“In the future, Mr. Johnson, you will leave your ghettoblaster at home.” — Mrs. Sherwood, Fame
The problem with not having your driver’s license ’til age 24 is that you have to accept rides wherever you can get them. On morning drives to high school, my buddy Steve would cruise at 70mp in a 45mp speed zone, on a sluggish day, his laptop strapped with bungie cord to the front console and the system’s treble cranked to “Ear Pop”. Just thinking back on it makes me want to reach for my Hearos ear plugs. (All you speaker-freaks should invest in some, too.)
The Ford Exploder would roll through the school parking lot bumping dated Ministry of Sound techno compilations, or Basement Jaxx bangers, a sparkly, Saturday-night club ambience combating dreary Monday morning anti-vibes. Steve’d roll down the windows and crank the system louder to “Apeshit”, so that all the listless teens sagging under their backpacks could hear. He was showing off, and though nobody seemed to notice, the grand entrance was exhilarating. We were cool, or at least we felt cool. But why?
I suppose the answer starts with ’50s-era Jamaican soundclash culture, a phenomenon diffused and evolved over decades, oceans, and social strata to affect suburban teenage white boys like us.
In ’50s Kingston (while letter sweater-clad American teens of my lineage were congesting local soda fountains after snowball dancing at the hop to suited rock’n’ rollers covering Haley and Holly), competing DJs would erect speaker blocks, impressive Lego-like stacks of woofers and tweeters, in the muggy streets near enough each other to play American R&B and jazz records and battle via decibels to win over the largest crowd.
Soundclash Kingston happened to be the birthplace of Clive Campbell, a.k.a. Kool DJ Herc, who emigrated with his family to the South Bronx and purportedly birthed the genre of hip-hop in the ’70s on a similar premise. Herc started DJing indoors. His first gig was in the recreation room of the 1520 Sedgewick Avenue high rise apartments where he lived with his family (the occasion was his sister’s back-to-school party: the first-ever “hip-hop” jam), but he later moved to spinning records outdoors at neighborhood parks.
Others imitated his parties, and so came about, for a period before hip-hop moved into the clubs and roller-skating rinks, urban America’s version of the soundclash, an American progeny of the Jamaican OGs. Light poles became outlets for park-jam sound systems. The winner of very primitive hip-hop DJ battles was decided by who had the loudest speakers, not the most skill, just like in the early Kingston battles before the days of toasting, etc. The most notorious mythological tale of park-jam soundclash beef was between Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, in which Bam tried playing over Herc’s system till Herc went full-kill and drowned him out completely. That was considered a diss, an embarrassment. Herc had showed superiority, domination, despite Bam’s lauded collection of eclectic records. The taller your speaker tower, the more power you held.
It gets pretty easy, if you’re into this, to analyze the phallic symbolism of rising speaker-towers and the “bigger is better” principle of soundclashes, which maybe spills into the masculine stature hip-hop quickly developed, leading to the sexual prowess raps, emcees rhyming about stealing the girl of the presumed male audience listening to their record, and crowds at ’90s DMC competitions and other technical DJ battles being pretty much entirely hoodie-wearing bros and an occasional girlfriend.
Early hip-hop jams could be considered reactions to the din of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which ran overtop and throughout the impoverished neighborhoods of the genre’s origin. Hip-hop was generated in a struggle against, and was surely inspired by, the ever-present thundering of busy-city traffic and train whistles, a music deemed mere “noise” by critics, combating and assimilating itself into the clamor of the atmosphere that spawned it. The symbiosis of music and environment.
Then shit went portable. Hip-hop shows may have moved between walls, but the bombastic virtues of outdoor jams were carried into the ’80s by those who lugged around hunks of transistorized metal, blasting pre-recorded mixes from ghetto to ghetto / to backyard to yard. The boombox was a tool of expression, coloring the concrete cityscape with rhythm the same way graffiti writers bombed out subway cars and disused buildings, the vibrancy of hip-hop reverberating off brick walls painted over with wildstyle tags, another pillar of the culture asserting art into its habitat.
The quintessential ghettoblaster was the JVC RC-M90, displayed on the cover of LL Cool J’s Radio and the Beastie Boys’ Solid Gold Hits. A silver rectangular block, sleek but sizeable, it looks as if the Beastie’s scrawny asses would have had to pass it around whilst tromping the sidewalks, rubbing their sore biceps in between turns.
Kangol-rocking rapper LL Cool J wrote a love song to his radio, or really an anthem of dependence. Boombox = Life. This is how it was for Radio Raheem, Spike Lee’s fictional boombox-toting character in Do the Right Thing (1989). When Sal the pissed-off pizza shop owner kills Raheem’s fucking radio, Raheem looks upon the shattered remains with a face of baffled despair, as if he’d come home to find grandma dead in her favorite chair and couldn’t quite process the situation, in a state precursory to mourning. His rage, the subsequent beating he gives Sal, and the ensuing riot gets the cops called, and Raheem is killed in a nightstick chokehold, the death of his boombox quickly spelling his own death.
