How Pirate Radio Made Grime Great, Again

The U.K.’s illegal FM dials unlocked the raw potential of grime from the start—and for 2016’s new wave of talent, underground stations are just as vital.

Sian Anderson is a BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ and freelance writer. In her column Grime Time, she looks at the stories behind the headlines in grime.

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In 2010, pirate radio station Rinse FM was the most exciting FM dial in London. After starting life in a studio with an aerial situated on the 18th floor of a tower block, the station had relocated to a cozy studio on east London’s Brick Lane, from which it continued to drive forward the city’s grime scene by giving space to the most cutting edge and uncompromising MCs in the country. Every Sunday morning at 11am, I’d head down with my friend and fellow grime enthusiast Julie Adenuga for our two hour show, Mewzikbox, on which we played grime, dubstep and everything cool in between.

Rinse was well on its way to becoming a legal station at that point, but some elements of it still resembled its early DIY days. For example, we paid a monthly contribution to the costs of running the station, but would still end up having to endure failing streams and power cuts. Also, Julie and I had no producer or assistant to show us the ropes, and we’d get in on a Sunday morning to find empty bottles, takeaway containers, and the waft of testosterone lingering from the Saturday night DJs. The station was also sonically in touch with its pirate roots: the music was explicit, we spoke in slang, and dropping in a curse word or two wasn’t frowned upon. Mostly, unlike corporate stations, it felt like family, and the guests we had on our show—usually up to five MCs—had become friends. Julie and I would head up the road to our favorite restaurant, Nando’s, for a medium spiced quarter chicken with our guests and fellow DJs after every show, to discuss music and have a debrief of whichever grime rave we’d been to the night before.

Just a few months into our pirate radio dream, in June 2010, Rinse were given a community FM broadcast license by U.K. communications regulator Ofcom. Among other changes, my show got censored. It made a huge difference: I ended up not playing tunes from my favourite artists—like Merky ACE (the rawest MC in south east London), Chronik (an even rawer MC from east London’s veteran grime crew Slew Dem), and more—because the tracks sounded so awful as radio edits with the curse words scrubbed out. And with this being grime—as lyrically uncompromising as it gets—most of those MCs weren’t going to pay for the studio time to make clean versions of their tracks. Like me, MCs do not want to be censored. Grime has always been about freely venting your frustrations—so getting a singer on the chorus and remembering to use language your grandmother can relate to defeats the point.

Legal radio in the U.K. has always had a focus on chart music, and throughout the years our main national stations have launched sister companies (like BBC Radio 1Xtra) to cater for grime—music they deemed popular, but not popular enough for a mainstream audience. This was great for MCs like Skepta of Boy Better Know and Meridian Dan of Bloodline who, after a decade honing their skills on the mic with their crews, went on to chart. But these new stations were still more clean-cut than pirate radio, and weren’t hospitable to the underground MCs who weren’t so well-known, and didn’t want to release a crossover track with a hook, chorus, eight bar verse, and no swearing.

The golden days of pirate radio: Wiley on DejaVu FM 2004  
"Mainstream radio can't offer MCs the hours of uncensored airtime they can use as practical tools to become the best spitters in the game."

That’s why pirate radio is such an essential platform for emerging voices—but the British authorities have done their best to stamp it out. Running a radio station without a license to broadcast was made a criminal offense in 2006; the punishment was two years in prison and a fine. Rinse FM co-founder DJ Slimzee was famously given an ASBO (Anti Social Behavior Order) in 2005 for having broadcasting equipment in his hallway, found during a raid of his house. Grime DJ, producer, and pirate radio veteran Spooky spoke to me on email about exactly what that more dangerous era of radio was like. “Mixing desks on kitchen tops and speakers posted up next to the kitchen sinks; decks set up on milk crates and records strewn about everywhere,” is his immediate recollection. Back when he was starting out, Spooky would drive for hundreds of miles to play sets in hostile areas where, in the best case, he’d need to climb through windows in order to spin tunes—and in the worst case, he’d be posted up in storage containers down dead-end roads, or under arches with trains running over his head while broadcasting his radio show.

“This day and age of radio is ‘safe,’” Spooky continues. “But for me, radio is always going to be the key to discovering new artists, producers, and MCs. A lot of the time I see it as 'radio therapy.' You or the listener could have been having a crap day or week, and you just wanna forget all that, hit the airwaves, and before you know it you've turned it around or made someone's day or night just by being on [the] radio.”

"2015 has seen the resurgence of MCs who have been putting in those practise hours."

RISE & GRIME. #novelist #sirpixalot #bigzuu #grime #radarradio

A photo posted by ZAHRA (@_zahrab) on

Artists and fans born after the pirate radio days Spooky experienced are never going to be able to rewind 15/20 years to relive this era. For a couple of years between 2012 and 2014, these moments seemed totally lost, with MCs creating grime tracks with hooks and singalongs that would fit mainstream radio stations. But thankfully, 2015 has seen the resurgence of MCs who have been putting in those practise hours: Novelist, AJ Tracey, Jammz, and Mic Ty have the pirate radio approach in their commitment to appearing on radio up to three times a week just for the love of it. Today, new artists are coming through to popular club nights, performing radio freestyles, and wiping the floor with some of the instrumentals (“Rhythm and Gash,” “Eskimo,” and “Functions On The Low”) that were established in early pirate radio days. They’re reminding us all that being able to control a set, catch the drop of a beat in the mix and get a lyric reloaded by the DJ are all still very high on the list of Things Required To Be A Grime MC. And despite going legal, Rinse FM have been able to bring through multiple grime DJs from pirate radio who understand how to control sets with multiple MCs and how to get crowds hyper from instrumental mixes alone. There’s not only Sir Spyro and his weekly grime show, but DJ Slimzee too, who returned to Rinse FM after a 10 year break last month.

Newer stations such as NTS Live, Radar Radio, and MODE FM have also stuck to the lyrically uncompromising version of radio and accommodate the MCs who want to jump on the mic live. If I want to hear a grimy set on Radar Radio there’s the I Am Grime show with Jammz and Mic Ty, or for knowledgeable interviews with artists there’s the #KeepItOneForty show with Alia Loren on Tuesdays. When I need to hear a mixture of classic, old-school beats with original unreleased productions, it’s 12-3am on Wednesday nights with DJ Spooky on MODE FM. For instrumental-led melodic grime, NTS frequently have some of your DJ’s favourite DJs like Last Japan and Mumdance, and have just branched out of London into Manchester with shows from DJ and label boss Madam X and Swamp81’s resident MC Chunky.

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With misrepresentation of grime rife in other mainstream media, it’s crucial that we continue to support the underground stations that represent talent in its rawest form and keep them alive. Mainstream radio will forever be great at bumping these artists up to the next commercial level when they are ready to convert what they do into radio-edited MP3s. But it won’t be able to offer them the hours of unlimited and uncensored airtime they can use as practical tools to become the best spitters in the game—not with the logistics of adverts, hourly news, brand associations, and content warnings.

The grime experience is inseparable from the pirate radio experience. If you want to feel true grime in 2016, don’t solely get sucked into the commercial hype. Although cozy studios, sparkling wines, and VIP areas in raves have been the norm this year, don’t underestimate listening to pirate, learning the bars, going to a grime rave, getting bruised in a mosh pit, and rewinding a back to back MC set 10 times just to catch all the punchlines. Those luxuries didn’t birth our current leaders in grime—and those luxuries won’t be the things that birth our next generation of grime stars either.

How Pirate Radio Made Grime Great, Again