The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with Hip-hop, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, Hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss. Two recent books explore the technology of Hip-hop beyond the turntable.
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas
When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording (for a full discussion of these differences, see Schloss, 2004). Unlike today’s iPods, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but boomboxes remain a part of the iconography of Hip-hop.
Lensman Lyle Owerko set out to document this aspect of the culture with The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground (Abrams Image, 2010), which is not only a visual history of early Hip-hop street technology, but an oral one as well. Everyone from the usual suspects like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Adisa Banjoko, and Malcolm McLaren, to the less-than-usual like DJ Spooky, The Clash, Chad Muska, and David Byrne display and discuss their boomboxes.
The Boombox Project illustrates that the reception of Hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. Here is the book trailer for The Boombox Project [runtime: 0:40]:
From mixtapes to mash-ups, Hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This is the crux of my Hip-hop Theory — much more on that soon). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is done via software, iPods, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. The tools are neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. Can I get a witness?
Yes! No one has explored this undulating landscape more than Aram Sinnreich. His Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) is one half theory, one half practice and establishes an argument that sampling is the latest legitimate form of musical expression, an argument that seems silly to both sides of the debate. Busting a sextet of binaries, Sinnreich makes quick work of complex terrain, mixing media theory and musicology, as well as copyright and counterculture. Mashed Up is the most complete book I’ve seen on our current culture of convergence.
In honor of the boombox, indulge me for a few more minutes and check out this video from The Nonce. It’s “Mix Tapes” from their 1995 debut World Ultimate (Check for cameos from members of Project Blowed) [runtime: 3:34]. Dope:
Oworko, L. (2011). The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground. New York: Abrams Image.
Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Sunnreich, A. (2010). Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Apologies to the late, mighty Hangar 18 for stealing their title for this post.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.
Editor of Boogie Down Predictions (Strange Attractor, 2022), author of Escape Philosophy (punctum, 2022) and Dead Precedents (Repeater, 2019).