Rave and jungle on UK pirate radio (June 1998)Simon Reynolds is an internationally known,influential writer whose work has been published in numerous magazines and papers includingThe Wire (including the sexology of pieces-- i.e. six essays-- re hardcore and jungle), Village Voice, Melody Maker and Spin (where he's the album's reviews editor). His previous books include THE SEX REVOLTS: GENDER, REBELLION & ROCK'N'ROLL, written with Joy Press (Harvard University Press in North America, or Serpent'sTail in the U.K, 1995), and BLISSED OUT: THE RAPTURES OF ROCK (Serpent's Tail, London, 1990).
This is the director's cut, the unabridged version of a chapter of Simon's new book- the UK edition is called ENERGY FLASH: A JOURNEY THROUGH RAVE MUSIC AND DANCE CULTURE,published by Picador in September, 500 pages (in the book, asignficantly shorter version of this chapter appears) The book comes with a free CD of rave classics including tunes by Beltram,Nightmares on Wax, LFO, DJ Hype, 4 Hero and Danny Breaks...
This pirate radio chapter doesn't appear in the U.S. version of the book(although chunks of it are incorporated in the chapter on jungle), so thisis something that most North American readers will never see otherwise. The U.S.edition is called GENERATION ECSTASY: INTO THE WORLD OF TECHNO AND RAVE CULTURE, published by Little, Brown in September, with 438pages (it's about 40 thousand words shorter than the UK version).THIS SOUND IS FOR THE UNDERGROUND:
UK PIRATE RADIO
"Well out of that now, into this--sounds of the Lucky Spin, believer!Along with the MC OC, along with the full studio crew. Heh heh heh heh,lively business! Echo?! Hah hah! Here we go now, shout going out to Rattle, you know the koo.Cooked food, love it to the bone! To the marrow! Normality, believe!L-I-V-E and direct, to the koo.Are you ready, wind your waist crew? Are you ready, headnodding crew? Andthosewho's driving around Don-land North East South and West, we've got youlocked!!!Come again! Sounds of the Lucky Spin, sounds of the Stevie Hill--to allmassives, all crew. A shout going out to Jim and Emma... Jim and Emma, getout of John's bed, right here, right now--the sounds of the Don will showyou how. C'mon! Do-it-like-this! 10- 57, get on the case, for thehardcore, hardcore bass. For ya face--100 percent bass! Alright, red-eyecrew, you know the koo. Going out to you, wind your waist crew....headnodding crew....and those who's l-l-l-lickin' it in Don-land in theircars, yes, drivingabout Don-land, the Don-ites and your Don-'eads. Do-it-like-this,jungalist! Believe me, 'ardkore's firing!"
--- MC OC on Don FM, 1993
All through the Nineties, London's 'ardkore rave and jungle pirate stationshave disrupted the decorum of the FM airwaves with their vulgar fervour andrude-boy attitude. PirateDJ's unleash a mad multi-generic mash-up of hip hop breakbeats, dub-reggaebass andEuro-rave synth-bombast. The MC surfs this polyrhythmic pandemonium with afreestyleDada-doggerel of druggy buzzwords, party-hard exhortations and outlawwar-cries:sublime "nonsense" that is purely invocatory, designed to bind itsscattered addressees intoa community, mobilise it into an army.
London's jungle pirates come and go, but at any time of year, you can scanthefrequency-band at the weekend and find at least a dozen. There are manymore illegalstations in the capital, and throughout Britain, representing otherdance-genres neglected by mainstream radio: dancehall reggae, soul, house& garage, rap, and so forth. Someregard themselves as a providers of a community service, like North Londonreggaestation Station FM, with its anti-drug messages and funki-dread positivity.And some areso well-organised and well-behaved they're like independent commercialradio stationsthat just haven't bothered to secure a licence, like Dream FM in Leeds,with its 24/7transmissions and stringent rules about no swearing on air, no drugs in thestudio, noplaying of records containing drug references.
My passion, however, is for the pirate stations that seem the mostpiratical, thestations for whom being on the wrong side of the law is part of the thrill.And that meansthe jungle pirates. In fact, given that jungle stations like Kool and Facehave gotten more"professional" and "mature" since the music went mainstream in 1994, itreally means theunruly 'ardkore pirates of 1991-93: Touchdown, Defection, Index, Rush, Format, Pulse,Eruption, Impact, Don, Chillin', Destiny, Function, and many more.
