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

In this day and age where he can hold thousands of songs in the palm of our hand, it’s hard to remember there was a time when music wasn’t easily portable. Stereos were once pieces of furniture that took up a good portion of a room and several people to move.

With the innovation of the transistor radio, though, suddenly music became portable. Subsequently, with the advent of the cassette as a medium, radios mutated into carry-along stereos, and the boombox was born. By the early ’80s, these simple machines—a chrome box containing a cassette player, radio and woofers and tweeters carried by a handle—had taken music out of the home and into the streets of cities like New York and Tokyo. Now anyone could bring their jams with them. With the synchronous rise of B-boy culture and hip-hop, the boombox became a ubiquitous symbol of personal expression, and the boombox became a cultural magnet, drawing all those within earshot into its sonic realm.

Filmaker and photographer Lyle Owerko has, by his own admission, been drawn to these machines for both their cultural resonance and beauty of design. Looking to replace a JVC that was smashed by American Hi-Fi while he was on tour shooting the band, he ended up accumulating a large collection. The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Undgerground began with the simple idea of sharing and preserving that collection in photographs, but expanded to examine the boombox’s place in popular culture. With an introduction by Spike Lee, whose Do the Right Thing contains one of the boombox’s most iconic uses in Radio Raheem and his enormous ghettoblaster (apparently based on a real person in the Cobble Hill, Brooklyn neighborhood where Lee grew up), the book is a mash-up of words and images. Not only are the countless high-contrast shots of these metallic sonic warriors, but images of B-boys hanging out from the Bronx to Paris capture them in battle. Shots of Don Letts, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen and the Beastie Boys place these increasingly large contraptions in context, while quotes ranging from Noel Gallagher to Kool Moe Dee to Rosie Perez to Butch Vig add insight to how the conveyance of boomboxes furthered the cultures they served.

Somewhere between a coffee table book and a sociological essay, The Boombox Project is an intriguing look at the impact of these devices. For those of us who lived through these times and actually had a few boxes, it’s easy to unassumingly meld them with the rest of our cultural memories as part of an ever changing technological landscape. At the time, it seemed like they were the future, especially when televisions and synthesizers started being added. Owerko’s work is a timely one, though, considering our position at the crossroads of old and new ways of music delivery. If one were to take the implications of the book a little further, it’s easy to see how music is becoming an increasingly isolated experience. Contrast the photos here of the joyous faces with their ghettoblasters on graffiti-drenched subway cars to how those same cars look today, clean and filled of ear-budded heads lost in their insular musical worlds. Music is more portable than ever now, but what might that continual evolution bring?
Stephen Slaybaugh