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Roots: Pirate Radio

The history of Pirate radio as told through the stories of influential figureheads: Jez Nelson, Gilles Peterson, DJ Camilla, Trevor Nelson + more

Spring 2009. The days are getting longer. Temperature rising. There’s about 100 students loitering outside the school bus stop. The longer the days, the better the weather, the more school kids don’t want to go home.

However, this wasn’t the case for one particular student. Speeding up the hill. Headphones on. Only one thing on his mind. Get home. Get to his computer. His speed hastens as excitement builds.

He’s home. He dashes his bag on the floor. Jumps on the bed. Opens his laptop. He types…

R I N S E

Then comes two more…

F  M

SPOILER ALERT – That guy is me. 

I will never forget the moment I encountered RINSE FM. I had seen the word RINSE for a while now. I would listen to old Dizzee Rascal sets and see the tag RINSE FM next to it. Meh. I didn’t really give it much thought. I had understood it was a radio station but that was it.

When I was about 11 years old, every Friday night my brothers would tune in to Westwood’s Radio 1 show. This infuriated me. It would be 10pm on a Friday night and all I cared about was watching WWF.

I knew it would be coming. I would countdown the minutes. 3 minutes. 2 minutes. 1 minute… here we bloody go.

WESTWOOOOOOOOOOD.

Friday night ruined. You see, my brothers would blare the music SO. DAMN. LOUD. I wouldn’t be able to hear anything the wrestling commentators, Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, were saying. To this day, I rewatch old promos from the attitude era and get flashbacks of Westwood and his damn Radio 1 rap show. My brothers would tape the entirety of Westwood’s show on a cassette.

This would’ve been between 1999-2001. As much as WWF was a must-watch for the 10 year-old me (sometimes it still is today!), Westwood was THE man for young hip hop heads across the country. The internet was still new. There was no YouTube. People got their new music via record shops, ripping off radio shows and reading magazines. For my brothers, this was the only way they could hear the best rap music coming out of America. If DX, Stone Cold and Undertaker had to be muted, so be it.

I didn’t understand this at the time. I wasn’t the right age. It wasn’t until 6 years later that I finally understood it. The plumpy little kid from Deptford, frustrated that he couldn’t watch his Friday night wrestling, became a 16 year old (not-so plumpy) teenager who would rush home just to find out more about this thing called bass music. It was actually my brother’s old Heartless CD that started my bass music journey. The CD was left in my room. Untouched. I had no idea what a Heartless Crew was, or why they were presenting something called “Crisp Biscuit”. It didn’t matter. I was hooked. Reeled in. The lyrics. The flow. The characters. This was for me, and I’ve never looked back.

From garage to dubstep, jungle to funky – the next two years was a crash course on all things UK bass music. What helped me along that crash course was RINSE FM.

This station was different.

I would also listen to KISS and 1Xtra but It wasn’t the same.

RINSE was… raw. No filter.

I began to research more about the station, only to find out it was something called ‘Pirate Radio’.

I searched for the definition of pirate radio.

“Pirate radio or a pirate radio station is a radio station that broadcasts without a valid license.”

Okay. So I was basically listening to something… illegal. I don’t know which was more surprising, the fact that this was allowed to take place or the fact that there was not one single bone in my body that gave a shit.

Rinse was my station. It’s where I began to love funky house, it’s where my grime and dubstep knowledge increased. It made me yearn to go out and actually rave. I was determined to go to uni in a city that played ‘Rinse music’, as I called it back then.

My inquisitive nature urged me to research more about pirate radio and it’s history. It took a culmination of 5 years of watching documentaries and reading articles to fully understand pirate radio’s history.

I spent more time researching pirate radio than I did on my actual English degree. Radio Caroline, Invicta, LWR, Kiss, Kool, Sunrise, London Underground, Deja Vu, Rinse. These were my Chaucer, Bronte and Shakespeare.  As I began to turn each page, my fascination grew. Gilles Peterson, Jazzy B, Geeneus. These became household names in my studies. As each chapter closed, I would begin to see a pattern. A running theme.

The music… it was all… Black music.

Reggae, Soul, House, Jungle, Garage, Grime, Dubstep, Funky House. My love was growing as each page was turning; although, I began to question, why had I not known about this before?

I was uncovering a major part of British culture. Black British culture.

