3 / Record — CASSETTE CULTURE / THE DJ AND THE MC / THE SUBCULTURES / RAP
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COVER YA’ EARS
Growing up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill in the mid-sixties I was first introduced to the power of portable music. There was this guy everybody called Joe Radio. He got that moniker because he stood on the corner of Henry and Warren Streets with a small transistor radio on his shoulder. I should say attached, because if you saw Joe Radio, you saw that small transistor on his shoulder. He would listen to the WMCA Good Guys or WABC with Cousin Brucie night and day, day and night. Joe Radio was the only one I ever knew who did that. The image of him constantly listening to his radio was burned into my mind at the young age of eight. Many, many years later, that boyhood experience reemerged as the character Radio Raheem in my 1989 film Do the Right Thing. I witnessed the tiny transistor radio evolve into the boomboxes of the eighties. I never owned one; number one reason, they weighed a ton; number two, it cost a fortune in batteries. I didn’t have stock in Eveready or Duracell. It was some serious work lugging that shit around, and you had to have a strong will to impose your musical taste on the world. There was no sense in having a boombox if you did not play it at eardrum-shattering levels. You also had to be ready to fight if somebody dared ask you to “turn that shit down.” Radio Raheem would die for his boombox, for his music, blasting Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power” all throughout the film.
This fine book by photographer Lyle Owerko superbly documents the long-gone era of the walking boombox (I never liked the racist term “ghetto briefcase”) in all its loud glory. These photographs bring back many memories, but do I miss them? Hell no. Thank God for Sony’s Walkman, which eventually evolved into today’s Apple iPod. Although, every once in a while, when driving my New York Yankees–pinstriped Mustang in Martha’s Vineyard (home to many fans of the hated Boston Red Sox), I blast Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Radio Raheem lives.
— Spike Lee, March 20 in the Year of Our Lord 2009, Brooklyn, New York
PORTRAIT OF SPIKE LEE ERICA SIMMONS
AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS, NEW YORK CITY, 1989 OLIVIER MARTEL
WEAPONS OF MASS DISTRACTION
I’ve always been fascinated with the meanings of things, more than just the visage of it. To me that’s what makes long-lasting art. That’s what makes long-lasting history. That’s what makes anything that is culturally significant. It isn’t just the visual of it. It’s the meaning behind it and somehow that’s how I found boomboxes (or more like boomboxes found me).
Exactly when the term boombox hit the streets is not known for sure. In the United States, department stores apparently began using the term in marketing and advertising as early as 1983. Street slang linguists pin the term down at 1981, and define the boombox as “a large portable radio and tape player with two attached speakers.” Initially, it became identified with certain segments of urban society, hence the nicknames like “ghetto blaster” and “beatbox.” And due to their size and relative portability, as the general public began to embrace these gargantuan creations of electronics, lights, and chrome-plated gadgetry, a new form of expression was born.
I was given my first box in the early eighties to listen to while I did my artwork. It was an upgrade from the one-speaker Realistic tape deck that I had been using to listen to mix tapes. Throughout college I worked in silk-screen shops, taking my boombox from gig to gig until it gradually was entirely covered with ink, paint, and caustic solvents. After college, I moved to New York and lived on Forty-first Street in an industrial building a few blocks from the center of Times Square. It wasn’t long before I hit up one of the electronics shops in the area for an all black and shiny metallic-plated Lasonic box. That box stayed with me through many moves, different girlfriends, and some really odd living situations.
Over the years, I worked as a photographer in some pretty hairy situations, both in Africa and New York. After the events of 9/11 ripped apart my downtown neighborhood, I took every assignment I could to travel. In December of ‘01, I was in Japan on tour with the band American Hi-Fi, directing their tour documentary. During a few hours off in Tokyo, I lucked out in picking up an absolutely mint late-seventies Victor (JVC) at an outdoor market—I was stoked. It went everywhere with us. The band insisted on having it onstage with them, placed next to the drum kit at each night’s gig. The box saw so much fun on that trip. On the last night of the tour, the band headlined at a huge venue in Tokyo with MTV Japan on hand to film the gig. Hi-Fi pulled out all the stops. The crowd went ballistic as the band rocked the joint. Stacy Jones, the lead singer, destroyed his Fender during the last encore, then turned and grabbed whatever he could get his hands on next . . . my boombox! It was sitting comfortably in front of the bass drum. He snatched it and in one quick swoop pummeled it into the stage like Godzilla swatting down a tiny fighter jet. I watched as my beautiful, mint-condition box was obliterated in a rock star crash test. Pieces were everywhere . . . a fractured rut was left in the stage. After the lights went up, I found my box and dragged its eviscerated remains backstage for one final photograph. Meanwhile, the venue’s bewildered road crew stood in a circle staring at the gaping hole in the stage that looked as if an asteroid had knifed through the ceiling and left a small impact crater.
