– Dan Hancox, Stand up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime
Shearsmith House in Stepney Green is one of a triumvirate of New Brutalist high-rise blocks built by the Greater London Council in the early 1970s – compass points marking the completion of St George’s estate. Twenty-eight stories high, 83 metres tall, it remains, still today, among Britain’s 100 tallest buildings.
It was atop Shearsmith House, in 2004, that the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) (replaced in 2007 by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR)) captured surveillance images of Rinse radio founder DJ Slimzee erecting an illegal aerial before a pirate radio broadcast. ‘I realised there was like a little spyhole’, he told an interviewer a decade later:
‘you’d never have noticed, but there was a tiny little hole. And I was like, “oh what’s that?” I just put a little bit of tape over it. And that’s how they got me, because they got a few pictures of me. It was just so small, like the size of a nail, a little hole.’1
Slimzee and Rinse co-founder Geeneus had only recently vacated a nearby Wapping block following a tip-off from a friend at Tower Hamlets council that someone in the office had been asking after them.2 Rinse had gone live on August Bank Holiday weekend ten years earlier from Ingram House, a block overlooking East London’s Victoria Park (at its base today is a colossal steel hyperreal daffodil – the Olympic legacy), subsequently relocating to Slimzee’s childhood bedroom off Roman Road, before skipping from tower block to tower block, ducking the DTI. Until 2010 when Rinse was granted an FM band community license. Still managed by Geeneus, today Rinse uses streaming to transmit ‘The London Sound’ globally.3
Slimzee was a high-rise housing specialist – an impassioned amateur appreciator with arcane knowledge of these symbols of the welfare state. ‘It’s a part of your life,’ he’s explained, ‘I used to love going on the roofs all times of night. The smell of the roof.’4 Elsewhere he recalls how he ‘used to get a buzz getting out on the roof, setting up transmitters, putting the aerial up. I can’t explain what it does to you… I wanted to put the biggest aerial up out of everyone.’5
In those moments the architecture is stripped of function, repurposed just to be a fucking tall thing for transmission.6 (When the DTI came knocking Slimzee vaulted his parents’ garden fence and ran down Roman Road in his underpants.)
The Evening Standard’s report on Slimzee’s sentencing, published April 2005, opens with a telling indictment: Dean Fuller, otherwise known as DJ Slimzee, has been banned from every roof across an entire borough; the garage station he ran helped launch the career of Dizzee Rascal, the first rapper in 2003 to win a Mercury Music Prize. Little more than a year after Dizzee’s Boy in Da Corner (XL Recordings, 2003) was lauded the UK’s best album by representatives of the British recording industry, Slimzee landed a three-year conditional discharge at Thames Magistrates Court and was ordered to pay a £500 fine. The court agreed to Tower Hamlets council’s request for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) prohibiting him from accessing anything above four storeys of a building without permission – any building whatsoever: ‘If I’d visited an aunt on the fifth floor I would have gone straight to prison.’ Breaching the conditions of the ASBO could have led to a sentence of up to five years.
As someone who’d grown up in council housing, the restrictions not only alienated him from friends and family in high-rises, but had very real consequences for his livelihood as a DJ between what at the time was the leading urban pirate radio station and clubs: ‘I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t set up. I couldn’t do nothing on radio’.7 Ultimately, the conditions of the ASBO precipitated a nervous breakdown and Slimzee stopped playing music for five years.
There’s a myth that’s been steady rolling about how Slimzee was the first ever recipient of an ASBO. It’s the romantic myth of the outlaw – a lionising myth that inflates the status of a DJ diminished by the hyperbolically punitive measures brought against him. In fact, the ASBO came earlier than Slimzee’s sentence. Introduced by New Labour in 1998 to ‘protect the public from behaviour that causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’, the ASBO was anticipated by Quiet Life: Tough Action on Criminal Neighbours – a Labour Party report published in 1995. As criminal courts were unable to help complainants reporting their nuisance neighbours, this earlier policy paper outlined how proposed ‘community safety orders’ would have criminal consequences if breached. Among others subjected to the farcical logic of behavioural bans were the two teenage brothers forbidden to say the word ‘grass’, an 87-year-old man ordered not to make sarcastic remarks at his neighbours and a suicidal woman banned from going near bridges.