It is important to document key moments of our history. It’s vital these narratives are driven by those who lived it. Bass music in 2020 is ever-changing. As we welcome new, younger generations, we must make sure we continue to raise the awareness of the influential figures, businesses and brands that shaped the scene.

So, here we are – that’s why I have written this piece. At the time of writing this, I am a 28-year old Black male. Born in Nigeria. Came to London when I was two. I grew up with radio and bass music. The two have played a massive role in my life. The two have shaped British culture. The two are Black British culture.

Through the stories of DJs and Producers who built the Pirate Radio framework, I am going to explore the connection between Pirate Radio and Black British Culture.

If you’re still reading this, you either: care about the music as much as me, are intrigued to find out more, or are a relative – either way, come with me on this journey into our past, our present and our future – the roots of UK bass music, via pirate radio.

We will hear from Jez Nelson, Gilles Peterson, DJ Camilla (aka Sister C), Trevor Nelson, Ragga Twins, DJ Spoony, Plastician, Adrian (Reprezent), Hannah and Lee (Subtle Radio) – a collection of game-changers within their respective genres (that includes Jazz, Soul, Rare Groove, Jungle, Garage and Grime). Take a seat and join me as we hear epic anecdotes from these greats.

PIRATE RADIO: ANARCHY AMONGST MARGINALISED COMMUNITIES

Rebelling is a recurring theme within the history of pirate radio. A young Jez Nelson is an example of this. Nelson’s resume speaks for itself. Jazz broadcaster, television producer, Exec chairman and CEO of Somethin’ Else, one of the most influential production agencies in the country. He was recently awarded the MBE for services to radio. However, none of this would be possible without Nelson’s venture into the world of the pirates. In his early teens, he would cram into the bath, get out his radio, find the signal and transport into an unknown world of musical discovery, aided by Radio Invicta.

‘Soul over London’ was their tagline. Known as the first UK station dedicated to spinning solely soul, the station captured the heart and imagination of two middle-class White males who wanted to break free from the shackles of the mainstream.

Jez-Nelson

JEZ NELSON

“American soul music was still kind of hard to come by. And all of a sudden […] you had this station, [Radio Invicta] which, for 12 hours a day was playing a really great spectrum of principally soul music. I mean, the majority of it was with soul music, a little bit of sort of Northern soul.
It’s hard to describe. You know that feeling when you’re in a club and you hear a song for the first time, you can’t quite believe it. What the hell is this? I can’t believe this is even being made. That’s my memory of listening to Radio Invicta –  tune after tune I would be thinking, I cannot believe this even exists.”

While Radio Invicta boasted to be “Your good music station” providing “Soul over London”, another station was emerging through the tide. DBC – Dread Broadcasting Corporation. The West London pirate radio station was the very first Black-owned, Black music pirate radio station in Britain. DBC was founded by DJ Lepke and would play reggae, soul, rock, funk and everything in between. Quite simply, Black music – played by Black people for the Black community.

One of DBC’s most integral presenters was Ranking Miss P – the sister of DJ Lepke. DBC, DJ Lepke and Ranking Miss P’s influence on reggae in Britain must not be understated. The station, founder and its ever-so charismatic lead presenter was instrumental in creating a space for the Black community to: express themselves, express their love for Black music and express their love for their community.

Example – DJ Camilla. Her story is one of passion and drive: a passion for the music and a drive to break down barriers.

DJ Camilla is a pioneer – one of the first females to have a regular pirate radio music show. She began her career at DBC, under the alias Sister C. She later joined LWR – London Wide Radio (formally London Weekend Radio).

LWR and DBC’s influence cannot be underestimated.

LWR, through the leadership of trailblazing CEO Zak, was integral to the growth of Black music, regularly championing Rare groove, Lovers Rock, Acid Jazz, jungle and many more scenes. LWR also championed women, putting on air more female dis than many of its competitors, names include Debbie Gopie, Angie Lamar, Sarah HB, DJ Elayne and of course, DJ Camilla.

Then there’s DBC. Predominantly Black DJs, supporting Black music (primarily reggae), on the airwaves to a (majority) Black audience – a phenomenon in the early 80s.

