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30 Years of Music: What's In A Boombox?
February 16th, 2017

Even after spending a day with Public Enemy, it had never crossed Timothy Anne Burnside's mind that she would return home with the band's signature boombox.

The boombox, which first appeared along their tours back in the early 1980's and resurfacing back in 2000, has now made its entry at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Landing a career as a jazz collections specialist, Burnside especially esteems hip-hop music for its roots in funk, dance, jazz, as well as other forms of early styles.

“Thinking about how hip-hop was creating things that were brand new out of existing music was fascinating to me,” says Burnside, “[so] there was no battle to get hip-hop included, it was always part of the conversation.”

“And Public Enemy is absolutely crucial part of that conversation” rendered Dwan Reece, Smithsonian's curator of music and performing arts. “If you talk about albums that set a genre on a new course, Yo! Bum Rush The Show was the introduction to that new course.”

Reece referred to the rap group's debut album, which altogether projected an absolute offset to what mainstream rap offered at that time. While most artists distinguished between party tunes and novelty performances, Public Enemy offered a sound far more erratic and precarious.

“Despite all the advances that the Civil Rights Movement gave us, there was still poverty and disenfranchisement in our cities,” Reece recalls whilst listing out particular events with the fatalities they shadowed, not to mention listing the names of each life subjugated by social unrest.

Such events would project the very fire that fueled Public Enemy's career, which in itself genuinely represented music with a message, or a dialogue if you will, projecting a voice of activism against issues like racism, violence, and political scandals.

But perhaps their greatest accomplishment as a band lies in the idea that even after thirty years, majority of their messages still ring true today. “The message stands today,” states Burnside, “and it's this amazing combination of sonic identity with a much larger, more resounding impact on popular culture and music.”

Her words bring us back to the boombox. What better way to resonate such a message? Before the ideas of CD players or iPods were even conceived, people held boomboxes over their shoulders to promote their music.

And the loudness of the boombox simply had a way of invading the space of others, which at first, came as both alarming and crude. But to many others, the box's sonic space embodied a tool to make their voices heard.

Public Enemy's signature boombox, along with other nostalgic pieces like apparel, costumes, banners, and more, are now displayed at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

By Jods Arboleda for PublicEnemy.com