The picture I took of the ruined remains of the box became the front of their live-in-Japan album called Rock n’ Roll Noodle Shop—it made a great cover. After that I was determined to find another one like it. Fervid searches expanded my collection through flea markets and thrift stores, eventually leading me online to eBay, which gradually built the remainder of the collection that I have today.
This book grew out of a portrait series of my boombox collection that I began working on some years ago. I wanted to capture the physicality of nostalgia, of what had been a cohesive element between so many genres of music. Initially, I intended to create a photobook so other people could have a set of my work, a version of their own boombox collection. But as I spoke to friends about the project, the conversations we had made me realize that there was a much bigger story here. In documentary-style photos of boomboxes from the seventies and eighties, you always see groups of people hanging out around boxes on the street, in parks, and on subways, sharing their music. I kept hearing talk about a connection between the box and the ideals of empowerment and community.
Determined to find a deeper story, I reached out to musicians and DJs from the late seventies and eighties (as well as present-day artists and personalities) to find out if they had recollections they might want to share with me. Soon I was hearing from DJ and musician Don Letts about how the box connected like-minded people, and how the mobility of the boombox influenced New York street culture and facilitated a defining sound at the crossroads of punk and early hip-hop. In a conversation with Fab 5 Freddy the idea sparked to life that the boombox phenomenon was like a sonic campfire, with people gathering around to generate dialogue, debate, heat. Before long, Spike Lee reached out and expressed an interest in being involved—and what could be more appropriate? His character Radio Raheem crystallizes the power of the boombox as an urban culture icon reflecting the determination to be seen and heard.
I began to arrange all of this material together, juxtaposing my own photos of boxes with other people’s perspectives: DJ Spooky’s sentiment that the boombox represents a democratization of sound, next to memories from Rosie Perez of the boombox’s influence on dance culture. Ed Burns, the director, even called the box “one generation’s weapon of choice,” a phrase that seems to encompass all the different ways that communities and subcultures latched onto the box as a vessel of expression. Kool Moe Dee illuminated that the Boombox was the sole force for communicating the early voices of Hip-hop.
The groups I heard from who were influenced and connected to the boombox seemed to grow exponentially. I found myself interviewing graffiti artists and skaters, people from the business side of the music industry, and the designers of iconic album covers. As a result, there are names you’ll know immediately (who hasn’t heard of LL Cool J?) while other names may not elicit immediate recognition. All these people are profound commentators on the subject not necessarily because they became (or were) famous during that time period, but for the reason that they were participating and observing the lifestyle as it was developing. My hope is that their stories will bring to light the great contributors behind the scenes as well as those in the spotlight. If you find yourself wondering how various people quoted in the book are connected to boombox culture, flip to the back pages of the book (which I think of as the liner notes), where you’ll locate a list containing mini-biographies of these fascinating people.
And truly, this book project has turned into its own sort of gigantic mix tape, with all of these different perspectives and subcultures razor-bladed together, bonded in unity by their shared experience of boombox culture. In the end, putting this material together illuminated for me that my passion for boomboxes is about more than an obsession with a collection of electronics, lights, and plastic. It’s about remembering what it felt like to be part of something bigger—a community of voices—across a range of varied youth cultures that embraced the boombox as their weapon of mass distraction.
Today the boombox has evolved into an icon of popular culture. It has been referenced by rockers, poppers, hip-hoppers, and graffers alike. It is a symbol of rebellion and a way to shout your message at the system. Turn up the volume on your boombox, whatever the size, and let the capstan wheels of the tape deck drive a favorite mix tape to life. As the defiant voice of punk-rock legend Joe Strummer sang, “This is Radio Clash using audio ammunition . . .”
