Pirate radio is a vital part of music culture and history in the UK, inextricably linked with the rise of home-grown genres like jungle, garage and grime. It gave us some of the most pivotal figures in UK music, from DJs like Tim Westwood and Trevor Nelson in the 1980s, to Eastman’s jungle explosion and Goldie’s drum and bass of the ’90s, to grime pioneers Wiley and Dizzee Rascal in the mid-2000s. But the women who were a driving force in this dynamic subculture are often left out of its history. Emma Finamore speaks to some of the pivotal women of UK pirate radio about their unique experiences as part of this essential subculture.
Established in Ladbroke Grove, west London in 1981 and synonymous with Notting Hill Carnival, Dread Broadcasting Corporation is considered the first black-owned pirate radio station in Europe. DBC was pioneering not just because of its ownership, but because it played genres like reggae, soul, gospel, jazz, funk, R&B and soca to a multi-racial audience. Women like Ranking Miss P, a young Neneh Cherry and DJ Camilla were instrumental to the fabric of the station.
“There’s never been a station run like DBC,” says Miss P, one of DBC’s most prominent DJs who eventually became station manager and also one of the first black presenters on BBC Radio 1. “Our format allowed us to play music that would otherwise never be heard publicly. We created movement within the industry.”
Before DBC fell foul of the Department of Trade and Industry mission to eradicate pirates from the airwaves, DJ Camilla was vital to the station as a DJ and an advocate. She attended meetings at the House of Commons where she argued for DBC to be recognized as a community station representing people and their music. “People had made an assumption that we would all be trouble-makers because it was ‘Dread’ Broadcasting and the logo had a spliff, and it was red gold and green,” she says. “We just wanted to play music. When we went into the House of Commons, people were really frightened, like ‘Oh my god, too many black people in one place!’”
Camilla started out her career playing R&B and rare groove, then became more specialist and consciously put herself out there in male-dominated spaces. “You didn’t want [men] to think you were weaker than them, so I made sure I became really good,” she says. “I had friends who were on Kiss FM and you’d go to record shops with them and spend fucking hours there. It would be pure men, no women. You get this hunger, when people come up to you and talk about a tune and you say ‘I got that too’.”
As a full-time social worker DJing on the side, Camilla brought an interesting and unique angle when working on radio. “I knew if I got caught and arrested I would lose my job,” she says. “But I would go to station meetings and tell them we needed to be doing more for the community, like talking about sickle cell anaemia and the need for more people in the community to donate blood.”
The nature and set up of pirate stations made it even more of a challenge for female DJs to operate within it. “Sometimes it would be proper scary,” Camilla says. “The stations would move around all the time, I would have to drive from Ladbroke Grove to Crystal Palace and go to some obscure dark estate thinking ‘Please don’t let anyone get me!’, and you couldn’t afford to pay anyone to come with you.”
Camilla remembers a time she was found by officers from the DTI in the lift of a block where she was she was slotted to DJ. At first she was sure she was rumbled before she realized that to them she was just a young woman in a lift carrying her shopping bags. They didn’t suspect a thing, and she was free to walk to the station to her shift as normal. Her bags were actually full of vinyl.
Camilla and her peers not only had singularly different experiences in pirate radio from their male counterparts, they also brought something fresh to the airwaves. “The men had such big fucking egos, and ego is a whole different world,” she remembers. “Then there were people like The Ranking Miss P: her voice was liquid gold. When she talked, it just oozed out of her. You never thought of women’s voices until you heard Miss P and that was why it was so important to me when I found her. I could never be like her but I aspired to be. She was so sexy, and in her mannerisms she was so gentle.”
Female friendship blossomed within pirate radio: DJ Camilla used to look after Miss P’s kids in the nursery and they developed a long-standing relationship; Camilla was Miss P’s link back to the grassroots scene once she’d moved on to legal radio at the BBC.
