The origins of pirate radio dates back to the 60s when rebellious figures transmitted rock and roll music from ships sailing the Mediterranean. Pirate radio has often given a platform to music that isn’t featured on popular radio, something that has been huge in particular for music from black British artists. Shunned from the radio, British hip hop and Grime has risen through these ‘unofficial’ channels. A culture grew around this underground, unofficial music scene. It was gritty and cool. And whenever something is gritty and cool, people and brands look to cash in on it. BBC One was launched to channel this scene around 50 years ago. Pirate radio pioneers like Rinse FM also kept it underground. The history of Rinse FM goes back to the OG Garage scene in London. A time when social media didn’t even exist and everybody wanted the latest polyphonic ringtones.
90s rave culture also saw a new generation of Pirate radio channels, playing unknown white label vinyl and announcing illegal rave locations for the new chemical generation. It was these stations that paved the way for OG stations like Rinse FM. Founded in 1994 by Dean Fullman aka DJ Slimzee and DJ Geeneus, the show originally operated out of Slimzee’s house and other locations around Tower Hamlets, London. Rinse FM really started to get noticed on the airwaves with the burgeoning London Garage scene of the late 90s closely followed by Grime in the early noughties with its now legendary Sidewinder sets. In 2005, Slimzee received an ASBO for illegal radio airwaves transmission of Rinse FM and was banned from entering every rooftop in Tower Hamlets, something which BBC’s Kurupt FM has been loosely based around.
Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Skepta are just a couple of the big UK Grime artists who launched their careers on pirate radio. Other mainstream artists channelled pirated radio sound in their work. This was heard from artists like The Streets and Mike Skinner even calling his debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ in 2002. More recently, a channel named Radar Radio emerged. It channelled that street culture by providing a platform to a number of UK artists- many of whom may have been overlooked at other institutions. At Radar, they grew their profiles and got to give their passion and culture a place to flourish.
While its financial records don’t show that it was a lucrative endeavour, its backer was Ollie Ashley, the son of Newcastle Football Club owner and retail tycoon, Mike Ashley. Radar, which wasn’t officially pirate radio but stood on the shoulders of the pirated stations that came before it, shut down last year after a whirlwind of claims of appropriation, exploitation, and sexual harassment. A report in Vice deeply details the internal problems at Radar related to exploitation and harassment.
With Radar’s shutdown, the question begs if pirated stations are still needed today considering the internet allows the posting and sharing of all kinds of music – from Spotify to YouTube to Soundcloud. There’s no shortage of platforms for underground music with the likes of NTS, Pyro Radio and also Rinse FM still leading the way. Skepta also recently premiered his Wiley beef track ‘Wish You Were Here’ on Tim Westwood’s Capital Xtra showing there’s still clearly a demand for urban music and radio in 2019.
The New York Times reported in October 2018 that pirated radio stations in London have dropped to around 50 from 100 over a decade ago. In the 90s, before the internet was widely pervasive the way it is today, there were hundreds of pirated stations. This is good for the pirated stations as broadcasting illegally can lead to interference on the FM waves. But in addition to the internet, there was a licensing process that emerged for pirated stations.
“I was doing it for the sake of the culture and the style, but it’s not something a young musician necessarily needs to do in this day and age, because everything is so digital now,” Kojo Kankam, 21, an M.C. who performs as Novelist told the NY Times.
In that sense, pirated radio is still going on. But the demand is dwindling. Right now it feels like the end curve of the culture and it’s difficult to predict how long it will last. The digital age has brought in a new era of new possibilities and the UK’s urban music scene is now thriving like never before. The history of Rinse FM and other pirate radio stations is now firmly placed in the UK’s urban music scene.