Though the 90s saw the demise of the boombox, in recent years we have seen something of a renaissance. Sharp, who was responsible for some of the greatest models of the 80s, unveiled their new GX-M10 boombox at the IFA trade show in Berlin.
In a strange way the boombox was almost like the first internet. It was like a Spotify area where you could exchange not only ideas and information but create and spread music
A few years ago Owerko created ‘The Boombox Project’ – a collection of fine art portraits of vintage ghetto blasters. Humans Invent tracked him down to find out why the boombox was, and still is, so culturally significant.
Owerko says, “In a strange way the boombox was almost like the first internet. It was like a Spotify area where you could exchange not only ideas and information but create music, spread music and even spread spoken word messages.”
From LL Cool J to David Byrne, musicians of all types embraced this portable cassette player. When it comes to Rap music, Owerko believes its very existence owes itself to the boombox.
“They were inherently tied together, it became a device that was intrinsically a part of the music. If you talk to a lot of the early rappers, they made their first pieces of art using a boombox – creating rudimentary pause mixes which led to break beats and on top of that recording their raps. It also applied to punk and grunge bands. I remember reading, while I was doing research on the book, that Kurt Cobain recorded a lot of the early parts of Nevermind using a boombox. A lot of musicians travelled with them. That was the rudimentary device when you wanted to write songs while you were on the road.”
Owerko owns 42 boomboxes; his two favourites are the Sharp GF-777, which he describes as a ‘huge beast’, and the Rising 20/20, which is now on display at the V&A in London. One of the main aspects of the boombox as its name implies, is its capacity to pump out bass at incredibly loud volumes. Owerko says, “Bass is what gets the party started and really that’s one of the primary objectives of the boombox, to get a party going…a boombox was vey much a transportable party device.”
By the early 90s, however, the days of the ghetto blaster were numbered. As much as it was incredibly social on one level it was also desperately anti-social on another. The use of boomboxes was banned by many cities in public spaces and on public transport while new, less socially disruptive, technology rose to replace it.
Owerko says, “Really, the silver bullet was the Walkman. When you could carry your music and marry it with a pair of headphones and listen to it in private, especially on public transportation, it invited an enthusiastic audience. The Walkman made music an interior thing and at that time, as cities grew and the commuter culture grew, it just became more convenient.”
Bass is what gets the party started and really that’s one of the primary objectives of the boombox, to get a party going
However, in recent years the boombox has been coming back into vogue. Owerko says, “You can see a lot of reissues of them out there and there’s a lot of sentiment for it. You see people carrying them around in New York now. Really, they were very much the symbol of rebellion and defiance. The imagery is also indelibly checked through culture. You constantly see them on T-shirts, album artwork and so on.”
If the boombox is back it will certainly give the kids who play music out loud on their mobiles a run for their money. If you’re going vintage, just remember to keep a heavy reserve of batteries at your disposal!