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Pirate radio

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Audio tapes from my extensive collection
Audio tapes from my extensive collection

When I first started listening to music in a serious way, it was via my old two-deck, vinyl-playing, cheap-as-chips stereo. I borrowed my mum’s ‘House Hits ’88’ album on vinyl and played it to death – I’m sure I attempted to scratch with it a few times and ended up damaging the record. The memories from that era are solidified in my mind and feel way more tangible than some of my more recent memories. After a brief dalliance with vinyl I became more of a tape fiend, ‘Rave 92’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ album, Kris Kross’ ‘Totally Krossed Out’, Snow’s album ’12 Inches Of Snow’ (bought from someone selling knocked off tapes door-to-door on my estate) and several other albums and singles, most of which were gifts. Within a few years I’d amassed a huge collection of audio tapes, mostly recorded from the radio. Here I look back over that decade-long period when tapes were a big part of my life… and every day for the next month I’ll be posting a tape from my collection, so keep checking back for each new upload!

My mum had tonnes of tapes, she was always ‘taping’ in the front room with my aunties – or, later, in her bedroom and sometimes round at one of my aunties’ places, it was a social occasion where they would gossip and chat about music, too. When I was really young it was strictly reggae, but as time went on that developed into acid house, jungle, then hip hop and RnB, which is what they all listen to mostly these days. the stereo was the centrepiece of our front room, on the second shelf of a large shelved unit. I have to admit, I didn’t like loud music back then, and I found the basslines particularly annoying. My grandad was also a big music lover, massively into reggae, too and he also had a collection of tapes, as well as several 7s and 12s. He’d take us to the record shop in Croydon, on Church Street and we’d flick through all the records trying to find the reggae artist with the silliest name.

In the mid-nineties I discovered pirate radio and ‘Junglism’, as it was first known to me. General Levy and M-Beat’s ‘Incredible’ took me away from listening to dancehall and hip hop on Kiss FM, and I moved over to Rush FM (92.3) and, eventually, Kool FM (94.5) – both of which became my main sources of jungle music. I was absolutely hooked. DJs like Redant, Funky Flirt and co on Rush and the Supreme Team; 5ive-O, Ron and SL, Navigator and Swift, Footloose, DJ Ash, Trace and Ryme Tyme, Younghead, The Ragga Twins, Pressure X and Times Two, Teka, Co-Gee, Remadee and many others on Kool. I wasn’t much of a Dett and Brockie fan, but they undoubtedly had one of the biggest shows on Kool.

A small selection of my many tapes
A small selection of my many tapes

In the midst of this pirate radio fascination, I began to record the shows I loved – initially dubbing over tapes I already had, since I couldn’t afford to buy blank ones. So it was goodbye ‘Dangerous’, goodbye ’12 Inches Of Snow’, goodbye ‘Totally Krossed Out’, goodbye ‘Rave 92’… and hello Kool FM. It was tunnel vision for me, I rarely listened to any other music, my best friend at the time wanted to be a jungle DJ, so at school we’d constantly be talking about the music, trainspotting new tracks, taping shows and so on. When I discovered Fabio and Grooverider’s show on Kiss FM I got into it even more and finally began saving up my pocket money to buy packs of blank tapes in order to keep up with all the music I was hearing. Every Christmas and birthday I asked for a few packs of TDK D90s, chrome position, ‘CDing’… only the best quality.

Recording shows became a ritual, whereas before I’d hit record impulsively, when a show really took my liking, now I could plan out when to record. I went through so many tapes, and soon became an expert at fixing them when things went awry and they got chewed up by the stereo or by my Walkman. I’d use my mum’s mini-screwdriver kit to undo it, open it up like a mechanic and survey the damage. I pride myself on never having to throw a tape away, no matter how messed up it was – some would end up like Frankenstein’s monster, methodically stitched together using tiny strips of Sellotape, sometimes Blu-Tac was used to keep the spools in place. Some needed fixing time and time again, but I never gave up on them, keeping the music was too important to me.