— Lyle Owerko, December 12, 2009, New York
1. PLAY Growing up in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s meant that a boombox in some way, shape, or form had to have been a major part of your life. It was certainly a part of mine. I distinctly remember the act of pressing play on a tape deck, activating the mechanical jaw of the audio head to grasp the magnetic strand of cassette tape ribbon held inside its mouth. This simple act of engineering wizardry conjured to life the anthems of my youth. Once alive and whirling out an audio assult, a boombox became the sonic campfire in any environment. It was the place that people would gather around to exchange thoughts, mellow out to, or start the party. The boombox left an indelible and lasting impression on many lives; igniting a generation of innovation by facilitating bonding over music, sports matches, romances and news events. LO
NEXT 6 IMAGES WERE TAKEN BY RICKY FLORES ON FOX STREET, SOUTH BRONX, NEW YORK, MID-’80S
FROM LEFT: DANNY, CHICKY, AND BOOGIE
FROM LEFT: DANNY, CHICKY, GEORGIE, PIMP, BOOGIE, AND CARLOS
PIMP, CARLOS, AND CHICKY
GEORGIE AND CHICKY
YOLANDA, DIANA, AND CHICKY
PIMP AND FRIEND LONGWOOD AVENUE TRAIN STATION RICKY FLORES
During the postwar years of the fifties through the late sixties, the radio as a home stereo went through a rapid downsizing. Innovations in solid-state technologies such as transistors and integrated circuits reduced the size of radios, allowing for even greater portability. What was once literally tethered to the living room floor of most families’ homes could now be carried around by hand. In Japan, where living space is at a premium, it was very apparent that there was a public need to create small but excellent-sounding stereos. What began initially as a device to facilitate the movement of Japan’s youth from their parents’ homes to small urban dwellings ended up birthing an entirely new genre of electronic contraptions. The rapidly spreading need (and somewhat of a rage) for quality sounding portable stereos in Japan took on an audible stature of sorts in America (and the rest of the world), and the “boombox” gained notoriety.
Recording changed the way we listened to music. By popularizing the phonograph, Thomas Edison set the tone for the rest of the twentieth century. And the boombox is the inheritor of what he was going for with portability in sound—the early phonographs were meant for recording and playback. That had never happened in human history before. If you wanted to see something and hear it, you had to be there physically. Recording changed that and, like the phonograph, the boombox embodies a sense of portable experience.
— Paul Miller / DJ Spooky(MUSICIAN / ARTIST)
The early models of these portable stereos, first introduced in the 1970s, were dual-speaker monoliths of sound that came from a number of different manufacturers, such as Sharp, JVC, AIWA, Sanyo, and Sony. Immediately upon their arrival to stores they were a hit with the general public. Initially the goal was to try to replace the homebound hi-fisystem. The first models to be unleashed on consumers were small and heavy, with somewhat rudimentary features. However, the true birth of the really large beasts of sound (the hallmark of the boombox) occurred when stereo capabilities were added to the portable radio cassette player. Soon after the launch of these first models, advances in speaker design and cassette fidelity met together with an explosion of industrial design creativity and audio ingenuity that peaked during the golden era of models rolled out during the mid-eighties.
Music went from home collective to public collective. Around ‘77, ‘78, I noticed music took a step from being in somebody’s apartment to cats literally taking their speakers and turning them outside their windows. These were people who were not DJs, who were just sharing music. This was not like an opportunity to dance. This was just “I love music, and I’m sharing it with my peers.” So once that public form of sharing was introduced with the speakers in the windows, then the next sort of public forum was those speakers becoming mobile . . .
— Bobbito Garcia(DJ / WRITER)
Based on their sonic power, boomboxes played a seminal roll in the development of modern music tastes and pop culture both on a visual and auditory level. The golden era of the boombox did not last long, but it definitely made a major impact on society at large. Before they topped out in size (then disappeared from sight to take up residence in our collective memory) what defined a boombox was the presence of two or more loudspeakers, an amplifier, a radio tuner, and a cassette deck housed in a boxlike shape that could be carried around with an oversize lunch bucket–type handle. The main feature was that this device was transportable, making it easy to take your musical taste with you and share it with others. As consumer demand grew, more powerful and more sophisticated models were introduced to customers (over a roughly ten-year period, literally thousands of models flooded the market). The larger and louder they became, the more they gained a deeper foothold within youth culture—which led to the era of breakdancing and the incubation of hip-hop. As urban culture grew and expanded from the inner city outward, the major manufacturers tried to outdo one another, each attempting to produce a louder, bigger, flashier, more bass-pumping, and totally unique-looking boombox (with flickering LEDs, flashing equalizer lights, and VU meters as icing on the cake). They’ve changed a lot over the years, but their undeniable sonic footprint is indelibly tied to the good memories and creative output of a distinctive generation. LO
The boombox became a means of how to listen. And then you could move around with it, flex your street style and your whole persona. Having a boombox and a bigger box, it was almost like a car in a way, if you think about how essential a thing that can be for someone’s image.