Camilla, who turns 60 next year, still has a passion for music and pirate radio that is still as fresh as it was in the 1980s. “You’ve got to really take your hat off to what people went through to make a difference,” she says. “I hope I flew the flag for the pirate girls.”
As UK garage and drum and bass emerged in the ’90s, even more women became involved in pirate radio. In a style derived from dancehall, MCs like Ms Dynamite and Lisa Maffia cut their teeth spitting with large crews on airwaves. Emma “Wildchild” Wild, known for playing jungle and drum ’n bass, started her career in 1995 on KOOL FM. She went on to play legendary events like Jungle Fever, One Nation, Telepathy and Desire and was covered in 1990s press like DJ Mag, Echoes and Dream, as part of their Hardcore Explosion feature in 1997.
DJ Flight, known for her on-point drum ’n bass mixes, started on pirate radio in 1997 on Flex FM and was one of the first women on Rinse FM. Her career demonstrates how the guerrilla format gave DJs a freedom not offered by mainstream radio. If no MCs were around she was able to ignore hosting – something she wasn’t interested in doing – and just play 90 to 120 minutes of music. She wasn’t tied down to only one station, either, and was able to do shows on Pressure and Rude, as well as guest spots on Tidy.
Like DJ Camilla, she remembers the fast-paced turnaround of station locations to evade the authorities, and keeping details like studio information and phone numbers under wraps, as she lugged a bag of vinyl and a bag of dubplates across London on public transport. “Studios were moved fairly regularly to stay ahead of the DTI,” Camilla says. “This meant phoning management on the day of your show to make sure it was still running from the last place you played, or to get the new address.”
The make-shift nature of pirate stations sticks out in her mind too: “Rinse once had a studio on an estate in Bow that was almost like a shack-meets-cabin on stilts with loads of feral cats and kittens hanging around outside. You were let in through a corrugated iron door, walked up some stairs and along a balcony. There was no toilet, sink or working taps, or anything.” She recalls a Pressure FM studio that was a room within room in a dusty abandoned flat — “That creeped me out especially if I was on my own” — and how Kappa from Flex FM had an English bull terrier that would sit and stare at the DJs while they played records.
Flight says the experience on pirate taught her to be flexible, prepared for anything to happen, as well as allowing her to forge a reputation and connections alongside the freedom to try out new things. The spirit of those early days lives on in her work now. “I remember Kemistry & Storm [who co-founded the Metalheadz label with Goldie] saying years ago they treated their show like a club gig; I tried to follow that through with mine as well: play to the best of your ability at all times,” Flight says. “That spirit has carried through my whole radio career.”
That essence lives on in UK underground radio today and in the women DJs continuing to push music forward. DJs Ndeko and Imbratura are two young South London-based DJs specializing in dubstep and grime. The duo broke through via London’s underground radio network, focusing on supporting other young artists pushing bass-heavy electronics at 140 BPM, as well as playing clubs like Fabric and touring Europe.
Imbratura says she became infatuated with the energy of pirate radio by listening back to old sets: “MCs spitting over grime, jungle or dubstep was completely impalpable for me; and not something you’d really expect to hear on commercial radio stations at the time.”
Ndeko’s interest lies in the rich legacy of the pirates, from a musical and audio standpoint but also a cultural and social one: “For me, a love for roots reggae and interest in the history of black musical culture and practices lead to the discovery of the legacy of stations such as the Dread Broadcasting Corporation – their support of sound system sounds was what originally helped a lot of the music I love to play continue to flourish in the UK.
They cite pioneering women like The Ranking Miss P — “Her hosting is impeccable, not to mention how killer her selection was!” – and influential A&R scout Sarah Soulja, the driving force behind Rinse FM, as part of the reason why so many more women are now involved in all types of radio: “The community spirit is still there, there’s often high energy and genuine passion. But in the reassuring words of Ranking Miss P, ‘Even if you hear silence…we a just a get ready, seen?’”
Emma Finamore is a freelance music and culture journalist and researcher for various film and photography projects that explore the history and impact of Caribbean music in the UK. She lives in London.