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Tape Crackers: A Personal Journey Through London's Pirate Radio Stations

We spoke to Michael Finch who owns what must be the biggest collection of pirate radio tapes in Britain.

by Adam Bychawski
12 November 2014, 9:55pm

Michael Finch owns what must well be the biggest archive of pirate radio tapes in the country. Like many who tuned into the pirate stations that saturated London's FM bandwidth in the 90s, Finch recorded his favourite broadcasts on tape – not for posterity but to "share the wealth", as he puts it, with his schoolmates. Few though can have had the dedication of Finch, who continued making recordings for over a decade. 

His collection numbers into the thousands, comprised of his own recordings and rave tapepacks (semi-official bootlegs of jungle, drum and bass, garage and grime events). Taken as a whole, Finch's archive is  a document of one of the most exciting and ephemeral periods in UK dance music. In one respect, it's an experience that Finch has shared with many many others, not least of all the DJs and MCs that were the same age as him when they started out, like Rinse FM's DJ Slimzee and Pay As You Go Cartel's Maxwell D. "I never knew any of [them] but it felt as though I did in some respects because I'd grown up with them through pirate radio and raves," he explains. But it's also a uniquely personal history, shaped by his own tastes and life story. As well as tracing the rise of the biggest garage and grime stars, Finch's tapes are also, inadvertently, a chronicle of his formative years. 

"It's the story of Michael's passion for music – you could say it's a love story in that respect" says Rollo Jackson, documentary-maker and long-time friend of Finch. Back in 2011, Jackson decided to make a documentary, Tape Crackers, about his friend, filming Finch in his home in Islington talking through a few of his favourite stations, DJs and MCs. Initially, the recording was intended for research purposes only but when Jackson later rewatched the interview he was struck by the unusual staging and decided to release the unedited single-shot take. 

The resulting documentary is both the tale of an everyman but also an autobiography. Finch is an affable presence on camera, opening up what should be a topic for head's only with his instantly relatable enthusiasm; the improvised and conversational setup only adding to the film's charm. 

"Sometimes the best things are unplanned," explains Jackson. What the pair could not have predicted was the reaction Tape Crackers received: it was a word-of-mouth hit, quickly selling out of it's initially pressing. For two years, the documentary remained nearly impossible to get hold off, no doubt contributing in part to its cult status. Last month, Tape Crackers finally got a long-awaited repressing and to celebrate the anniversary of the film I spoke to its star, Michael Finch. 

Rather than revisit the subject of his favourite tapes, I ask Finch about how pirate radio shaped various moments of his life: starting with his teenage discovery of Dream FM and finishing with the birth of grime in his mid-twenties. Even though we end up talking for an hour, there still feels like much ground has been left uncovered but then Finch's tapes span over a decade of pirate radio – it'd probably take another decade just for him to relisten to them all.

Dream FM

DJ Swifflee on Dream FM.

I didn't really get into music until I was 12/13, Nirvana's Nevermind and Michael Jackson's Thriller were some the first albums I ever bought. I started out listening to guitar music and at school they were people like me and then the other half of the school were all listening to Kool FM and jungle. But I remember doing my homework and scanning the airwaves, going through the FM bandwidth and stumbling across Dream FM. They were playing this whole new sound that I had never heard of before, nobody was playing it at school. It had all the repetitive percussion and basslines that all the jungle kids were into but without the darker, moody vibes. Instead, it had uplifting vocals and piano harmonies and instantly it was this magic moment of finding something in between the jungle sound and the music I had been listening to.

That was the moment, it was one night doing my schoolwork at home. I wanted to share it with my friends, that was the whole reason I started recording. It was less one upmanship and more sharing the wealth as it were. I brought it in the next day and played it to all the other guys I was mates with and nobody ever looked back after that. 

The thing that Dream FM played more than anything, or at least the music that I liked more than anything, was old school hardcore tunes. Although it was 93/94, they were playing loads of hardcore tunes from 89/90. Hardcore was moving very quickly at that time and what I was enjoying was already old, as hardcore had already evolved into happy hardcore. 

To this day I'm not sure where Dream FM's signal originated from, I think they were marginally South, like Battersea. Certain station had bigger reaches and Dream was one of them, they were keen broadcasters in that sense.

My favourite DJs were DJ Swifflee, DJ Influence, DJ Wise, DJ Spinback. 

On Shutdowns

When I started listening they would come on air on a Friday night and off again on Sunday night. They would only not switch on if they'd just been raided. Later, they would play all week long.

When they did get shut down on air, it's not like the dramatic on-air raid that you'd imagine – I don't think I ever heard that. What would happen is that DTI (the Department Of Trade And Industry, a former government body tasked with locating pirate rigs) will have traced the rig, which is separate to the studio as they beam the broadcast from the studio to the rig. DTI could trace the rig but they could never trace the studios, which they'd have to find through word of mouth.

Kick FM

After Dream I was looking for something new without just wanting to follow the crowd to Kool FM. On my journey towards Kool I spent a lot of time listening to Pressure, Rinse and Kick FM. 

Unlike the moment I found Dream FM, the shift towards listening to MCs was more gradual. That had a lot to do with starting to go raving rather than just sitting in my bedroom listening. I didn't understand the significance of the MCs until I saw them perform live. To this day my favourite tapes are not my rave tapes, they're my pirate tapes where you can listen to MCs practicing their lyrics rather than working the crowd. 

