Lyle Owerko is what you would call an archivist. Without intending to create The Boombox Project, the photographer began amassing a vast collection years ago for his own passion– saving ghetto-blasters from thrift stores or random “hand-me-downs”, just for the sake of preserving a piece of Hip Hop history.

Then one day, a light bulb went off in his head. It was time to photograph each of the artifacts, and assemble a comprehensive history of the beloved devices. It seems Lyle determined his life’s work on a subconscious level and casually had all the ingredients of a great book. Enter The Boombox Project: The Machines, The Music, and The Urban Underground.  Spike Lee joined the party by penning the intro while other icons such as Kool Moe Dee and Beastie Boys chime in with quotes on the good ‘ol days. Today Lyle is on a world tour, displaying the enormous images while speaking on the sonic seeds that helped birth a movement.

We met up with Lyle to talk a little about on following your internal compass and new dreams…

Jauretsi: How many boomboxes have you accumulated, and how did it occur to you to transform this collection of dead artifacts into a a prestigious assembly of hip hop history (almost in a museum like manner)?

Lyle Owerko: I own forty plus “A list” Boomboxes (of the about 100 to 200 “A list” Boomboxes that exist in the world — there’s always that missing “one” any collector has to deal with, but I have a fairly solid representation of the genre in my collection). One day I had the idea to turn them in to an art project – basically my girlfriend at the time wanted me to get them out of the apartment… an endeavoring compromise was to shoot the collection and make prints of them to hang on our walls. My internal compass really wanted to create museum quality HUGE prints to hang on the wall of the loft we lived in — that, and the pursuit of crafting the most amplified visual representation of them I could began after this commitment was made. After five years of devotion here we are… a bombastic gift to the world.

Did you ever own a boombox yourself during these hey-days? If so, explain your own relationship to this machine.

Sure did — definitely owned a few during my youth — as a kid I wasn’t really hoisting one around to establish my sonic presence in the world — it was mainly to enjoy listening to music. I started out painting from an early age. Doing art and listening to music are easily two of the biggest complimentary creative endeavors that could ever go together. It’s a very symbiotic relationship for me – the visual and aural. Even now — I’d rip out my eyeballs if I had to work on an image on the computer without the capability to listen to music…. they definitely help balance out each other. As far as my relationship to these iconic machines with two speakers and a tape deck — I definitely adore what the Boombox (aka Ghettoblaster, Beatbox, ‘Blaster etc…) meant to the advancement of music and popular culture. Looking back they had so much influence on incubating music, art, and the spreading of ideas — the were definitely the weapon of a generation.

You had mentioned once that the BoomBox was almost a status symbol. Similar to how people wear sneakers or watches today. What exactly differentiates one boombox from the other, and what made one superior from the other?

Sound and fidelity certainly were cognitive signatures that made one Boombox superior over another — other elements such as design, amplitude, size and manufactured footprint definitely set the tone of what created a superior presence of one box over another — but it really came down to one factor — and that was Bass — as Don Letts says “Bass is Fundamental” — Bass capability and amplitude definitely set one box apart from another… that and a bit of electronic flash in terms of VU meters, LED’s and some knobs to fiddle with made for a happy consumer.

Who would you say are the TOP 3 badasses in Hip Hop History that rocked the boombox the best?

LL Cool J – he placed a Boombox next to his music and the rest is history (“I can’t live without my radio”), Run DMC (with the JVC RC-838), The Beastie Boys embracing the Boombox as a signature, The Clash (they exuded the crossroads of taste and amplified cool — they always had a box with them) and Schooly D — Josh Cheuse took some great pictures of Schooly in the UK lugging around a Conion 100cf — those pic’s are iconic in their representation of how ludicrously huge these portable devices were… a total crass representation of engineering and swagger. It’s why we hang on to the representation of these devices to this day. In a way, they had an integrity that is so important and missing from a lot of our current cultural climate. I think that’s why the image of them is still so important to youth culture.

What next for you? Are you working on any new projects right now?

Good question…. I am actually consumed with next steps for The Boombox Project — exhibits are on the horizon in Brasil, Sweden, Los Angeles, Germany etc… We already have a show up and running in Paris at Colette and a new show being planned for New York in late January that will run for six months. For my next project I want to go back to portraiture. I have an idea that I want to pursue in central Asia when I get a break in the spring… It will be good to visit the High Steppes of outer Mongolia and China to chase this next dream…

———————————————
The Boombox Project by Lyle Owerko, Abrams Books, $29.95.
Street Kids: Photo by Ricky Flores / Courtesy of Abrams Books
To see a beautiful video portrait, go to The Boombox Project by DropCulture.com

Originally written for The Standard Culture site by Jauretsi