Hip-Hop and the Boom Box: A Loudass Love Story

By Jay Quan

It’s been referred to historically as the Ghetto Blaster, the Boom Box and simply the Box, but despite what you prefer to call the portable radio it’s been an integral part of Hip-Hop Culture since its inception. From Hip Hop’s embryonic period of the mid 1970’s through the late 1980’s the Box has been synonymous with Hip Hop Culture in general and Rap music specifically. Just as Hip Hop would be seen in its early days as unrefined, too urban and too loud, so was the Boom Box. There was a time when much of America hated it and the music that it broadcasted. Noise complaints were lodged in every city and suburb, and they were labeled as much a menace as the person carrying it.

Vintage Boom Boxes from the culture’s heyday have greatly appreciated in value with some of the biggest radios fetching thousands of dollars, even when they aren’t in fully working condition. The demand has been so great, that electronics companies have released boxes that resemble the vintage models with updated technology.

The Beginning

The demand for music on the go has existed since the mid 1950’s when the transistor radio was created. These handheld, battery operated AM radio only devices were extremely popular, allowing music lovers the opportunity to listen to their favorite radio stations while travelling, picnicking or enjoying the beach - any activity where a traditional stereo wasn’t available. The cassette tape was invented in 1962, the 8 track in 1965 and a decade later the Woelfel Brothers invented the first modern day boombox in 1975 (in Japan the boombox was available in the early 1970’s). The first box was basically a wooden box with speakers, an 8 track tape player and a cassette tape player according to The Portable Radio In American Life by Brian Schiffer.

An important function of these radios was the ability to record onto cassette. In the years before rap records, the live performances that circulated around the boroughs via the drivers from various car services and hand to hand trades were actually recorded on early Boom Boxes. A look back at the performance scenes from the seminal Hip Hop film Wild Style will reveal Boom Boxes on the tables along with the D.J.’s equipment. This set up mirrored the actual live performances that occurred at the night clubs, high school gyms, city parks and asphalt playgrounds where rap music was birthed. Grandmaster Caz, lead member of The Cold Crush Brothers who also appeared in Wild Style says that whenever he made a new mix or purchased new music he would place his Box in his window and play music for the neighborhood. Roxanne Shante’ says that D.J. Marley Marl did the same from his Queensbridge apartment. This was a common practice in many urban neighborhoods by D.J.’s and those who simply wanted to share music with their neighbors.

The Mainstream

Although these portable radios were designed to play music from any genre (Panasonic gave Earth, Wind & Fire an endorsement deal for their Panasonic Platinum series Boom Boxes), they were embraced heavily by the Hip Hop generation and urban America in general. Mainstream exposure to Hip Hop culture via the Flash Dance and Beat Street motion pictures, cover stories in magazines like Newsweek and the commercial explosion of Rap music on records, radio, fast food commercials and Saturday Morning cartoons placed the Boom Box prominently as a fixture in Rap music and Hip-Hop culture.

The Breakdancing craze that hit America in 1984 coincided with the above-mentioned coverage and every city in America suddenly saw Breakdance crews forming and every other street corner was occupied with ciphers of dancers ready to display their skills on card board boxes and squares of linoleum. The Boom Box supplied the music for these dancers. This music was recorded from the radio (via the Boom Box), from a home stereo onto tape or supplied from an actual commercially recorded and distributed cassette; either way the box was the conduit through which the music was delivered.

The Technology

The very nature of how Rap music was recorded in the early to mid 1980’s was perfect for the technology of the Boom Box. Music with heavy emphasis on drum machines that was recorded, equalized and mastered for loud playback was a perfect marriage for the analog warmth of the Box which got warmer and fatter the louder that the volume was increased. One of the components of the Hip Hop D.J.’s skillset was the pause tape – when the D.J. would “loop” a desired part of a piece of music to make it repeat for as long as they pleased using the pause button on the cassette player. As technology advanced, Boom Boxes came equipped with dual cassettes, graphic equalizers, record players and even televisions and keyboards.

The popularity of full-length Rap albums and Rap videos further etched the image of the Boom Box into the legacy of Rap music. The front cover of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5’s game changing 1982 album “The Message” has Grandmaster Flash holding a Boom Box on the street. L.L. Cool J’s breakthrough was his short, but extremely effective part on the Krush Groove motion picture where he bursts in a room uninvited with Box in hand to perform “I Can’t Love Without My Radio” which wasn’t his first song, but was the one that introduced him to the Rap audience and later the mainstream. His performance of that song on mainstream television programs like Dick Clark’s American Band Stand with his hype man E Love holding a huge Boom Box once again made the Box extremely visible within Hip Hop. L.L.’s debut full length album was titled “Radio” and the cover was a close up of the face of his iconic JVC RC-M90 Boom Box. On his later tours a gigantic life-sized Box was center stage.

The Decline

The image and usage of the box in Hip Hop remained strong well into the late ‘80’s, but became less visible in the 90s due to a few factors. Although Compact Disc technology existed since 1982, CD players didn’t become affordable until much later, and in 1989 CD’s outsold cassettes for the first time ever. Even though Boom Boxes were manufactured with CD players, Boxes were now much smaller than the gaudy boxes of the earlier part of the decade (some of the bigger ones even came equipped with alarm systems) and there was always an assumption (as incorrect as it was) that bigger was louder. The digital process that Rap records were now recorded with and the digital technology of the CD and CD player lost the warmth that the analog recording process and cassette tape contained. Additionally, the generation that grew up with Boom Boxes had literally grown up. We were driving and we owned cars with sound systems. Carrying a Box was conducive to travel by foot. It could be argued that the car sound system replaced the Boom Box for that generation – proven by the fact that in 1990, one of L.L. Cool J’s biggest songs was “The Boomin’ System” – an ode to the loud car radio. 

The Return

As the generation who witnessed the birth of Rap music and Hip-Hop culture got older and the music continued to evolve, we began to reflect on and yearn for many of the elements of yester year that made Hip Hop great. Vintage Boom Boxes became collectables fetching far more than ten times their original prices in many cases. Electronics companies took notice re-releasing the highly successful Lasonic series updated with Bluetooth technology and a more rounded frame, but just as big in size as the vintage models. 

In 2020 Sotheby’s auction house in New York held its first ever Hip-Hop auction and D.J. Ross One’s “Wall of Boom” (32 vintage boom boxes) sold for $113,000. And why wouldn’t it? Vintage Boom Boxes are sexy. They’re retro. They’re very much 80’s and everything ‘80s seems to be cool again. The box is etched into popular culture and represents the best of what that era was. It’s Radio Raheem with the four finger rings and 20 D Energizers on Do The Right Thing. It’s L.L. yelling “BOX!!” on Krush Groove. The Box is the literal PA system of Rap music and like Hip Hop its still here.