my brother and his son are professional country-and-western singers--so I have always encouraged him to follow his passion with it. I don't necessarily see him going far with Juiceboxxx, but I'm no hip-hop aficionado, I'm a middle-aged lady, so hip-hop is not really my thing. Whether he makes a living doing it one day is beside the point--I just like that he's having fun doing it and it keeps him out of trouble."
Chiaverina assembled Juiceboxxx as a rap crew of his junior high friends, jumping on whatever bills they could get at basement shows and local rec centers. It quickly shrank to Chiaverina on the mike and making the beats, and he quickly developed a sizable fan base for a white kid in ninth grade. "Initially the songs were kind of novelty songs, you know, about, like, food, or gambling," he says. "About 75 or maybe 100 kids were showing up every time. No, maybe just 75."
He released his debut album, 2K3--The Year of the Juice (produced by local hip-hop booster Kid Cut Up), in tenth grade, burning copies on his computer and eventually selling "around 500" at basement rock and hardcore shows. "I haven't really played any hip-hop shows yet--it's a hard thing to break into," he says. "Hip-hop in Milwaukee, it's as exclusive as anywhere, and it's about proving yourself and I'm not really interested in that. But I want it to be known that I am not ironic or mocking hip-hop. Though it might be goofy, there is no irony. Silly and ironic are way different."
His sincerity may be what's most striking about Chiaverina, given the scene he's associated with. Get Wacky's home base, the cave, is the General Store, 824 E. Locust in Milwaukee--a gallery that's ground zero for Milwaukee's burgeoning experimental noise-band scene as well as the visual- and performance-art scene anchored by General Store owner Tyson Reeder. At one recent show Frankie Martin, who makes art as Frankie Forever, performed under the name Airbrains. She wore rainbow-bright pajamas and Pippi Longstocking braids to sing and "rap" in a singsongy squeak from the point of view of "a family of balloons," pausing between numbers to ask the audience with cheerleadery enthusiasm, "Are you having a good time?" Juiceboxxx followed with a performance so heartfelt that it could have been mistaken for ironic--opening with the anthemic "Do U Want 2 Hear It?" and ripping off his shirt Hulk-style midset. "I know that's where Tyson and Frankie are coming from and it's not really the same place I am coming from aesthetically," he says. "I cannot dispute that, but I consider them to be in the same arena. It's just about having fun."
This month Chiaverina graduates from Homestead High, and between then and the start of his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he's got a lot going on. Vicious Pop, a Milwaukee label, is releasing his sophomore album, R U There God?? Itz Me, Juiceboxxx. It's not in stores outside of Milwaukee yet, but it can be ordered from www.viciouspoprecords.com. Chiaverina has already sold 22 copies at school. His inaugural U.S. tour, an eight-day venture to the east coast and back, kicks off in Detroit on July 9; it incorporates performances by Reeder and Martin and work by visiting Japanese painter Akiko Niimura. "We're working within a variety show format," explains Chiaverina. "Tyson warms up the crowd with some performance art and stand-up comedy. Then Frankie performs, and debuts her new dance video, which is kind of a Dirty Dancing-style thing she made with some friends. Then there is a sketch--we're still working out the kinks on that. Then I do a normal Juiceboxxx set, then Frankie and I perform a retooled duet version of Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone.'"
Then there are more Get Wackys, and a Chicago DJing gig is in the works. Juiceboxxx's rep is spreading outside Wisconsin and even outside the midwest. "I think what Juiceboxxx is doing is so refreshing--it's so inspired and unironic," says San Diego-based DJ and music writer Anna Klafter, who wrote to me after I raved about Juice on my blog. "I first saw him when he was maybe 16. I was the tour DJ for MC Paul Barman, and Juiceboxxx opened for us in Madison. He had dancers--it was hard not to love him, he was so young and in love with music."
At the March installment of Get Wacky, the juxtaposition between art-school aesthetics and Juiceboxxx's gentle geniuneness is nonexistent. The store windows are steamed up, the walls are sweating, the people are dripping. Everyone is grinding, people are taking turns showcasing solo moves on homemade platforms meant for art displays. "There's candy, pop, fresh-baked cookies, or costumes over by the cooler for free, so help yourself," Chiaverina announces through the PA, mixing an old UK rave anthem into DMX on the wrong speed over the thick bass bounce of a Baltimore club record. Get Wacky offers reduced cover ($4 instead of $5) for people who dress according to the night's theme. Tonight it's "Olympics/Athletics." Girls are rocking looks last seen in Jazzercise class, guys wear running shorts and papery New Jersey mall-mom track suits--except the one who showed up in a regulation hockey goalie suit, but even he's dancing. Chiaverina piles a cappellas from some obscure Detroit techno onto a New Order song with the high end turned all the way up for a blastro effect; then it's Tego Calderon and Kylie into M/A/R/R/S into some jackin' Trax 12-inches first issued the year he was born into the a cappella of Terror Squad's "Lean Back" dropped over "Ms. Jackson." Chiaverina watches the room go rabid. He checks his watch, then cedes the decks to the next DJ to the sound of the crowd yelling, "Juice! Juice! Juice!" He flashes that tooth-missing smile and bounds into the throng.
Get Wacky is usually held the first Saturday of every month at the General Store, 824 E. Locust in Milwaukee. There isn't one in June; for updates go to www.generalstore1.com or getwacky.blogspot.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mireya Acierto.