Pirates set sail again to herald a new music revolution

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The Independent Culture

One hundred feet above the streets of south London, Danny Blaze gazes out from the balcony of an enormous tower block and takes in the view.

One hundred feet above the streets of south London, Danny Blaze gazes out from the balcony of an enormous tower block and takes in the view.

"Everything you can see, we cover," he says of a panorama that stretches from the Millennium Dome in the east to the smart suburbs of west London.

A further 50 feet skywards, a small antenna is broadcasting the music and message of the pirate radio station Flashback FM, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Flashback is the sound of the underground - the urban music scene that produced the Mercury Music Prize winner Dizzee Rascal and the previous year's victor, Ms Dynamite, who in a year has crossed to the coffee-table classes.

In his acceptance speech, Dizzee Rascal, real name Dylan Mills, accused the music industry of trying to ignore the role played by the pirates. "I came from nothing. I came from the underground, the pirate radio scene," he said. "If you don't acknowledge it, it will creep up anyway."

Even though pirate radio is are flourishing in Britain the authorities show no signs of tolerating the stations. The boom is coupled with a growing popularity in mainstream radio. More people than ever (43.7 million, or 90 per cent of the population over 15) are listening to legal stations, for an average of 24 hours each a week.

The Government's Radiocommunications Agency raided 209 pirate outfits last year, with 181 based in London and others in Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow. Yet despite official disapproval, stations continue to multiply. They are also resisting the challenge posed by the growth of digital broadcasting. The average transistor radio is now able to receive signals from up to 320 legal radio stations, and a digital receiver can tune in to up to 300 more.

But this vast selection of legitimate music, commentary and chat, ranging from the Asian Network to Xfm, is not catering for many people in Britain's towns and cities.

In Birmingham and Wolverhampton, Leeds and Sheffield, Bristol, Luton and, most of all, London, pirate stations are pumping out a musical diet that would baffle many radio executives. They play grime, sub-low, 8bar, four to the floor, desi beats, US garage, UK garage, hardcore, hip-hop, house, bashment, drum & bass and trance, to name just a sample of the genres and sub-genres that mark out the urban music scene.

Matt Mason, editor of RWD, a magazine that has been set up to cover the world of the pirates and the music they play, said such stations were uniquely British. "It's something that will always go on because it's about freedom of expression," he said. "Urban music has become easier to make than ever and it is more multicultural than in any other Western country."

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the moment when Radio Caroline, the floating pirate station, first went on air from the North Sea.

Caroline launched the careers of some of Britain's best-known radio stars of the Seventies, including Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis. More modern urban-based pirates have given a start in broadcasting to music business luminaries such as Norman Jay MBE and Gilles Peterson, who sat on the Mercury prize judging panel.

Today there are pirate stations to represent every neighbourhood in London as well as most of Britain's biggest towns and cities.

But the broadcasting authorities claim they are a menace, stealing electricity from lift shafts and other power supplies and interfering with the signals of legitimate broadcasters.

Even the pirates admit the dangers of "sprogging", where a signal splits in two, with the danger of an airline pilot touching down at Heathrow to the sound of drum & bass.

The number of operations by the Radiocommunications Agency has increased by 81 per cent from 3,488 raids in 1993-1997 to 6,320 in 1998-2002. But still the pirates will not lower their colours.

According to Mr Mason, illegal stations such as Rinse FM (which brought Dizzee Rascal and his "grimy" version of garage music to prominence), Flashback FM, Bassline FM and Freeze FM are giving a platform to the booming culture of "MC-ing" (the British equivalent of rapping).

"MC-ing is the ultimate easy thing for kids," he said. "You just need to pick up a pen and paper. The UK MC culture is developing faster than ever. Dizzee Rascal and the So Solid Crew have inspired hundreds of kids."

Most areas of London have their own "crews", made of MCs and other music makers, desperate to make their mark. Dizzee Rascal is part of east London's Roll Deep Crew. In north London there is the Heartless Crew, and west London has Black Ops.

But the infamy surrounding the south London-based So Solid Crew has given the pirate stations a new relevance by driving the once-thriving UK Garage scene, which spawned the likes of Ms Dynamite, Craig David and Artful Dodger.