— Fab 5 Freddy(PIONEER GRAFFITI ARTIST)
When I closed my door and turned on my boombox, the world around me disappeared! My room became my bomb shelter, my escape, my cave. Music was my first love, and my boombox created my sanctuary to the chaotic world surrounding me. Losing a family and mother, being shipped around from house to house, relative to relative, and school to school didn’t matter any more. When my boombox turned on, my world opened and “their” world closed.
— Billy Graziadei(BIOHAZARD / SUICIDE CITY)
The boombox reflects a more public use of the radio that hearkens back to radio’s first years, when speakers and amplification were part of the technological package, particularly in the 1930s and ‘40s when radio was a people magnet, and it was a much more public sort of thing.
— Mike Schiffer (WRITER, THE PORTABLE RADIO IN AMERICA)
The beat box was just so much more than a transistor radio; it was like bringing your entire living room stereo out in the open with you—on the street, on the beach, in the park. Before that, portable radios were very small—basically had a two- to three-inch speaker. It was a tinny little sound . . . They made certain types of portable record players, but that was a little suitcase that you could set up maybe at a party or bring to college with you, and even then, records were large and heavy. But the combination of the cassette tape and the quality player that was totally portable—that made the music so much more available everywhere. It wasn’t until the boombox that people even had the concept of traveling with their music.
— Bob Gruen(ROCK ’N’ ROLL PHOTOGRAPHER)
It wasn’t long before they became status symbols, with guys wanting the biggest one with the most lights and the most chrome. I was never really into that.
— Don Letts(DJ / MUSICIAN / DIRECTOR)
The boombox was an essential part of the hip-hop culture, like that was your PA system, that was your concert device, you know, that was your MPC, that was your ASR. That was the outlet to broadcast your music.
— Rahzel(HUMAN BEATBOX / THE ROOTS)
When I would travel, the music had to come with me. I remember riding the bus and it could be, like, during a rush hour. And for whatever reason, I’ll have some really nice mellow music and I would play it and it would just set a certain type of tone. The boombox allowed me to share it. The Walkman was cool, but I wanted people to hear what I had.
— Jamel Shabazz(PHOTO DOCUMENTARIAN)
The loudest boombox was the one that got the respect.
— J-Zone(HIP-HOP ARTIST)
I was addicted to my boombox. If it was raining and my friends wanted to hang out, I would take a GLAD Bag and wrap my boombox in it and walk around, still playing my boombox. I couldn’t be without it. Back then, the black man wasn’t being heard in American society. His ideas, his thoughts, his passions, his fears, his hate, his love were just swept under the rug. And so when he’s got his boombox in his hand, he forced you to hear him; when he’s sitting in that car with twenty speakers blaring out of his backseat, playing “Fuck tha Police,” playing “Rebel Without a Pause,” playing “Teachers,” playing “Too Short,” only then can he make sure that you hear him unobstructed.
— Adisa Banjoko(HIP-HOP HISTORIAN)
The boombox was a hip-hop staple, and if you had one in a photo, you didn’t have to tell people where you came from and what you were into. The radio kind of said it all, along with things like shell-toe Adidas and Kangol and a lot of the other clothes that we were wearing . . . and it translated amazingly well visually. You know, you just had those two cylinders on the left and the right, and the little cassette deck.
— Cey Adams(GRAFFITI ARTIST / ART DIRECTOR)
In the absence of computers and the absence of the Internet, the boombox was the actual conduit to how we communicated the music.
— Kool Moe Dee(PIONEER HIP-HOP MC)
I had a boombox when I became a choreographer. Because you couldn’t rely on the sound system. Like, you’d go into a certain studio, and they didn’t necessarily have the right sound that you needed. I had to make my dancers the beat and the bass. If they couldn’t feel it, they couldn’t boogie. And if you can’t boogie, you can’t dance. So if they couldn’t nod their head to it and feel it, I was like, “This is going to be a lost cause.” And that’s when I started using a boombox. But them shits were heavy—really, really heavy.
