Missing the beat in a box

Missing the beat in a box

Once Upon a time

Missing the beat in a box

Musiclore : Portable stereos were once symbols of rebellion and chutzpah. Photo Chang W Lee/NYT

In December 2001, while on assignment in Tokyo, the photographer Lyle Owerko came across a funky old boombox at an outdoor market. He was struck by its bulk and intrigued by its link to a vanished  break dancing and graffiti, and as soon as he returned home to New York he began scouring flea markets and eBay for more of them.

“That’s when the obsession started,” he said recently at his studio, where dozens of the machines, covered in protective bubble wrap, were piled in a corner.

Owerko’s interest grew into a book, The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground, published this month by Abrams Image. It features his lovingly detailed close-up photographs of vintage portable stereos, as well as commentary by Spike Lee, L L Cool J and members of the Beastie Boys and the Fugees about the role the devices played in  street culture from the late 1970s to the mid-’80s.

In shot after full-page shot,  Owerko — best known for his image of the smashed World Trade Center on the cover of Time magazine on September 14, 2001 — venerates an audio technology that, to eyes accustomed to the iPod’s futuristic smoothness, seems practically steampunk: hard, square-edged metal casing; wheel-size speakers protected by silvery-black grilles; lots of clunky knobs and buttons. And at the heart of every boombox is a cassette deck.

As cassettes have all but vanished as a commercial format, a nostalgic movement has sprung up to celebrate the culture that surrounded them, in recent books like Thurston Moore’s Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture and Rob Sheffield’s memoir  Love Is a Mix Tape.

But in contrast to the intimate communication usually connoted by the exchange of hand-labelled mixtapes, Owerko’s book portrays the boombox as a “sonic campfire” for urban youth, a catalyst in the creation of instant, loud gatherings on subway platforms and on crowded city sidewalks.

The device became a global phenomenon, but its nicknames — ghetto blaster, Brixton briefcase — rooted its mythology in urban black culture.  In addition to Owerko’s own pictures, the book includes historical images of young people, famous and anonymous, using their music machines to assert themselves in public, like L L Cool J proudly displaying his suitcase-size blaster in a Manhattan park in 1985.

Don Letts, the British-born film director and musician who played in the band Big Audio Dynamite, says the boombox set the kids of the early punk and hip-hop years free.
“You were no longer trapped to an AC outlet,”  Letts said by phone from London. “You could take it to the streets, and wherever you took it, you had an instant party.”

The boxes in the book range in condition from gleaming perfection to ones that seem to have gone to war. To capture what he calls “the physicality of nostalgia” in his images, Owerko experimented with photographic technique, shooting the machines with a medium-format digital camera and adjusting the lighting to bring out their grit.

“Initially they just looked like product photographs when I lit them really nice,” he said. “It was boring. Then I found that when I amplified the scratches and dirt and grunge on them, their character came through. I started to think of them as war shields, or the way the old subway trains were super beat-up.”

Owerko, 42, might seem an unusual historian for the boombox. He speaks in steady, serious tones, and his spacious apartment-studio is decorated with masks from his travels in Africa as well as his bigger-than-life-size portraits of members of the Samburu tribe of Kenya. But his own history with the machines shows how crucial they were for anyone growing up in the pre-CD era.

Born in Calgary, Alberta, he moved to New York in 1991 to attend the Pratt Institute, and as a nomadic artist-student, he always had a portable stereo with him. When he moved into his current apartment on lower Broadway in 1997, he had nothing but a futon and a boombox.

Now, he says, the machines — like graffiti on subway cars — may have disappeared, but their symbolism remains powerful.  “Guaranteed, twice a day I see someone with a boombox on a garment of some sort,” Owerko said. “Drawn on, spray painted on, or from one of the major urban street brands.”

“The Boombox Project” also tracks the development of the stereos’ design, from their relatively compact origins to monstrosities like Sharp’s four-speaker, 26-pound GF-777, as manufacturers saw how they were being adopted by young people as totems of power, an image crystallized by the character of Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. Back in the day they were also a form of conspicuous consumption: some cost $700 or more.

Prasad Boradkar, an associate professor of industrial design at Arizona State University who borrowed some of  Owerko’s stereos for a recent exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, likened the development of bigger and bigger boxes to the growth of tailfins on cars in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

“Obviously they didn’t do anything in terms of speeding up the car,” Professor Boradkar said. “They became expressions of excess in American automotive culture, and in some of their designs the boomboxes became the same in audio culture.”

But while big tailfins might be the most symbolic remnant of the postwar flight to the suburbs, the boombox — from its introduction in the mid-1970s to its decline in the ’90s, when hip-hop went mainstream, and graffiti was washed from the subways —represents the world that then developed in the cities: rough, bold and loud.

“There was a period before the downfall where they became almost militaristic,”  Owerko said. “There’s very much a Humvee aspect to it, very rough-and-tumble. Because that connotes, ‘I’m rough-and-tumble, I have swagger, I have presence.’ ”
He added, “That’s why the visual of them still endures.”

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