The Wire

The world's greatest print and online music magazine. Independent since 1982

In Writing

Unofficial Channels Extra:

Immerse yourself in mid-80s pirate nostalgia with says Jason Gross

In this digital age when any dilettante can show off their music taste online, the whole idea of ‘pirate radio’ seems like a ridiculous 20th century anachronism. But for millions of people in the pre-Net era, these unlicensed stations were lifeblood, doling out vital music that mainstream terrestrial broadcasts ignored and snubbed. A pirate invasion commenced in the mid-80s as these stations sprang up across the UK, including Kiss FM, Solar Radio and LWR (London Weekend Radio), which transmitted the action across the Atlantic from the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene.

After trying to hunt down these wily pirates, the British government eventually switched from stick to carrot, offering some opportunities for the stations to get a full-fledged license. Kiss was granted one in 1990 and a number of DJs made the transition to mainstream radio also.

The original pirates’ material (as the Streets would say) floated around, mostly as legend until the mid-90s when North London collector Rich Colour established a web destination to honour this movement. He amassed dozens of shows that he taped from the radio onto cassettes and then converted these into MP3 files (he recommends Audio Cleaning Lab for this). The original 2004 version of was a single webpage, inscribed with this tag, which could have come from its own imaginary show: “BROADCASTING TO THE WORLD FROM A SMALL BEDROOM IN RUISLIP.” Thereafter, some 30 links led to a treasure trove - five to 10 minute snippets of the radio shows with accompanying pictures of aging tapes and white label 12" singles to show off the sources.

Loving archivist that he was, Colour tried to document as much info as he could from the shows, including not only the year (ranging from about '85–'88), the station and the DJ involved but also the songs that made up each mastermix alongside pleas for further information. Not only would he get replies, which he’d post as updates, but he’d also receive cleaner versions of some of the shows which he’d then post on the website.

The site’s heroes were the DJs, each with his own distinct style though almost every mix still boils down to a few crucial elements: a fast-paced, head-spinning 5–10 minute aural journey through early rap/funk/disco acts, almost always from the States (on the last point, Colour explains “UK hip-hop then just didn’t produce real sounding artists, and a lot of them just imitated the NY scene”).

Some of’s heroes include:

• Tim Westwood, who’d go on to become a radio star and TV staple, and who acted more as an impresario. He replayed mixes from DJ Undercover (the rhythm-heavy “One Time Mix”, full of lightning-fast scratches of the Skatalites and a kiddie record), a Harlem party with Brucie B and DJ Hollywood (a booming take on Tears For Fears’s “Shout”) and a 1986 DJ battle between the Get Fresh Crew’s Barry B and Jazzy Jeff that the latter won and which gets announced by Westwood like it was a sporting event (which it was in a way).

• Mike Allen, who was a genuine impresario as he helped to put together the historic rap summit “UK Fresh 86”. He’s represented here with an intense 14 minute clip from that concert which he broadcasted on his Capital Radio show as “DJ Cheese King Kut UK Fresh 86” (a great old-school throwdown) and another Capital broadcast, “Tablet The Second”, a Cold War themed odyssey featuring James Brown’s “Living In America” plus speeches by JFK, Nixon and Reagan, sirens and Sting’s “Russians” (sounds like Steinski could have masterminded this), thus representing a rare intrusion from licensed radio on the mastermix site.

• Chad Jackson, who was 1987 DMC World DJ Champion and hit-maker with “Hear the Drummer”. His 86 DMC mix show at the mastermix site shows off some nice British pride (featuring the traditional, non-Pistols version of “God Save the Queen” and the James Bond theme) alongside Chic and the Art of Noise. There’s also his Matronix mix, which makes a better case for the band than their own DJ.

• Then there’s Kiss FM’s Colin Faver who later went onto ‘legit’ radio as Westwood did and who provides some of the most impressive material collected on the site. “Hardest Mix” inspired Colour to start mastermix in the first place and it’s easy to see why: it’s an astonishing mix of DJ favorites like “Buffalo Gals”, “Apache”, “Good Times” and “Rockit”, all strung together with his extraordinary scratching skills. “New York Scratchmasters - Jam 2” features his impressive cutting style (with Cameo, Malcolm McLaren again, Newcleus’s “Jam On It” among others). His “Kiss FM - Funk Electro Mix” subsumes songs in a thunderous succession of mixed beats.

After a brief hiatus/redesign last year, Colour relaunched the mastermix site in grand fashion, including more mixes plus some stylish T-shirts, photos of radio memorabilia (bumper stickers, newsletters) and downloadable station jingles and ads so you that can immerse yourself in the culture.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.