Out of a personal archive of hundreds of hours of taped transmissions, myfavourite sequence is from an unusual mid-week broadcast by a stationcalled Lightning,which seems to have been hi-jacked for one night only by a duo called theFMB Crew (itstands for Fucking Mind Bending). After about an hour of rambling,nursery-rhymebanter, ranging from the sinister and scatological to the nonsensical andoutrightindecipherable, the pair suddenly get possessed by a kind offree-associational delirium.The soundtrack is a particularly febrile mix of DJ Hype's "I Can'tUnderstand It At All"into a wondrously zany X Project track, in which choirboy Aled Jones'sinnocuous chartsmash "Walking In The Air" is warped into an anthem for the no-sleep raverspeedfreak: "we're walking in the air/while people down below are sleeping as we fly".
MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Man like Niney Niney, the man who lovesbanan-ees--he says. Hold it down. Biggin' up the Acton Crew, doing-the-do.Biggin' up the Acting Hard Massive. Stiff as an 'ard on! Comin' on, comin'on, come on come on techno strong. Work it up! Working upthe-rush-in-the-place!"
MC#2: "And it's Haitch with a Hot"
MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Hot Man, the Metal Man, hold it down. Cinders. Youknow the score--
MC#2: "And the Builder. And the Coke Can---"
MC# 1: "Biggin' up the Coke Can, the Builder--"
MC#2: "And the Ice--"
MC# 1: "Not forgetting--".
MC#2: "The Schweppes."
MC# 1: "Cackooo Crew! Big it up big it up, doing-the-do!
MC#2: "Havin' em in the loo, in the loo--"
MC# 1: "Hot hot--"
MC#2: "Doing a lovely poo poo! Ha, ha!
MC# 1: "Buzzin' hard! Having a bubble, in the studio.
MC#2: "Trippin' out! Phone us an ambulance. Phone don't work, give us bellsee if it works. 0831 639302, could save a life or two. Or three. Come on, rush withme!
MC# 1: "Biggin' up all the people that live in blocks, 'round London town.Biggin up all the builders. Rush with this, learn to mix!
MC#2: "Comin' on comin' on comin' on strong--"
MC# 1: "Going out to Sammy in Stratford, you know the koo. The didgeridoo,the 'abadabadoo.
MC#2 (starting to sound deranged and a bit demonic): Doing it doing it withthe poo.Sounds of the big cack-ooo. Going out to the buzzin' ard crew. You know thekoo, koo. Crispy like a crouton! Sounds of the 'Ot with an Haitch. Gettinghot in the place. Steamin'. Rollin'. Sounds of the South. [growling and gnashing teeth] Holdit down. You know the koo. Flex tops are doing the do. Respect is due. Toyou and your crew.
MC# 1: "Sounds of the South, man. Buzzin'."
It loses something in transcription: the intonation, the grain of thevoice, the instinctual syncopation, the drugged slurriness. But I'm nottaking the piss when I say that I rate this-- and a score more snatches of phonetic poetry plucked live'n'buzzin' from London's pirate airwaves--among my favourite "cultural artefacts" of the Twentieth Century.
FUCK THE LEGAL STATIONS
"The future does not exist for them"
--- Postmaster General Tony Benn, promising to outlaw Britain's first waveof pirate radio stations, 1965.
Pirate radio get its romantic name not just from its flagrant flouting ofgovernmentrestrictions on the airwaves, but from its early days in the 1960's, whenunlicensed stations broadcasted from ships anchored at sea just outsideBritish territorial waters. Although dance bands had transmitted live fromWest End hotels in the 1930's, the idea of broadcasting from boats waspioneered by the Danes and Swedes in the late '50's. But pirate radio reallytook off in the seas around the British Isles. By 1965, there was RadioCaroline, Radio London, Radio Invicta, Radio 390, Radio Essex, and RadioScotland,amongst others. Some stations broadcast from ships, with DJ's confined toquarters forseveral weeks at a time; others used derelict Army and Navy forts on theThames Estuary.
