Bold Frequency: Exploring the Legacy of Pirate Radio Culture
The glory days of pirate radio have passed in the UK but we can never forget what a big part it played in our culture and how it helped create whole music genres
In 1993, Ron Samuels – or DJ Ron, as he's better known – was given a show on Kool FM, a pirate radio station that was started in 1991 and which turns 25 this year. He was a Jungle DJ and for anyone playing music like that – music that came from Britain's inner cities, music that was gritty and raw, music that wasn't played on the BBC or on commercial radio – pirate radio was the only game in town.
"We had to have a voice," Ron told me. "If you wanted to play the music I was playing, you couldn't go anywhere else. Our music wouldn't have got to where it is today if it wasn't for pirate radio and without those stations making that effort, through all those years, who knows where we'd be?"
At that time, Kool FM broadcast about 70 hours per week from the tower blocks of Nightingale Estate, in Hackney, East London. The location was always secret for kids in the area and for those who drove in from outside the M25 to listen to the station, it was the place to listen to Jungle and then Drum 'n' Bass. "It gives the people on the street the chance to hear the music," Kool FM's DJ Brockie said at the time. "It advertises the raves to them and without pirate radio, the scene would never thrive."
Pirate radio was always a way of representing the unrepresented as much as it was a hustling act of creation. Independent channels had to be set up to play black British music. They also served other communities. London Greek Radio was founded as a pirate station in 1983 because there was a largely Greek Cypriot audience ready and waiting in North London. Though it was subject to racially motivated raids from the authorities, you could hardly imagine a more benign enterprise than a local, Greek-language station.
In return, the Department of Trade & Industry's (DTI) Radio Investigations Service fought a war against the pirates, whose transmissions they claimed interfered with the work of the emergency services and – more honestly – pissed off the BBC and commercial radio. "The DTI – you always heard that, even though I didn't know what it actually was," laughs DJ Ron. "They'd only be able to get the transmission box though and we'd put the box in a lift shaft and cement it in".
"I have a certain, sneaking admiration for their abilities," a DTI investigator said of pirate radio producers, in a 1996 BBC documentary. "It's not easy to put on a programme… Most of them, should you ever meet them, are quite normal people… We always try to shake hands at the end of every interview and leave like gentlemen."
As the jungle era bled into the garage era and the garage era bled into the beginnings of grime, so too did Rinse FM, founded as a pirate in 1994, become a key player. "When I first joined Rinse, in 2005, it was mad secret," remembers DJ Spyro. "Police would come and smash records in front of you. You had to know three people at the station and they were your references, they told the others if you were trustworthy, so if you weren't, it made them look bad."
Today, Rinse broadcasts legally online, but at that point, it was working out of a studio in an old industrial building in Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. Roll Deep had their studio there as well. There was a sex club next door. The Rinse DJ Slimzee, one of the first to play grime, was slapped with an ASBO prohibiting him from entering the roof of any building over four storeys high without permission.
Just as you went to pirate radio to listen to jungle and then garage in the 1990s, so you went to it to listen to grime in the first decade of this century. Spyro's first show was on Blaze FM, which broadcast from a tower near where he grew up in Manor Park, Newham. He also had a show on Raw Mission.
At school, him and his friends listened to the first wave of grime artists: Wiley, D Double E, Roll Deep and Nasty Crew. All of them, as well as Dizzee Rascal, got their break through pirate radio. Skepta – now a confirmed bastion of British culture after his Mercury Prize victory - had a show on Deja Vu FM, another pioneering pirate station that now broadcasts legally online.
"Skepta has done it on his own terms," says Skinny Macho, who works with Boiler Room and has a show on NTS. "Him winning the Mercury Prize feels like a victory for the genre in a way that Dizzee winning it didn't, really." Skinny adds that grime's increasing popularity is no bad thing, as long as commercial elements don't ruin it in the way they ruined dubstep. "It's a good thing that it's global. People react to grime in a good way now. iTunes still calls it 'Rap', or whatever, but people know the genre now. People can make money from it and they can be independent from it."
NTS, Boiler Room, Just Jam and Radar Radio are all places that aim to continue the work done by pirate radio stations but in the global context of the internet. Today, music fans across the world can see, via a Boiler Room stream, DJs who, in the past, would only have been heroes in a few square miles of East London. The local has gone international, and while that has its pitfalls, it also has its obvious benefits.
2Shin, a DJ who has a show on Radar, says that, "online radio is the most direct descendent of pirate radio, but kids these days have got more platforms on the internet: they could shoot videos for YouTube, put out tunes on SoundCloud and the DIY spirit of pirate is still alive in SBTV and other video sites like it."
Authority clampdowns in the mid-00s meant that, in the end, it made more sense for pirate radio stations to move online, where they can broadcast legally, easily and cheaply. It's a wrench to give up your slot on the FM dial – if you have to – but otherwise it makes sense, as long as you can stay true to the music you represent.
For DJs at Rinse, this is something the station has managed to do. "Rinse have kept their ethos deliberately," says DJ Ron. "And I think that the internet has been a good thing. How else would people in the far reaches of Russia, China, the United States or wherever get to listen to jungle, garage, grime? They just wouldn't!"
"To me," says Spyro, "nothing changed when Rinse stopped being pirate. It was mad getting used to wearing proper headphones and not having to hold the mic, but even now, it's the same feeling as it was 10 years ago."
Cleaning out his office recently, Rinse's founder Geeneus, found the last transmitter they used to broadcast before they moved from pirate to broadcasting legally online. "I spent around 15 years putting these things on tower blocks all over East London so people could hear the radio," he wrote on Instagram. "Climbing down lift shafts, over the side of tower blocks and through some ridiculously small holes. The glory days of pirate radio have passed in the UK but we can never forget what a big part it played in our culture and how it helped build genres of music that have travelled the world and helped give many people amazing careers."
The internet has taken the music of Britain's inner cities out into the world, but the spirit of the pirate radio stations that made it all possible is still alive and well.
As part of the Levi's Music Project, Levi's and Skepta have partnered to establish a community youth music space in the heart of Skepta's hometown of Tottenham, North London. Track the progress of the project at levi.com or through #SupportMusic.