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The Boombox Project, The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground by Lyle Owerko

PDF The Boombox Project, The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground by Lyle Owerko Publication Date: December 1, 2014

Book author
  1. Lyle Owerko
9781613128107 s3

On the heels of the graffiti renaissance comes a vibrant look at an old-school icon that figured prominently in the hip-hop, rock & roll, and punk movements of the 1970s and 80s. The Boombox Project features contemporary fine art portraits of an array of vintage boomboxes, as well as scores of documentary photographs of the people who brought the boombox movement to life back in the day.

The book is more than just a collection of images, though; it’s also an oral history of the early days of hip-hop, featuring memories from Fab 5 Freddy, Bob Gruen, Rosie Perez, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, Lisa Lisa, DJ Spooky, and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, among others, on the role this once ubiquitous machine played.
Part pop cultural history and part “gadget porn,” this lively and highly stylish volume is one of the cool books of the season.


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


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 silkscreen 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 metallicplated 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
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