Jungle, Raves and Pirate Radio: The History and Future of Kool FMBy Jamie Cliffton
If pirate radio has a home, it's in London's tower blocks and tinny car radios. Bar the capital, where else can you find one DJ playing Ghanaian gospel and another spinning some ancient dub track, followed by a crackly ad for "Reg's Records", in which a man named Reg nervously offers to buy up all your dusty reggae vinyl? Chances are: nowhere – mostly because no other city has nearly as many pirates simultaneously on air at any one time (around 70 at Ofcom's last count).
Many of these stations come and go within a matter of years – an inevitability, considering they're illegal to run; punishable with fines, the seizure of equipment and, for repeat offenders, a prison sentence. But some pirates stick around. Some have as firm a spot in London's cultural depot as Carnival, or the ICA, or G-A-Y, or that time David Blaine sat in a glass box above the Thames and a load of shirtless English men threw Stella cans at him.
Few pirates embody this perseverance better than Kool London, the city's longest-running jungle station. Founded as Kool FM in 1991 by DJs Eastman and Smurff, it's spent nearly a quarter of a century transmitting hardcore, jungle and drum 'n' bass from antennas installed on the roofs of Hackney's council flats.
"The way it started," says Eastman, now Kool's remaining co-founder after Smurff's departure in 1998, "is that my little sister had a group of friends from Hackney Wick. I knew one of them – this Turkish guy, T – and he had a brother called Smurff, who approached me and said he wanted to start a new station. He'd done a couple of little ones before, but they kept getting hit by other pirates – smashed up and that. He said, 'I want a bit of muscle behind me to do something new.' I was running a reggae sound-system, and was also head of security at my father's club, Telepathy, in [Stratford]. The security side was what he needed, so that was that: we set up Kool."
I'm sat opposite Eastman at an east London recording studio. Behind me, manning Kool's online forum and tinkering with sound levels on a monitor, is Chef, a warm, affable DJ who grew up listening to the station. In 2004, he was offered a regular Thursday night slot, taking over the show previously hosted by Marley Marl and DJ Remarc, and later became involved in the day-to-day management. Behind him, in the vocal booth, recording the radio advert for Kool's next club night, are the Ragga Twins, Flinty Badman and Deman Rocker. The two MCs have been involved with Kool since pretty much day one, and played a fundamental role in the birth of jungle, lending their vocals to the producers who created the genre.
While Kool started broadcasting online in early 2000, rebranding itself from Kool FM to Kool London, it's also continued to transmit over its pirate frequency, 94.6 FM, the same way it has since Eastman and Smurff first took the station on air 24 years ago.
"The first show we did was from Banister House [housing estate] in Hackney. It was November the 28th, 1991," says Eastman. "We commandeered Smurff's brother's bedroom, put our stuff in there and went down to [another building on] Clapton Square to set up the transmitter on the roof. There was nothing better than getting up there, plugging everything in and hearing that 'sshhhh' – that white noise [meaning the equipment was working]. It's always an amazing feeling."
The first UK pirate station was Radio Caroline. Founded in 1964 to play the pop and rock that the BBC wouldn't, it was run from a ship off the coast of Essex. More stations based on boats and disused sea forts followed, hence the whole "pirate" thing, and, by 1965, roughly 10 to 15 million Brits were tuning into "offshores" on a daily basis. By 1967, the BBC were forced to react, launching Radio 1 – its first pop station – in a bid to claw back listeners. Helpfully, the government then outlawed all offshore stations, but the legislation had little effect on what, by now, was far more than just a few amateur mariners playing Canned Heat EPs to an audience of bearded philosophy students.
Many of the originators moved their operations to towns and cities, where stations broadcasting without a license were harder for authorities to pinpoint. Offshore, your only real option was to set up on a highly visible hunk of floating metal. Onshore, the favoured method was to pre-record your show, climb up to the roof of a tower block and play your tape through a homemade transmitter, which could be hidden when you were done. More and more of these stations began to spring up throughout the 1970s and 80s, to the point where, at one time, there were more illegal stations on air than legal.
By 1989, around 600 pirates were operating in the UK, now transmitting live from clandestine studios rather than beaming out pre-taped shows. However, this number dipped soon after because of increased pressure from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the now-defunct body that was responsible for radio regulation at the time.
In a further effort to rid Britain of its illegal radio stations, the government offered amnesty to pirates that shut down voluntarily and applied for a license. Kiss FM – the then-leading dance pirate – jumped on this offer and became a legal station in 1990, gaining legitimacy but losing some of its appeal to the thousands of young Brits who'd taken to gathering in fields to wave their limbs around and grind their teeth down to nubs.