For pirate radio stations then and now, the motivation to go outside thelaw is thedesire to supply "the people" with the music that officially-sanctionedradio doesn't playor doesn't play enough of, and to present it in an "authentic" manner. Inthe mid-60s,British youth craved a non-stop diet of the latest beat music, but theBBC's popprogramming was limited, and heavily diluted with MOR in order to placate abroad agespectrum. As for presentation, the pirate jocks' zany, irreverent patter,influenced byAmerican commercial radio's personality DJ's, contrasted with the staid,stiff, un-popBBC presenters. By 1966, Radio London could claim over 8 million listeners,and RadioCaroline over 6 million; pirate DJ's were cult stars and the stations hadtheir own fan clubsand sometimes associated pop magazines.
This first golden age of pirate radio came to an end when HaroldWilson's Labourgovernment instituted The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967,making itunlawful to found, finance, or aid in any way an unlicensed station. Facedwith theprospect of up to two years in jail and/or a hefty fine, many piratesclosed down. Whenthe Radio London DJ's arrived at Liverpool Street Station, they weregreeted by thousandsof unhappy fans, many sporting black arm bands and "Wilson for Ex-Premier"badges. Asa sop to public demand, the BBC launched its own national pop station,Radio One, andrecruited many of the pirate DJ's, such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel,Johnny Walker andDave Lee Travis. But some pirates persisted outside the law; in 1972, theMinister forPosts and Telecommunications reported that 116 people had been successfullyprosecutedfor broadcasting offences in the previous year.
In the early '80's, pirate radio entered its second golden age, withthe rise of blackmusic stations like Horizon, JFM, Dread Broadcasting Corporation and LWR, specialising in the soul, reggae and funk that Radio One marginalised. Butthe nauticalconnotations of "pirate" had faded; the new pirates broadcast not just fromthe mainland,but from the heart of the metropolis, using the tower block (high-rise apartment building) method thatremains thebackbone for today's jungle stations. As the government closed loopholes inthe law andincreased the penalties, the illegal stations grew ever more cunning intheir struggle tooutwit the Department of Trade and Industry's anti-pirate agency, the Radio InvestigationService. The invention of the microlink (a method of relaying the station'ssignal to adistant transmitter) made it harder for the DTI to trace and raid theillegal station's studio. The result was an explosion of piracy; by 1989-90, there were over 600stationsnationwide, and 60 in the London area alone. And in 1989, a new breed ofrave pirates,like Sunrise, Dance FM, Fantasy and Centreforce, joined the ranks ofestablished blackdance stations like LWR and Kiss.
As in the 1960's, the government responded with the double whammyofsuppression and limited permission. In a weird echo of the pardons offeredultra-successful buccaneers and corsairs in the 16th and 17th Centuries, thepirate stations wereoffered an amnesty if they went off the air, and a chance to apply for oneof the bonanzaof licenses being made available as part of the Conservative governmentscommitment to"freeing" the airwaves. LWR and Kiss closed down voluntarily, but only Kisswon alicence. The legitimatisation of Kiss, in combination with a new, toughened BroadcastingAct in January 1990, reduced pirate activity to its lowest since 1967.
But in 1992, the London pirates resurged massively, as a crucialcomponent of hardcore rave's underground infrastructure, alongside home-studiorecording, indie labels,white label releases and specialist dance stores. Abandoning the lastvestiges of trad popradio broadcasting protocol, the new 'ardkore pirates sounded like "raveson the air":rowdy, chaotic, with the DJ's voiceover replaced by a raucous rave-styleMC (Master ofCeremonies), and with a strong emphasis on audience participation (enabledby the spreadof the portable cellular phone, which made the studio location impossibleto trace by theDTI). With Kiss FM's playsafe programming unable to satisfy the demand forraw-to-the-core 'ardkore, and the dance culture fragmenting into a myriad post-ravesub-scenes,1992-93 saw the biggest boom in the history of radio piracy. Despite thegovernment'slatest package of draconian penalties (unlimited fines, prison sentences ofup to two years,and the confiscation of all studio equipment, including domestic hi-fiequipment and theDJ's precious record collection), despite some 536 raids by the DTI in1992-93, therenegade stations persisted. In the words of a track by Rum & Black, thepirate attituderemained: "**** the Legal Stations".
