Sunday, November 16, 2008
WIRELESS BUCCANEERS: Pirate Radio Tapes
director's cut version, "Unofficial Channels" feature package, The Wire, November 2008
by Simon Reynolds
Easily the most precious sonic artifacts in my possession are the tapes I made of London pirate radio shows in the early Nineties. Everything else is replaceable, albeit in some cases at considerable effort and expense. But these ardkore rave and early jungle tapes are almost certainly irrecoverable: given the large number of stations active then, the sheer tonnage of 24 hours/Friday-Saturday-Sunday broadcasting, and the drug-messy non-professionalism of the DJ-and-MC crews of those days, it's highly likely my recording is the only documentation extant of any given show.
In which case, if only I'd used higher quality cassettes! Before I got wise, I'd tape over unwanted advance tapes from record labels: since the radio signal could often be poor, buying chrome blanks seemed a waste. Plus, in those early days, I wasn't doing it out of some archival preservationist impulse. Like a lot of ravers I was just taping to get hold of the music, something hard to do otherwise because deejays rarely identified tunes. Later I'd discover that many were dubplates that wouldn't be in the shops for months anyway; in some cases, they were test pressing experiments that never got released at all. I was taping simply to have the music to play through the week when the pirates mostly dropped off the airwaves, and in 1993, when I spent most of the year in New York, I took the tapes with me to keep the rave flame burning during my exile.
These relics of UK rave's heyday are editions-of-one because they're mutilated by my spontaneous editing decisions: switching between stations repeatedly when a pirate show's energy dimmed, or the DJ dropped a run of tracks I'd taped several times already; cutting off arbitrarily when I couldn't stay awake any longer, or dwindling into lameness because I'd left the tape running and went off to do something else. In the early days I often pressed 'pause' when the commercial breaks came on, something I now regret because those that survived are among my absolute favourite bits. With their goofy, made-on-the-fly quality, the ads for the big raves and the pirate station jingles contribute heavily to the dense layering of socio-cultural data and period vibes that make these tapes so valuable.
The crucial added element to these tapes, something you don't get from the original vinyl 12 inches played in isolation or even from the official DJ mix-tapes and mix-CDs of the era, is life. In two senses: the autobiographical imprint of my personal early Nineties, someone hurled disoriented into the vortex of the UK rave scene and still figuring it out, but also the live-and-direct looseness of deejays messily mixing together whatever new tunes were in the shops that week, of MCs randomizing further with their gritty and witty patter. The tapes are capsules of a living culture. Something about the mode of transmission itself seems to intensify the music, with radio's compression effect exaggerating hardcore's already imbalanced frequency spectrum of treble-sparkly high end and sub-bass rumblizm. Pirate deejays, typically mid-level jocks or amateurs, also took more risks than big-name DJs crowd-pleasing at the mega-raves. Playing to a home-listening or car-driving audience, the DJs mixed with an edge-of-chaos sloppiness and squeezed in some of the scene's odder output rather than just sticking to floor-filling anthems.
Oh, they're not all pure gold, these tapes. Many shows stayed stuck at "decent" or slumped outright into "tepid". But the ones that ignited… ooh gosh! The vital alchemical catalyst was invariably the MC. On some sessions, it's like a flash-of-the-spirit has possessed the rapper, as electrifying to the ears as a first-class Pentecostal preacher or demagogue; you sense the MC and the decktician spurring each other to higher heights. It tends to be the lesser knowns that thrill me most: not the famous big-rave jungle toasters like Moose or Five-O but forgotten figures like OC and Ryme Tyme, who forged unique styles that melded the commanding cadences and gruff rootsiness of U-Roy-style deejay talkover with the chirpy hyperkinesis of nutty rave, or collided barrow boy argy-bargy with B-boy human beatboxing. Some of these tapes I know so well that the tracks are inseparable from the chants and the chatter entwined around the drops and melody-riffs; years later when I finally worked out what the mystery tunes were and bought them, they sounded flat without that extra layer of rhythmatized speech thickening the breakbeat broth.
1992 to 1994, ardkore to darkcore to jungle, is the prime period for me. I seldom revisit the drum and bass years, when things got serious; things pick up again with the poptastic re-efflorescence of UK garage and 2step, when the number of London pirates resurged to its highest level. Grime is an odd one: I've got masses of tapes, and there's masses more to be found archived on the web, but the emergence of the MC as a capital A artist strikes me as a mixed blessing. With one eye on their career prospects (an album deal) the MCs increasingly came in with pre-written verses, reams of carefully crafted verbiage dropped with little regard to how it fit the groove. Pirate MCs always had an arsenal of signature catchphrases and mouth-music gimmicks, but with grime a vital element of ad-libbing improvisation got severely diminished. So excepting some 2002 tapes from grime's protozoan dawn, I've not got the same attachment or affection as I do for the classic rave sets.
Oddly, I've rarely found people who shared my obsession to anything like the same degree: a handful of collector-traders, and a guy called DJ Wrongspeed, whose fantastic Pirate Flava CD collaged the best bits from his now defunct Resonance FM series based around re-presenting pirate radio broadcasts. Often I've come across people who'll talk enthusiastically about recording the pirates "back in the day," only to reveal they'd long since taped over the cassettes, left them in the car to curdle in the heat, or just lost them. Aaaaargh!
But as a quick web search reveals, pirate tape fiends are out there lurking, and not just ones obsessed with the London-centric hardcore continuum: there's online archives and merchants for the original pirate radio of the 1960s (stations anchored in international waters or occupying abandoned offshore military forts) and sites dedicated to the land-based pirates of the Seventies and Eighties and to the Eighties hip hop mix-shows broadcast by London's pre-rave pirates. In terms of my particular addiction, you can find ardkore, jungle and UK garage sets archived at old skool sites, or offered for trade or sale; on various rave, drum'n'bass and dubstep message boards you'll come across individuals sharing huge caches of vintage transmissions.
The pirate penchant seems to be a minority taste within the larger niche market for DJ mix-tapes of the sort recorded through the sound board at the big commercial raves and then sold commercially through specialist record stores. People have been selling or swapping dupes of these sets for a dozen years at least (nostalgia for 1990-92 set in as early as 1996!). Today, an original Top Buzz mix-tape circa 1992, say, might fetch sixty pounds on Ebay. Strangely, from my point of view anyway, old skool fanatics generally prefer the slickly-mixed official releases to the vibe-rich but erratic pirate tapes; a lot of people just don't like MCs, it seems. But if, like me, you dig the brink-of-bedlam atmosphere of the pirate set, or are just curious to cop an in-the-raw feel of what it was like in those crazed days, seek out these online deposits of delirium:
A sizeable cache of 1989-97 shows, mostly from the London area.
Sets from two of my favourite stations of the 1992-93 "golden age"
Massive archive of broadcasts from Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, York, Huddersfield, Hull and other North of England stations, 1992 - 2006
Huge selection of pirate tapes, albeit for sale rather than download.