The Boombox Project - Bass is Fundamental

30/11/2011 22:29 | Updated 30 January 2012
  • Lyle Owerko New York based filmmaker and photographer

Five years ago an idea dropped on my lap. More likely it was always there, it simply needed to be uncovered. The idea was to create a documented history of the Boombox starting out with my personal collection.

Boomboxes have been a part of my life for a long time. If you grew up anywhere in the vicinity of the 1970s or 1980s you knew that music poured forth from a device made up of two speakers, a handle, a radio tuner and a cassette deck. One could draw the basic outline of one of these objects in the sand most anywhere in the world and this universal shape would be understood.

From their early beginnings as small transistor radios, Boomboxes have been an intrinsically inherent part of society and a recognisable object of rebellion. A Boombox with its gift of portability gave oneself permission (of sorts) to blast your opinion on the world. That opinion
could be versed by bands such as Run DMC, Motorhead, Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five, Led Zepplin, LL Cool J, The Clash or even Classical Concertos. The divergences are endless.

Everyone has a different sensibility of what rebellion sounds like from beats to bassoons! As a self-appointed cultural anthropologist of sorts the Boombox intrigued me not only as an object of industrial design but as a cultural metaphor. These transportable radio devices are very much
a symbol for freedom, a symbol for expression and a symbol for a time gone by that emphasised both authenticity and innovation. Stewing on this idea for a bit ultimately birthed "The Boombox Project."

The idea behind the project was that there had to be undocumented stories and tales to be told of these ancient beasts of thunder that once walked the earth laying down wide paths filled with sonic footprints. The hunt began to find the real history behind the myth.

What is the story of the Boombox? A picture is a picture is a picture - but what makes a picture history, or makes a picture art or even journalism is context. Very often when speaking to students at universities or education institutes part of the lecture centers in on context. Context is the key entry point to the juncture of both image and meaning. If one is conscious of this, a mere snapshot can change the course of a war, bring down a business leader or even summarise a sports figures career.

To really capture the essence of the myth behind the Boombox the imagery needed context. To establish that a quest began to unearth the defined history of the Boombox. It'd never been done before and now was the time.

E-mails were sent, phones calls made, text messages exchanged and soon a wide and important variety of individuals supplied quotes, memories and anecdotes that provided the much needed spinal column to the endeavour. What I soon found out was Boomboxes were everywhere - used to record the first demos of hit songs, make pause tapes, manufacture early breakbeats and capture bedroom styled rapping sessions. If not for the Boombox many an urban hero might not have made it out of the basement, garage or abandoned hallways of the world.

The Boombox as a device of change was an important gateway. When a society holds something aloft - it then has context. The Boombox was not just a tool, a broadcasting device or a party starter. A Boombox became the symbol of a generations sense of empowerment and aim. An aim to not be swept under the carpet and forgotten, but an even deeper aim not to be ignored or sidestepped.

The Boombox's hefty persona resonated deeply through the disaffected youth of the late 70's and early 80's. A fringe generation took on this portable conglomeration of lights, dials and speakers and launched movements such as hip-hop, punk, new wave as well as breakdancing and graffiti. The Boombox was there the whole time either recording the soundtrack or providing it.

The Boombox was simply a catalyst - device of change, a healthy cohort in a movement of personal expression spreading around the world. The context of the Boombox soon became all about fundamentals. One of the fundamentals is the decibel signature ofbass. Don Letts says that Jamaica's gift to the world is Bass. And he is very much right. Bass starts a party and keeps it going. What set a Boombox apart from smaller radios was its capability of generating Bass.
Not maybe as much as a full blown soundsystem but certainly enough to rock someone's inside organs.

With the fundamentals and context in place we arrive at the visuals. The era of Boomboxes ignited a wave in fashion, urbanism and sensibility that is still alive today. Walking the streets of New York right now you'll see retro eyewear, tall afros cut in geometric shapes and day-glo fashion accessorised by large necklaces and chest pieces. Some things change, some things never go away and some things keep coming back. This is where the Boombox Project arrives at a conclusion.

We live in uncertain times with uncertain probabilities and uncertain futures, the Boombox is now a symbol for good times and creative expression. As our banks, businesses, social institutions and governments fail to keep order, one has to keep a handle and two bass-ready speakers on hand to spread the message; to keep things moving and grooving with the soundtrack to the disorder- that is the context, that is the fundamental and that is the lesson.

The message has to be clear. The Boombox Project is not only paying homage to an electronic
device, it is about an era that shaped and deeply impacted us all. The imagery contained between it's two covers stands as a rallying call to keep on creating, keep on building and to keep on shaping a world that can be better and more alive with the distinctive voices of many!

Long live the Boombox!

For the Exhibition of the Boombox Project at Whisper: 'The Boombox Project' by Lyle Owerko presented by Whisper will be exhibited at XOYO from 2 December - 15 January and at Whisper from 9 December - 14 January. For more information visit