DJ-CAMILLA-UKBM

DJ CAMILLA

Miss P was a pioneer. A liquid gold voice. I just wanted to have that liquid gold voice, too. DBC was not about money. It was about community. KISS and LWR had a bigger transmitter. If you have a bigger transmitter, you can reach more listeners. The reason why a lot of pirates and stations were at Crystal Palace was that it has the highest peak whereas DBC in West London didn’t have much of a peak. In The Last Pirates documentary, you’ll see Leroy putting a transmitter up in the tower blocks. That would be our biggest peak, so our audience was smaller. Plus, we were only on the air 3 or 4 years, max. It was just one day a week. You had to know where we were. You had to know the frequency. Sometimes we had to change the frequency because we had our transmitter taken off us and also, the DTI was on our case so we would have to change the transmission site.
In the 80s, especially after the riots, the government was very frightened of Black people having any voice. Their fear was we could instigate another riot. We were seen as a threat. DBC had mainly Black DJs, a stark contrast to other stations. They made it very difficult for DBC. We would always get raided. If you had a Black radio station or a station playing reggae music they were always fearful we could get the masses together and instigate another riot. You see it today with Black Lives Matter, what happens with Black people in American and here, people always have these stereotypical views of ‘there are too many Black people together, a riot may happen, let’s not give them too much power’.

We can’t ignore the elephant in the room – pirate radio is… well, illegal.

1964. Radio Caroline was the first of the pirates in the UK, beaming sounds across the country from ‘pirate’ radio ships off the British coasts stationed off-land, in international waters as it was almost impossible to obtain a broadcast licence then. Ronan O’Rahilly, the founder of Radio Caroline, revolutionised British broadcasting. A rebel who took on the BBC, breaking their monopoly of the airwaves. Pirates like Radio Caroline reflected the changing attitudes of young people, reinventing popular culture for a new generation of Britons. The success of Radio Caroline and other pirates such as Radio Atlanta and Radio London even led to the BBC launching Radio 1 in 1967.

Pirate stations have rebelled against the mainstream for the past 50 years- the genres and presenters may change but the ethos remains the same. Children of rock, soul, jungle, garage, grime, dubstep funky and bass have all served to champion the interests of marginalised communities.

GillesPeterson_Credit_NickClague

GILLES PETERSON

I got a transmitter from this guy, who’d also built the transmitter for Invicta FM – I mean there was only one bloke who built all the rigs in London at the time, we got his number from the back of one of those Electronics magazines – and then Radio Invicta got busted and he called me and said, “I know I built your rig, Radio Invicta want to borrow it,” and I said, “Yes, on the condition that you give me a show,” so that’s how I got my hustle on.
I was one of the guys they’d use to go up to the tower blocks; wherever in London: Crystal Palace, Leyton, wherever – they’d give me a set of keys (like 6 keys) that would open up the rooftops of all the council tower blocks. So, that’s how I got to know London and that’s how I got my show really –  I didn’t just walk on because I had a transmitter, I still had to kind of prove myself.
With competition comes a sense that certain stations wouldn’t survive because the other stations would actually take them off the air … on one hand, you had the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) who were a very, very small team who would take the pirates down, led by a bloke called Eric Gotz.
It was also a time when the law was changing so there was always this sense of maybe being busted, there was always this nervousness and excitement about the fact that what you were doing was slightly illegal… We felt like we were really able to achieve something in getting this great music to people that were really hungry for it, there was no way of getting this music elsewhere.
I set up KJazz with Jez (Nelson), a little pirate station, which was fun. We kept on getting busted by other pirates [laughs]; we’d quickly go up on the rooftops to get our gear back, or at least the gear that was left and we’d see the back of some other pirates nicking our gear. It was really, really frightening… We were not really in it for the sort of warfare kind of shit that was beginning to happen in pirate radio.
Gilles-Peterson-archive-Janine-Neye-Huck-C

“We felt like we were really able to achieve something in getting this great music to people that were really hungry for it, there was no way of getting this music elsewhere.”

