Words and images by Shawn “Speedy” Lopes
In a bygone era, it gave a homeboy instant clout.
Regardless of one’s reputation or rank in the neighborhood, that hulking icon of old-school technology – the boombox – promised a dynamic shift in a young man’s social standing.
It took a year of constant begging, as I recall, but at just a shade under $200, a glinty new JVC RC-M50C was purchased grudgingly by my mother one summer, with a promise to never buy me anything else ever again. Not even for Christmas.
And just as with puberty, changes came quickly. A peripheral middle-schooler was promptly granted access to the street corner and allowed to mingle with the big kids. Casual acquaintances became loyal attendants. High schoolers offered a respectful chin-raise in passing. And almost magically, girls seemed to occasionally want to engage me in small talk.
It would be overstated to say that a ghettoblaster changed my life, but it did provide me with early indicators of social order and personal inclinations. I wasn’t the toughest kid in the projects, nor the most athletic or studious. My teachers constantly chided me for my “D average” underachievements. I couldn’t be bothered to learn integers or fractions, but I could damn sure recite the long version of “Planet Rock”.
I memorized every detail of The Clash’s albums front to back. Same for Steel Pulse. And Rick James. And Hendrix. And in one of my most frustrating, though flattering moments, a certain radio station once refused to grant me their music trivia grand prize on account of my winning too often. That killed me.
You see, even then, music was my life. And for one glorious summer, my social role in the neighborhood as radio operator was assured. I was the kid with the rock box and the largest collection of cassettes and mixtapes in the area. And just as with my counterparts in the U.S. army, I felt like a vital member of the local force. Whether the pack roamed the district, skirmished with kids from rival projects at the basketball courts or engaged in downtown product-pinching sorties, I kept the troops connected to the outside world.
Shortwave stations from around the globe gave me glimpses of a planet much bigger than the one I knew, often in curious accents and foreign languages. These days, shortwave radios are difficult to obtain for under $100, yet they were a standard feature in many boombox models of the time.
Some of the grander boomboxes were veritable entertainment systems unto themselves and included myriad inputs from which one might connect a turntable or microphone. A few unattainable models came with televisions, built-in phonographs and even synthesizer keyboards. My RC-M50C, though far from the “holy grail” of ghettoblasters, did boast a rather unique “biphonic echo” feature, which added a primitive karaoke echo to outgoing sound, whether from the radio, cassette or microphone. Boxed away somewhere in a corner of my bedroom closet is a decades-old cassette of my first-ever rap, created on my boombox, replete with cheesy echoic embellishments.
Of course, in this digital age, there’s no disputing an mp3 player’s practicality and portability over the antiquated boombox, though it must also be noted that an iPod lacks the uniquely communal aspect of its ancestor. Sure, you could add mini speakers to your Zen, Sansa or Gigabeat, but it could never rock the block like the old school ghettoblaster.
Additionally, the near-infinite variety and features of boomboxes is something that we have yet to see from mp3 players. One speaker? Two speakers? Three? Five? Single or dual cassette? Metal capability? Beat cut? Shortwave? LED equalizers? AM/FM? Phono inputs?
So word up to the boombox. You gave me the soundtrack to my youth and helped shape the person I am today.