The boombox’s first appearance in film, from what I could find, is a scene from 1980’s Fame in which a peeved teacher berates some poor student in class for listening to his “ghettoblaster” (my all-time favorite slang term) through headphones. The most famous appearance is in Say Anything (1989), in which John Cusack hoists his not-so-ghetto blaster to the sky and blares Phil Collins’ “In Your Eyes” into his high-school love’s window to wake her up and win her back. The box had come full circle; from urban artistic expression to the romantic gestures of suburban love bugs in a mainstream flick aimed at white audiences.
Portable musical expression is still present today, despite the waning of boomboxes. I catch people on my college campus bumping Beats pills on the way to class. Even some of those hoverboards (a technological disappointment when pitted against the Back to the Future: Part 2 gadgets) have speakers that transmit mumble-rap and KISS-FM glitz-pop into the world. This past winter, Stones Throw label signee Koreatown Oddity heaved his ghettoblaster around random Los Angeles locales to promote his album, Finna Be Past Tense. One video posted on Stones Throw’s Facebook page shows Koreatown, wearing his customary werewolf Halloween mask — nothing weird here — walking into a fast food establishment, setting his box down, and rapping into a mic over instrumentals while families munch uncomfortably on their food and try to ignore him. In another video, he’s ushered out of a thrift store for the same shenanigans (“Spit a freestyle on the way out the thrift store / You want me to get out, but I want more / I wanna keep rapping, and I don’t wanna stop / Security gone come up and maybe call the cops”), and another one shows him rhyming on a train car to mostly disinterested passengers.
Similarly, Russian pop artist NV directed her video for “KATA” inside a train car. She brings a portable keyboard and monitor and sings into a headset mic to some highly-annoyed-looking elderly women, a guy reading, someone sleeping. Most people ignore her, don’t even seem to notice, but she keeps singing. Shout-out to the sidewalk bongo drummers, riverfront accordion players, and front-stoop strummers out there: keep bringing it.
Of course, street performers are a whole different category from Kingston’s soundclash descendants. I digress. The boombox wane really brought about vehicle blasters. Q-Tip got down with it (“Boom it in your, boom it in your, boom it in your Jeep / Or your Honda or your Beemer or your Legend or your Benz / The rave of the town to your foes and your friends”), as did Rodney O and Joe Cooley (“Got the street beat I know ya been waiting for / So just be careful cause it might crack your window / So when you’re rolling, G, in your funky-fresh car / Don’t forget to play the humps for the boulevard”), all the way to J Dilla (“We bounce in them trucks with the beat in the back / Four big wheels with the TVs to match / And all through my system, tweeters that knock / My truck set off alarms when it beat up yo block”).
The delivery method is different, but speaker battles are alive and well in rides today. I recently worked two summers at an inner-city car wash, scrubbing rims and caking on tire shine to help pay for college. The vacuum lot got to sounding like a rap concert some days. Cats would pop the trunk and dial the speakers to “Apeshit,” attempting to one-up the SUV parked three feet away, the whole scene creating this menacing cacophony of ugly, home-recorded gangster rap. Too $hort, “Planet Rock,” E40, Zapp and Roger, Rich Homie Kwon, “Cutie Pie”; we’d hear the jams, old-and-new school, pumping out trunks, rattling windows, devouring eardrums. Subwoofers vomited from bass overdose. Real tinnitus-triggering stuff.
My friend Will would park his sedan around back, spread the doors, and bump Notorious B.I.G. classics while we wiped down cars. I’d turned him on to “Juicy” one day, and he returned to the wash in awe: “I was playing that shit at the gas station, and this girl pointed to me like, ‘that’s my shit!’ and started dancing!” A regular popped his trunk and displayed to us his cabinet speaker with the exposed cone, which transmitted blasts so thick I’d swear the Jeep was nodding to the beat as it glided up the block. A friend of mine from the burbs once hooked a home-entertainment system into his ride and “bumped like a house party”, but it produced toddler squeaks compared to these set-ups.
Now I can finally drive, and although I’m not into auditory-overload-induced nausea, I sometimes get the urge to twist the bass in my Toyota Camry up to level 5 (!) and bump at “Reasonably Disruptive”, which is quite a few planes from “Apeshit”, but still. The liberation of cruising, windows down, vulgar rap exploding through the blasé landscape of middle-class monotony, is invigorating, if not at times a bit out-of-place and embarrassing. I’ll turn it down when a soccer mom pulls up beside me. I sweat over the possibility of cops pulling me over for some bullshit noise violation. I disparage all the teens in Ray Bans whipping mommy’s car and booming wishy-washy, R&B-infused, let-Rhianna-sing-the-chorus rap to look disobedient, but I’ll simultaneously notice a shade of myself in them. I yearn for a lowrider with the top down, two massive stacks with 18-inch cones rumbling the pavement, paying respects to Kool Herc, LL Cool J, Radio Raheem, the dreadlocked soundclashers of Jamaican lore. I’d like to imagine I’m continuing their legacy, participating in a cultural practice worth preserving.