Surviving as a pirate station in the 1990's involves a mix of hard graft,practical skill andraw cunning similar to that possessed by their seafaring namesakes of the16th and 17thCenturies. The main problem with illegal broadcasting is that it's fairlyeasy for the DTIto track a transmission back to its source, by "triangulating" the signal.Since the earlyEighties, most pirate stations have circumvented this problem by using amicrowavetransmitter to "beam" their programmes from the studio to a remotetransmitter, where it isthen broadcast to the public. Because these micro-links operate by aline-of-sight,directional beam, the DTI can trace the signal back to the pirate studioonly once they'vegot to the top of the tower block and located the transmitter. The smarterpirate stationswill have attached a cut-out switch to the door, which cuts the powersupply and breaksthe link. This ensures that the DTI can't trace the beam from the top ofthe tower blockback to the studio, and that all the pirate station loses in the raid is atransmitter worth afew hundred pounds. The pirate can then switch its micro-link beam to aback-uptransmitter at the top of another building.
"I've known stations with ten or fifteen back-up transmitters,"says Marcus, a well-spoken 18 year old who was involved in the legendary South Londonpirate DonFM. "The range of a microwave is usually about a mile or two. You canextend it with amid-point, which is effectively a jump-station. You link to the mid-pointand it links toanother. You can have as many mid-points as you like. It depends on howmuch moneyyou have at your disposal".
When the DTI comes down hard on a particular pirate station, itcan lose atransmitter each weekend, sometimes several. It's an expensive business,and the piratesthat endure are those with a sound financial infrastructure. Revenue comesfromadvertising (mostly for raves and clubs, specialist record shops andcompilation albums,but occasionally for non music-related retailers, like customised leatherclothing). Londonpirates charge advertisers around 50 to 75 pounds per weekend, with the adsrunningevery hour. The rest of the money comes from the DJ's, who--in a testamentto theidealism and love-not-money amateur ethos behind pirate radio--actuallypay for theprivilege of playing.
"All DJ's pay to play," says Marcus. "Some stations are fundedentirely off theDJ's. At Don FM, DJ's paid ten quid for a one-and-a-half hour slot. Itsounds a bit harsh,but y'know, if I've set up a studio with the decks and everything, spentmoney on a rig,physically risked myself going on the roof of a tower block to set up thetransmitter, is itreally unreasonable to ask for a tenner from someone so he can have a laughand big uptheir mates?". DJ's and MC's do get a payback, in so far as playing on thepirates can leadto paid work at clubs and raves.
Although Marcus insists that "you don't set up a pirate to make aprofit or even seeyour money back... in most cases, that's the last you see of your money,"pirate radio haslong been tarnished with a money-grubbing, on-the-make, evencriminal-mindedreputation. In 1989, for instance, several Centerforce DJ's were arrestedfor Ecstasydealing; accusations of gangster ties and coded, on-air drug transactions,were often beenlevelled at the 'ardkore pirates. Like many other jungle stations, Don FMhad somethingof a bad-boy, nefarious aura. The word "Don", with all its Mafiaconnotations, enteredjunglist slang via Jamaican dancehall, where it refers to anyone who'ssupreme in theirfield, anyone who's "runnin' t'ings". In THE GODFATHER, Don Corleone'sdearest wish is forthe family to go legitimate. Amazingly, Don FM actually managed to do this,if onlybriefly. Going off the air voluntarily in 1994, the station applied for andwon a RestrictedService Licence. For one month only, Don was allowed to "prove itself" bytaking on thechallenge of broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a view togoing for abigger licence. After a successful month as a legal station, Don confrontedthe next,prohibitively expense rung on the ladder to full legitimacy, and decided torevert to outlawstatus.
