If pirate radio has a home, it's in London's tower blocks and tinny car radios. Bar the capital, where else can you find one DJ playing Ghanaian gospel and another spinning some ancient dub track, followed by a crackly ad for "Reg's Records", in which a man named Reg nervously offers to buy up all your dusty reggae vinyl? Chances are: nowhere – mostly because no other city has nearly as many pirates simultaneously on air at any one time (around 70 at Ofcom's last count).
Many of these stations come and go within a matter of years – an inevitability, considering they're illegal to run; punishable with fines, the seizure of equipment and, for repeat offenders, a prison sentence. But some pirates stick around. Some have as firm a spot in London's cultural depot as Carnival, or the ICA, or G-A-Y, or that time David Blaine sat in a glass box above the Thames and a load of shirtless English men threw Stella cans at him.
Few pirates embody this perseverance better than Kool London, the city's longest-running jungle station. Founded as Kool FM in 1991 by DJs Eastman and Smurff, it's spent nearly a quarter of a century transmitting hardcore, jungle and drum 'n' bass from antennas installed on the roofs of Hackney's council flats.
"The way it started," says Eastman, now Kool's remaining co-founder after Smurff's departure in 1998, "is that my little sister had a group of friends from Hackney Wick. I knew one of them – this Turkish guy, T – and he had a brother called Smurff, who approached me and said he wanted to start a new station. He'd done a couple of little ones before, but they kept getting hit by other pirates – smashed up and that. He said, 'I want a bit of muscle behind me to do something new.' I was running a reggae sound-system, and was also head of security at my father's club, Telepathy, in [Stratford]. The security side was what he needed, so that was that: we set up Kool."
I'm sat opposite Eastman at an east London recording studio. Behind me, manning Kool's online forum and tinkering with sound levels on a monitor, is Chef, a warm, affable DJ who grew up listening to the station. In 2004, he was offered a regular Thursday night slot, taking over the show previously hosted by Marley Marl and DJ Remarc, and later became involved in the day-to-day management. Behind him, in the vocal booth, recording the radio advert for Kool's next club night, are the Ragga Twins, Flinty Badman and Deman Rocker. The two MCs have been involved with Kool since pretty much day one, and played a fundamental role in the birth of jungle, lending their vocals to the producers who created the genre.
While Kool started broadcasting online in early 2000, rebranding itself from Kool FM to Kool London, it's also continued to transmit over its pirate frequency, 94.6 FM, the same way it has since Eastman and Smurff first took the station on air 24 years ago.
"The first show we did was from Banister House [housing estate] in Hackney. It was November the 28th, 1991," says Eastman. "We commandeered Smurff's brother's bedroom, put our stuff in there and went down to [another building on] Clapton Square to set up the transmitter on the roof. There was nothing better than getting up there, plugging everything in and hearing that 'sshhhh' – that white noise [meaning the equipment was working]. It's always an amazing feeling."
The first UK pirate station was Radio Caroline. Founded in 1964 to play the pop and rock that the BBC wouldn't, it was run from a ship off the coast of Essex. More stations based on boats and disused sea forts followed, hence the whole "pirate" thing, and, by 1965, roughly 10 to 15 million Brits were tuning into "offshores" on a daily basis. By 1967, the BBC were forced to react, launching Radio 1 – its first pop station – in a bid to claw back listeners. Helpfully, the government then outlawed all offshore stations, but the legislation had little effect on what, by now, was far more than just a few amateur mariners playing Canned Heat EPs to an audience of bearded philosophy students.
Many of the originators moved their operations to towns and cities, where stations broadcasting without a license were harder for authorities to pinpoint. Offshore, your only real option was to set up on a highly visible hunk of floating metal. Onshore, the favoured method was to pre-record your show, climb up to the roof of a tower block and play your tape through a homemade transmitter, which could be hidden when you were done. More and more of these stations began to spring up throughout the 1970s and 80s, to the point where, at one time, there were more illegal stations on air than legal.
By 1989, around 600 pirates were operating in the UK, now transmitting live from clandestine studios rather than beaming out pre-taped shows. However, this number dipped soon after because of increased pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the now-defunct body that was responsible for radio regulation at the time.