Cue a proliferation of the new breed of pirate: stations effectively broadcasting raves live on air, with MCs spitting over DJ sets and the audience phoning in requests, rather than shouting them up from in front of the decks.
"The audience for Kool was instant," says Eastman, recalling the early days, from late-1991 into early-1992. "We were mainly just doing the weekends back then; we wanted to keep out the way of the DTI while we were finding our way, and if you were on full time you'd get hit [by raids] a lot more. But it didn't take long for us to get on 24/7."
Jungle as we know it – the music that soundtracked your teenage hotboxes – didn't really exist when Kool was founded. "We were playing hardcore in them early days," says Chef. "[Rave] was moving from the kind of Balearic acid stuff into hardcore, then jungle techno, and the station supported that. We were playing stuff like Joey Beltram, Energy Flash, a lot from XL Recordings... this was 1991; jungle hadn't even been born yet. And then, slowly, this jungle sound started coming in. It wasn't even called jungle back then – it was a mix of all these producers getting into the sound, bringing these hip-hop, soul and ragga elements in."
The Ragga Twins – as you've probably realised, given the name – were instrumental when it came to the ragga side of things, the Caribbean influence that spawned its own subgenre, ragga-jungle, before making itself known again in the formation and evolution of dubstep. Already friendly with Eastman after growing up in the same part of Hackney and MCing on his sound system, it didn't take long for the duo to get involved with Kool.
"You'd be listening from home and think, 'Rah, that DJ is going in – let me get up there before they stop playing those good tunes,'" says Flinty. "And so we'd just go up there and lounge in the studio."
"Kool was one big family," adds Deman. "It still is now, but back then – in those early, early days – it was mad, especially after the birthday parties. The Sunday after them would be a proper super Sunday, because man was still buzzing from the party before. We'd converge on the studio with six or seven MCs and three DJs, and we were jamming."
The first of these birthday parties, at the end of 1992, was one of the station's earliest triumphs. "We hadn't done any events, but we thought we'd put a little do on for our one-year anniversary," says Eastman. "We done a little rave at Arcola Street in Stoke Newington, and it was packed – the phone-line for it was non-stop."
A couple of years later, as the genre was beginning to properly take off, Kool threw a birthday party that cemented their status as London's prime jungle pirate. "We had our third birthday at the Astoria and we shut down the whole of Tottenham Court Road," laughs Eastman. "We had 3,000 inside, and there was something like 4,000 or 5,000 outside. They had to close the club next door for the night because nobody could get in or out."
The success of these Kool parties led to the setting up of Jungle Fever, a regular club night that's still going today. "The name Jungle Fever came from the Spike Lee film [of the same name]," says Eastman. "The film's about mixed relations, about black and white, which I thought was fitting, as rave culture was doing more for race relations in the UK at the time than anything else."
The nights were wildly popular, but didn't come without their own era-specific, firearm-y issues. "In 1994, we did a Jungle Fever in south London – there was some trouble there in them days," says Eastman. "Police had to stop that one because there were some guys outside the venue waving guns about, arguing with security."
It was because of this climate that Kool – along with a number of other pirates of the time – ended up unfairly accused of involvement in the UK drug trade. Memorably, The Evening Standard ran a front page splash claiming that Rush FM, one of Kool's contemporaries, was somehow a front for one of London's biggest drug operations.
"It was bollocks," laughs Chef. "Obviously there was a massive drugs influence in all the parties at the time, but that was going on for decades before rave and Kool FM. The media loved to paint the picture that we were part of that influx, but we had nothing to do with it. We had no dealers on the firm; nothing. We were a gang, but we were a musical gang – nothing to do with causing trouble or selling drugs."
"Yeah, I remember my mum seeing that," sighs Eastman when I bring up the Standard story. "She got really upset; she was going mad about the newspapers talking rubbish, as she knew it was totally untrue and that I never touched drugs. If anything, I was anti-drugs."
Besides the whole media defamation thing, the mid-90s were a peak era for Kool. "That was the start of the golden age of jungle, from 1994 to 1996," says Chef. "M-Beat and General Levy with 'Incredible'; Shy FX and Gunsmoke with 'Gangsta'; UK Apache with 'Original Nuttah'; Demolition Man with 'Fire'– this was the time the tunes that I'd call jungle classics all came out. It was also around that time that someone from the BBC came to speak to Eastman and [the Radio 1 show] 'Radio 1 in the Jungle' was born – the first time mainstream radio touched our music. Some of our guys were on there, so it took us from being a London station to being known nationally."
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