PRINT Summer 1996


Pirate Radio

BUILT IN A CLAY basin, London embodies claustrophobia as a way of life, but once in a while something happens that lets the air in, that makes you see the city in a new way. It happened to me just before Christmas: flipping the FM dial on the car radio, I was hit by a minimal, psychedelic jungle rhythm, over which the DJ was improvising, Jamaican dance-hall style, on the old Shirley Ellis “Name Game” routine: “doggie doggie bodoggie, banana nana bonana. . . . ” This went on, in ever more baroque variations, for at least thirty minutes. Instantly hooked, I felt as though I were a character in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, listening to a transmission from the other side.

Beaming out from Friday to Sunday night in a seamless jungle mix—not so much show as environment—Pressure FM is one among dozens of London pirate radio stations. Like all other broadcast media in the UK, radio is carved up between the BBC and commercial interests; the latter is regulated by the Radio Authority, which, as a sop to the multitude of voices claiming access, has been issuing 28-day trial licenses that are rarely, if ever, renewed. Faced with institutional stasis, many pop culture producers prefer to duck and dive on the interstices of legality.

What you get is a kind of freedom: raw, unsullied by the pathetic “professionalism” so beloved of commercial radio. Transmitting from, at a guess, somewhere in Hackney or Dalston, Pressure FM has a very sure sense of its audience: the constantly modulating rhythms are peppered by adverts for clubs (Telepathy), and local bakeries (“the munchies crew”), and catch-phrases like “junglists,” “rave,” “intelligent drum and bass,” “intellicore.” Listening for hours at a stretch—once you lock into the beat, it takes over your neural system—you can hear, not only where jungle is coming from, but what it’s saying.

Jungle is Afro-Caribbean at its core. It begins with Jamaican Rude Boys—the original gangsters popularized by Desmond Dekker’s classic “007”—and takes its shape from Dub: the mid-’70s reggae variant that specialized in “drop out,” that moment when everything is stripped away, leaving a vertiginous gap before the bass and drums storm back in (a trick picked up by house DJs in the early ’80s and now part of the dance mainstream). On Pressure FM, everything hangs around the filthy, distorted dub bass, which plays at half speed against the skittering breakbeat percussion and tears through your perception like time warping: as DJ JB exclaims, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! With the bassline rush!”

With its layer upon layer of pitch-bent sound, its insistence on the pleasures and possibilities of technology, Pressure FM is also a child of rave culture, where anything can be looped over the grid of the beat, where everything is fair game provided it melts your brain. This is a highly intentional black futurism, signaled by catchphrases like “dreams and imagination” dropped into the maelstrom: on top, DJs like JB deliver a stream of consciousness in the dizzying verbal mix of Jamaican patois, local accents (here, deep cockney), mocking Queen’s English and American rap—quite literally, shape-shifting for survival.

Heard against the intricate layering of century upon century that is London, the Pressure FM crew sound impossibly, deliriously alive. They reaffirm the metropolis as Techno City: a place where the map is always being redrawn, where identities can change at will, where everything is up for grabs. In a jump cut from the past to the present to the future, they provide the perfect antidote to the historical fantasies pumped out by the mainstream. This, not Britpop with its whitebread ’60s fetish, is “the sound rockin’ London town.”