Electronic music is not famous for its incorporation of old-school analog gear, which is why one of Insomniac’s most beloved art cars is all the more unique.
Modeled after a 1980s ghetto blaster, the Boombox art car joined the Insomniac fleet in 2012 and has since made appearances at EDC Las Vegas, EDC New York, Beyond Wonderland, Beyond Wonderland Bay Area, and Burning Man, where the original idea for the design came about more than 10 years ago. Originally named the Rockbox, the art car is the brainchild of Derek Wunder, a Bay Area Burner and craftsman. He was inspired to create the car at the 2004 Burn, where he noticed several “ratty old cars with blown speakers” driving around the Playa.
In these so-called shitty sound systems, he heard an opportunity.
“This was before there were a lot of mobile sound systems on the Playa,” says Wunder. “We were talking about it at camp, and I said, ‘What about a really big ghetto blaster?’”
Wunder began drafting sketches of what he wanted his art car to look like. A longtime hip-hop head, he imagined an old-school boom box with larger-than-life radio dials and the same kind of tape deck from which he used to blast artists like Run–D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys in his days. This tape deck would be a window that would open to reveal a DJ spinning inside the car. Wunder financed the project largely on his own. He and a group of friends forged the outer shell of the car from plywood and steel, fashioning it on top of the chassis, which was taken from a 1987 Dodge van. The original plan was for the car to be eight feet long. The final product measured 24 feet in length and weighed 12,000 pounds. Wunder and his crew were ready to rock at Burning Man.
Three years after the spark of the idea, the Rockbox made its inaugural trek to the Playa in 2007. Wunder transported the car to the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada—where Burning Man takes place toward the end of each summer—on a flatbed truck. The car itself could travel 10 miles per hour maximum, and even that was challenging.
“Even at top speed, it was kind of scary,” Wunder says. “I had the suspension blocked, so it didn’t handle very well. The Rockbox was designed to go very, very slowly. It wasn’t street-legal at all.”
He laughs when asked about his favorite adventures on the Rockbox, noting that a lot of them are a bit of a blur. His standard maneuver on the Playa was to park the Rockbox next to an art installation he liked, so he could provide the music and create a party next to a place where people naturally gravitated. The car, a sweet piece of nostalgia decked out with a righteous sound system, developed a cult following during its three trips to Burning Man, and it was not unusual to have a crowd of 50–100 cycling Burners trailing it across the Playa. When it got stuck in a sand dune in 2011, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran photos of a group of bedraggled Burners pushing it out of the sand as the sun came up behind them.
Up to 50 people at a time could—and can to this day—ride on the car’s two levels: The inside quarters, where the DJ performs, house the DJ gear and allow for sitting space within the car, while the open-air top deck is reachable via ladder. Music on the car typically featured underground sounds, as Wunder focused on giving up-and-coming producers, especially those from the Bay, the opportunity to play on nice equipment. Beyond that, he preferred pumping the old-school rap that inspired the project.
“I wanted to do dance circles and old-school hip-hop–type stuff,” Wunder says. “Dance music at Burning Man is so overplayed. It’s a huge rave festival now. I wanted to hear other types of music.”
In 2012, after experiencing myriad mechanical issues with the old Dodge van, and almost having it fall on top of him while making a repair, Wunder made the hard decision to sell his creation. He put up a Craigslist ad offering a giant ghetto blaster on wheels—sound system included. Within 24 hours, he received media coverage from amused outlets, including The Onion’s A.V. Club, along with 40 calls from interested buyers. One of them was Insomniac. The company’s art curator, Ian Oosthuizen, knew Wunder and the Rockbox from Burning Man and passed him the cash that made the car the rightful property of the company.
“It’s a giant boom box,” Oosthuizen says of his decision to acquire the car. “What’s not to love?”
Insomniac did a complete overhaul on the vehicle, swapping out the ailing Dodge for a more mechanically sound motorhome; revamping the LED lights outlining the tape deck, dials, and speakers; installing a new sound system; and rechristening it the Boombox. The car has since hosted numerous DJs, including Tony Quattro, Star Eyes, and Marques Wyatt at parties across the United States. It has also made several return trips to its spiritual home at Burning Man. At the 2014 Burn, a crowd of party people, including Skrillex, watched the sun rise from the Boombox’s top deck.
And even though this piece of musical nostalgia now exists in the world’s most state-of-the-art and futuristic music scene, certain analog properties remain: At its fastest, the car still goes roughly 10 miles per hour max.
Get up close and personal with the Boombox at Life Is Beautiful 2016.
Life Is Beautiful 2016 takes place September 23–25 in Downtown Las Vegas. For more information, visit the official website.
Katie Bain left her heart on the Playa. Follow her on Twitter.