—Rosie Perez(CHOREOGRAPHER / ACTRESS)
It was sort of like a throwback piece of art. Kind of like the Nipper RCA dog with the Victrola; it’s just such a great-looking thing and it looks like this vision of the future, right? Everything in the eighties was futuristic. And then when the future comes, it doesn’t necessarily look like what the vision of the future is . . . It always felt very Japanese to me because it’s like this Blade Runner meets, you know, samurai warrior. And it’s this, like, insane mix of, like, completely different time periods.
— Jonathan Daniel(MUSIC HISTORIAN / BAND MANAGER)
BEASTIE BOYS, ATWATER VILLAGE, CALIFORNIA, 1992 ARI MARCOPOULOS
The box is a commitment. Like when it started getting into the mid-eighties, that was when the box really was the commitment. They were so big—basically like half your size if you’re a kid.
— Adam Yauch(MC / BEASTIE BOYS)
PROTESTOR AT FREEDOM TO PARTY DEMONSTRATION TRAFALGAR SQUARE, LONDON, 1990 DAVID SWINDELLS
SIZE DOES MATTER
“MY RADIO, BELIEVE ME, I LIKE IT LOUD I’M THE MAN WITH A BOX THAT CAN ROCK THE CROWD”
— LL Cool J(RAPPER / ACTOR)
Back in 1985 when LL Cool J released his debut album, Radio, and the hit single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” street culture in the U.S. was alive with the sound of what was colloquially termed the boombox or the ghetto blaster, depending on where you were from. The cover of LL’s album reiterated the prominence of his hit single by depicting a close-up of a JVC RC-M90, one of the biggest and best-performing radio cassette players of the day. I collect boomboxes and have found a hobby bordering on obsession, learning as much as I can about them as well as playing with them and using them in my everyday life. I have a personal bias toward JVC, but this is simply because in my youth JVC was the best brand available in my community, and I still feel a strong connection to many of their products. But please do not misunderstand; there are many radios and many brands that are excellent.
When I was in high school, I had a small boombox. It was a Panasonic. And I used that thing so much that the encasing started chipping, pieces of it started coming off, some of the detailing started coming off. And then, rather than stop using it or trying to get it fixed, I just decided I would see how much of it I could take off, how much of this machine I could actually remove, how much of the material I could actually take off and have it still work. And I got it down to a pretty bare skeleton. Of course, it didn’t sound too good without the actual body of it to amplify the sound. But that was a boombox experiment of mine.
— Stretch Armstrong(DJ / RADIO HOST)
JVC, or the Victor Company of Japan, launched itself into the portable radio cassette player/ recorder market in the late seventies when it released the amazing RC-550. Dubbed “El Diablo” by the Latino community, this giant monobox was devilish. It had a single 10-inch woofer, a 4-inch midrange, and a 2-inch tweeter, separate bass and treble controls, and a big strong handle as well as a shoulder strap. It had roll bars on the sides that extended forward to protect the speakers, and even had shortwave bands as well. This unit was built for the streets and signaled a change in the mindset of portable design. Although not a stereo player, this unit was BIG!
JVC followed up the success of the RC-550 with another great radio destined to become the classic model for most designs: the RC-M70. This radio was a stereo player, with four speakers, two 6-inch woofers, and two 2-inch horn tweeters. All the slide controls and buttons were on top, including a click-down music search function and a loudness button. A great sounding (40 watts of power), cool-looking unit, it had tremendous build construction (a JVC trait) and great bass response at a time when bass-heavy music, funk, and R & B were merging their flavors to begin the rap / hip-hop movement. This radio also had a special seat belt–styled click-in shoulder strap and a special carry bag as well.
JVC was not done yet, as they introduced their top of the line RC-M90, the radio that inspired the LL Cool J song. This was it: 8-inch woofers, 3-inch tweeters, a full-logic two-motor cassette deck (meaning computer chip–controlled as opposed to mechanical buttons), eight radio bands, a more sophisticated LED-lit music search, and huge dimensions, 26-inch x 14-inch. This was perhaps the best-performing, loudest radio of its time. It also had Super ARNS (Dolby B) noise reduction to further refine its sound, as Dolby was all the rage. The unit also had an optional wired remote control with a 16-foot cord to enable long-distance (somewhat anyway) manipulation of the cassette deck.
While JVC made some great boomboxes, they were certainly not alone. Panasonic, Sharp, Fisher, Aiwa, and Toshiba also made valuable contributions both stylistically and technologically as these portable players flooded the market.
