They provided the soundtrack to our teenage years and introduced us to sounds overlooked by the mainstream, but is there still a role for pirate radio stations in the podcast era ?
Writer Marcus Barnes, photography Charlotte May Wales, additional research by Renasha Khan
In 1994 we fell in love with a new sound that we had never heard before, it was Jungle music and we couldn’t get enough. After hearing a few tunes on the TV we were hooked and we needed to hear more … it was almost instinctive when we turned the radio on and searched the FM band for some more Jungle. And we found it straight away. At the time the two biggest stations were Rush FM and Kool FM – we would have arguments at school about which was the best station. Without those stations we never would have known about all the different tunes, DJs, MCs and producers of that era – they opened our eyes up to a whole new world. In 2010 some of these stations are still on the airwaves, but what does the future hold with the likes of live streaming on the internet, podcasts and advances in technology that now allow almost anyone with a computer to be a DJ/broadcaster ?
Mini-documentary on Rush FM, Part 1
In the mid to late 80s, the burgeoning house music scene was growing fast and its exponents needed an outlet to play their new music – main-stream stations weren’t providing it, and so, inspired by the famous Radio Caroline, they set about finding a way to set up their own stations and play what they wanted to hear. Preceded by stations like Transmission One, based in Ladbroke Grove, which played early Hip-Hop (the real, early UK stuff), these DJs and MCs took inspiration from a radio station on a boat and took to the rooftops of London’s tower blocks to get their music out there to the followers. Accused of being funded by drug money,blamed for interfering with the radio frequencies of the emergency services …and of course for playing what was referred to as ‘devil music’ by some, the early pioneers of pirate radio faced a huge struggle to establish themselves.
Insiders of the Pirate Radio Scene in london give their insights
Kool FM is considered to be THE premier pirate radio station. Broadcasting for over 18 years, they have not only established themselves as London’s leading pirate station, with a name that is now known all over the globe but they have also helped to establish some of the Jungle/Drum ‘n’ Bass scene’s best known DJs and MCs. DJ Chef has been playing on the station for the last few years, getting his big break in 2004, when he appeared in a guest slot. The East Londoner sees a direct link between the early ‘soundboys’, the owners of reggae soundsystems, and the evolution of illegal broadcasters. With a distinct lack of underground Caribbean music being played on commercial stations, Chef explains that the soundboys needed a way to play the music they wanted to hear, and so the legendary Station FM was born. One of the very early pirates, Station played host to a variety of Caribbean music -Roots – that was a far cry from the pop-style reggae that was being played on the mainstream stations.
DJ Chef explained that, in this day and age, it’s possible for anyone to become a DJ and, thanks to the Internet, anyone can broad-cast their music to a global audience without much effort. But, in the early days of pirate in London you had to know somebody who was already involved in the scene to even be able to get behind a set of decks. The technology was very hard to come by and expensive – Chef was only able to have access to a pair of Technics 1210s because he had a friend who was the first in the area to pick some up. The whole thing was very much a closed market, a specialised area where being in the know was pretty much the only way to have access to the scene. To be able to get onto a pirate radio station took a hell of a lot of leg work, not just meeting people but working hard to establish your name, to let people know you could play a credible set, you had the skills and knowledge to be able to hold your own on one of the top stations. All this helped to create a strong, thriving movement – a close family of broadcasters, DJs, MCs, producers, promoters and a highly appreciative, dedicated audience. If you were a fan of Jungle, Hardcore, Acid House, Techno, Rave and everything else in between then the only way to get your fix of what was happening within these underground music genres was to tune into a pirate station. Kool FM and Rush FM were initial rivals however, proving just how close the community was, they broadcast from the same tower block, in rooms next to each other.
Chef tells us that Kool’s godfather, the legendary Eastman, says the station is all about community – built up over nearly two decades on the airwaves. It’s the ‘Underground Heartbeat’ of the scene and always will be. So much so, that he says if Kool FM was offered a legal licence, he would accept it, but still maintain a pirate separately. Citing Kiss FM as a prime example of a pirate that has gone legal and been watered down, Chef sees the difficulty of maintaining a legal station (financial costs, advertising, bowing down to major labels and so on) as detrimental to the station’s original ethos. Stations like Kool FM and Rinse FM have helped some of their scenes’ biggest stars on the road to success DJ Brockie, MC Dett, Ragga Twins, Navigator, Mampi Swift, Trace, Ryme Time, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Tinchy Stryder, Tinie Tempah and many others first found fame through pirate radio and are now at the top of their game. Creating the foundation of a music community that is so particular to illegal radio in the UK.