For all their conspiratorial, clandestine aura, most pirates'criminal activities arelimited to the struggle to protect the station and stay on their air. Onestation, Rush FM,turned the upper storeys of an abandoned East London tower block into afortress soimpregnable that the DJ's had to abseil (rappel) up the side of the building inorder to reach thestudio. The entrance was sealed with concrete, through which they'd putsome metalscaffolding. They then pumped the scaffolding's metal tubing full ofammonia gas, andlinked the scaffold to the electrical mains. When the local council turnedup to breakdown the barricade, the man operating the pneumatic drill got electrocuted,the sparkignited the gas, and the concrete bulwark exploded, showering the workerswith shrapnel.
Most pirates, though, says Marcus, realise that such "militantbusiness" doesn'twork with the DTI. "If the DTI manage to get to your transmitter, they willtake it. Somepeople will go to serious extremes to protect the transmitter, but there'sno point in tryingto piss off the DTI". The cut-off switches and other alarms andbooby-traps, he says, are "more to guard against other pirates stealing your transmitters."Reflecting the dog-eat-dog nature of '90s lumpen-prole life, there appears to be scant solidaritybetween thepirates, little in the way of a fraternal feeling that they're all in theunderground together.
"A rig is worth about 300 pounds," says Marcus. "If you see one andtake it, it'salmost not seen as thieving. You need one as much as the next bloke. It'spart of the game.It's also done because a station's seen as competition, if it's in yourarea. And it's not goodto have too many pirates in the same area. If there's a stack of piratesin, say, Battersea,the DTI will hit that area 'cos they know they can take out three or fourstations in one hit.It's a fight for survival. So you take the transmitter, either 'cos you need another rig, orbecause they're endangering your station."
If the pirates are at war with each other, some stations have beenknown to have analmost genial relationship with their ostensible common foe, the DTI. Couldit be thatsome DTI agents-- like certain police officers obliged to wage anunwinnable war ondrugs--are privately bemused as to why they must dedicate so much time andresources tosuppressing these ultimately harmless dance pirates? The official line, inthe words of oneTrade and Technology Minister, is that "these stations not only cause radioand TVinterference for the ordinary listener, but can seriously endanger life bydisrupting theradio communications of the emergency services and airport control towers."Mostpirates use transmitters that are "crystal-locked, so that the wholeemergency frequencyscare is just a lie," insists Marcus. "The FM frequency band goes up in0.05 steps, and tobe locked means that your signal is precisely on that 0.05, and there's noleakage eitherside of it."
The question, then, remains: why is the government dedicated tostamping out thepirates? Is it just the innate desire of state power to regulate allaspects of the media? Oris there a fear of militant agit-prop being transmitted through the skies?Strangely, Britainhas never seen much in the way of political "free radio", although somestriking firemendid use a fire-service transmitter in 1977 to contest what they felt wasdistorted mediareporting of the industrial dispute. But an Italian "free" station, RadioAlice, played amajor role in catalysing the anarcho-syndicalist and autonomist riots inBologna in 1977; a15,000 strong uprising so politically threatening and culturally offensiveto theestablishment (left- and right-wing), that the Communist Mayor of Bolognainvited thearmy to use armored cars to suppress the uprising. Alice's perpetrators,described bysympathiser Felix Guattari as an unholy alliance of students, feminists,gays, migrantworkers and anarchists, were condemned and jailed. In the United Statestoo, pirate radiois mostly politically-motivated, not music-oriented.
If the concept of "resistance" can be applied to British pirateradio, it's clearly onthe level of symbolic warfare, that old cultural studies trope of"resistance throughrituals", as opposed to overt protest. If the pirates are subversive, it'sbecause they hijackthe mass media, the instrument of consensus, in order to articulate a minorityconsciousness that's local, tribal, and utterly opaque to the un-initiated.The Deleuze &Guattari concept of "minor languages" (versus "major languages") fits theway the piratescan seem to the outsider like mere sound and fury that signifies nothing,yet meanseverything to those who belong. It's no coincidence that two of thecommonestcatchphrases used by pirate MC's in 1992-92 were "ardkore, you know thescore" and"you know the key". On Don FM, the latter was often slurred and contortedinto thecryptic: "you know the koo". Which bring us to the MC, the figure whomarshals andsustains the subculture's sense of itself as massive yet subterranenan, ashared, secretunderworld; the MC as master of 'ardkore's occult ceremonies, as encryptor.
See part two of this article
Also see our interview with Simon about post-punk