In terms of design innovation, one needs to look no further than the Panasonic RX-7200, a beautiful single-decked, logic-controlled player that boasted both a stylistic variant (the upside down design whereby the radio tuner was located along the bottom portion of the unit) and a technological innovation (a digital tuner for the radio with a green LED readout). Sized between the M70 and the M90, it also had wood-paneled sides and could be purchased with a matching record stand that the 7200 could be mounted on to create an unbroken wood panel—this was not a radio for the streets, but a radio for a posh study or library, a beautiful combination of high technology and organic warmth.
Aiwa released several beautiful units, but perhaps the best one was the CS-880. Medium-sized (22-inch long), it had its single cassette deck thrust up in the left-hand corner, and in the middle had a 7-inch passive radiator designed to enhance the sound coming from the twin 5-inch woofers and 2-inch tweeters. The Aiwa had an amazing tape deck: This unit boasted wow and flutter on par with high-end home cassette players, which resulted in amazingly clear sound. Great build quality, elegant, compact design, and amazing sonic performance, Aiwa made a name for themselves as smaller, high-quality players. This was again a unit that seemed more at home in a home; portable yes, but not for the street.
Getting back to the street, we have to include one of the biggest and most famous radios of the early eighties, the Conion C-100F from Coney-Onkyo. This was a beast! Thirty-one inches long and 16-inches tall, it had all the street cred one could imagine, as well as some design innovations. It had two cassette decks, but instead of making them tandem, they were stacked on top of each other with the top deck a horizontal slot for the tape to slide in through a spring-loaded door. It had three pairs of speakers, two 8-inch woofers, two 4-inch midranges, and two 2-inch tweeters—a full range of sound production. With two analog VU meters, and LED meters as well, it was designed not just to catch eyes, but to hold them hostage! As if this were not enough, in case its size, loudness, and killer “bling” looks overcame your morals, it had an incredibly loud motion-alarm feature that, when set, went off if someone moved the radio. Despite the political incorrectness of the term, this was a ghetto blaster, a consummate example of its time, and was featured in several films, including Beat Street and Breakin’. Fisher also got into the game, but a bit late. Their contribution was the massive PH-492, over 30 inches long and 15 inches tall. This unit had two very significant innovations: One, it had detachable speakers so they could be placed farther apart to get true stereophonic sound. The speakers had individual cases so they could resonate with better acoustics, having their own cabinets. The other important feature that Fisher brought to the industry was a 5-band equalizer to further refine sound to the individual taste. With an EQ, it essentially had a pre-amp and enclosed speakers, so the Fishers were great-sounding, large, heavy units that reeked of quality.
It’s kind of like how men, how boys and men are: We just like to have big, bulky things, like the way we are with cars now. The radio was the same thing. It’s just like, the bigger your boombox was, like, just the cooler it was. And it was hard finding the big ones. There was this one brand, Lasonic, used to make the big, big, really big ones.
— Joseph Abajian(PRESIDENT, FAT BEATS INC.)
Fisher also made a very unusual unit called the SK-300, a cassette deck with detachable speakers and a removable synthesizer keyboard! You could adjust all aspects of your synth sound—pitch, tone, and length of notes. You could change the sound so it could emulate almost any instrument as well. You could also use the onboard beats to provide a backdrop while you play the keyboard over top, and record the whole arrangement using the cassette deck! Other companies made keyboard synthesizers as well. Not surprisingly, Casio made the KX-101, and Sharp made the GF-990 with a double deck and a pop-out “music processor.”
Sharp was again a leader in both design and innovation with the VZ-2000, a massive, heavy, unique player that had a single cassette deck, radio, and a dual-stylus linear tracking turntable. This unit allowed one to play BOTH sides of the record without turning the record over, essentially an auto reverse feature, but with a record! Sharp also had the famous GF-777, a giant 4-inch-woofer and 2-inch-tweeter monster with twin decks in the upper left corner and removable speaker grilles. The other innovation was that the main woofers had individual bass controls as well as a general bass control and a loudness button. The GF-9696 was a beautiful looker that had individual bass controls as well, but also had pitch control to adjust for different tapes.
The first time I saw a boombox was in Knickerbocker Park in Bushwick. There was a bunch of cute boys with a boombox. We were all scared to, like, go over there, and then they were looking at us, and we were looking at them. We thought they were so cool.
