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From the boombox to Planet Rock, the cipher circles the planet.
The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with hip-hop culture, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss.
Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind“
When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Long before everything went digital, mixtapes—those floppy discs of the boombox and car stereo—facilitated the spread of underground music. The first time I heard hip-hop, it was on such a tape. Hiss and pop were as much a part of the experience of those mixes as the scratching and rapping. We didn’t even know what to call it, but we stayed up late to listen. We copied and traded those tapes until they were barely listenable. As soon as I figured out how, I started making my own. We watched hip-hop go from those scratchy mixtapes to compact discs to shiny-suit videos on MTV, from Fab 5 Freddy to Public Enemy to P. Diddy, from Run-DMC to N.W.A. to Notorious B.I.G. Others lost interest along the way. I never did.
Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording.
Unlike today’s personal media devices, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. The reception of hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but the boombox remains a part of the iconography of hip-hop.
From mixtapes to mash-ups, hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This argument is the crux of my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is now done via software, iPhones, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. As Laurie Anderson says, “very dangerous art can be made with a pencil.” You don’t need me to tell you that it’s not the tools that matter, it’s what you do with them.
A lot of people all over the world heard those early tapes and were impacted as well. Having spread from New York City to parts unknown, hip-hop became a global phenomenon. Every school has aspiring emcees, rapping to beats banged out on lunchroom tables. Every city has kids rhyming on the corner, trying to outdo each other with adept attacks and clever comebacks. From the boombox to Planet Rock, the cipher circles the planet.
As I mentioned above, the central argument of my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019) is that the cultural practices of hip-hop are the blueprint to 21st century culture. Taking in the ground-breaking work of DJs and emcees, alongside science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as well as graffiti and DIY culture, Dead Precedents is a counter-cultural history of the twenty-first century, showcasing hip-hop’s role in the creation of the world in which we now live.
My friends and I have continued this argument and its exploration in our collection, Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism (Strange Attractor Press, 2022). Through essays by some of hip-hop’s most interesting thinkers, theorists, journalists, writers, emcees, and DJs, Boogie Down Predictions embarks on a quest to understand the connections between time, representation, and identity within hip-hop culture and what that means for the culture at large.
Do yourself a favor or two: get them both.
I stole the title of this post from the Hangar 18 song. Shout out to Tim and Ian.
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