As Anna Minton writes in Ground Control (2009), ASBOs were soon being used as one more way to stigmatise youth, yet another means of eroding civil liberties. A fundamental change in the criminal justice system, the civil law conditions attached to the ASBO ‘create tailor-made criminal laws for certain individuals’.9 Instead of universal deterrence – the premise that we are all subject to the same criminal laws – individualised potential criminal laws were created based on individuals’ propensity for crime. Citing a report published by the European Commissioner for Human Rights in 2004, Minton writes that ‘Such orders look rather like personalised penal codes, where non-criminal behaviour becomes criminal for individuals who have incurred the wrath of the community.’ When Slimzee was sentenced, pirate radio, according to the Broadcasting Act 1990, was a civil, not a criminal offence.10
The story of Slimzee’s ASBO and the consequences on his career (not to mention mental health) is emblematic of a conflation of so-called public interest and the policing of the airwaves and specific communities. Regarded as the ‘godfather of grime’ (playing DnB at half-time), his story has lent to grime a kind of founding myth, providing a narrative for a culture and community commensurate with pirate radio. Cut with static and radio clips, Skepta’s D.T.I. Pirate Station Anthem (2003) is exemplary, a grime standard named after the division that snooped out illegal aerials; in the mid-2000s, when mainstream radio wouldn’t touch grime, The Movement produced their ‘Fuck Radio’ sessions and carried on with pirate radio; today, Wen’s bass music samples a rich vernacular of seminal radio sets.11
In his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (2010), Owen Jones cites Anthony Horowitz – writer of ITV’s long-running detective drama Midsomer Murders, no less – who observes that ASBOs ‘add up to create a cumulative vision of a Britain full of yobs, with crack houses on every inner-city estate; drunken youths running amok in provincial towns, and so on’. It was the image peddled by the Evening Standard’s ‘Homes & Property’ magazine in June 2011 when it ran the headline: ‘Bow is washed, rinsed and looking good – and buyers are impressed’ after 65% of the newly privately-owned flats on the Crossways Estate, Bow – formerly homes to Dizzee Rascal and then Tinchy Stryder – were bought in the first three weeks:
‘The cult pirate radio station Rinse FM first broadcast (illegally) from a tower block on the Crossways Estate… an especially menacing corner of east London. In those days… any outsider who was brave, or foolhardy, enough to venture on to the decaying estate… would have been confronted by intimidating gangs of youths grouped silently on gloomy walkways, the only sound being the crunch of crack vials beneath their feet.’12
‘Rarely,’ Dan Hancox writes in Stand Up Tall, ‘is social cleansing accompanied by such unabashed language about needing to “wash” and “rinse” an area of its undesirables.’13 Indeed, the hook of Hancox’s study of Dizzee’s Boy in Da Corner – which pulls back from its avowed subject to give a high-rise eye view of the structure of feeling in a borough of millennial Britain – is the now infamous video of Dizzee clashing with Crazy Titch at Deja Vu, a pirate station in little more than a shed, on a Stratford tower block. Switching between ‘then’ (2002) and ‘now’ (2012), the contrast couldn’t be bleaker: Crazy’s doing life for murder and Dizzee’s performed ‘Bonkers’ at the Olympic opening ceremony to an estimated 900 million viewers globally. The Deja tower is gone:
‘There is no blue plaque on the building commemorating this pivotal evening in the history of grime. In fact… the grotty tower block that housed it was soon bulldozed to make way for the gleaming Olympic village.’14
Gentrification is not only the physical transformation of the city but also the erosion of marginal histories and creative possibility itself. Tape recordings of radio sessions – today shared online by aficionados such as the anonymous ‘Silverdrizzle’ or Paul ‘Slackk’ Lynch’s ‘Grime Tapes’ – are treasured because they document ephemeral performances, so much about a moment in the studio, broadcast by precarious ‘illegal’ means. They’re a form of contraband, uniquely related to a specific (if at the time necessarily secretive) place and moment.
In that decade the character of radio has changed drastically. The recently published Midas Audio survey, coordinated by RAJAR, a survey of listening habits for the radio industry, concludes that 15–24 year-old ‘youths’ have transitioned from an era of media ‘ownership’ to one of media ‘access’. While the youth of today predominantly listen to live radio, they complement it with three digital sources: streaming services, digital tracks and online music videos.