GILLES PETERSON

PLASTICIAN

PLASTICIAN

We literally broke the law every week just to be on the radio. You didn’t really meet introverted, computer nerd type people. It was all very streetwise… outcasts of society,  kids who got kicked out of school, those were the type of people that did music back then. You couldn’t be timid and get involved with what we were doing.
I came out to have my car being smashed in at least 3 times…if you were comfortable stepping over a drunk who had passed out in the hallway on the way into the station, making sure you didn’t step on any needles in the car park, it was grim, and we did that every week.
You didn’t mix loud back then…I used to DJ with that little door wide open. I was the only one in the flat, in a block which was rife with people stealing out of other people’s houses. There were crack dens. It wasn’t nice.
I used to DJ and listen out for the door. If the door went while you were DJ’ing then it wasn’t the next DJ, the next DJ was normally there in the last 5 mins of your show or they were late. No one was early for their set in my experience – everyone was late or on-time for it. If you heard a noise in the studio while you were on-air, your back was up – headphones are off and you’re like, “What the fuck is going on?”.
I remember being there once. A noise went. It was like the door was banging really hard. I thought, “Shit, someone is trying to kick the door in”.
I put the volume right down in the mixer and left the song playing. I crawled out, went to the door and tried to look through the peephole. I couldn’t see anyone. The door banged again and I thought, “What the fuck”. Whoever is banging the door doesn’t want to be seen. There’s someone on either side of the door hitting it just to get my attention. I picked up this pole and I’m stood there like someone was going to kick down this door any minute. I don’t know if it is the police if it’s a crackhead, another station coming to knick everything.
Then, the door kicked through. It was DJ Blenda, one of the DJs on the station, who said, “I’ve been here for fucking 10 minutes trying to call you!”
We had a new studio number right and he was calling the old studio number. I thought I was going to fucking die. My heart sunk, I was ready to fight for my life and it was him just trying to get in. You got to realise, back then a lot of us on the station didn’t even know what each other looked like. We didn’t really have meetings until a few months in, so G [Geeneus – RINSE FM Manager] can collect subs that were needed.
Luckily, Blenda was someone that I knew. If I didn’t recognise him, I could’ve swung for him.
plastician-rinse

“If you heard a noise in the studio while you were on-air, your back was up”

PLASTICIAN

DJ Elayne and DJ Camilla

DJ CAMILLA

When I first started at LWR, I had the graveyard shift on a Saturday. I think it was between 12 and 4 in the morning. A lot of the places where we played music were proper dodgy. I used to turn up with my little bags of music and I would go to really unsavoury places to play. For the guys, they probably never even thought about it. To be honest, neither did I. It’s not until I look back on it I think, ‘some of those places were proper dodgy’.
The only interaction would be the person you’re taking over from, and the person taking over from you. There are no security guards. There’s no system… No one else in the space. Just you. And your music. In a scary place. I was super lucky nothing ever happened to me.

These anecdotes share a common theme – the pirates united individuals who were society’s outliers. Jez and Gilles were two suburban White teenagers who had a passion for soul music. On the surface, they were middle England- hardly outcasts – nonetheless, they were lost in a shore of mainstream malaise. Pirate Radio for them was an escape into another world. DJ Camilla was part of a generation of Black Britons fighting for an opportunity to be heard. For grime DJs, like Plastician, the scene embodied the lifestyle – grime was marginalised music for a marginalised group in society.

Pirate radio was a space where society’s shackles were invisible. Where everyone had the same aspiration – to enjoy the music they love. Bonds were formed. Communities materialised. Scenes were born. The airwaves became another home to these musicians, second to the clubs.

Bread-Broadcast-Corp

PIRATE RADIO & RAVE CULTURE:
A BOND LIKE NO OTHER

Pirate radio is embedded in rave culture. The two are inseparable. For DJs, pirate radio was the opportunity to show what they could do, to flex their musical muscles – whether it was playing the freshest dubplates or having the best MCs on their sets. For pirate station managers, underground (and often illegal) raves were seen as the place to scope out new talent. 

Legal radio has always struggled to keep pace with music scenes from marginalised communities. Let’s take it back to 1985. Black music stations such as Dread Broadcasting Corporation (who branded themselves as ‘rebel radio’), LWR and Kiss FM were on the rise, specialising in all things soul, rare groove and reggae. In conjunction with the pirates, underground raves were popping up all across the country. Communities fed up with not being able to listen to the music they wanted in clubs were choosing these illegal warehouse raves, a hotbed of rare groove and Black soul classics. Young Black Londoners in particular were at the forefront of this evolution. From rare groove to jungle, Trevor Nelson and the Ragga Twins take us through their journey from the clubs to the pirates