— Rosie Perez(CHOREOGRAPHER / ACTRESS)
Toshiba also produced a monster very similar to the GF-777 called the WX-1 Bombeat RT-S983. This unit had a very unusual configuration for detachable speakers, dual decks, woofers, tweeters, and passive radiators similar to the one in the Aiwa. This is perhaps the heaviest radio in existence, also with pitch control and a bass booster system, great looks, and a great name: Bombeat! Toshiba again showed their innovation with another model, the RT-S933, which had one of the most significant technical and design innovations: a built-in wireless remote control that ejected from the unit with the push of a button.
Other companies also weighed in, and perhaps the most famous boombox of its time was made so by director Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing was a seminal film about the boiling cauldron of race issues in the U.S. embodied by the microcosm of Bed-Stuy, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The object that sparked the riot on the hottest day of the summer was the giant boombox belonging to Radio Raheem. He strutted the streets, conquering all those he met with his ultimate weapon—a volume button. The radio he used to slay all comers was a Promax J-1 Super Jumbo, a monster with a ten-band EQ and three pairs of speakers including 8-inch woofers. In reality, the cheaper build quality of this radio was less than impressive, but its black case and crazy light display certainly won it points for style.
As portable radio tastes changed, so did their design. JVC was back in the driver’s seat with the multipiece PC, or portable component, systems. The PC-5 divided into five pieces with a separate radio, tape deck, and amplifier. This radio was promoted by the Harlem Globetrotters. JVC followed up with another superb “executive” component system, the PC-55/550. These units were portable, but in actuality they were meant to be separated and used at home as high-quality mini stereos. The PC-55/550 had many special features: Dolby B and C, a five-band EQ, speakers with ceramic woofers, wooden speaker cases for better quality sound, and, most innovatively, an illuminated LCD panel display that showed the many functions and options of the unit. Although ever so slightly bass-shy, this multicomponent unit sounded wonderful for all sorts of music, and had one of the best tape decks ever constructed in a portable.
ADROCK (BEASTIE BOYS), WEST LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, SPRING 1985 GLEN E. FRIEDMAN, COURTESY BURNING FLAGS PRESS
When you consider the eighties and portable radio culture, I realize how different the world is today. The world of sharing music in parks and on city streets now resides in cyberspace as we share in anonymity online. The boombox that marked this change from public music “broadcasting” to private consumption was the JVC PC-100, a mini unit with a detachable headset. Now you could share your music in the public sphere, or keep it private by ejecting the cassette deck and plugging headphones into it. In many ways it is the ancestor of the Walkman of today, the consummate MP3 player: the iPod. Indeed, all the radios I have mentioned here were built with the ability to plug a portable media player into them, so you can easily plug your iPod into these radios and mix the digital age with the warmth of analogue amplification and sound. Today, when you think that the iPhone is the best thing to happen to music and communication ever, remember that twenty-five years ago playing your music was a public phenomenon. We blasted our favorite jams and drowned out the competition, or went to a party and rocked it with a few tapes, a big radio, and maybe even decks plugged into it. That was how we injected the public sphere with music and soul, back in the day.
— James Phillips, June 12, 2007, Vancouver, B.C.
I always lusted after the expensive Hitachi triple-whatever . . . the ones from Fourteenth Street with the lights and the speakers; you put that in a trailer, it became like a party no matter who you were—even if you were just warming up for the biggest band, everyone would seem to gravitate towards your trailer because you had this kind of instant, you know, kind of like discotheque in a briefcase.
— Josh Cheuse(PHOTOGRAPHER / ART DIRECTOR)
I have the ones that have the actual record player in it — It opens like a tape cassette, but instead of putting in the tape, you actually put the record in there. And keyboard ones. You know, the ones that have the keyboards that are built into them, where you can, like, jam along with the music.
— Chad Muska(PRO SKATEBOARDER)
1 BASS TONE CONTROL (BASS)
2 TREBLE TONE CONTROL (TREBLE)
3 DECK 1: CASSETTE COMPARTMENT
4 DECK 2: CASSETTE COMPARTMENT
5 TWEETER (LEFT)
6 WOOFER (LEFT)
7 SUPER WOOFER (LEFT)
8 WOOFER (RIGHT)
9 TWEETER (RIGHT)
10 SUPER WOOFER (RIGHT)
11 POWER SWITCH (POWER)
12 LOUDNESS SWITCH
13 TUNING CONTROL
There wasn’t a lot of choice when they first came out, so you just grabbed any old thing that was around. It was probably an Akai.
