The Boombox’s robust metal casing and pair or more of sizeable speakers demands attention. These ostentatious aesthetic features may seem a long way from the subtlety and elegance of the portable speakers available now, but before the invention of the Boombox people used record players and radio to listen to audio inside their homes. As there was no portable option to transport audio outside, the innovation of the Boombox represents a critical moment in the history of Outdoor Audio.
The Origin of the Boombox
Although the Boombox has strong cultural associations with New York Hip Hop culture, the first model was in fact developed in the Netherlands. The Dutch company Philips released their first ‘Radiorecorder’ in 1966. This was the Norelco 22RL962. Radio broadcasts and audio from a microphone could now be recorded directly onto cassette tapes for the first time. Powered by 6 D-cell batteries, this initial model included a handle and was fully portable to record on-the-go.
Interestingly, Boomboxes also grew popular in Japan in the early 1970s. The mass migration of young people from the Japanese countryside to urban spaces coincided with the development of the Boombox. Within these claustrophobic and condensed cities, the Boombox represented the most viable HiFi option to broadcast music.
Boomboxes didn’t reach the USA until the late 1970s. Interviewed in NPR Music’s documentary, The History of the Boombox, the hip-hop historian Fab 5 Freddy describes how New York Hip Hop culture popularised the use of the Boombox. This new portable device allowed for recordings to be made directly onto cassette tape. Young people would often go to inner-city parties with their Boombox. Here, they would make live cassette recordings of the music being mixed. The dissemination of these tapes was the way in which many listeners across the city came into contact with the sounds of Hip Hop for the first time. Prioritising volume and bass above all else, the Boombox became the favoured musical vehicle for Hip Hop artists.
“People that were big fans of music at the time were into higher-fidelity, better-quality sound — bass, midrange and treble,” Freddy says. “So [the manufacturers] listened to what the consumer, what the young hip kid on the streets of New York, wanted. We wanted bass.”
The History Of The Boombox by NPR Music
“There’s a history with these and boombox does mean a lot more to culture and to people than just the object itself”
During the early 1980s, Hip Hop was largely absent from mainstream radio channels and the Boombox empowered young people, especially African American and Hispanic youth, to easily record and share their own tracks detailing their own life narratives. As an entirely portable device, the Boombox was an important symbol for the democratisation of music-making. By the end of the 1980s, however, the popularity of Boomboxes was dwindling.
Technological achievements facilitated the invention of smaller and more subtle audio players that were compatible with CDs and MP3 tracks. This cultural shift towards private, individual listening devices can be followed through to the twenty-first century invention of the iPod, where every new model released seems to decrease in size.
Despite this pattern its possible that we will see a gradual return towards the Boombox as a type of audio device that encourages participatory listening experiences similar to the vinyl resurgence. As one of the first examples of a portable audio device and being intrinsically tied to the emergence of Hip-Hop, the Boombox represents a critical juncture in the history of Outdoor Audio.