Though he grew up in Minneapolis, Scott Campbell is a pretty classic New Yorker. He’s 45, living in Brooklyn, and working as an event producer. His company handles the annual World Trade Center 9/11 memorial, installing two lights that shoot into the sky where the Twin Towers once stood. He studied music in college, and whenever his friends from the New Orleans jazz outfit Mama Digdown’s Brass Band come to town, he’ll still get on stage and play the sax.
He’s an avid collector with a handful of instruments and more than 3,000 vinyl LPs. What really sets Campbell apart, though, is his collection of vintage boomboxes, of which he has about 30 taking up a whole wall of his apartment and then some.
“The reason why I set up that wall the way I did, I literally just put it across from my couch so I could just sit there and look at them,” he laughs. “I know that might sound kind of cheesy, but I just love staring at them for a few minutes every day. They look so cool. They’re fun. They sound great, and they bring me happiness. They’re a good thing.”
A picture of Campbell’s boomboxes recently made the rounds online. He stacked 14 of the chromed-out classics on his stoop during a move. The gritty concrete and flashy speakers set a perfect NYC scene, like something ripped out of an ’80s movie. Discogs posted it to Instagram, and it got the whole community talking. So, we figured we’d give Campbell a call to hear more about his boombox beauties, where he finds them, and how he keeps them in working order.
Discogs: When did you first get really into music and when did you get your first boombox?
Scott Campbell: My family is pretty musical. My brother and I — people will laugh at this — but we were pretty avid recorder players. My brother went on to be a bit of a prodigy and a professional for his early adult life. I switched to saxophone because I found it to be more interesting. I was into [music] from a performing aspect, but also from a listening aspect. Prince was definitely one of the big hometown heroes and big influences. He was everywhere. That was one of my first boombox experiences, because my brother got a boombox in 1984 and would constantly play the Purple Rain cassette. I got my own, but it was just a single speaker Magnavox. I brought it with me [everywhere] like a Walkman.
I didn’t really get into the big boombox world until I moved to New York in 2000. I found one just sitting on the street. One of the benefits of living in New York is that people don’t bring a lot of things to thrift stores. They just put stuff out on the street. You can get amazing items. I got a very good one, one of the biggest ever made — a Conian C-100F. That grew to another and another. Over 20 years, it developed into a pretty big collection.
D: What made you take that first one home?
SC: I’ve always been interested in audio equipment. I have a pretty big record collection. All things that are kind of audio-related I have an interest in, and it also looked really amazing. I love the design, the big chromed switches and speakers, and the electric light VU [volume unit] meters that bounce to the beat. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it.
D: Is that a vintage piece? Are boomboxes still being made much?
SC: Most of the ones I have are pretty old. My oldest is probably 1978, and my most recent one is maybe 1986 or ’87. There has been interest in redesigning or rereleasing some models, but nothing I’ve seen mimics or is as good as the designs that were released in the ’80s. They’re pretty special.
D: How many boomboxes do you have?
SC: I believe I have 30.
D: Where do you store them all?
SC: They do take up a lot of room, and it’s hard living in New York finding storage solutions for big piece of vintage audio equipment. My most recent solution was creating a wall of radios in a corner of my living room. I had stacked them all on top of each other to the point where they’re at least seven or eight feet. It looked really great, but I recently took them all down and started building custom shelves. I like to use the radios; pull one out and bring it somewhere. Having them all stacked up on top of each other made it really difficult to grab the one on the bottom.
D: I like to hear that. I am a collector of different things, vinyl included. I believe in using the things and not just staring at them.
SC: I bring the radios to picnics, birthday parties, and stoop sales. I brought one to a protest earlier this year. I bring them to the beach. Every year, a good friend of mine and I do a Prince birthday brunch where we play Prince from 12:00 p.m. ’till 10:00 p.m., at our favorite restaurant in Brooklyn. This year, we weren’t able to do that. Instead, we brought a boombox outside the restaurant, played Prince music, and hung out socially distanced. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to think of creative ways to celebrate friend’s birthdays. I took one outside of my friend’s house and did a little mix of Peter Gabriel “In Your Eyes” with a version of “Happy Birthday.” I held it above my head. It was socially distanced, and they filmed the whole thing, which is pretty funny. I did it in cahoots with her husband.
D: Do you get a lot of reactions from strangers?
SC: It’s really fun to see how people react to them. I think it’s the nostalgia factor. People usually have a story about their first boombox and always say they wish they kept it. Then there’s the people who’ve never really seen something like that before, and they have a lot of questions. People usually ask how many batteries they take. They end up wanting to take a photo with it, and that’s fun. There’s a lot of Bluetooth speakers you can bring out to the park, and they’re fun. They sound good, but it’s nothing like having a boombox. People engage with it more. I’m a big proponent of the communal music experience, whether it’s a concert or just hanging out around a radio.
