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History of Acid House Pirate Radio
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 including The 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's Tail 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, a signficantly 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 Sound is the 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? And those who's driving around Don-land North East South and West, we've got you locked!!! Come again! Sounds of the Lucky Spin, sounds of the Stevie Hill--to all massives, all crew. A shout going out to Jim and Emma... Jim and Emma, get out of John's bed, right here, right now--the sounds of the Don will show you how. C'mon! Do-it-like-this! 10- 57, get on the case, for the hardcore, hardcore bass. For ya face--100 percent bass! Alright, red-eye crew, 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 their cars, yes, driving about 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
London's jungle pirates come and go, but at any time of year, you can scan the frequency-band at the weekend and find at least a dozen. There are many more illegal stations in the capital, and throughout Britain, representing other dance-genres neglected by mainstream radio: dancehall reggae, soul, house & garage, rap, and so forth. Some regard themselves as a providers of a community service, like North London reggae station Station FM, with its anti-drug messages and funki-dread positivity. And some are so well-organised and well-behaved they're like independent commercial radio stations that just haven't bothered to secure a licence, like Dream FM in Leeds, with its 24/7 transmissions and stringent rules about no swearing on air, no drugs in the studio, no playing of records containing drug references.
My passion, however, is for the pirate stations that seem the most piratical, the stations for whom being on the wrong side of the law is part of the thrill. And that means the jungle pirates. In fact, given that jungle stations like Kool and Face have gotten more "professional" and "mature" since the music went mainstream in 1994, it really means the unruly '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, my favourite sequence is from an unusual mid-week broadcast by a station called Lightning, which seems to have been hi-jacked for one night only by a duo called the FMB Crew (it stands for Fucking Mind Bending). After about an hour of rambling, nursery-rhyme banter, ranging from the sinister and scatological to the nonsensical and outright indecipherable, the pair suddenly get possessed by a kind of free-associational delirium. The soundtrack is a particularly febrile mix of DJ Hype's "I Can't Understand It At All" into a wondrously zany X Project track, in which choirboy Aled Jones's innocuous chart smash "Walking In The Air" is warped into an anthem for the no-sleep raver speedfreak: "we're walking in the air/while people down below are sleeping as we fly".
It loses something in transcription: the intonation, the grain of the voice, the instinctual syncopation, the drugged slurriness. But I'm not taking 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"
For pirate radio stations then and now, the motivation to go outside the law is the desire to supply "the people" with the music that officially-sanctioned radio doesn't play or doesn't play enough of, and to present it in an "authentic" manner. In the mid-60s, British youth craved a non-stop diet of the latest beat music, but the BBC's pop programming was limited, and heavily diluted with MOR in order to placate a broad age spectrum. As for presentation, the pirate jocks' zany, irreverent patter, influenced by American commercial radio's personality DJ's, contrasted with the staid, stiff, un-pop BBC presenters. By 1966, Radio London could claim over 8 million listeners, and Radio Caroline over 6 million; pirate DJ's were cult stars and the stations had their own fan clubs and sometimes associated pop magazines.
This first golden age of pirate radio came to an end when Harold Wilson's Labour government instituted The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, making it unlawful to found, finance, or aid in any way an unlicensed station. Faced with the prospect of up to two years in jail and/or a hefty fine, many pirates closed down. When the Radio London DJ's arrived at Liverpool Street Station, they were greeted by thousands of unhappy fans, many sporting black arm bands and "Wilson for Ex-Premier" badges. As a sop to public demand, the BBC launched its own national pop station, Radio One, and recruited many of the pirate DJ's, such as Tony Blackburn, John Peel, Johnny Walker and Dave Lee Travis. But some pirates persisted outside the law; in 1972, the Minister for Posts and Telecommunications reported that 116 people had been successfully prosecuted for broadcasting offences in the previous year.
