MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Before there were iPods, before there were CDs, there were cassette tapes - and to play them, boomboxes.

(Soundbite of music)

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA (Hip Hop Group): (Rapping) Boom, boom, boom. We don't want breaks.

SIEGEL: It was the boombox that let break dancers move the party outside to a cardboard dance floor.

(Soundbite of song, "Planet Rock")

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: (Rapping) It's time to chase your dreams. Up out your seats, make your body sway. Socialize, get down, let your soul lead the way. Shake it now, go ladies.

SIEGEL: It's been 20 years now since the boombox all but disappeared from our streets. NPR's Frannie Kelley presses rewind on this artifact of American musical history.

FRANNIE KELLEY: You could take your music with you and play it loud, even if people didn't want to hear it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Rapping) 'Cause we are the grassroots and we rock till you can't survive.

KELLEY: Fifty decibels, power-packed bass, blasting out on street corners.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Rapping) You got the happy people dancing to the beat.

KELLEY: Starting in the mid '70s you could buy them anywhere, and they weren't too expensive. Young inner city kids lugged them around. And kids in the suburbs kept them in their cars.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Rapping) (unintelligible) Satisfy your need for curiosity. Well I'm (unintelligible). I came here to rock, I came here to roll, wouldn't touch the (unintelligible) with a 10-foot pole. 'Cause I'm the L to the E to the S-H-U.

KELLEY: They weren't just portable tape players with the speakers built in, you could record off the radio and most had double cassette decks. So if you were walking down the street and you heard something you liked, you could go up to the kid and ask to dub a copy.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Rapping) O-M-C, 'cause I am the M-E-C, Mike D. And I'm the D, double E, to F-A-N, and I want the young ladies just to understand that I'm sending my lovin' from land to land.

KELLEY: This is music on the move. They were soon called boomboxes or ghetto blasters. But to most of the young kids in New York City, it was just a box.

(Soundbite of Song, "I Can't Live Without My Radio")

Mr. LL Cool J (Singer): (Singing) My radio, believe me, I like it loud, I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd, Walkin down the street, to the hardcore beat, While my JVC vibrates the concrete…

KELLEY: And the manufacturers noticed, says Fred Brathwaite, best known as Fab Five Freddy.

Mr. FRED BRATHWAITE: People that were big fans of music at the time were into higher fidelity, better quality sound — bass, midrange and treble. So as they listened to what the consumer, what the young hip kids on the streets of New York wanted, we wanted bass, like that feel of the boom, boom, boom was exciting, you know. And so they began to give more bass and more boom.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLEY: The boxes had to be big to make that bass boom. The speakers in early boxes had extra large magnets to push all that air around, and they were housed in heavy metal casing to deal with the vibrations from all the bass.

Mr. BRATHWAITE: I remember some boxes were so big, they required 20 D-size batteries to an already heavy box. So these boxes were literally so heavy that some cats that would carry their boxes all the time, they would develop massive forearms and biceps. And then some boxes got so big and, like, unwieldy that you'd see guys at big events pulling a massive box on wheels.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLEY: The boxes were part of a style. It included white Addidas and big gold chain. Freddy was a video director and a graffiti artist at that time. And he took his box everywhere.

Mr. BRATHWAITE: I traveled with my massive boombox. I mean, that thing moved with me, you know. I remember, like, being on a plane…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRATHWAITE: …it couldn't go in the overhead bin, but that was my baby. You know, it traveled first class right along with me, you know.

KELLEY: But the trappings of this new culture were secondary to the music. This was the dawn of hip-hop. And it might not have happened without the boombox.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRATHWAITE: A big part of this hip-hop culture in the beginning was putting things in your face, whether you liked it or not. That wasn't always, you know, that maybe it might not always been the right thing or right way to do it, but that was representative of the culture - whether you like this or not, it's in your face. That was the graffiti, that's like a break dance battle right at your feet, you know what I'm saying? Or this music blasting loud whether you wanted to hear it or not.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLEY: As the '80s wore on, cities started enforcing noise ordinances. The Walkman became popular, lighter and cheaper. Gradually people stopped listening to music together. We stopped doing a lot of things together. The rap community left the corner and moved online. We still passed songs around except now it's on file-sharing sites and blogs. We try not to bother anybody, so we put on headphones and don't make eye contact.

These days you don't see or hear many boomboxes, except at Lyle Owerko's house. He collects them. He keeps most of them in storage taped up in bubble wrap. He stacked up a few in his living room to show them off.

Mr. LYLE OWERKO: And this is the GF9696 and it's absolutely my most mint box. It's incredibly shiny, it's 40 watts, the speaker grills detach, which makes it look really mean.

KELLEY: Lyle's collection of 40 boxes includes Lasonics, and Sanyos, JVCs and Crowns. He photographs them and blows the prints up to make the boxes look even bigger than they are in real life.

Mr. OWERKO: The Sharp GS777 was pretty much when boomboxes peaked out in size. This one was what you played in a subway station when you had - you were with break dance crew and you wanted the music loud and you had to be heard. And it had double cassette deck. It was great for dubbing cassettes, for making mixed tapes, all of that. And a lot of knobs and dials, which was always desirable because it was made it seem like you knew what you are doing.

KELLEY: Boxes didn't stay cool forever. They started to be made from plastic and decorated in neon colors and flashing lights. They were sold to people who didn't care about sound. They just wanted to look like they were down.

Mr. OWERKO: Towards the end of any culture, you have the second or third generation that steps into the culture, which is so far from the origination. It's the impression of what's real, but it's not the full definition of what's real. It's just cheesy.

KELLEY: Today Lyle uses his collection as props on photo shoots. And he says the sight of them sends everyone from models to art directors down memory lane. Vintage boomboxes sell for upwards of 1,000 bucks now. And everyone who had one back then is kicking themselves for not holding onto it. Fab Five Freddy misses his box, too, but at least he can go visit. It's on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLEY: The nostalgia for boomboxes isn't just about a trend in stereo equipment. When the music was loud and unavoidable, we had to listen to each other. Maybe we miss boomboxes because when we're wearing headphones we can't talk to anyone else, which makes it hard to help each other out. It makes it hard to party.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Frannie Kelley is a producer at NPR. You can find pictures and watch her video about the history of boomboxes at nprmusic.org.

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