In a further effort to rid Britain of its illegal radio stations, the government offered amnesty to pirates that shut down voluntarily and applied for a license. Kiss FM – the then-leading dance pirate – jumped on this offer and became a legal station in 1990, gaining legitimacy but losing some of its appeal to the thousands of young Brits who'd taken to gathering in fields to wave their limbs around and grind their teeth down to nubs.
Cue a proliferation of the new breed of pirate: stations effectively broadcasting raves live on air, with MCs spitting over DJ sets and the audience phoning in requests, rather than shouting them up from in front of the decks.
"The audience for Kool was instant," says Eastman, recalling the early days, from late-1991 into early-1992. "We were mainly just doing the weekends back then; we wanted to keep out the way of the DTI while we were finding our way, and if you were on full time you'd get hit [by raids] a lot more. But it didn't take long for us to get on 24/7."
Jungle as we know it – the music that soundtracked your teenage hotboxes – didn't really exist when Kool was founded. "We were playing hardcore in them early days," says Chef. "[Rave] was moving from the kind of Balearic acid stuff into hardcore, then jungle techno, and the station supported that. We were playing stuff like Joey Beltram, Energy Flash, a lot from XL Recordings... this was 1991; jungle hadn't even been born yet. And then, slowly, this jungle sound started coming in. It wasn't even called jungle back then – it was a mix of all these producers getting into the sound, bringing these hip-hop, soul and ragga elements in."
The Ragga Twins – as you've probably realised, given the name – were instrumental when it came to the ragga side of things, the Caribbean influence that spawned its own subgenre, ragga-jungle, before making itself known again in the formation and evolution of dubstep. Already friendly with Eastman after growing up in the same part of Hackney and MCing on his sound system, it didn't take long for the duo to get involved with Kool.
"You'd be listening from home and think, 'Rah, that DJ is going in – let me get up there before they stop playing those good tunes,'" says Flinty. "And so we'd just go up there and lounge in the studio."
"Kool was one big family," adds Deman. "It still is now, but back then – in those early, early days – it was mad, especially after the birthday parties. The Sunday after them would be a proper super Sunday, because man was still buzzing from the party before. We'd converge on the studio with six or seven MCs and three DJs, and we were jamming."
The first of these birthday parties, at the end of 1992, was one of the station's earliest triumphs. "We hadn't done any events, but we thought we'd put a little do on for our one-year anniversary," says Eastman. "We done a little rave at Arcola Street in Stoke Newington, and it was packed – the phone-line for it was non-stop."
A couple of years later, as the genre was beginning to properly take off, Kool threw a birthday party that cemented their status as London's prime jungle pirate. "We had our third birthday at the Astoria and we shut down the whole of Tottenham Court Road," laughs Eastman. "We had 3,000 inside, and there was something like 4,000 or 5,000 outside. They had to close the club next door for the night because nobody could get in or out."
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The success of these Kool parties led to the setting up of Jungle Fever, a regular club night that's still going today. "The name Jungle Fever came from the Spike Lee film [of the same name]," says Eastman. "The film's about mixed relations, about black and white, which I thought was fitting, as rave culture was doing more for race relations in the UK at the time than anything else."
The nights were wildly popular, but didn't come without their own era-specific, firearm-y issues. "In 1994, we did a Jungle Fever in south London – there was some trouble there in them days," says Eastman. "Police had to stop that one because there were some guys outside the venue waving guns about, arguing with security."
It was because of this climate that Kool – along with a number of other pirates of the time – ended up unfairly accused of involvement in the UK drug trade. Memorably, The Evening Standard ran a front page splash claiming that Rush FM, one of Kool's contemporaries, was somehow a front for one of London's biggest drug operations.
"It was bollocks," laughs Chef. "Obviously there was a massive drugs influence in all the parties at the time, but that was going on for decades before rave and Kool FM. The media loved to paint the picture that we were part of that influx, but we had nothing to do with it. We had no dealers on the firm; nothing. We were a gang, but we were a musical gang – nothing to do with causing trouble or selling drugs."