In the early '80's, pirate radio entered its second golden age, with the rise of black music stations like Horizon, JFM, Dread Broadcasting Corporation and LWR, specialising in the soul, reggae and funk that Radio One marginalised. But the nautical connotations of "pirate" had faded; the new pirates broadcast not just from the mainland, but from the heart of the metropolis, using the tower block (high-rise apartment building) method that remains the backbone for today's jungle stations. As the government closed loopholes in the law and increased the penalties, the illegal stations grew ever more cunning in their struggle to outwit the Department of Trade and Industry's anti-pirate agency, the Radio Investigation Service. The invention of the microlink (a method of relaying the station's signal to a distant transmitter) made it harder for the DTI to trace and raid the illegal station's studio. The result was an explosion of piracy; by 1989-90, there were over 600 stations nationwide, and 60 in the London area alone. And in 1989, a new breed of rave pirates, like Sunrise, Dance FM, Fantasy and Centreforce, joined the ranks of established black dance stations like LWR and Kiss.
But in 1992, the London pirates resurged massively, as a crucial component of hardcore rave's underground infrastructure, alongside home-studio recording, indie labels, white label releases and specialist dance stores. Abandoning the last vestiges of trad pop radio broadcasting protocol, the new 'ardkore pirates sounded like "raves on the air": rowdy, chaotic, with the DJ's voiceover replaced by a raucous rave-style MC (Master of Ceremonies), and with a strong emphasis on audience participation (enabled by the spread of the portable cellular phone, which made the studio location impossible to trace by the DTI). With Kiss FM's playsafe programming unable to satisfy the demand for raw-to-the- core 'ardkore, and the dance culture fragmenting into a myriad post-rave sub-scenes, 1992-93 saw the biggest boom in the history of radio piracy. Despite the government's latest package of draconian penalties (unlimited fines, prison sentences of up to two years, and the confiscation of all studio equipment, including domestic hi-fi equipment and the DJ's precious record collection), despite some 536 raids by the DTI in 1992-93, the renegade stations persisted. In the words of a track by Rum & Black, the pirate attitude remained: "**** the Legal Stations".
Surviving as a pirate station in the 1990's involves a mix of hard graft, practical skill and raw cunning similar to that possessed by their seafaring namesakes of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The main problem with illegal broadcasting is that it's fairly easy for the DTI to track a transmission back to its source, by "triangulating" the signal. Since the early Eighties, most pirate stations have circumvented this problem by using a microwave transmitter to "beam" their programmes from the studio to a remote transmitter, where it is then broadcast to the public. Because these micro-links operate by a line-of-sight, directional beam, the DTI can trace the signal back to the pirate studio only once they've got to the top of the tower block and located the transmitter. The smarter pirate stations will have attached a cut-out switch to the door, which cuts the power supply and breaks the link. This ensures that the DTI can't trace the beam from the top of the tower block back to the studio, and that all the pirate station loses in the raid is a transmitter worth a few hundred pounds. The pirate can then switch its micro-link beam to a back-up transmitter 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 London pirate Don FM. "The range of a microwave is usually about a mile or two. You can extend it with a mid-point, which is effectively a jump-station. You link to the mid-point and it links to another. You can have as many mid-points as you like. It depends on how much money you have at your disposal".
When the DTI comes down hard on a particular pirate station, it can lose a transmitter each weekend, sometimes several. It's an expensive business, and the pirates that endure are those with a sound financial infrastructure. Revenue comes from advertising (mostly for raves and clubs, specialist record shops and compilation albums, but occasionally for non music-related retailers, like customised leather clothing). London pirates charge advertisers around 50 to 75 pounds per weekend, with the ads running every hour. The rest of the money comes from the DJ's, who--in a testament to the idealism and love-not-money amateur ethos behind pirate radio--actually pay for the privilege of playing.
"All DJ's pay to play," says Marcus. "Some stations are funded entirely off the DJ's. At Don FM, DJ's paid ten quid for a one-and-a-half hour slot. It sounds a bit harsh, but y'know, if I've set up a studio with the decks and everything, spent money on a rig, physically risked myself going on the roof of a tower block to set up the transmitter, is it really unreasonable to ask for a tenner from someone so he can have a laugh and big up their mates?". DJ's and MC's do get a payback, in so far as playing on the pirates can lead to paid work at clubs and raves.