An old school jungle set from Kool FM with DJ Brockie and MC Det
Tinie Tempah, Pass Out
Chef himself not only DJs in clubs and on radio, but he also works with young people in Newham, East London to teach DJ skills and producing. He recently established a radio station at the Newham Academy, so a new generation of people are gathering the skills to be able to broadcast. This is all done with the aid of UStream, a relatively new internet concept which allows users to broadcast live audio and video from their PC, Mac or iPhone. And this is where it gets interesting; the website is almost like a multimedia version of Twitter – you sign up and you can deliver a live DJ set to your followers from your bedroom, or even from the club you’re playing at. Which Chef often does. Not only that, but you can connect to other social net working sites, like Facebook, Bebo, Myspace and Twitter, and update your status to tell all of your friends/acquaintances that you’re broadcasting. On top of this, every live stream can be archived and watched over and over by thepeople who subscribe to your channel. If anything signals a move away from pirate and into a whole new world of individual broadcast via the internet, then UStream appears to be the beginning of something new and exciting, if utilised in the right way. Still relatively new and untapped, UStream offers the kind of possibilities that were unheard of just five or 10 years ago. Imagine taking a mobile phone with you to a club, and being able to broadcast your entire set via that phone… and of course, away from the live club aspect, it offers the chance to be able to DJ from your bedroom and broadcast across the globe.
But Chef reminds us that the established stations will still hold a certain resonance and respect, and up-and-coming DJs will yearn to play for them. Even now he gets multiple requests from DJs for a chance to play on Kool FM because it offers the kind of prestige that money and new technology just can’t buy. The demand to play on pirate radio is still there, and will not dissipate until there is a legitimate replacement for it. On top of this, having so much at the tip of your fingers creates a kind of laziness, an apathy that didn’t exist when technology was harder to come by. With so much at their disposal, youngsters can dip into whatever they want, try it for a while and, if they don’t like it, move on to the next thing. Grime music being a prime example – the genre exploded in the early 2000s, everyone was an MC or a DJ and kids were producing music on their Playstations. It created a few stars, some of whom are still around today, but just as quickly as it appeared and all the free space on the FM dial was full of Grime stations, it dropped off. The youngsters becoming bored of it, or finding something else to do. Chef believes pirate radio will continue to exist, despite the speed at which technology is growing and allowing anyone to become a broadcaster. It has been passed down through generations, a London culture which has never really translated to other cities or countries around the world, thanks to London’s very special mix of migrants and indigenous people.A city that has created Jungle/Drum ’n’ Bass, Dubstep and is unrivalled in its diehard mentality towards its specific cultural movements.
Across the water, pirate radio may not have had the impact that it did in London, but it has still had its role to play. Chef mentioned a brilliant story about a DJ from Austria who came to London at the height of the Jungle explosion- found some pirate stations during his time here and was so inspired he went back home, bought some equipment and set up his own station in the mountains, broadcasting tapes he’d made. France once had a large pirate presence, with socialist-run stations running for several decades before they were legalised. Most Pirate radio stations in The Netherlands are based in the countryside and play a kind of Dutch folk music that has a niche audience; although rural, rather than urban, just as in London, these stations are born out of a need to play music that the mainstream just doesn’t cater for. Pirate radio station Radio Tonka provides political commentary and has a roster of dedicated and loyal DJs, playing a varied mix of Jazz, Punk, 80s New Wave, Flamenco, and Hip Hop. Founded15 years ago, Tonka initially broadcast every night between midnight and four am. They started out in various places including the Hague, but moved into a more legal realm five years ago. They are now broadcasting on the wavelength of another local (funded) radiostation, Denhaag FM, six days a week.
Back in London, the Flex FM Team were also on hand to fill us in on London’s pirate scene, they see pirates on the FM frequency as provoking a kind of nostalgia amongst its listeners – that familiar ’snap, crackle and pop’ instills a kind of warm feeling unlike the synthetic sounds of a live internet stream. Losing reception is all part of the fun.
Over the last few years the rave scene has seem something of a comeback, with illegal warehouse parties way out in Essex becoming an almost regular occurance, and of course, with this, plenty of old school radio listeners have got back into it, picking up where they left off and searching the FM band for a bit of old Hardcore or Jungle. Where else can you find it but pirate radio? The team behind Flex FM believe that the airwaves should not be owned, Government control oppresses the freedom of music – legal stations have very little room to really play what they want at any time of the day. Pirates allow artists who may be overlooked by the mainstream to get their music out to the people who matter. There’s an almost diehard mentality amongst the Flex FM Team, an acknowledgement that their scene needs to continue to stay alive – the thrill of the chase comes into it too. Working undercover to evade capture from the DTI, getting your aerial up, finding a good location or pulling up to a car that’s actually tuned into their station is all part of the excitement of pirate radio. No amount of technology can replace that.
So, will the Internet take over? Pirates are already on the wane, but as long as there is an active audience and a willing amount of participants, illegal FM stations will always be in existence. The internet has its plus points and no doubt offers a whole new world of possibilities, but the grassroots and the foundations will, hopefully, always be in the pirate movement.