Unlike traditional radio, an aural experience, online radio is a space of media convergence. Radio today comprises multiple platforms: in addition to online streaming, listeners use mobile streaming, social media (Facebook and Twitter), blogs, podcasts and SMS messaging, too. As the media theorist Martin Lister has suggested, radio has shifted from a two-way experience to being a multidirectional communicative experience. Historically, radio has been celebrated as the great medium of democracy, which today finds an equivalent in social media as a much-celebrated demotic tool for freedom of expression. This convergence has, in theory, multiplied channels for feedback and participation.
Steve Goodman, founder of Hyperdub records, AKA producer and DJ Kode9, writes of pirate radio MCs as encryptors, transmitting streams of telephone digits to audiences across London’s airwaves. Drop calling studio numbers is a way to communicate with the studio that you’re locked on. Pirate sets are punctuated with three digit shout outs acknowledging listeners (listen to @autodespair’s sound work Grime Numbers Station, which splices these together into a continuous stream of digits15). Goodman cites Matthew Fuller writing in Media Ecologies (2005) when he notes that drop calls:
‘developed as a way to use the telecommunications architecture at no cost to receiver or sender and to process a relatively large number of feedback signals at speed… they work as a password. In this case, they don’t so much allow the user to gain access – they are that access.’16
When one private number persists the studio crew might guess it’s the DTI monitoring signal transmission, seeking to triangulate the location of the studio. For Goodman this communicative act constitutes ‘A whole circuit of connections and disconnections, of contact and evasions. A veritable sonic war machine temporarily occupying a slice of radiophonic territory, hacking the national grid in a logistics of infection.’17
Today you can show you’re locked on to Slimzee on NTS or Rinse by tweeting @dj_slimzee. Every DJ in the Boxed collective of producers has a Twitter handle. Although comparable with the drop call, the tweet needn’t be an encryption; if there’s no DTI to evade then communication can be less abstracted, more concretised. Still, it’s a buzz getting a shout out: sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes you get a retweet. When I asked Slackk (@Slackk_) whether social media grants greater access he told me that ‘If people ask me a question on twitter I’ll answer or if they want a track ID I’ll answer… that wasn’t something I could have done in my listener heyday.’18
Perhaps the most visible, surprising emergence in recent years has been Boiler Room, founded by Blaise Belville in 2010 to stream live videocasts of urban music DJ sets – a moving image platform that exists between these three digital sources named by RAJAR. ‘We wouldn’t exist without the internet,’ Belville told me: ‘Where FM broadcasters had a limited transmission reach, online, Boiler Room’s reach is global in as far as people have the internet.’ It’s clear that community stations such as Rinse or NTS fit into traditional models of radio, which entails dealing with licensing authorities, whereas Boiler Room, a new model, transmits online. There is no off-the-shelf license that could accommodate it.
Everything about Boiler Room seems to point to a process of unmooring from broadcast territories – an abstraction from specific geographies. At a time when clubs are closing weekly in London, some accuse Boiler Room of encouraging people to stay in, in other words accelerating a retreat from actual places of assembly – dance floors. However Slackk, who has played Boiler Room with Boxed collective several times, sees it as a gateway into clubs. And as Belville told me: ‘Any artists that have played Boiler Room say it’s a massive driver of bookings because promoters around the world are watching. The more fans, the more bookings. And because most of our events are in unlicensed spaces there are less restrictions.’ He tells me they’ve done shows 30 grime MCs deep, all smoking weed. When the police arrived they left them to it. ‘No broadcaster in history,’ he tells me, ‘has reached the kinds of numbers Boiler Room have without compromising for some awful pop music.’19
Slackk sees Boiler Room as reinventing the pirate radio model: ‘People love a bit of music and these platforms make these things available to everyone for free, the internet opens us up to more universal presence in these situations.’ There are basic material limitations to this: not everyone has a computer; and not everyone has the internet, or knows to search for music scenes that are physically remote. And it seems the sacrifice for freedom from the punitive measures of the now disbanded DTI is the data capturing market imperative of web 2.0. Mark Anrdejevic refers to our present culture as one of ‘digital enclosures’. For Andrejevic, technological convergence of radio creates new spaces for capitalistic expansion through advertising. He argues, too, that consumers generate marketable commodities by submitting to comprehensive monitoring. When I ask Bellville whether Boiler Room monetise data his response is unequivocal: ‘Absolutely fucking not. We don’t collect data.’ But other companies may be collecting data from Boiler Room listeners, and profiting from its sale.
