Ahead of the opening of our ICA Fox Reading Room exhibition Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s, Stephen Hebditch, amfm.org.uk editor and author of London's Pirate Pioneers: The Illegal Broadcasters who Changed British Radio, reflects on the tracks he chose for NTS's fascinating London's Pirate Pioneers documentary and explains their importance for the era.
The mix on NTS Documentary London's Pirate Pioneers connects two very different periods in British dance music history. It begins at the start of the 1980s in the soul and jazz-funk era, when club DJs were still expected to be all-round entertainers. It ends at the close of the decade as acid house takes hold, with DJs becoming more valued for their mixing skill than their ability to work a crowd on the microphone.
In the years between, no single style dominated: pirate DJs played contemporary soul, boogie, electro, hip-hop, go-go and early house and garage. Some turned instead to the past in the rare groove and acid jazz scenes. Over the decade, the number of black DJs on the pirates grew enormously, widening the range of music played on the soul stations and launching local pirates playing reggae in areas of London that had big Afro-Caribbean communities.
In choosing the tracks, I tried to be reasonably representative of the new music from each year and what I remembered hearing on stations at the time. It is still a personal choice though: I had just become a teenager at the start of the 80s and to me electro was far more exciting than the adult jazz-funk that played on JFM and Horizon Radio. Consequently, the mix is skewed towards newer electronic sounds. To be truly reflective of the decade’s airwaves, there would be a lot more soul, a lot more lovers’ rock and a lot more oldies.
Many of the tracks have close pirate connections. London Town by Britfunk band Light of the World was JFM’s theme tune, played at the start of each broadcast when they were still a part-time station. The instrumental, Mysteries of the World by MFSB was used by several pirate DJs at the opening of their shows and was one of the last tracks played on the pirate Kiss FM. Striving to be Free, sung by DBC’s Ranking Miss P, musically articulates the station’s demand for a black radio station in London. Hip Hop What’s Up Doc was put together by Les Adams, one of the early mastermix creators who DJed on Radio Jackie, JFM and Solar Radio.
Maceo and the Macks’ Cross the Tracks was the stand-out rare groove track, returned to popularity by the pirates and allegedly making a packet for a DJ who pressed up bootleg copies. The Hardrock Soul Movement were Kiss FM’s Max LX and Dave VJ; Double Def Fresh brings back memories of the early months when Kiss was still finding its feet. Rob Gallagher of Galliano did occasional shows on Starpoint Radio and is represented here by their first single, Frederick Lies Still. Renegade Soundwave’s The Phantom was massive on the rave stations and the band’s members were involved in the short-lived pirate Smart Boys.
Finally, this mix would not be complete without Pirates Anthem by Home T, Cocoa Tea and Shabba Ranks - seven years on from Striving To Be Free and still making the case for black music radio in the UK. This was the second record played when Kiss FM went legal in 1990 and, while a lot has changed on the airwaves in the last 25 years, the reggae stations in the capital all still seem to be pirates. ■
Shout Out! UK Pirate Radio in the 1980s runs 26 May - 19 July, with an opening party on 26 May, featuring sets from Coldcut and Dread Broadcasting Corporation.