Trevor-Nelson

TREVOR NELSON

I was doing a blues party in a block of flats in Leytonstone. Typical illegal little blues party, in a tower block. Ridiculous! So, we’re in a flat and we put some big ass speakers up the lift, dragged them into the flat, set it all up and the neighbours didn’t know! Then the music comes on… I mean… It was reckless them days. If I lived in that block of flats I’d want me shot… because, I’m not going to lie, obviously you can’t have a party in a block of flats, but we did!
I’m just doing my set and I played in a sound system called ‘Mad Hatters’, which was basically my sound system. We weren’t the biggest, but musically, you know… everyone was talking about me as someone who had tunes for a young guy… I worked in a record shop… I was obsessed with music. I had a lot of old tunes but I also bought all the new stuff.
One of the guys who started Kiss FM was DJ Tosca. There were three owners of Kiss: Gordon Mac, Tosca and George Power. He used to buy records in my shop. Kiss had just started a couple of months before and he came up to me and said, “How would you like to be on the station? You were playing some tunes at that party blah blah blah wicked DJ and all this sort of stuff”. So, I was like of course! Because, you know, Norman Jay, Paul Anderson were on that station and that was it for me, they were my two favourite DJs at the time. I joined, they gave me the graveyard shift and I turned the station off on a Sunday night / Monday morning.
I knew my music, I was grafting hard and because I sold imported records for a living I was popular with all my fellow DJ’s. You’re very important to these guys. That was it. I found my voice on Kiss FM. What we had was the freedom of expression through music which was so important in the 80s because we had so many radio stations driving pop music at us.
Radio 1 in those days was so powerful. Capital… so powerful. They were the only two big stations. Then there was Radio London. We didn’t have those 500 stations you get today. There was nothing like that. You had to go clubbing or you had to listen to pirate to get your fix.
Ragga-Twins

THE RAGGA TWINS

We started doing the Shut Up And Dance thing in 1990… had a few number one hits in the dance chart and the album got to number 26 in the national charts. Maybe [after] a year and a half they were bringing in other artists. They brought in Peter Bouncer. Peter Bouncer did a tune called ‘Raving, I’m raving’ which went straight in at number 1. There was a problem with the sample clearance, some guy called Mark Cohn had sung the song Walking In Memphis…They blocked the tune. They couldn’t sell the tune. All the proceeds went to charity, they said. Who knows where it went. That haunted Shut up And Dance’s progress. We had a second album ready to go out and we couldn’t put it out because they didn’t have the money.
We just started MCing in raves. They would just have an MC, maybe chat a one-line just flowing with the music, keeping the people hype – this would be like 91-92. We started going to these dances, especially Roast on a Sunday at Linford Studios in Battersea or SW1 club or The Arches. We would go in there and when we felt one of the tunes we’d just jump on the mic and start chatting lyrics. The place would go crazy. We started doing that here and there.
The guy that runs Kool FM, his name is Eastman, he used to have a sound system back in the day and we used to chat on his sound. He said, “Yeah I run a radio station now, why don’t you guys come down?” Deman wasn’t really into it but I was going there, going there picking up the mic and chatting for like 3-4 hours. The word started spreading around. The reggae people would be like, “Them guys from Unity, they were on Kool FM and they’re chatting lyrics and doing whatever,” so we got in with that crowd. Then obviously we got in with the raving crowd…  got a regular show on a Sunday 7-9 with a guy called DJ Younghead… sometimes go up there on a Friday with DJ Ron and SL and Moose and then maybe later on with Brockie and Det and you know, just started working on the radio station. We got on it because it was my mate’s radio station. We just went there. It wasn’t like we had to ask a guy could we come-  he just told us to come down.
Trevor-Nelson-2

TREVOR NELSON

There would be a jungle rave on… guys who used to be in reggae sound systems were there mixing with white kids. No-one seemed to be dressing up. I’d DJ at an RnB club and everyone is dressed up. No one is dressed up in a jungle or DnB rave… it’s all about the vibe and all of this stuff right. That’s what I remember of it. Colour wasn’t an issue. The music was a lot of reggae licks and MCs and all the rest of it but I never saw the scene as just black. I saw the music as being black that was being made. But the scene was quite colourless. I saw middle-class white guys and gangsters in there. Do you get what I mean?
A couple of years later on the garage scene, I was doing Twice as Nice as one of the original DJs in the RnB room… this was an edgy yet dressy crowd on a Sunday night. And some of the most scary dudes I’ve ever met in London were behaving themselves in that rave. That’s when I knew that garage music had something going for it. I remember feeling the same way on Sunday nights when I was doing early raves with Soul II Soul and Jazzie B. They wanted to protect the scene. They wanted that night to go on, you know? And that was a different kind of community. You know, that was people looking after something they love. And when the love is gone, it’s every man for themselves.
Trevor-Nelson-3

“You had to go clubbing or you had to listen to pirate to get your fix.”