"Yeah, I remember my mum seeing that," sighs Eastman when I bring up the Standard story. "She got really upset; she was going mad about the newspapers talking rubbish, as she knew it was totally untrue and that I never touched drugs. If anything, I was anti-drugs."
Besides the whole media defamation thing, the mid-90s were a peak era for Kool. "That was the start of the golden age of jungle, from 1994 to 1996," says Chef. "M-Beat and General Levy with 'Incredible'; Shy FX and Gunsmoke with 'Gangsta'; UK Apache with 'Original Nuttah'; Demolition Man with 'Fire'– this was the time the tunes that I'd call jungle classics all came out. It was also around that time that someone from the BBC came to speak to Eastman and [the Radio 1 show] 'Radio 1 in the Jungle' was born – the first time mainstream radio touched our music. Some of our guys were on there, so it took us from being a London station to being known nationally."
Thing is, while junglists UK-wide might have heard of Kool, the station was still only transmitting – at its absolute maximum, if they managed to get all their gear onto a particularly high roof – as far as the M25. So, pre-internet, fans had to find alternative ways to get their fill.
"There were people driving to London from as far away as Cornwall and Bristol, sitting in their cars, recording a few hours of Kool with a tape-recorder, then going back north or south and sharing the tapes around," recalls Eastman. "And then we started doing the tape-packs [of Kool FM shows] – we had distributors up in Birmingham, so we'd send them there and they'd distribute them."
By 1996, Kool had opened a Birmingham outpost. "That was our sister station, and we had a few big names come out of that – DJ Hazard, DJ Spice, DJ Devize," says Eastman. "That was on for four or five years, but what happened is that my mate who was running it went and got a record shop straight away and set up the studio in the back, so it got noticed [and shut down]."
As jungle gave way to drum 'n' bass, Kool kept pace – the music was similar enough to what they'd been playing for the past five or six years, if not a little dirtier. However, when garage came along, they refused to jump on the bandwagon. "Garage was really the downturn for the station – and, actually, the whole jungle scene – because the commercials were pumping money into it, and a lot of people around us – Pay as You Go, Nicky Slim Ting, Maxwell D, MC PSG, people like that – left Kool and jungle behind, and went to garage," says Eastman.
Garage as a scene was relatively preoccupied, to its own detriment, with image and bravado, hence all the champagne and Moschino and pirate radio call-outs to "bring straps" to raves. It was that latter aspect that inspired all the panicked headlines about UKG club-nights being like some kind of central London Stalingrad.
"We wanted to be – and still want to be – as professional a station as we can be," says Chef, "so we were never gonna have MCs talking about how they're gonna 'shank man' or 'kill man'. If anything, we've been a community voice. There was a hit and run outside a rave once, for example, and we did the public appeal for that to help gather information. And then [the London Met drug operation] Trident started trying to work with us, because they knew we were reaching an audience they couldn't."
As garage self-imploded among an incongruous mix of rave stabbings and UKG-lite topping the charts, a new sound began to erupt out of east London, rawer, shoutier, more visceral than its predecessor. "We never had grime on Kool, but I know that a load of grime's top guys – Flowdan, Dizzee, Wiley, Riko – would cite Kool FM as something that inspired them to start MCing," says Chef. "Thing is, all those grime pioneers couldn't become jungle MCs because the older guys had locked it down; it was at full capacity. And they didn't want to MC over this pretty boy music [garage], so they did their own thing."
With the arrival of grime, every boy from Bow to Brixton with an Avirex jacket and a pair of decks wanted to set up their own pirate. "It just exploded," says Chef. "Literally, there'd be a station on every frequency as you scrolled through the FM dial."
Though they weren't regularly hosting the Slimzees or Wileys making their names on all these new stations, Kool benefitted from the grime scene: jungle had a huge influence on the genre; more people were tuning into pirates again; and Kool was the natural place to go for tunes before and after the rave. "Around the start of garage, people had told us jungle was dead," recalls Eastman. "We decided to stick to our guns – stick to what we know – and it's paid off."