Although Marcus insists that "you don't set up a pirate to make a profit or even see your money back... in most cases, that's the last you see of your money," pirate radio has long been tarnished with a money-grubbing, on-the-make, even criminal-minded reputation. In 1989, for instance, several Centerforce DJ's were arrested for Ecstasy dealing; accusations of gangster ties and coded, on-air drug transactions, were often been levelled at the 'ardkore pirates. Like many other jungle stations, Don FM had something of a bad-boy, nefarious aura. The word "Don", with all its Mafia connotations, entered junglist slang via Jamaican dancehall, where it refers to anyone who's supreme in their field, anyone who's "runnin' t'ings". In THE GODFATHER, Don Corleone's dearest wish is for the family to go legitimate. Amazingly, Don FM actually managed to do this, if only briefly. Going off the air voluntarily in 1994, the station applied for and won a Restricted Service Licence. For one month only, Don was allowed to "prove itself" by taking on the challenge of broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a view to going for a bigger licence. After a successful month as a legal station, Don confronted the next, prohibitively expense rung on the ladder to full legitimacy, and decided to revert to outlaw status.
For all their conspiratorial, clandestine aura, most pirates' criminal activities are limited to the struggle to protect the station and stay on their air. One station, Rush FM, turned the upper storeys of an abandoned East London tower block into a fortress so impregnable that the DJ's had to abseil (rappel) up the side of the building in order to reach the studio. The entrance was sealed with concrete, through which they'd put some metal scaffolding. They then pumped the scaffolding's metal tubing full of ammonia gas, and linked the scaffold to the electrical mains. When the local council turned up to break down the barricade, the man operating the pneumatic drill got electrocuted, the spark ignited the gas, and the concrete bulwark exploded, showering the workers with shrapnel.
Most pirates, though, says Marcus, realise that such "militant business" doesn't work with the DTI. "If the DTI manage to get to your transmitter, they will take it. Some people will go to serious extremes to protect the transmitter, but there's no point in trying to piss off the DTI". The cut-off switches and other alarms and booby-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 solidarity between the pirates, little in the way of a fraternal feeling that they're all in the underground together.
"A rig is worth about 300 pounds," says Marcus. "If you see one and take it, it's almost not seen as thieving. You need one as much as the next bloke. It's part of the game. It's also done because a station's seen as competition, if it's in your area. And it's not good to have too many pirates in the same area. If there's a stack of pirates in, say, Battersea, the DTI will hit that area 'cos they know they can take out three or four stations in one hit. It's a fight for survival. So you take the transmitter, either 'cos you need another rig, or because they're endangering your station."
If the pirates are at war with each other, some stations have been known to have an almost genial relationship with their ostensible common foe, the DTI. Could it be that some DTI agents-- like certain police officers obliged to wage an unwinnable war on drugs--are privately bemused as to why they must dedicate so much time and resources to suppressing these ultimately harmless dance pirates? The official line, in the words of one Trade and Technology Minister, is that "these stations not only cause radio and TV interference for the ordinary listener, but can seriously endanger life by disrupting the radio communications of the emergency services and airport control towers." Most pirates use transmitters that are "crystal-locked, so that the whole emergency frequency scare is just a lie," insists Marcus. "The FM frequency band goes up in 0.05 steps, and to be locked means that your signal is precisely on that 0.05, and there's no leakage either side of it."
If the concept of "resistance" can be applied to British pirate radio, it's clearly on the level of symbolic warfare, that old cultural studies trope of "resistance through rituals", as opposed to overt protest. If the pirates are subversive, it's because they hijack the mass media, the instrument of consensus, in order to articulate a minority consciousness that's local, tribal, and utterly opaque to the un-initiated. The Deleuze & Guattari concept of "minor languages" (versus "major languages") fits the way the pirates can seem to the outsider like mere sound and fury that signifies nothing, yet means everything to those who belong. It's no coincidence that two of the commonest catchphrases used by pirate MC's in 1992-92 were "ardkore, you know the score" and "you know the key". On Don FM, the latter was often slurred and contorted into the cryptic: "you know the koo". Which bring us to the MC, the figure who marshals and sustains the subculture's sense of itself as massive yet subterranenan, a shared, secret underworld; the MC as master of 'ardkore's occult ceremonies, as encryptor.