TREVOR NELSON

It’s impossible to separate pirate radio and clubs. The two were intrinsic in forming the framework we call UK bass music today. Promoters are entrepreneurs. Pirate radio for promoters became an outlet. An asset. A vehicle to shop around and assemble their collection of DJs that will turn their raves into the hottest thing around. Some loved the spotlight; others preferred to work incognito. Nonetheless, this wasn’t just an ordinary side hustle. The love of the music fuelled many a promoter’s desire to get involved in pirate radio.

There’s a particular story I’m fascinated with. I was reading Funk Butcher’s incredible piece on a man called Sting. There are only three Stings I previously knew: the wrestler, the guy who used to be in The Police and the dancehall rave in Jamaica. As a Grime fan, I was surprised to read the incredible piece in Mixmag about the mysterious legend. A man who played an integral in the hardcore, jungle and grime scenes.

If you have more time on your hands, please read Funk Butcher’s piece (finish this first, though). Why do I mention it? Well, Sting epitomised all promoters. Entrepreneurial. Opportunistic. Sting acquired Deja Vu in 1997. Primarily, his aim was to use the station’s adverts as a cost-effective way of promoting his and other promoters’ events.

Sting saw pirate radio as a gateway. A gateway of opportunity to maximise exposure. By the late 90s, the formula had been cracked – we will see a new generation of ambitious, enterprising individuals ready to take a step into the limelight.

PIRATE RADIO: THE GATEWAY OF OPPORTUNITY

Through pirate radio came opportunity. An opportunity to diversify the airwaves.

In 2021 the racial and gender makeup of the radio industry…is okay. I’m not going to say it’s perfect. I’m not going to say it’s great or bad. It’s…okay. The addition of 1Xtra and Asian Network has given a voice to underrepresented communities on the BBC airwaves. There’s now a plethora of online stations that serve specific communities: Foundation FM is a great example of this, a station solely made up of female presenters.

Nonetheless, in the early 80s, this was a pipedream. A distant reality.

Black voices in broadcasting? Rare.

Black FEMALE voices in broadcasting? VERY rare.

DJ Camilla was adamant on being part of a new generation that broke down these barriers.

She found inspiration from her motherland – Nigeria.

DJ-CAMILLA-UKBM

DJ CAMILLA

I was brought up in Nigeria. I had quite an affluent family. One of my aunties had her own TV programme in Benin. So I knew it was possible for women to be in the media. I also felt, because I am originally from Liverpool as well, I knew how White people view Black people. People make these assumptions without knowing us. I thought a really good way to communicate with a lot of people is through radio. They will get to know your personality. Maybe all the things they believe about you as a Black person can be broken down…in those days it was very rare to see any [Black] people on television, any Black people on the radio. I thought I had a really good opportunity, as a Black British person who was born in this country, to play music in a professional way and as a woman. Us women can do it too!
I didn’t think my accent was very strong but people were happy to say I didn’t speak English very well because I had a northern accent. It’s just challenging people’s beliefs. Our generation was gripped with a lot of racism and stereotypes. It was really hard to break some of those ceilings. [In the 80s] honestly, it was tough. DBC was not financially driven. It was all about community, representation of Black music – so their drive was different.
It’s about challenging people’s stereotypes and breaking all they know about people’s race, someone’s sexuality, what they can or cannot do, what they were capable of. Don’t tell me Black people cannot be on the radio station – I lived in Nigeria and saw Black people do everything, so I’m not having that.

We’ve explored the connections between the pirates and rave culture. Nonetheless, a different type of career was being born via the pirates. With the advancement of technology came the digital age which meant the increase of digital stations. Along with this came a demand from the mainstream for something different. Underground music was becoming somewhat ‘less underground’. Through film, articles and the internet the interest of jungle, drum and bass and garage was spreading. Media companies noticed this. Radio stations noticed this.

In 1995, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) became a way for radio corporations to serve different audiences. There was a calling for DJs to spread the good word of their scenes to the newly available masses, and the likes of Spoony answered.

