The story of the ghetto blaster: An icon in audio history
The ghetto blaster isn’t just a style icon from the 80s and 90s.
Ghetto blaster boomboxes introduced the world to a new style of listening to music. For the first time, we could take our tunes with us on the move, listen to the radio wherever we liked, and we never had to compromise on volume.
In recent years, as manufacturers have begun to design more durable, weather-proof versions of their leading audio products, the ghetto blaster is enjoying a resurgence.
However, the eye-catching modern devices we have today are often a world apart from the clunky machines of decades gone by.
The cassette deck and CD player is often replaced with things like Alexa smart speaker access and a Bluetooth connection. Blocky designs are giving way to huge cylindrical machines, complete with colour changing effects.
While the style of the ghetto blaster may be changing, however, the underlying soul of the device remains the same. The boombox is still a mainstay of any outdoor event. The bigger your machine, the larger your personality, and the more volumeyou can unlock.
Here’s your insight into the past, present, and future of the ghetto blaster.
Ghetto blaster boomboxes: An innovation in portability
70s Ghetto blasters and boomboxes in the 80s existed long before pocket-sized radios were a possibility. Part of the era before the iPod, the MP3 player, and even the Walkman in some cases, people needed a way to take the clunky tech of an audio system with them outside.
The ghetto blaster sprang to life in 1969, introducing a large, yet still (somewhat) portable machine with multiple loud speakers. The Philips company was the first to discover the tech required to make audio “portable”.
In the early days, most people referred to these products as boomboxes. The name, in part, referred to the heavy, box-like design of the machine. Plus, most boombox radios also came with a bass-enhancing codec, which meant you got plenty of boom.
So, what is a ghetto blaster?
The name alone is enough to conjure an image of one of these products. In the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, most ghetto blasters were large, angular (box-shaped) devices.
While the features available from a ghetto blaster have changed over the years, they usually include:
An amplifier (with extra bass support)
Two loudspeakers (volume is a must)
A radio tuner (AM, FM, and sometimes DAB)
A cassette or CD player
A handle for portability
The cassette tape and CD player components of the modern ghetto blaster are quickly being phased out. Although you can find a new ghetto blaster with CD player components these days, it’s more common to simply play your music collection via Bluetooth.
Ghetto blasters need to be loud, versatile, and portable. In the past, designers used to slap a handle on a blocky machine and leave customers to figure out the rest.
This frequently led to people carrying ghetto blasters on their shoulders to make managing the weight a bit easier.
Today, more modern ghetto blasters from companies like JBL and Sony are a little more ergonomic. Some products come with straps so you can carry your radio like a backpack.
Others feature unique designs that make carrying the machine on your shoulder more comfortable.
80s ghetto blasters and the identity of an era
While Ghetto blasters in the 70s and 60s were available, it wasn’t until the 1980s when popularity surged. The ghetto blaster became the icon of a generation, acting as both a practical tool, and a status symbol.
Today, we still see boomboxes as a component of the 80s and early 90s aesthetic. Many leading artists use ghetto blasters in their music videos. Just look at “Hung Up” by Madonna, or “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga.
So, why did the ghetto blaster suddenly surge into the mainstream in the 1980s? There are a few answers to this question.
In the 80s, cassette ghetto blaster products were often associated with urban society. African American and Hispanic youths frequently carried ghetto blasters with them wherever they went.
In fact, the popularity that boomboxes had in this environment is what helped them to earn their new term “ghetto blaster”.
As is often the case when music incites a community, cities began to ban boomboxes from public places. Unlike standard radio sets, governments didn’t have complete control over what people listened to on their ghetto blasters.
It was just as easy to listen to your own cassettes and CDs as it was to tune into Kiss FM.
Ghetto blasters in the 80s grew in popularity as a versatile way to listen to all kinds of music. Some groups even started using these portable players to create music.
The boombox became instrumental to the rise of hip hop music. Curb-side rap battles often included a number of ghetto blasters. The fact that ghetto blasters could deliver more bass and volume than a standard speaker made it perfect for the rise of a new genre.
