TAPE CULTURE: In gathering vintage boom boxes from collectors for his visual history and chatting it up with box-toting artists like Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, Fab 5 Freddy, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and Rosie Perez, Owerko found "very few talking about the radio section of the boxes."
"For the most part, radio wasn't playing what they wanted to hear," except maybe for the global music-sampling, box-celebrating, punk-rocking Clash, Owerko agreed in our recent chat.
The ability of heavy-duty sound blasters to be heard a city block away and the head-turning power of the bass clearly appealed to users, the author found. "But what was universally interesting was the fact that a boom box came with a cassette transport - for playing music in motion - or even better a double cassette, which allowed for tape-to-tape mixing and duplication," Owerko said.
"The cassette mechanism allowed users to express their personal taste, either making mix tapes [collections copied from multiple sources] or pause tapes [rudimentary edits of songs playing on the radio]. They also talked a lot about the power of sharing tapes with friends. This was peer-to-peer networking on a primitive level.
"For a lot of punk rockers, their first recordings were made on a box using the built-in condenser microphone, which did a pretty good job. Then they'd then run off copies to sell on the same box and dress up the tapes with hand-drawn artwork that they'd get duplicated at a copy center where one of the band members invariably worked. And they'd repeat the process until they got a label deal."
Brooklyn, N.Y.-born rapper Pras (the Fugees) talks in the "Boombox" tome about exploiting his first box for time shifting, later to become a common theme in video recorders. "Hip-hop was only on the radio Friday and Saturday nights, so we'd record the mix tape shows and then play it for the whole week."
Speaking from Philadelphia, contemporary rapper/singer Kuf Knotz talked about the meaning in the title of his sonically embracing, soul- and rock-tinged album "Boombox Logic," just dropped on the Mad Dragon label. "It's about learning the power of flow, how to structure an album with variety and pacing and guest artists to keep a listener's attention."
It's an art he mastered mixing tapes "to impress girls" on an vintage Lasonic portable - now a sore subject for Knotz. He lost his beloved box a couple of months ago on South Philly's Passyunk Avenue. "We were shooting a music video with it as a prop, turned our backs for a couple minutes, and it was gone."
BULLY PULPIT: Of course, the macho image of a multi-speakered box was also part of the system's appeal for some, Owerko believes. Until city noise ordinances muzzled the machines in public spaces, and musical cocooning came into fashion with the headphone stereo - first the Sony Walkman, later the Apple iPod.
"That's why you still see images of boom boxes decorating T-shirts and album covers, in music videos and in movies," Owerko said. (We just spotted a wacky blue creature shouldering a box in a preview clip for the film "Megamind.") "Boom boxes still signify a certain sense of rebelliousness, free speech, toughness and attitude. They also make us smile and remember a time of ingenuity and innocence."
DROPPING SCIENCE: "For many young people, the boom box was their first encounter with good sound and high technology," said Bob Nizza, an executive with JVC who started out selling the brand's boxes in the late 1970s at an electronics and appliances store in New Hyde Park, N.Y. "I would stack 'em high and watch 'em fly. You couldn't keep them in stock."
I sought out Nizza after "Boombox Project" author Owerko wrote that the most prized of all boxes were JVCs, a reputation first earned with the living-large, monaural RC550JW model that pumped fantastic sound from a three-way speaker, was sturdy enough to sit on, had handles on the sides as well as the top (for bumper protection as well as toting) and sold for about $300 in 1981 dollars.
"We were very big on innovation. Also the first with a digital echo effect, then Bi-Phonic sound. The DC33 had a slide-out turntable. Mitsubishi and Sharp also had those."
In 1983, "we came out with the PCM100. You pushed an eject button and the cassette section popped out to became a personal stereo. We also had a model with a built-in black-and-white TV. Then we added CD players in '83-'84 - including the suitcase-sized PCX1000, which weighed almost 45 pounds."
JVC drew the line, though, at light show integration. You had to seek out an off-brand colossus like the Dynasty Discolite 120 for glowing speakers that pulsed in time with the music. Dynasty also sold a model with a pop-out, mini-rotating disco ball.
The advent of the CD sparked a design shift to smaller, rounded systems that "look like rejects from R2-D2," veteran musician/video director/DJ Don Letts complained in the "Boombox Project."
JVC is still in the game with the aptly named Ka-boom (RV-NB52, $299) a 15-pound, cannon-shaped blaster geared primarily to iPod and USB thumb drive play, only secondarily to CDs and FM.
"I think the time is right to bring back a really good-sounding, traditionally designed boom box," suggested Nizza. "Look at the comeback of the Ford Mustang, the Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro. People are gravitating to those designs because they remind them of the best times of their lives."
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