Black to the future

When Miss P's brother set up DBC it was a catalyst for the rise of ethnic radio. But is the good work being undone?
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The Independent Online

The Dread Broadcasting Corporation was set up towards the end of 1979, shortly after Margaret Thatcher came to power. While the population at large seemed to embrace the new capitalist mood, I recall that things remained pretty bleak for the average black Joe or Josephine. Their sense of exclusion was reinforced by the lack of black music on the radio: we were expected to make do with the prescribed "specialist" titbits (amounting to between two and five hours a week), even in the most densely populated ethnic areas.

One listener who was unwilling to accept the status quo was my brother Lepke, the founder of DBC, which marked a new concept in British radio - the dedicated black music station. Lepke took what he thought was his only course of action and built his own radio station after acquiring a medium-wave transmitter.

By use of a 60ft high mast in the back garden of his house in Neasden, north-west London, he broadcast shows that had been pre-recorded onto cassettes. Before long, DBC had transformed London radio, airing rarely heard calypso, rhythm & blues, reggae, hi life, soca, jazz and hip hop. These showcases were fronted by a sterling cast of presenters, including the singer/ songwriter Neneh Cherry, musician Gus Dada Africa, writer Lloyd Bradley and journalist Nick Coleman (now with The Independent).

Lepke's ambition was to bring about a shift that would allow more alternative stations to operate legally within the UK's broadcasting framework.

Another important consideration for my Jamaican-born brother was the black elder; he remembered life in the Caribbean and empathised with the sense of isolation the older generations felt. He envisioned a station that they could tune in to for news, features and music from Africa and the Caribbean.

Serial exclusion tends to cause the excluded to find alternative means of expression, as with the world's first so-called "pirate radio" station, Caroline, the infamous broadcasting vessel of the mid-Sixties. Loud and proud, Radio Caroline circumnavigated our green and pleasant island, beaming over decadent sounds of freedom and rock'n'roll. Quite why they were landed with the "pirate" moniker remains a mystery, as Caroline operated in international waters.

By mooring three miles outside of British jurisdiction they were not subject to British law. So if they weren't illegal, why did they do it? Necessity, is the short answer. Georgie Fame's classic "Yeh, Yeh" - rejected by the BBC for being too "black" - was released by Caroline's founder, Ronan O'Rahilly. Unable to procure any airplay, he had turned in desperation to Radio Luxemburg. They simply showed him their packed, record company-booked play list - and then showed him the door. Before leaving, he declared: "I'll just have to start my own station, then." And he did, with Caroline, just as my brother did some 15 years later with DBC.

The creation of black alternative radio in 1979 can be compared to what happened in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, in the Fifties and early Sixties with the creation of the sound system culture. Barred from the uptown haunts, working-class entrepreneurs fashioned their own recreational spaces. Sound system owners such as Sir Coxone, Duke Reid and Prince Buster would "string up" on a piece of land - a lawn, say, or someone's yard - and let rip. Often called the dance hall, it was a place where ordinary Jamaicans could socialise.

During that time, many of the same people were lured to the UK by the promise of work and a good life in the Mother Country. On arrival, the "No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks" signs that greeted them were a swift wake-up call. They soon realised that they faced slum housing, low wages, poor working conditions and social exclusion. Ever resourceful, they re-invented their outdoor shindigs as"blues dances". These soirées were often held in two or three emptied rooms in an entrepreneurial household, or in an unused building that had been "captured" for the night. The host would sometimes charge a small gate fee, but the real money was made at the bar, selling curried goat, fried fish and booze.

Apart from the lucrative nature of the blues dance, it was also one of the few places where black people could meet in groups, as they used to back home. This high-decibel bonding, however, did not impress residents, local authorities or the police, who, armed with new powers, all but obliterated the dances by the late Eighties.

But the demise of the blues dance heralded a whole new method of social interaction: black radio. As well as DBC, other stations emerged, such as Horizon, Invicta, Kiss and PCRL in Birmingham, as well as newer models like Freek and Delight. Without them, key figures such as Soul II Soul, Trevor Nelson, Norman Jay, So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite, Dizzee Rascal and countless others would not have been so easily ingested into the bowels of the mainstream.

DBC and its ilk served as a catalyst for changes in legislation, which in turn encouraged the emergence of licensed black music stations, from Choice and Jazz to Kiss (formerly an illegal broadcaster). More recently, the BBC has founded non-commercial versions in the form of the Asian Network and 1-Xtra. In my opinion, the Asian Network is one of the jewels in the BBC's digital radio crown, quite rightly designed to appeal to Asian audiences of all ages and backgrounds. I'm not sure if the same could be said for 1-Xtra, launched as "the home of new black music" in 2002 - and thereby, incredibly, ignoring two, maybe three generations. Earlier this year, 1-Xtra dropped the "new black music" tag and began labelling its output as "street music". This is worrying at a time when two of the largest commercial stations, Kiss and Choice, have been absorbed by large, national media conglomerates. Neither is recognisable as the station it was set up to be.

And so we have a situation, 25 years after the founding of DBC, where we are almost back to square one. Later this month, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom will announce more community radio licences. Whether it's Access FM for the disabled or Caribbean Folk Gospel FM for aging, first-generation West Indians, air space is available. Ofcom views the introduction of licensed community stations as "a low-cost and legal alternative for people otherwise attracted to illegal 'pirate' broadcasting, some of whom claim to be meeting a local community need on a not-for-profit basis for local social gain." It's a good start; a series of small outfits, operating locally, is the way forward in the short term, and will ultimately provide greater opportunities at the entry level of broadcasting. But what's wrong with making money too? With DBC we were given no Government or other funding, but we still found ways to generate our own income legitimately.

There has been some progress since 1979: thankfully, there is more black music on the air and more black broadcasters are in work. But can we have a big, fat, commercial, money-making station that we can hold on to? Or at the very least allow the BBC version to do what it's supposed to say on the tin. Please?

'DBC: Rebel Radio' is released by Trojan Records; Miss P appears on BBC London Live 94.9FM, on Saturdays at 10pm