D: Do you have a large cassette collection? What are these boomboxes capable of playing?
SC: I do have some cassettes and I do play them, but I will admit that I cheat. I have a couple Bluetooth adapters that you can plug into the back of anything with an RCA input. Then, you can play anything from your computer or phone. It allows you to play anything and take requests. I enjoy that part of the technology that’s available, but I prefer to use it on things that are vintage.
D: Do they ever break down? Is there a go-to person that fixes them or do you know how?
SC: I’m against spending a ton of money on these. You can buy them on eBay for thousands of dollars in perfect condition, but for me, part of the fun is getting one that needs work for a cheaper price and spending time fixing it up. I’m pretty good at the cleaning and more aesthetic fixing up of the radios. I recently fixed a big hole in one, repainted the whole unit, and polished everything. It looks great, but the electronics need some work.
I do, fortunately, have a guy. His name is Frank at Hi-Tech Electronics on Canal Street in the Lower East Side, Chinatown in New York. He can pretty much fix anything. I bring it to him, and a few days later, he gives me a call and it works great. He’s one of those classic figures, got the shop that has hundreds of cameras and radios and turntables and amplifiers. It’s a very New York-looking establishment. If people are in New York and they need something fixed, he’s the guy.
D: Is there a style of music that plays best on a boombox?
SC: That’s a really good question. When I’m testing them, I listen to mainly hip-hop, because I want to see what it can do bass-wise. A lot of classic hip-hop can really test the speakers, but I play everything from hip-hop to classical music. I like to sit on my stoop with one of the smaller ones and listen to jazz, and they sound great. It really depends on the context. A lot of block party music from the late ’70s, early ’80s, funk, and R&B. House music. Whatever people are in the mood for, but hip-hop really does sound good.
Because I’ve had a lot of time during COVID, I’m taking all the radios that light up and wiring them together, then hooking them up to my turntables. You can play records through all the boomboxes, and they light up to the beat. I’m planning on doing some webcasts. It would be really fun to see hip-hop going through all those speakers lit up. I’m also thinking about doing photo shoots in front of the wall. It’s a natural backdrop, and a couple of friends have recommended I do that. I’m thinking about putting the wall up on a couple of sites like Peerspace, where you can rent portions of apartments or unique spaces.
I used to rent them out for music videos and commercials, but they would often come back damaged or missing parts. Unfortunately, I’ve steered away from that whole thing. I want to be around them, monitor them. As tough as they do look, they’re actually really, really fragile. They have lots of tiny pieces, and people charge a lot of money on eBay just for a little knob. I like finding the little pieces and everything, but it can end up being an expensive process. I prefer to clean it up and make it look great but not have to spend $10 on a little knob or $50 and then it ships from Tokyo.
I recently restored the same model radio that was used in Do the Right Thing. I had always wanted that radio, it’s a good example of a radio that is normally in good working condition and more than $1,000 at least. I just refuse to pay that much, but I found one that was missing the tape mechanism for one of the tape decks and, I think, an antenna. I found the radio in Israel missing the parts, and I got it for a really cheap price. That very same day, I was able to find the tape mechanism in Korea, and it wasn’t too much. I got all the parts, brought it to Frank, and he put it all together. Now, I have a working Radio Raheem.
D: What other famous boomboxes have you found?
SC: I have the one from Say Anything — a Sharp DGF-7600 — which took me years to find. I found the radio Prince uses in Purple Rain [the movie] to rehearse and learn songs. That’s a Toshiba RT 80s. There was a Madonna photo shoot in 1983 by a photographer named Richard Corman. It was before she was famous, before Like a Virgin, I think. She had this really long, skinny radio, a very unique design, a Sanyo M-7830. There’s another one Madonna used — a light-up version in two of her videos from the Confessions on a Dance Floor album. I had one before that album came out, but it blew up in 2005 and everyone wanted it. The price skyrocketed, but I really wanted to have one on either side of the Radio Raheem. I finally found another and I did a bunch of work on that. I brought it to Frank. He fixed lights. Now I have two them. They look really, really cool.
D: Do you have a favorite?
SC: I really like the original, because that’s what got me into collecting. It has all the characteristics of a classic boombox; lots of big speakers, the chrome details, and all the knobs, and it’s really loud and really heavy. It’s got tons of bass. It’s just iconic. It’s weighs like 25 pounds and takes 10 D-cells. That one is pretty awesome. I have a few other favorites that I like to carry around because they’re a little smaller and a little more manageable … and then the disco light ones.
D: Do you still have that first boombox you got as a kid?
SC: I don’t think my parents kept it, but I recently searched for it and found it on eBay. I might just pick it up for nostalgia purposes — but I am running out of room.
Photo of Scott Campbell by Masami Adachi. All other images by Scott Campbell.