The sound of the pirate radio underground

As music comes and goes, so do the pirate radio stations.

Mainstream commercial music radio refuses to play new forms of music.  It has to be five or six years old before they touch the tip of it.

It has, since the 1960s, almost continuously been the job of unlicensed broadcasters to break new music, new styles, new techniques. First it was offshore radio, and then from the late 1970s it was land based, usually tower-block pirates.

By the time pirates like Kiss FM were eventually granted a licence the music and the DJs were ‘old’.  Not that they didn’t maintain a following, but their music was no longer ‘new’.  Kiss FM was instantly replaced by dozens of other pirate stations doing whatever the next new music was.

Pirate stations last for a year or so, sometimes up to four.  As a pirate station dies, as new music moves on, so along comes another one to replace it with something brand new to play or say.

Since 1967, the BBC has done its best to capture the cream of the pirate radio scene and to showcase them on Radio 1 and 1Xtra.  From the offshore radio DJs like Tony Blackburn through to Monki completely influenced by land-based pirate stations, the BBC has been faithful to the new music the commercial sector ignores, and it has captured the DJs and MCs that come with that new music.

A recent series on Channel 4 called Music Nation covered many different music genres, concentrating a programme on each.  However, a recurring theme was the complete integration between the music and pirate radio.

The major pirate radio activity is currently in North-East London.  Over the decades and years it has shifted around the capital.  There was a time when the new music of the day was soul, and the pirates of the 1980s playing this were all based in South London.

Creative new music moved to, and for a long time stuck with North-East London, as we saw the emergence of jungle, drum’n’base, then UK Garage and all the derivatives through to grime and dubstep. North-East London pirates showcased everything.

Just as the Music Nation series reflected the ‘moments in time’ that nobody involved at the time knew were actually ‘moments in time’, all programmes shared a common message that they didn’t realise until it was gone that what they had been part of was a game changer, and how they missed it, thought they were golden days, and that everything’s gone shit since.

I’ve been hearing this said by pirate radio fans and operators since the 1960s, as each generation has their few years of being the bollocks, become bollocks, and become aware they’ve handed on the baton to the next generations, who they then think are bollocks!

So, I can only describe the film Drowned City as a capture of a more recent ‘moment in time’.

The film, made by Supplier MC‘s sister Faith, captures the 2011-2013 pirate radio scene, focussing on Heightz, Pulse and others.  It includes footage of the stations’ studios, the DJs, the MCs, and the towerblocks their main transmitters sat in.  Mainly following three primary pirate operators, it gives a complete flavour of what was a ‘moment in time’ but is now handed onwards to the current generation.

Drowned City comes out later this month, and is well worth going to see (rather than pirating a copy!).

More here.