When I had first heard about Lyle Owerko's The Boombox Project, I was relieved to find some validation that I wasn't the only over-the-hill b-boy fascinated with suitcase-sized portable cassette stereos. While vintage portables routinely show up in commercials and retro-styled music videos, seeing a boombox on YouTube today versus having owned one back in the day are two very different things. Now, thanks to Owerko, a New York-based writer and photographer, everyone can catch a glimpse of these massive urban sound machines, which many consider to be one of the centerpieces of early Hip Hop culture.
Through interviews and retrospectives from artists and cultural icons from the era (including Spike Lee, Fab 5 Freddy, Lisa Lisa, LL Cool J and others), Owerko chronicles the role boomboxes played in the democratization of urban music. And though the book contains dozens of Jamel Shabazz-esque shots of boombox-wielding breakdancers from the late ’70s and early ’80s (both in the U.S. and abroad), it's Owerko’s staged photos (mostly of gargantuan silver, black and chrome cassette portables) that truly capture the appeal of the era. In fact, many of the pieces photographed for The Boombox Project confirm the very reason that I was reluctant to carry my own rather non-threatening Hitachi in public when I was a teen in the early ’80s — I could potentially be challenged by someone with a bigger, badder, louder box than mine. And, given some of the menacing pieces photographed for the book, I had good reason to feel that way.
Indeed, these ear-shattering relics do still exist and, like Kurtis Blow told us years ago, there are 8 million stories behind them. The Boombox Project weaves some of those stories together in a single, well-documented archive to ensure that they are not lost forever. Grade: A