My Sony stereo, which lasted over 15 years
My Sony stereo, which lasted over 15 years

Fab and Groove were on Kiss at 12midnight to 2am every Friday. In the two-bed council flat I grew up in, I shared my room with my little sister. As she’s nine years younger than me, she’d go to bed way before I did so I’d have to sneak into the room and slip into bed so as not to wake her. I’d put the stereo on, whack in my earphones and hit record – my aerial was broken, so I replaced it with a metal hanger and, to make sure the recording wasn’t affected by interference I’d spend the whole two hours holding on to the aerial until the show was finished.

Listening to the radio was not only an exercise in enjoying the music I loved, but it was also a great way to learn about who was behind it; the DJs, the producers, the labels – where people were from, where they played, which clubs were hot for DnB and much more. I wasn’t content with just listening to the music, like an avid record collector I geeked out over all the info I could find; who was behind Dope Dragon? Surely it was the Bristol crew? Dillinja’s alias has to be Trinity? I never went to any record shops, I rarely ventured out beyond my estate and my school for quite a while, and I certainly didn’t hit any clubs, so despite all this knowledge, I had no idea what any of the people I was listening to looked like. No internet, no social media – but this all helped to create a mystique that is sorely lacking in today’s society.

I made sure every tape was diligently labeled with the name of the DJ, radio station and date. I’m a perfectionist and, since I had all the time in the world in my teens, I would make sure that every one of them had its label attached as neatly as humanly possible, they were all organised in date order in the storage units I bought for them. Everywhere I went, I traveled with my Walkman, it was pretty much glued to my head. I dread to think to think how much money I spent on batteries and replacement earphones. I had a few different Walkmen too, starting off with a chunky bastard and progressing to one that was slightly thinner and lighter, but still pretty big compared to most of the portable devices we use to listen to music now. I’d also carry at least three tapes with me. In today’s age of tiny mobile phones and other such technology, it makes me laugh to think that I was perfectly content to lug all that stuff around in my pockets.

By the late nineties I’d all but stopped taping Kool FM and moved over to Kiss – where Andy C, DJ Hype, Jumpin’ Jack Frost, LTJ Bukem, Randall and Kenny Ken also hosted shows during the week – and Radio 1, with its One In The Jungle shows, followed by the station’s acquisition of Fabio and Grooverider in 1998. I invested in a brand spanking new stereo in 1999, soon after starting my first job – it had a timer function, so I didn’t have to stay up and wait for the show to air, which was quite nice. I enjoyed waking up the following morning and listening back to the previous night’s show. By the time I eventually knocked my tap recording habit on the head I had over 300 tapes, all contained in three black drawer units produced especially for audio tape storage (I think they’re defunct now). I shipped them all down to Bristol and back to London, when I went to uni, and up to Manchester and back again when I worked up there – all in all they’ve traveled with me to at least eight or nine different places. I carried on recording religiously until the mid-2000s, when I started to slow right down – I was too busy to stay on top of it and, in all honesty, I wasn’t feeling the music as much anymore.

With hindsight I wish I’d taped more Kool FM shows and not let anyone borrow any of the tapes I had, since a few never came back. That said, the ones I do have are total classics. This was of course a formative time for me, personally and musically. I’ve spoken to so many artists who credit the radio with being their main source of musical education, and this was definitely the case for me. I loved all the different styles in drum’n’bass, jump up, liquid, experimental, jazzy… everything. I feel deeply satisfied to still be in possession of so many memories, so many shifts and changes in music – these tapes not only have value in an historical context, from 5ive-O and Navigator talking about former police chief Paul Condon, to Fabio and Grooverider discussing EastEnders, but they also take me back through my own history; from being agoraphobic in my early teens, to venturing out to go and take photos of graffiti all over London, to eventually painting graffiti on trains and walls myself, to starting uni and experiencing drum’n’bass raving for the first time, growing up, becoming an adult… all the while nodding my head to the rhythms of DnB – my heartbeat. Listening back reminds me of how much the music meant to me, it was an escape, an education, my sanctuary, liberation from my anxieties, inspiration behind my creativity and the catalyst behind my first steps into the world of music, which I am now very much a part of.

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