Since the pirates shipped out, Derek Walmsley writes in an article titled Community FM, the analogue spectrum has been repopulated by the people: ‘grassroots start-ups, local broadcasters, oddball operations and altered states of listening… taking advantage of flexible or lax licensing to bring new sounds to the airwaves’.20 Walmsley highlights Rinse, however, by arguing that as it’s become increasingly professionalised it’s become less open. ‘These shows,’ he writes, ‘don’t reach out to casual listeners so much as assume you’re already on their wavelength… During Rinse’s early days, its young DJs were short on connections but strong on knowledge and enthusiasm.’
Walmsley charts a course from amateurism to professionalism, from precariousness to stability. Driving in London can lead to surprising chance discoveries on the FM dial. Stations vie for bandwidths: things find you, even if you’re not looking them. If, for example, Boiler Room has reinvented the pirate radio model, it is one based on significantly less risk. It becomes whatever the opposite of the outlaw is. The law?
1 Rollo Jackson, Slimzee’s Going on Terrible, 2015: https://vimeo.com/109801766
2 18 years of Rinse / 1995: Slimzee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5XIHPIuo2I
3 Geeneus, talking with the Rinse presenter Uncle Dugs on a pirate radio special for the station’s anniversary, estimated that they’d occupied, in total, around 50 different studios throughout the East End, from Cable Street to Devons Road, as far as Romford. Paralleling these physical places are the various frequencies they’ve occupied on the FM dial: 91.7; 91.9; 91.8; 97.6; 100.3 and 100.4. Joined on the show by the founders of Kiss and Kool, the guests share funny and unbelievable stories of scaling high-rises – exteriors and garbage shoots, sometimes using nothing more than a jacket as rope, being busted on rooftops by police helicopters, as well as the more pragmatic issues of station management. A secretive economy emerges: Geeneus talks of someone called ‘the Doctor’ in South London who built radio transmitters for many pirates, gives an exhaustive inventory of high-rises, demolished and extant, and production and distribution of records. Listen: https://www.mixcloud.com/Dizzyuk/rcff-uncle-dugs-rinse-fm-pirate-radio-special-280912/
4 Rollo Jackson, Slimzee’s Going on Terrible, 2015.
6 Geeneus: ‘Slimzee was like, we need a bigger aerial!’
7 18 years of Rinse / 1995: Slimzee.
8 Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city, Penguin Books, 2009/2012, p.151.
9 Alvaro Gil-Robles cited in Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city, Penguin Books, 2009/2012, p.151.
10 Melissa Bradshaw, Slimzee: ASBOs, Breakdowns and Dubplates: https://boilerroom.tv/slimzee-asbos-breakdowns-and-dubplates/
11 Speaking to Marvin Sparks for FACT in August 2014, DJ Logan Sama was unambiguous about how punitive measures snuff audio culture: ‘We had untold numbers of pirate stations across the whole UK, not just London. There’s many stations in Birmingham, Manchester and other places. The rise of OFCOM, and the rise in which stations were taken down and driven out of business except for a handful that have then gone on to become community stations. Without venues it’s quite difficult. Without platforms it’s very difficult, so we lost a lot of the pirate stations to DTI and on top of that it was incredibly hard to do live events as well.’
12 Evening Standard, ‘Homes and Property’, 29 June 2011: http://www.homesandproperty.co.uk/property-news/buying/first-time-buyers/bow-is-washed-rinsed-and-looking-good-and-buyers-are-impressed-29798.html
13 Dan Hancox, Stand up Tall: Dizzee Rascal and the Birth of Grime, A Kindle Single, 2013, Location 298.
14 Ibid., Location 38.
16 Matthew Fuller cited in Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, MIT Press, 2010, p.178.
18 Interview with Slackk conducted via email, 30/05/16.
19 Interview with Blaise Bellville conducted via telephone, 01/06/16.
20 Derek Walmsley, ‘Community FM’, The Wire, June 2014.