At the Midforms Festival, a new installation gets nostalgic for the ghetto blaster—a lost artifact in these iPod days
It's been a long time since boom boxes were the most convenient portable music devices. As iPod users worldwide walk around with white earbuds sucking them into their own worlds, it's nearly impossible to picture early-'80s music fans rocking giant ghetto blasters on their shoulders for everyone to hear. Also, while iPods get sleeker every year, '80s boom boxes subscribed to the theory that bigger is better. The larger your woofers were, or the more EQ dials you could choose from, the more impressive your setup was. But with hundreds of iPhone features and applications being generated every week, tossing something into your jacket pocket seems way more appealing than lugging around your radio. Short of a Breakin' marathon or tryouts for America's Best Dance Crew, you're probably not going to see a boom box anytime soon. Which raises the question: where did they all go? One look around James Phillips's Mount Pleasant apartment suggests that a good chunk of them are at his place.
“I have somewhere around 90,” he marvels, standing in front of a massive wall unit full of portable stereos while a Run-DMC song plays in the background.
The local artist's apartment is crowded with tape players ranging in size from huge to gigantic. Most follow the traditional boom-box aesthetic of shiny chrome casings and big speakers, but there are a handful of oddities in Phillips's collection, including Casio ghetto blaster/synthesizer hybrids, models with classy wood panelling, and units that come complete with a turntable. With so many styles crammed into his home, visitors and friends can't help but ask the owner about his obsession with the hefty sound systems.
“When I pull down the big ones, people are like, ”˜Oh my god, that's huge!' ” he says, explaining that the biggest boom boxes could weigh up to 30 pounds. And that's before you factor in 10 D-size batteries.
Beyond acting as a curator in his own home, Phillips jumped at the chance to show off his collection at this year's Midforms Festival of new-media arts, which runs Thursday to Saturday (March 5 to 7) at the Great Northern Way Campus (577 Great Northern Way). The installation Analog Nostalgia: A Social History of the Ghetto Blaster is a chance for the artist to highlight his favourite portable stereos while discussing the cultural impact of the devices.
“The objects are the focus point but the memories are what matter,” Phillips says. “A big part of the show was getting a hold of some friends who had stories about radios, like, ”˜I remember that radio because my dad had it in his garage and it reminds me of fixing cars with my dad,' or ”˜It reminds me of a girlfriend I had when I was 16.' ”
The collector will be loading his tape decks up with friends' musings on boom boxes that patrons can listen to at the exhibit. Obviously, he has some stories of his own. Walking back to the enormous wall display near his front door, Phillips gleefully points out the piece that started his fascination with ghetto blasters in the '80s: the JVC PC-55. Though it's not as flashy as some, the metallic black radio's detachable speakers captivated him when he was a kid growing up in Saskatchewan.
“My older sister's boyfriend had one,” he remembers fondly. “He was a kid from Toronto that moved out to Saskatoon, so he was the coolest guy I knew. He had one of these, therefore it became the coolest item that I could imagine.”
With an arsenal of other stories linked to his boom boxes, from making mix tapes of electro-funk and hip-hop he recorded off New York radio stations to playing basketball with his friends with a ghetto blaster nearby, the audio enthusiast points out the strong sense of community that revolved around the stereos.
“One of the things I think is unfortunate is that right now our music is our iPods,” he laments. “It's no longer about public space. It used to be about sharing what you had with other people. You took your radio to the beach and blasted your music. Your friends listened to it, you all had different tapes and you rotated through the machine. Now you go to the beach, you plug in your headphones and you have your own vibe going on.”
Though the artist knows his show won't start a full-scale revival—“I'm not trying to convince people that boom boxes are better than iPods. That's not my point,” he insists—he's hopeful the installation will resonate with people, from those who experienced the ghetto blaster's heyday to curious newcomers. If you're lucky enough, Phillips might even let you take one of his pieces for a block-rockin' test drive.
“I was at Kits Beach two summers ago and I saw this kid with a Sony boom box,” he says of a fellow stereo junkie. “He was there with a little break-dancing crew. I was shocked and super excited. I gave them my phone number and said, ”˜Hey, if you ever want to borrow a radio, let me know!' ”