Dizzee Rascal, D Double E, Skibadee, Funsta, Harry Shotta and Ruffstuff on Kool FM, 2007
In 2000, with the launch of the online station, Kool started reaching audiences it never could have imagined that first time Eastman and Smurff clambered up a Hackney tower block to set up their transmitter. "Because of the internet, we've now got guys doing regular sets from Toronto, New York, Australia," says Chef. "It's mad, when you think about it now – to have gone from a little Hackney thing to a worldwide thing."
As it stands, the internet looks to be the future of Kool. For years, various British governments have been floating the idea of killing the FM frequency altogether, with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey saying earlier this year that the UK is reaching a "tipping point" in the conversion to digital radio. And he's right: the vast majority of new cars and hi-fis only pick up the digital signal, "DAB".
As Chef points out: "In a couple of years, you're not going to find FM receivers anywhere. Maybe in pound shops, but new cars – and anything being made with a radio in it – will only do DAB. They're trying to get rid of anything analogue."
I wonder if this digitisation will pinch some of the magic away from pirates. There are hundreds of thousands of online radio stations, and Soundcloud pages, and Spotify playlists, and curated YouTube channels – base yourself solely online and you're in danger of being lost in the throng.
"Any competition keeps us on our toes – it's not a bad thing," Eastman points out. "And we're branching out into other things, too: Redbull have asked us to do something for their Redbull Academy Radio; a couple of years ago we broadcast live for two weeks from the Royal Academy of Arts. These things are such an achievement for us, because it's an acknowledgement from society as a whole, not just ravers."
I ask if the idea of going digital has been floated, given that – without doing so – it won't be long before Kool will no longer be heard booming out of car stereos, the first place I personally discovered the station. "I looked into getting a digital license, but it's so expensive – three and a half grand a month," says Chef. Considering the station makes its money from advertisements and by charging DJs fees to play, it's unlikely they'd be able to generate anywhere near enough revenue to pay that bill month after month. "The only way of doing it would be if we got sponsorship from a brand, but it would have to be one that we all believed in – we don't want some major sports brand that uses child labour paying our broadcasting fees," says Chef.
Eastman agrees: "Yeah, there are ways of going commercial where you don't have to sell your soul."
Of course, there's also every chance the station will continue to thrive online, because what all the 2.0 competition doesn't have is the heritage. "We've got so much history behind us," says Eastman. "Jungle, to me, is a family thing – it comes from where we come from, and we've come up with it." This history is a powerful weapon in Kool's arsenal; if you feel like tuning in for six solid hours of hardcore and jungle, who are you going to choose: the guys who've been doing it for 25 years – the guys who nurtured the sound and quite literally took it global – or some bedroom DJ in Watford live-streaming over Justin.tv?
"If they wanted to, the government could take us off air right now; they could kill the FM frequency, just like that," says Eastman. "So I think the future of Kool is us really pushing the dot-com. The good thing about it, as well as the fact anyone in the world can pick it up, is that we have our archive up there, too, so people can hear sets and tunes from years ago, which obviously you can't do on the FM."
I worried, heading to meet the Kool lot, that I might find a station in crisis. That the phasing out of the analogue FM signal – the one thing vital to a pirate radio station's existence – would kill pirate culture. Because what's the point of lugging equipment up stairs, busting open doors to roofs and flirting with the threat of punishment if nobody's there to hear the result of your efforts? And would it also not destroy the inherent thrill of the whole operation? As a kid, smoking at school stops being fun as soon as you finish your last exam, simply because you know there's no longer a danger of being caught and getting into trouble. If the pirates' cat and mouse game with the government is cut short, are they going to get as much joy out of opening a laptop and pressing play?
"You know what, in the early days, with the transmitters and that, it was about being a bit of a 'villain' – kids against the government," says Eastman. "But it was also about doing our own thing, playing our own music. It was all for the love of it. And what's important is that none of that has changed; we're older now and we've got to pay our bills, so the station has turned into more of a 'job'. But we still love what we do, and we'll keep on doing it for as long as we can."
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