SPOONY

We weren’t the finished article, but we definitely had an appetite to do it. We didn’t sound like pirate radio DJs on a legal station. But like I said, our music, our music knowledge, our DJ’ing ability, technically or otherwise, was always going to carry us through anyway. London Underground was an excellent platform for us to hone and refine our skills.
Once we had joined Kiss, it was a case of, “Right, we need to be broadcasting to as many people as we possibly can”. One of the main reasons we left Kiss is because the UK garage got to a point where it couldn’t, and it shouldn’t, have just been played on London radio. We asked them to syndicate our show… Galaxy offered us it. Actually, it was the second time that Galaxy actually offered us a slot. It meant that even though we would have to give up London as a territory to broadcasting, we would be going out on a Friday night, primetime to Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Sheffield – those areas around the UK which were massive for UK garage.
We were based in London, and we all had residences in clubland, which still had a presence in the capital, but in order to grow the sound, we needed to challenge the rhetoric of, ‘It’s just a London thing’. When Galaxy came to us and gave us that slot, that was a testament to that. Once we got that, it was only going to be a matter of time before we went on to [BBC] Radio 1.
Within six months, they [Radio 1] called and we did a pilot. I think they just wanted to have a look and make sure they weren’t making a huge mistake. I remember exactly where we were when I got the phone call. It was a really proud moment for UK garage because not too many years before that, we were relegated and restricted to 40/60/80 capacity venues on a Sunday afternoon because no one would let us play our music in their venues on a Friday or Saturday night.
booking-agent-DJ-Spoony

“In order to grow the sound, we needed to challenge the rhetoric of, ‘It’s just a London thing’”

DJ SPOONY

Audience reach was enhanced by the digital revolution. In came MSN Messenger and internet forums as a vehicle of promoting your radio show beyond its usual constituents. Plastician, in particular, used this to his advantage:

PLASTICIAN

PLASTICIAN

I got on all of the internet forums. Back then it was Uptown Records forum, dubplate.net forum, and another one called UK Garage Worldwide.
DJs back then and MCs and producers were not that internet savvy. So just [by] being visible there are a lot of opportunities opened up for me because they knew who I was. They listened to my show and were getting bits of press because people could actually contact me. I was probably the first person who was internet savvy in that respect. I got bookings before anyone else did in our respective genres. Outside the likes of Dizzee, I played everywhere before anyone else did. I was looking after my own bookings, as well. So it was easy for someone to just book me. By 2005, I’d already played in America and Japan before most people had even played outside London.”

Then came MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram… the game had changed. Social media became a way to reach a broader audience: music enthusiasts began to set up internet streams showcasing their mixes and mc sets. Online radio was born.

NEXT GEN RADIO

The heart and soul of the pirate movement continues. The spirit of the pirates lives on through the digital era. We are seeing a new generation of talent on new, diverse, eclectic stations across the world. 

Online stations like Reprezent, Balaami, Foundation FM, NTS and Subtle Radio are leading the charge in 2020. From Conducta to Big Zuu, some of the best emerging talent from the past 5 years have come from online stations. Representation is at the heart of these stations: gender equality; race equality; an output for marginalised communities… sounds familiar, right?

Online stations have been receiving growing attention and are becoming more and more recognised. DJ Mag recently recognised Reprezent for their ‘Outstanding Contribution’ to music.

New stations online are transmitting music via the digital airwaves for every type of audience and community. By broadcasting legally online, stations like Reprezent and Subtle have been able to develop a brand and community whilst keeping underrepresented music at its core (reword) – Adrian (Reprezent), Hannah and Lee (Subtle) describe how and why their two stations came to fruition. 

Reprezent-Logo

ADRIAN (Reprezent)

It was like 2002/2003. I was working for the Southern Council. I was doing community engagement work. It was kind of just a mock job during the day. I was in various bands and doing production at night.  I went to one of these horrible kinds of public meetings. One of the people there was saying, “Oh, there should be community radio in Peckham.”
So, I commissioned a little kind of community radio station. That ran for a few years. I left the council and was doing other things. During that time, that community station stopped becoming a community station and started venturing into youth media.
Shane, who owns Reprezent, was just awarded an FM licence. He had a small team. No one really knew what they were doing. My name must have been sent to him and he thought that I was just a project manager for the council from way back. A mutual friend told him “No, no, he can engineer the shit out of the studio and he’s still really interested in this kind of social side of things.” I got pulled in for six months just to manage the transition from a little kind of internet youth club to a radio station. I brought in two people to manage it but that wasn’t working. So then I brought somebody else. That didn’t work. Shane just said, “Look, if you know what you want, have a bash at managing the whole thing yourself.” That was in 2012 and yeah, we’ve been, I guess, developing it ever since.
We’ve had people that have gone on to do cool things. I think a lot of the people that come to Reprezent understand that there are some giants in front of them, whether that’s Zoe who currently produces Annie Nightingale and Annie Mac on Radio 1, or whether that’s Martha, Reece Parkinson, Molly Collins, Ben Malone or Jamz Supernova. I think people see these guys and think it is possible. They can see that, okay, in three years, I can go from zero to a full-on sustainable career. I think young people are better at seeing the future than when I was young. When I was young, we just looked ahead just a few weeks, but now, I think there’s a real kind of like, puritanical viewpoint about careers. People clock that is possible, because so many people have done it. Just don’t fuck around.
Reprezent
Hannah-Lee-Subtle-Radio

