Since its mainstream resurgence, grime has dominated clubs, radio shows and culture here in the UK. But this sound, like much of Britain’s home-grown music, gained prominence through illegal means.

Pirate radio is the act of unlicensed and illegal broadcasting. It gained its title from its origins on Radio Caroline, a ship that was moored on international waters that broadcast popular music.

Created to get around the record companies’ control of popular music and the BBC’s radio broadcasting monopoly, it paved the way for contemporary music and its exposure.

“It’s very much the case today, it’s people looking for a platform and not being given one and saying ‘ok, we’ll do it ourselves then'” said music journalist Will Pritchard.

Grime MC’s in Shoreditch, East London. Image courtesy of Quann via Wot Do You Call It.

The 80s saw the pirate radio movement progress from the waters to London’s council block rooftops. Pirates gained access to these rooftops and set up home made transmitters, enabling them to illegally broadcast on the frequency to local surrounding areas.

During an era defined by Margaret Thatcher’s leadership as Prime Minister of Britain, these stations offered an escape for those suffering racial discrimination and poverty.

They aimed to empower musical communities reputedly ignored by the BBC and the licensed commercial stations

Entering the millennium, a number of producers were pioneering a dark, raw and stripped down sound, later to be known as grime which cites pirate radio as an instrumental factor in its success.

Between 2013-2015…

  • Harringey, north London had the most pirate activity detected with 89 stations shut down by OFCOM.
  • Of those 89 stations, 88 of them were found between 2013-2014 meaning only 1 was found between 2014-2015.
  • Lambeth, south London, was second with more than 50 raids between April 2013 and March 2015.
  • In 2014, OFCOM received 53 complaints from aviation services due to pirate interference. 48 of them were in London.

Source: OFCOM

“It’s not your most [BBC] Radio One daytime friendly sound necessarily, but grime needs to be given that platform to grow and that’s where stations like Rinse have been so instrumental,” said Mr Pritchard.

Recommended and praised by the late John Peel, former pirate station Rinse FM acted as a platform for many of today’s well known grime MC’s such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley.

The station now operates as a fully licensed and legal community radio station.

VIDEO: Chef speaks about how pirate radio has influenced music culture

Grime started to gain critical attention with the release of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy In Da Corner‘ which went on to win the 2003 Mercury Prize. But with this acclaim also came condemnation from the authorities.

AUDIO: Stephen Timms discusses how pirate radio and criminal activities are linked.

Already facing backlash for its involvement within the pirate radio scene, grime faced stigmatisation from the police as raves were targeted, stop and searches were routine and racial profiling was the norm.

“i’d be surprised if it stops completely”
stephen timms, labour mp for east ham

Pirate radio stations faced a constant cat and mouse battle with the, now defunct, DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), which was responsible for raiding and seizing pirate equipment.

Due to technological advancements, many pirate stations have now started to operate as internet radio stations.

VIDEO: Stephen Timms speaks about how the government are tackling pirate radio

Pirate radio is still an ongoing phenomenon with OFCOM shutting down over 400 London stations between 2014-2016.

When asked what if pirate radio will ever stop, Labour MP for East Ham Stephen Timms responded: “I’d be surprised if it stops completely.”