But as soon as I started to embrace the whole thing, we were constantly trying to find the new and the best one. I’d keep changing them every, like, three or four months. I’ve got an Aiwa (is it 990?) that I had that was my main piece back in New York in ’80, ’81. It’s even got George Clinton’s signature scribbled all over it as well. But I’ve still got that and that was a solid, heavy motherfucker. It’s got two crash bars on the front and it’s mono—one big fuckin’ 10-inch speaker, a woofer. It’s the daddy; it’s definitely the daddy.
A classic hip-hop one is the Sharp Searcher. It was really popular because you could—you could press play and search at the same time and it would skip to the next track, which was revolutionary. Before you had to keep winding, stopping, winding to find your tracks—that’s assuming you had a gap between the track because obviously when you’re playing the mix tapes from WBLS or KTU there were no gaps.
— Don Letts(DJ / MUSICIAN / DIRECTOR)
I had several different boxes. The most famous box for me—besides my box that now sits in the Smithsonian in Washington—is a Sharp box. Then there was a Sanyo that I had earlier on. And I had a JVC box or two.
— Fab 5 Freddy(PIONEER GRAFFITI ARTIST)
I had that double cassette, pink, long Panasonic. I was in, like, sixth grade, and I begged for it. I really wanted the aqua one, but I got the pink one . . . Remember the boombox with the keyboard? Different ones had different effects and stuff . . .
Some say bigger is better—personally, I liked the small, slim ones so I could put it on my shoulder and roller-skate.
— Claw Money(GRAFFITI ARTIST / FASHION DESIGNER)
I remember getting this sort of strange, square-shaped Panasonic boombox—the speakers were actually pretty small on it, but for whatever reason it just had a really great bass sound.
— Jonathan Daniel(MUSIC HISTORIAN / BAND MANAGER)
SUBWAY RIDER, NEW YORK CITY, 1981 EVE ARNOLD
42ND STREET, NEW YORK CITY, 1980 PETER ANDERSON
We never used to call them boomboxes. For us, they were ghetto blasters. I think the first one I ever had was the JVC.
— Earle Sebastian(DIRECTOR)
Carrying around the box and then going on tour around the world with the thing was crazy. And that’s why I swore off boxes with detachable speakers . . . In the late eighties, I had a Fisher. And that’s when I really got my pause-tape work in. That’s when I really honed my skill, because this particular box had really good action on the pause button, the record button.
The box I carried around on tour, I didn’t put any artwork on that. That was my, like—that was my classy box. Do you know what I mean? I wouldn’t put stickers on it. It was too nice.
But then my box set was like my studio box. So I had my record player plugged into it, and my drum machine, and so I would do all these mixes on there. (For our record Hello Nasty, I did all of my demos on cassette.) That was my home one. It was just us living together. Me and the box. So that one had all kinds of stickers and drawings.
— Adam Yauch(MC / BEASTIE BOYS)
I remember around my block—I can’t remember his name, but it was a cool guy, you’d always see him. He’d just be walking along with his box and we’d hang out with him. And the real funniest thing about it is batteries. Batteries is like the biggest shit with boxes because it takes a case of batteries. And nobody wants to give up money, so he’d be like, “Yo, give me some money for batteries; give me money for batteries.” Nobody would give him money so he’d just go cut it off and be like, “Yo, peace out,” and start walkin’ away.
Some of the boomboxes even had little spaces where you could carry a few tapes in the beatbox itself. It was a home stereo with a handle. A lot of people used them at home because they were so much more affordable than buying a component stereo. And the sound was so good for so many of them—like, inexpensive, really good sound.
— Bob Gruen(ROCK ’N’ ROLL PHOTOGRAPHER)
And it would be like, “No-no-no—fuck that! Come back! Come back!” It was like pullin’ teeth tryin’ to get money for batteries. I just remember that. I just remembered huge arguments: “Fuck that! Yo, you muthafuckas gotta give me some money for batteries. Yo, fuck you. I’m goin’ home, man, fuck this.” It would be an hour of fuckin’ negotiation to get batteries.
— Trevor Clark(HIP-HOP CLOTHING DESIGNER)
The boombox would be the only way you would actually hear hip-hop. So, for anyone that loved hip-hop—especially in the mid- to late ‘70s—that was your conduit.