Before the iPhone, before the iPod, before the Walkman, there was only the boombox. Bulky, loud, rectangular and impossible to ignore, the speaker system was singularly responsible for shaping our cities’ soundscapes through much of the '70s and '80s.
“They represent mobility and the freedom to express your personal taste in music and share it with immediate neighbors,” says Timothy Anne Burnside, museum specialist for the Department of Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, a new arm of the institution. “It’s that in-your-face music experience,” Burnside says. “If you carry this thing around, you're sharing it with others and they don’t have a choice.”
The boombox became an icon, inextricably linked to the early days of hip-hop, breakdancing and modern DJ-ing, with its 90 decibels of sound as loud and defining as as nine-foot-long piece of neon graffiti. It was an object on street corners, front stoops and shoulders, as necessary an element of the block uniform as high tops, flat-brimmed caps and a fat chain.
Its ubiquity was also unmatched. The boombox even made an appearance as a James Bond gadget in 1987’s The Living Daylights, where a visit to Q’s lab gave viewers a close-up look at a shoulder stereo that doubled as a rocket launcher. Q called the device his “Ghetto Blaster” and described it as, “Something we’re making for the Americans.”
But let’s back up. When the Dutch company Philips developed the first boombox in the '60s, there’s no way they could have known what they had on their hands. The first one was called the Radiorecorder, featuring a then-novel combination of a radio and a cassette player built into the same shell. For the first time, users could record radio broadcasts on-the-go without so much as a cord.
Before long, Japanese companies such as JVC, Toshiba and Panasonic latched onto the category, attracted to the possibility of packing power and portability into a single device. In the mid-70s, the boombox crossed the ocean to the United States — and a movement was born.
“The boombox represents my youth and hip-hop culture in general,” says rapper Fat Tony. “I was born in '88. right in the prime of rap music’s ascent to the top of the pops. Seeing LL Cool J’s first album cover and seeing guys on TV and in movies walking around with boomboxes on their shoulders left an image I’ll never forget.”
Designs evolved, popularity exploded. As power levels went up, so, too, did the size of the boxes. More power meant more batteries, with a dozen or more D cells making these bulky boxes even heavier. Even more features were added: detachable speakers and second tape decks, to name two. The Conion C-100F had a built-in burglar alarm.
The boombox was a mobile sound system and recording studio in one. Input and output jacks allowed users to plug in microphones and turntables. If you wanted to record yourself singing or rapping over a track, you could. Plop it on the sidewalk, and the pavement turned into an instant breakdancing stage.
According to Burnside, musicians created songs with the boombox in mind. With that gritty, bass-heavy sound — perhaps mixed with car horns and train screeches in the background — the boombox was a way to mark your territory. If you had a trademark track, others knew you were approaching from blocks away.
In a pre-Spotify era, the shoulder blaster was instrumental for music to go viral, at least in a local sense. If you heard a song on the streets — even if it was an underground track far from the mainstream radio waves — you could seek it out.
And it was an icon. Boombox models were name-dropped in rap lyrics; some became a fashion accessory. In Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Radio Raheem carries one playing Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” Public Enemy themselves toured with a boombox in their early years. Even when it was no longer needed for sound, Chuck D brought it out on stage and hit the Play button as a way of symbolically beginning their shows.
"The box is a timeless reminder of being forever young and the desire to be heard," said Andre Royo, a boombox afficianado best known for his portrayal of Bubbles on HBO's The Wire. "It's also credited for the creation of that famous bop and urban sway of how we strut down the streets — that that damn thang was so heavy on one side it created the True Gangsta Lean!"
As often happens when loud, flashy things become popular in the cities, there was a backlash. Local ordinances attacked the devices as noise-polluting nuisances. To this day, illustrations of boomboxes with line drawns through them sit alongside no-smoking and no-skateboarding signs in many public plaza. They are the symbol of public noise.
“Much like we were told not to plug in and do our block party, we did it anyway,” Burnside says. “It’s the same kind of notion: How do you limit something that’s portable? How do you restrict something that can be moved form block to block?”
In 1992, New York deputy police commissioner Jeremy Travis came up with a plan to take on the boombox (and boomcars, as loud cars were called) menace. As part of Operation Soundtrap, police officers carrying decibel meters had the authority to tow a car emitting more than 80 dBs at 50 feet. Other cities soon followed.
By the 1990s, it almost didn’t matter. The boombox’s original enthusiasts were no longer young men, and portable devices such as the Walkman made it much easier — and more private — to carry your music with you.
Today, the boombox lives on as an icon of another era. The spiritual predecessor of the modern Bluetooth speaker, classic models can go for hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on eBay. Their impact is still felt in our music, our art, our culture. And yes, even our laws.
“Something is lost; this notion of experiencing music and sharing,” Burnside says. “Now you have the ability to download a single and have a super-personalized and individualized experience with music. You only get what you want. Artists made music with the boombox in mind. Today, you’re not giving yourself up to the artists’ vision.”