A succession of firearms incidents and criminal trials involving members of the So Solid Crew led to music venues, record companies and legitimate radio stations becoming wary of garage music, leaving a void for the pirates to fill.

Pirate radio is not for acrophobics. Several miles across London from the Flashback antenna, the station's studio has been set up near the top of another tower block.

Here, in a kitchen three feet square, the station's DJs broadcast for 24 hours a day from a young woman's flat. She is paid £80 a week for the privilege.

In spite of the surroundings, Flashback has been operating for eight years and is run like a business (though it claims to make no profits). Later that evening, in the garden of a pub, 40 DJs, engineers and drivers gather for the station's monthly board meeting, convened by Blaze, the station's "studio manager". He said: "If this was a legitimate business it would be a guaranteed success. If it was supported by the Prince's Trust, I would have an award by now."

The DJs are asked to pay a sub of £25 a month, which goes to cover the rent of the studio and the £300 cost of replacing each aerial or "rig" seized by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Blaze does everything he can to avoid antagonising officials. During the meeting, he reprimanded one DJ for allowing a caller to talk about drugs on air.

Despite Dizzee Rascal's comments, the mainstream music industry is starting to recognise the importance of the pirates.

Last week, the giant Emap media group sanctioned its radio station Kiss FM (itself a one-time pirate broadcaster) to stage a competition to allow illegal DJs to compete for the chance to win a three-month contract and go legit.

The contest was won by a group of three 18-year-olds called Haunted House who have worked for the pirate station Mystic FM for the past six years

But the Radiocommunications Agency, part of the DTI, was not impressed.

In a notice issued shortly before the competition final, the Agency called on Kiss FM to hand over "information that is effectively evidence of [pirate broadcasters] committing a criminal offence". It threatened to raid the station using "legal powers under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949".

But Mark Story, managing director of Kiss, said he would "resist through the courts" any attempt by officials to seize the "evidence".

Mr Story said that he was thinking of giving jobs to seven of the other contestants. "We want to do this every year," he said. "The standard is really good."



Broadcasts in London. Style: R&B, hip-hop and bashment


Broadcasts in London.

Style: Garage, drum & bass, R&B


Broadcasts in London

Style: Grime, sub-low


Broadcasts in Essex.

Style: Drum & bass, garage


Broadcasts in London

Style: Urban


Broadcasts in Leeds.

Style: Reggae, hip-hop


Broadcasts in Birmingham.

Style: Garage, reggae, drum & bass


Broadcasts in Birmingham.

Style: Garage, drum & bass


Broadcasts in Glasgow.

Style: House


Broadcasts in Glasgow.

Style: House

Buccaneers of broadcasting

The man who did most to create Britain's pirate radio culture was Ronan O'Rahilly, a maverick young Irishman from a wealthy family.

O'Rahilly, below, founded Britain's first floating radio station, Radio Caroline, which burst on to the airwaves at Easter 1964.

The station launched the careers of such broadcasters as Johnnie Walker, Tommy Vance, above right, and even the hypnotist Paul McKenna.

In December 1964, a consortium of Texan businessmen set up Radio London (later Big L) on the former World War Two mine-sweeper USS Density in competition with Caroline.

It was seeking an audience in the South-east of England, with rising stars such as Ed Stewart, second right, and Kenny Everett.

Then in 1967 the Labour government did for the Big L (which was also the home of Perfumed Garden, the groundbreaking show of John Peel, far right) and most of the other pirates when it introduced legislation, the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act. Only Radio Caroline played on in defiance.

After broadcasting through the winter from off the coast of the Netherlands, Caroline too temporarily went off air.

But angry and dedicated listeners included students who realised how easy it was to build an AM transmitter, and they set up the first land-based pirates, Radio Free London and Radio Free Caroline.

Although they were tracked down and fined, other stations emerged, including Radio Jolly Roger, Radio North-West and Radio Pamela.

One station, Radio Jackie, even provoked the authorities with the theme tune "Catch us if you can".

The arrival of FM radio led to a new pirate boom in the Seventies and Eighties, compounded by the growth in popularity of contemporary dance music.

The most successful was the London-based station Kiss, now owned by the media giant Emap, which was granted a legal licence in 1990.