RADIO / Out of concrete, jungle: The latest thing in rock reaches its fans via pirate broacasters, operating from kitchens in tower blocks. Ben Thompson reports from the front line

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The Independent Culture
IN AN urban environment, turning the radio dial is one of the best ways of finding out about where you are. The most memorable images of people doing this all seem to come from American films: the sounds of the Wolfman in American Graffiti, Radio WELOVE in Do the Right Thing, are woven into cinematic lives with a sureness and dramatic impact that the unmythic babble of British radio could not hope to match.

Except at weekends, that is. To flick the FM switch any summer Saturday or Sunday in London is to be plunged into a sonic maelstrom of awesome power. Distorted vocal samples, subterranean bass, mad accelerated beats hammered out on what sound like a thousand biscuit tins: the effect of all this on the uneducated ear can be disorientating.

Over the last two years, London's pirate music has changed, as music does. From hardcore - or to be more formal, Ardcore, a delirious twisted British derivative of American house music - it has mutated into jungle, an exclusively homegrown, London-based hybrid, incorporating elements of soul, hip-hop and especially ragga, whose overloading bass-lines and rumbling vocal style are ever more prominent. With signs of jungle emerging from the underground - last month saw its Top 40 debut with M-Beat and General Levy's 'Incredible' - a scene which was almost hermetically sealed is being subject to an ever greater degree of outside attention.

Not all of this attention has been flattering. Jungle's very name contains the echo of a racial slur, and though its practitioners show a heartening degree of ethnic integration, their music always seems to be described in terms of alienation and blight. Yet, as you listen to the pirate radio stations that have done so much to shape this music, the most notable feature is their inclusiveness. The voice of the DJ, or his mike- toting accomplice the MC (a double act which has its roots in the Jamaican dance halls of the Seventies), maps out a shifting pattern of greetings and affirmations: 'Hold tight . . . the man like John, the man like Chris . . . hold tight the Dalston massive.'

Nicky Blackmarket, who has been DJ-ing first on Pulse FM and now on Eruption 101.3 FM for more that three years, does not disagree. 'It's very much a friendly thing - this is what people on the outside don't understand. It's all about interacting with the listeners: they ring in and say 'nice show' or ask what clubs or raves the DJ is playing at, and we read their messages back to them off the pager.

'People that only hear about pirate radio on the news think that it's all drugs and violence, but it's nothing to do with that. We're not hurting anybody, we're not out mugging or murdering people. All we're doing illegally is broadcasting; giving people the chance to hear music which the major record companies and radio stations don't cater for.'

One of the major objections to pirate broadcasting - the non-payment of royalties - doesn't really apply in the case of jungle stations, which are often operated by the same people who are making the records, and supply the only means by which the music they play can reach a wider public. The authorities' case against them rests on their potential for interference with revenue-supplying licensed stations and, though pirates tend to dispute this, with emergency radio frequencies.

It costs somewhere in the region of pounds 2,000 to get a pirate station started, but the hard part is evading the clutches of the DTI. 'All the pirate DJs take the risk,' Blackmarket says. 'They know what's going to happen to them if they get caught.' What is going to happen to them? 'All the equipment goes and the guy who's up there gets the fine.' The 1990 Broadcasting Act provides for fines of up to pounds 1,000 to be levied in magistrates' courts, with the provision for unlimited fines, as well as five-year disqualifications from licensed broadcasting; and even custodial sentences can be imposed at higher courts. Is the threat of getting caught part of the excitement? 'Of course there is a buzz about doing it illegally. I can't deny that.'

Getting to the studio on a Sunday is a clandestine business which everybody seems to enjoy. Nicky meets the station owner - a careworn, pony-tailed individual who likes to be known as DJ Outrage - outside a garage, and a three-car convoy meanders through the streets to a half-deserted tower block. Opinions vary as to how well the architects of such buildings responded to the needs of the general population. But they were certainly attuned to the needs of pirate broadcasters.

In the entrance hall, Blackmarket's guest MC for the afternoon - a genial character named Fearless - points at a big patch of mould on the wall behind an exposed pipe and says, only half- joking, 'This is where jungle started.' The flat is grotty, but considerably more salubrious, apparently, than Eruption's previous location. There's no point getting too attached to places, as the transmitter has to be moved at least every couple of weeks.

Today's studio used to be someone's kitchen. Now the twin turntables and mixer unit sit on the draining board and the rhythms are cooking. There are council bin-liners on the windows and admonitory notes gaffer-taped to the walls: 'Anyone who opens a window and disturbs the neighbours will be sacked'; 'Anyone caught leaving the studio and not cleaning up after them will lose their show'. Further communications tell DJs which forthcoming events to plug - the main one is a large function at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre this Saturday, tickets pounds 16, guaranteeing 'an atmosphere money can't pay for'.

It's cramped and smoky inside the ex-kitchen, but the atmosphere is very jolly. No one is getting paid, but everyone is making a name for themselves. Nicky Blackmarket mashes up the records he sells all week at the record shop he co-owns. MC Fearless sits on the sofa with his microphone and can of soft drink, mixing favourable comments on the music - 'it's absolutely rough' or 'shot like this could never ever miss' - with observations about the niceness of the weather or the desirability of being in the garden, and occasional bursts of staccato rhyming. The strangely formal quality of his speech combines with the rhythmic flow of his delivery to poetic effect.

Nicky's friend Danny, who is doing his A levels, takes down messages off the pager - 'BT might have designed pagers for pirate radio stations' - and passes them on to Fearless to read out. Not all of these messages are congratulatory. One, 'Can you play some jungle please?', has Nicky - fresh from a masterly megamix of Monty Python's 'Spam' sketch (which sounds quite funny in this context), Dawn Penn's 'No No No (You Don't Love Me)', a brilliant new single called 'Nuttah]' by UK Apache, and Blackmarket's own recording of a flock of angry geese - frothing at the mouth. 'I like to play different things,' he says, feelings hurt. 'Educate the people.'

The labels on the records in his bag - Moving Shadow, Lucky Spin, Good Looking - are strangely redolent of the early days of rock'n'roll; moving me to look up, on returning home, the bit in Charlie Gillett's book The Sound of the City (1971) where it says: 'In rock'n'roll, the strident, repetitive sounds of city life were, in effect, reproduced as melody and rhythm.' If jungle sounds to you like car alarms going off, maybe that is not an accident. 'To all the crews absolutely posing in your convertibles,' in the words of MC Fearless, 'the sun is shining and everything is absolutely fine.'

(Photograph omitted)