You Know the Key
"A million sparks falling from the skyrockets of Rimbaud & Mowgli -- slender terrorists whose gaudy bombs are compacted of polymorphous love & the precious shards of popular culture"
My favourite era of pirate MC-ing, though, is the transitional phase of 1992-93, when the music was described as 'ardkore jungle or jungalistic 'ardkore or jungle tekno; a semantic vacillation that captured the thrilling immediacy and seething turmoil of a new hybrid hatching before your ears. The patois-rich patter of this era of MC-ing was a genuine creole tongue, a delirious mix of ragga chat ("big it up!", "brock out!", "maximum boost", "wind-your-waist"), E-monster drivel ("oh-my-gosh!", "buzzin' 'ard"), American hip hop slang ("madding up the place! blasting bizness!") and Oi!-like Cockney yobbery ("luvvit to the bone, luvvit like cooked food!"). At the furthest extreme, the MC's druggy vocalese degenerated into non-verbal gibberish somewhere between Dadaist sound-poetry, speaking-in-tongues and the "human beatbox" trickery of early rap; for instance, Rhyme Time's vocal simulation of DJ techniques like 'scratching' and the stuttering, cut-out effect caused by violent oscillation of the cross-fader.
MC patter has has a high level of "phatic" elements--utterances that establish an atmosphere of sociability rather than communicate information or ideas. In everyday life, "phatic" designates the hello's and how-are-you's that grease the wheels of social intercourse, that initiate or conclude the conversation proper. But whereas in everyday life, phatic remarks are empty rituals, devoid of emotional weight or even truth-value (how often do you answer "fine!" when you feel like crap?), in rave, these utterances are impossibly intensified with affective charge, flooded with meaning and belief. Just establishing the fact of communication extends into a celebration of community and communion.
MC's get round the semantic "impoverishment" of pirate patter by utilising an arsenal of non-verbal, incantatory techniques, bringing spoken language closer to the state of music: intonation, syncopation, alliteration, internal rhyme, slurring, rolling of 'r's, stuttering of consonants, twisting and stretching of vowels, extreme alterations in volume, use of comic accents, and at the extreme, onomatopeia. In pirate MC-ing, this excess of form over content, timbre over text, creates jouissance; for the listener, there's an intense, sensual thrill in hearing language being physically distended and distorted in the throat. Like babytalk, toddler-speak and lovers' sweet nothings, the MC chanting is all assonance and echolalia, the voluptousness and viciousness of primary oral/aggressive drives (twisted, extruded vowels/staccato, percussive consonants). As if this grain-rich semiotic extravagance wasn't enough, the MC's patois patter is further drenched in what Julia Kristeva calls the "semantic fuzziness" of slang.
Pirate MC discourse isn't just demotic, at its best, it's democratic too, with a strong emphasis on audience participation. Witness the following Index FM phone-in session, taped on Christmas Eve 1992.
MC#1: "Sounds of the Dominator, Index FM. And it's getting busy tonight, London. Rrrrrrush!!! 'Ello mate?"
The cold print of my transcript of the Index-at-Xmas session can't convey the electricity created by everyone in the studio coming up on their E's at the same time, by the NRG-currents pulsing down phone-lines and across the cellular-phone ether from kids buzzing at home. Listening to pirate phone-in sessions like this one, I felt like there was a feedback loop of ever-escalating exultation switching back and forth between the station and the hardcore "massive" at home. The whole subculture resembled a giant mechanism designed to generate fervour without aim. "Come alive, London!", "coming on strong": a power trip for the powerless, a mass hallucination of in-the-place-to-be grandiosity.
Degraded descendants of Radio Alice, the pirates mobilize a goal-less, apolitical unity. Massification, excitation and amplication: this alone is the pirates' raison d'etre. A massive could be just two kids at home, huddled 'round the wireless, rolling spliffs and getting seriously "red-eye." By maintaining lines of communication between all the micro- massives across the city, the pirate station keeps alive the idea of the macro-massive as a virtual presence, a latent potential, thereby shoring up the community's belief in its own existence during the fallow, dead-time intervals before and after the rave, or in the long dark period of 1993 when the huge commercial raves were declining and 'ardkore went back to small clubs.