Aside from providing the soundtrack to many urban music battles, ghetto blasters also became a status symbol. The Beastie Boys embraced the ghetto blaster as a signature of their “rebellious” nature. The Clash alwaysseemed to have a boombox with them.
Elsewhere, the devices appeared frequently in shows and movies. Just think of Fame, in the 1980s, or Flash dance, for instance.
Even the National Museum of American History once created an exhibition around ghetto blasters. The event, titled “Hip-Hop won’t stop” featured an insight into the impact boomboxes had on the urban underground.
What happened to ghetto blasters in the 1990s?
As ghetto blasters earned more popularity around the world, they also became more complex in functionality and design. By the end of the 80s, ghetto blasters frequently came with separate high/low-frequency speakers.
You could also access secondary tape decks so that you could record off the radio and other music systems.
Over the years, manufacturers introduced a host of new features, from balance adjusters and equalisers, to Dolby noise reduction tools, LED sound gauges, and CD players. Despite all of this extra functionality, ghetto blasters in the 1990s weren’t as popular as they used to be.
The problem wasn’t with the technology of ghetto blaster boomboxes. Rather, customers didn’t see the objects as capturing as much soul as their predecessors. Sometimes, when things in our history go “mainstream”, their impact can feel a little watered down.
Manufacturers jumped to add new bells and whistles to their systems to ensure that customers could have the latest and greatest tech. Unfortunately, the old-fashioned feel of the ghetto blaster wasn’t there.
On top of that, in the 2000s, when the ghetto blaster started to take on more high-tech functionality, it seemed to lose its retro appeal.
The popularity of 80s ghetto blasters was about more than just what these systems could do. People loved the portability and impact of the boombox. However, it was the stigma attached to the device that really made having a boombox exciting.
At the same time, towards the ends of the 80s, the Walkman from Sony was beginning to earn attention.
People felt less inclined to risk the issues of carrying a boombox in public. After all, you could have all your music on the go with a Walkman, and you didn’t need to spend as much. In the 90s, an appreciation of music became a more personal, inward experience.
People weren’t as keen to blast their music in public places. We started to think of radio, CDs, and other audio experiences as more personal affairs.
Even some of the more popular modern ghetto blasters available on the market today are equipped with headphone jacks for that very purpose.
The rise of the modern ghetto blaster
The ghetto blaster of days gone by is often regarded a relic of history today. Think back to the 80s, and you’re sure to have an image in your mind of a ghetto blaster with cassette player functionality and a unique chrome trim.
While many people still have a place in their heart for old-fashioned boomboxes, it’s safe to say that the older models did have their issues.
Equaliser settings seemed to make absolutely no difference to the sound quality. The chunky and blocky design meant carrying your ghetto blaster was a real headache. That’s particularly true if you had extra cassette recorders and speakers to think about.
On top of all that, ghetto blasters also had a major problem with battery life. These portable devices often required a huge number of batteries. Filling a device full of 10-12 D batteries could leave it weighing anywhere up to 26 pounds.
Many of the updates appearing in the new ghetto blaster market come with a focus on correcting the key issues of days gone by. As society continues to embrace the idea of “public music” again, ghetto blasters are seeing a resurgence.
However, today’s consumers don’t want to deal with the old gripes of their parents.
Cassettes might have been the perfect way to store and carry music back in the 70s and 80s when they were small and cheap – but they’re not going to have the same impact now.
People want the freedom to stream their music digitally through USB sticks and Bluetooth connections instead.
You may occasionally encounter a CD ghetto blaster which gives you the option to play older audio formats. However, it’s more common to find a portable device that looks more like a massive speaker than a CD player these days.
The modern ghetto blaster combines radio and Bluetooth to introduce something more portable than anything we had in the past.
Aside from fixing old issues, today’s ghetto blaster manufacturers also have new opportunities to introduce capabilities we couldn’t imagine before.
In the 70s, you never would have been able to imagine a speaker that could respond to your voice, rather than using buttons. Yet, somehow, smart speakers are everywhere today.