Some stations I was drawn to after hearing a specific MC or DJ and Kick was one of those. I tuned in to hear MC Terrorist specifically because I could take or leave much of the rest of it. When I first heard him I was well versed in jungle by this point. One of the biggest MCs around at the time was MC Det: Brockie and Det would do their Sunday night shows on Kool. When I found MC Terrorist, I thought he sounded just like MC Det and up to that point I thought of Det as utterly unique – but that's not to say Terrorist was copying. It was more like, "oh you like Det, so let me play you this tape of Terrorist. Tell me what you think." 

Some of the greatest pleasure I got from pirate radio was, aside from the music itself, being able to play tapes to somebody who thinks they've heard everything and show them something new.

Terrorist was the host MC at a rave called Roast, a massive jungle rave back in the day. When I got into tape packs, one of the tapes I got excited about the most – I remember it very well – was a Valentine's Day rave featuring Brockie, Terrorist and Det going back to back.

MC Terrorist at Roast, Valentine's Day 1996.

You could immerse yourself in the culture completely, I'd listen to the pirates all week and then on the weekend I'd tune in to hear all the MCs and DJs warming up and building up to the rave that night. Then I'd go to the rave, have an amazing night out, and a couple of weeks later I'd go to the record shop and buy the tape pack to relive it all over again. I got into that weekly cycle, month after month.

Rude FM

Rude FM found a niche that was different and distinct from Kool and so they weren't trying to compete as much. The difference was that they had a much darker, industrial sound. There's no doubt that Kool monopolised so much of the jungle scene but they pushed one jungle sound when there was a much broader spectrum. There were nightclubs like Metalheadz where Goldie and his lot would play a completely different sound to what would be played out at One Nation, Kool and Jungle Fever.

My favourite Rude FM MC was Evil B. I always thought somebody like Evil B should be on Kool but they were their own crew doing their own sound and, of course, he got onto to Kool in the end anyway.

Rinse FM

In the case of Rinse FM, age was what distinguished them for me. These were young guys running it, little youts messing about who aspired to be on Kool the same way I did.

I never knew any of these guys but it felt as though I did in some respects because I'd grown up with them through pirate radio and raves. The best example is probably Maxwell D, who I started listening to on Rinse FM around 1995, when I was 14 and he was my age or maybe a couple of years younger. I use to have a tape of Maxwell D competing with Ninja B onstage at a Kool Skool, which was a rave they put on for under 18s, and it had a crazy crazy reputation. I think they ended up tying. So I followed his career all the way from Rinse in 1995 to making it big in Pay As You Go Cartel and then finally getting his slot on Kool FM. I've got this amazing tape of him and Nicky Slim Ting all in the build-up to Kool's 8th birthday bash. 

Like Rude, Rinse FM had their own sound and it was more of a bedroom sound than a rave sound. It was a much more industrial and harsher jungle sound, so for me it lent itself more to home listening.

I went away to Bristol for university and I remember coming back to London in 2002 and grime was taking off. DJ Slimzee on Sunday afternoons, 3 till 5. It was absolutely mind-blowing, like "why did I ever leave this city, this is mental." I never looked back from that moment. For the next two or three years it was all I listened to.

Kool FM

All the big DJs and MCs were on Kool. So if you were into the jungle scene and went to the various raves: nearly all the lineups had Kool FM DJs and MCs on them, nobody else got a look in. If you were the best then you were on Kool. 

In terms of how they achieved that, I think it was just one of those things – they were the first. They were the pioneers and they never got beaten at their own game. They wore that crown from the early days.

Kool had so many great MCs but my favourite more than any other was MC Skibadee. Me and a mate, John, at school had a long running debate about who was better MC Skibadee or Stevie Hyper Dee and he always said the latter and I said Skiba. I prefered Skiba because of the pure clarity of his MCing, you could hear every syllable, he never minced it and, for me, Stevie was never as consistently perfect as he was. Skiba use to rhyme everything, even his ad-libs and shoutouts, everything from the moment he picks up his microphone, it was like he MCed instead of talking. I loved that.

Me and Rollo use to always talk about saving up to book Brockie and Det to come round to our house to DJ and MC with us. It was this fantasy that we had. Equally, for years I was convinced if I had a wedding I would book Skibadee and Det to go back to back, literally for years, I was convinced that that was obviously what I was going to do. 

Skibadee on Kool back in 1999.

On Shout-outs

Mobile phones were expensive to ring up back in those days and it was on mum and dad's phone so I could only get away with so much. To begin with it wasn't even mobile phones, you were literally talking to pagers which is hilarious to think back on now. There were some people who would do it so so much that you'd get to know them. On Kool there some absolutely legendary names of listeners like Crazy Legs and Smiley. They must have spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds getting shout-outs all the time. I would only ring up some of the time. It was a tricky thing to do as well, phoning up at night while listening to music your parents don't approve of to begin with. And if you got through they'd answer it while playing the music at full blast, so you'd have to be shouting while trying to keep it down.

You can buy Tape Crackers here. Watch Rollo Jackson's latest documentary on grime pioneer DJ Slimzee here.

You can follow Adam here: @adambychawski

Tagged:
jungle
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Jungle Fever
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brockie
det
dj swifflee
dream fm
evil b
kick fm
kool skool
maxwell d
mc skibadee
mc terrorist
michael finch
pay as you go cartel
rude fm
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