HANNAH & LEE (SUBTLE RADIO)

Before Subtle started, we just used to meet up and mix, a way for people who enjoy music to get together but we found out at uni there were a lot of like-minded heads.
Then we thought, ‘You know what we could do, we could do this legit, we’ve got the people who are interested’, and then Subtle was born. So we learnt how to make an actual radio station. We ended up buying a 40-pound laptop to set our server up on and had to have it running constantly. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea, we should have invested in a server from the start!
Once back in London, we opened the studio in Hackney and was shocked, people were making a really big effort to come to Subtle. We had DJs who travel down from Cambridge, up from Brighton, Bristol and even Manchester to play regular shows.
Doing all of this our main focus stayed the same from the start, we wanted to give our time to the community and we still have that sort of community feel we try to keep in East London. We are really looking to push up and comers.
I think that’s where we differ. We’re not trying to be a radio station that is like the top tier. Yes, we have some well-known DJs on the station but literally, the next show after that could be someone on the come up. If they are a solid DJ, and they’ve got a good show, they deserve the platform to promote themselves.
Adrian-Reprezent

“They [new Presenters] can see that, okay, in three years, I can go from zero to a full on sustainable career.”

ADRIAN (REPREZENT)

Everything moves on. Life is all about progression. Evolution. Music is no different. How we consume music has changed however the heart and soul of pirate radio lives on through stations like Subtle and Reprezent. The next generation of DJs is currently mastering their craft on online/community radio. This is no different from what Trevor Nelson did. Gilles Peterson. DJ Spoony.


Pirates were a breeding ground for the next generation; the pirate era may be over, but that ethos of ‘next one up’ rings true for online stations. 

LET’S PUSH THINGS FORWARD...

Writing this piece there was one particular thing I dreaded. The conclusion. How does it all end? How do I close this? What’s going to happen next? I wrote this article amongst the backdrop of Covid. Truth be told, the music industry is about to change forever. How will the clubs survive? Will this be the end for some DJs and promoters?

One thing that’s not going to change… the pirate model.

No Signal radio proved this. During the dark lockdown days, it was No Signal’s NS10V10 that was dominating social media. Every night on Twitter, you would see NS10V10 trending. Their popular sound clash bought thousands of young people together, all listening to the radio. The thing people bought into was the culture. Authenticity. That’s the beauty of radio – there’s no hiding place, there’s just you, the presenter, the DJ and the music. Radio continues and will continue to be an outlet for marginalised communities.

Online stations have used YouTube, Instagram and Twitch as a tool to further promote their product. The community is no longer restricted to a postcode. It’s not restricted to one genre.

Gilles Peterson said it best in my conversation with him:

The buzz is listening to Tash LC and finding out where she got that mad track from Lisbon… or hearing the new scene coming out of Melbourne, whether it’s the new Jazz coming out of Chicago, whether it’s the interesting, new electronic music coming out of the UK Underground.”

Bass music is evolving. If you asked 5 DJs to describe Bass music, they would all give you a different answer. Is this a bad thing? The sound now incorporates influences from all over the world: Latin, Africa, Indian; in fact, some might say the term UK Bass music is somewhat obsolete. The sound is now worldwide.

This global fusion exemplifies why our scene is so special. The UK is a cultural melting pot: Latin, Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, South-East Asian. You see the influences of these cultures in UK music today. Especially within the Bass music sub-genres.

As the world continues to become more connected through enhanced digital mediums, cultures and communities are mixing more than ever before.

Music genres are becoming more fluid. UK music is at the forefront of this shift.. and we should never forget the role pirate radio played in this movement.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. carmella obinyan

    6 March 2021 at 10:20 am

    This had so much information that I was not aware about thanks for telling theirs story from small acorns might trees ? have grown and ceilings broken ???

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