In the 80s, a sudden storm or downpour of rain would be enough to destroy a ghetto blaster. Today, we’ve got systems with powerful waterproof ratings to ensure that you never have to worry about unpredictable weather.
The resurgence of the ghetto blaster boombox
We’ve come a long way from the days of the original 70s ghetto blasters, and the iconic boomboxes of the 80s. Today’s devices rarely come with cassette playing functionality.
What’s more, most of the portable music players you’ll find today are much more lightweight than their counterparts.
However, you can still find a handful of products on the market designed to take you back to your nostalgic roots.
1. The Roxel RCD-S70BT
Probably one of the most affordable new ghetto blaster options on the market. The Roxel RCD-S70BT comes with a price tag under £50, but it still features everything you might need from a portable audio device.
If you want to play your own music, you can choose between using the in-built CD player or the Bluetooth connection. There’s also an aux-input for a wired phone connection.
If you’re looking for a new ghetto blaster that pays homage to the unique style of the 80s, check out GPO. The GPO Brooklyn is a stunning retro-style boombox with its own CD and cassette player.
On top of that, you also get access to FM and DAB radio, and a Bluetooth connection too. This fully portable music system gives you everything you need to listen to all of your music.
GPO have built a ghetto blaster with all the retro style of a device from the 80s, along with the modern appeal of new technology.
Just like with older ghetto blasters, you can even use the GPO Brooklyn to record your own content. You can record to a USB or a cassette, depending on your needs. Plus, there’s an option to attach some extra speakers to the boombox for more volume.
An excellent insight into the unique features that modern ghetto blasters include, the AUNA ultrasonic boombox is a portable radio and light show.
Aside from FM radio, you also get a Bluetooth connection that covers over 10 metres, and a USB input so you can connect your flash drives too. There’s an LED colour play display, so you can take the party to the next level.
What’s more, there’s even a microphone input for karaoke too.
One of the more diverse boomboxes on the market, this highly-portable device comes with everything you need to create your own music bottles on any sidewalk.
This would have been a perfect product to have on hand back in the days of rap battles and the rise of hip hop popularity.
The ghetto blaster didn’t fade out with the 80s. Boomboxes aren’t relegated to historical displays in museums – although you might see them in an exhibition from time to time.
Part of the history of ghetto blasters will mean that they’re always associated with a specific time and genre.
However, there’s still a demand for boombox technology today.
From huge devices that can stream radio over Wi-Fi and play content via Bluetooth, to products that mimic the unique aesthetic of ghetto blasters from the 80s, boomboxes still exist.
The important thing to remember is that the ghetto blaster is now a part of an environment where the smartphone has given us access to everything we need at the touch of a button.
In a world where we can check out radio stations by visiting a website, or listen to thousands of songs through an app, there’s no need for a substantial blocky machine that plays tape cassettes. Portable music is now something that we all have access to.
Unlike any other moment in history, we now have more control over what we can listen to.
That doesn’t mean that the time of the boombox is totally over. There are people out there who will love the idea of having their own retro-style ghetto blaster in their home.
You might even want to invest in a more durable ghetto blaster so you can take your music with you and achieve higher levels of volume than you’d get from a standard Bluetooth speaker.
However, the bulky ghetto blaster isn’t the only option for portable music anymore. We’ve discovered solutions that are more efficient, and practical.
For the most part, people who buy ghetto blasters today are the ones that have a nostalgic relationship with the older machines of the past. We buy ghetto blasters for their enduring style, and their connection with an era that we want to be reminded of.
Do you have a ghetto blaster?
There’s no denying that boomboxes still play a part in our audio environment. The difference is that the machines we know and love today are a world apart from the ones we used to use in years gone by.
The good news is that even if you do want to bask in the nostalgia of a more “retro” ghetto blaster, you can. There are plenty of products out there ideal for adding a touch of 80s style to your home.
On the other hand, you can discover the benefits of the modern boombox, and discover the new advantages of things like more durable designs and Bluetooth streaming.
For more insights into the history of radio and audio, check out some of the other articles we have here at Radio Fidelity. Alternatively, check out our reviews for an overview of some of the most popular boombox radios on the market today.