The rave and the pirate radio show (the "rave on the air") are exemplary real-world manifestations of two influential theoretical models, Hakim Bey's "temporary autonomous zone" or TAZ, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari's "desiring machine." Described as an "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system ... defined solely by a circulation of states," the desiring machine is characterised by flow-without-goal. ("Go with the flow" is one of the MC's big buzzphrases, as is the non-sequitur "just passing through"). Powered by E-lectricity, the rave sound-system or pirate radio is a noise factory; the feedback-loop of the phone-in sessions makes me think of Hakim Bey's vision of the TAZ as a temporary "power surge" against normality, as opposed to a doomed attempt at permanent revolution. A power surge is what it feels like--like being plugged into the National Grid. A great MC's effect has a literally electrifiying effect on the listener; the audience is galvanised, shocked out of the living death of normality. "Come alive, London!"
'Ardkore jungle itself is a desiring machine, a rhythm engine constructed out of cannibalised components. 'Ardkore is where rave's anti-politics of rapture (techno as euphoria-generator without pretext or context) meets hip hop's cut'n'mix (Deleuze & Guattari's "principle of asigynifying rupture"). As if individual tracks weren't crudely collaged enough already, the DJ's spin in rough-and-ready bursts from other records, creating a relentless but far from seamless inter-textual tapestry of scissions and grafts. In the mix, two records become a meta-track: beats mesh and clash, atmospheres collide and hemorrhage. The combination of the DJ's inexhaustible, interminable meta-music pulse and the MC's variations on a small set of themes, has the effect of abolishing narrative: instead of tension/climax/release, 'ardkore offers a thousand plateaux of crescendo, an endless successions of NOW's. Over and over, again and again, the DJ and the MC reaffirm "we're here, we're now, this is the place to be, you and I are we".
This radical immediacy fits Hakim Bey's anarcho-mystical creed of "immediatism," so named to spell out its antagonism to all forms of mediated, spectacular, passivity-inducing leisure and culture. The rave could be seen as a TAZ-machine, a mechanism for generating a series of heightened here-and-now's, a concatenated flow of sonic singularities and ultra-vivid tableaux. The TAZ is also a milieu-machine designed to circulate a large number of bodies until they lose their alienated self-consciousness and achieve collective conciousness, become a "massive".
Perhaps what's most subversive about the pirates resides not in its advertising of illegal raves, or even in its own crimes of trespass on the airwaves, but in the way they transgress the principles of exhange-value, commodity-fetishism and personality-cult that govern the music industry. The pirates fill the air with an endless, anonymous flow (DJ's and MC's almost never identify tracks or artists) of free music (you can tape all the new tunes, long before their official release). In The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem argued that a new, utopian reality "can only be based on the principle of the gift". With their sacrificial expenditure of energy into the ether, their amateur pay-to-play ethos, the radio pirates have more than a whiff of the utopian about them. You can taste the freedom.
As it happens, the very first section of Bey's manifesto "The Temporary Autonomous Zone" is titled "Pirate Utopias," in homage to the island havens and coastal hide-outs established by the sea-rovers, buccaneers, corsairs and renegados of the 16th and 17th Centuries: anarchist settlements and city-state republics like Sale in Morocco, Hispaniola in Santo Domingo, Libertatia and Ranter's Bay in Madagascar. Just as 'ardkore junglists speak a creole slang-uage equal parts Jamaican, Bronx and Cockney, similarly the corsairs of the Barbary Coast and the pirates of Libertatia used a polyglot tongue woven from a multiplicity of European and Arabic sources.
The renegados --Christian pirates who converted to Islam and preyed on European cargo ships in the Mediterranean from bases on the North African coast-- were renegades in the original sense of the word: deserters from one faith, cause or allegiance to another. "Renegade" is a major buzzword in jungle lingo, appearing in song-titles (Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares"), as a band name (Renegade, one of producer Ray Keith's pseudonyms), a compilation series, and so forth. Something of the word's original treasonous connotations survives, in the sense that junglists defected from the mainstream of British (rave) culture and re-affiliated themselves to the alien folkways of Jamaican reggae and African-American hip hop. Junglist youth constitute a kind of internal colony within the United Kingdom: a ghetto of surplus labour, whose denizens are guilty-until-proven-innocent as far as the Law is concerned. Pirate radio is their audio insurrection against Babylon.
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