A History of the Ubiquitous Air Horn
You know it, I know it, every being who’s ever subjected themselves to a banger knows it: the air horn.
For those struggling to place this half-beloved, half-hated sound, give thanks to the internet for providing us with a site that instantly plays an airhorn soundbite for all your air horning needs, wherever, whenever.
Now that you’ve taken that important detour, let’s focus on why you’re really here today. Just how did this device ingeniously created by streams of compressed air being blown into a horn (hence, the name) develop from something with such functionality into a legitimate musical sample being used across genres?
The air horn was simply a tool to begin with. It was used by the US Navy and various emergency services for signalling and communication purposes. An everyday car can make do with their “cute” beeps but something as big as a ship and spaces like open oceans have to employ something a little louder. The air horn perhaps took a leap from being a practical device to being used recreationally when they started creating portable personal air horns. Personal air horns! Why does a mere individual human need a personal air horn, something designed for SHIPS? Suddenly, they’re being used at sports events and as scaring devices, because what else would YouTube be filled with if not air horn pranks?
According to this reddit user: Caribbean people hear cruise ships passing by a lot more than most people. In regards to the air horn’s musical adaption, it was Jamaican dancehall and reggae in the 60s and 70s that truly saw its potential and thought, hey, why don’t we incorporate this unabashedly hype sound into our music and DJ sets? The blasting, curving sound of the air horn does have that kind of obtuse appeal to every ear it reaches. It unbiasedly invites everyone to the party. And here we had the start of something new.
Jamaican DJs began hitting the sample at block parties and its positive feedback meant that not before long, it started finding itself in recordings. The first ever recorded use of the air horn may have been The Wailers Band’s "Ravers Version" in 1972. Listen out for it, hiding right towards the last 20 seconds of the track. For a sound so synonymous with reggae, it feels oddly out of place. The music industry definitely refines how the air horn integrates into music over the next few decades.
Reggae and hip hop have always played off each other. One of the original creators of hip hop music was DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican-born Bronx native. African-Americans and Jamaicans have had a sense of union-ship due to their similar societal standing and the Caribbean community in New York was instrumental in the birth of hip hop. Rapping, scratching, breakdancing - these all have their roots in Jamaican music culture. So it was only a matter of time before the air horn blasted its way into hip hop music. It wasn’t until a DJ at New York-based radio station Hot 97, Cipha Sounds, inspired by Jamaican dancehall and reggae, started using the air horn as his trademark soundbite version of a shout out that the air horn shot to popularity in the late 90s/early 00s.
The fact is, the air horn was designed to get attention and be extremely loud. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant but it’s short and attention-grabbing and fuck it, it’s a FUN sound. It screams “party” and when the air horn blasts, you don’t know whether to get the fuck out the door or whether to get the fuck on a dancefloor.
But while the initial incorporation of the air horn could be described as innovative, it quickly leaped from hip hop into dance music and became a default for lazy DJs and producers looking for a cheap way to excite his or her crowd.
EDM producers couldn’t get enough of it, with the likes of Steve Aoki and Eric Prydz pushing the air horn into ultra-commercialized territory. The club crowd simply loved this easy way to inject energy into music, but as big corporations and drug takers are wont to do, they overdid it. With dance music’s infiltration into chart music, Pitbull pounced on it, Madonna messed with it and even Beyoncé used it recently in “Hold Up” (actually, we could probably just blame Diplo for all of this). With its chronic overuse in club culture, it ricocheted into meme-dom. “Air Horn Remixes”, ironic remixes of songs using just a shitload of air horns, started cropping up. No one was safe, not even Queen Elsa.
The air horn’s initial use in music as an exciting new sound sadly fell into disarray and became a mere irritation by the 2010s. Earlier this year, the “Air Horn Orchestra” staged protests in North Carolina for transgender rights, using the air horn’s aggravating tenor to draw media attention.
However, though the air horn has now reached dead horse status, we can’t forget that it indeed experienced a solid few decades of fame and is worthy of some respect. It managed to span reggae, hip hop, dance and pop music, but it couldn’t help that it simple became too popular and too easy to fist pump to. The air horn: a lifesaving tool, an ubiquitous musical sample, and now the butt of a joke.
Next up? The vuvuzela.