Rave and jungle on UK pirate radio, Part 2
YOU KNOW THE KEY
"A million sparks falling from the skyrockets of Rimbaud & Mowgli -- slender terrorists whose gaudy bombs are compacted of polymorphous love & the precious shards of popular culture"
---Hakim Bey, seemingly prophesying the aerial bombardment of the 'ardkore pirates.
The MC's job is a difficult one. He (almost never a "she") must generate infinite variations on a very restricted repertoire of utterances: all-praise-the-DJ exhortations, druggy innuendos, exclamations of intense excitement, and testifications of inexhaustible faith in the entire subcultural project. By finding rhythmic and timbral twists to the restatement of these themes, the MC creates that intangible but crucial entity known as "vibe."
From relative unknowns like former Don FM stalwarts Rhyme Time and MC OC, to top-ranking junglist chatters like GQ, Navigator, Moose, Det and Five-0, and the smoother school of drum & bass MC-ing represented by the languid likes of Conrad, the mark of a superlative MC is a certain combination of timing and grain-of-the-voice. Where the hoarse, rabble-rousing 'ardkore MC of 1991 was like a cross between a Cockney street-vendor and an aerobics-instructor, the jungle MC's that supplanted these white working class nutters draw on techniques and flavours from rap, from the DJ talk-over of '70's dub reggae, and from other Jamaican styles (toasting, dancehall ragga chat).
My favourite era of pirate MC-ing, though, is the transitional phase of 1992-93, when the music was described as 'ardkore jungle or jungalistic 'ardkore or jungle tekno; a semantic vacillation that captured the thrilling immediacy and seething turmoil of a new hybrid hatching before your ears. The patois-rich patter of this era of MC-ing was a genuine creole tongue, a delirious mix of ragga chat ("big it up!", "brock out!", "maximum boost", "wind-your-waist"), E-monster drivel ("oh-my-gosh!", "buzzin' 'ard"), American hip hop slang ("madding up the place! blasting bizness!") and Oi!-like Cockney yobbery ("luvvit to the bone, luvvit like cooked food!"). At the furthest extreme, the MC's druggy vocalese degenerated into non-verbal gibberish somewhere between Dadaist sound-poetry, speaking-in-tongues and the "human beatbox" trickery of early rap; for instance, Rhyme Time's vocal simulation of DJ techniques like 'scratching' and the stuttering, cut-out effect caused by violent oscillation of the cross-fader.
MC patter has has a high level of "phatic" elements--utterances that establish an atmosphere of sociability rather than communicate information or ideas. In everyday life, "phatic" designates the hello's and how-are-you's that grease the wheels of social intercourse, that initiate or conclude the conversation proper. But whereas in everyday life, phatic remarks are empty rituals, devoid of emotional weight or even truth-value (how often do you answer "fine!" when you feel like crap?), in rave, these utterances are impossibly intensified with affective charge, flooded with meaning and belief. Just establishing the fact of communication extends into a celebration of community and communion.
MC's get round the semantic "impoverishment" of pirate patter by utilising an arsenal of non-verbal, incantatory techniques, bringing spoken language closer to the state of music: intonation, syncopation, alliteration, internal rhyme, slurring, rolling of 'r's, stuttering of consonants, twisting and stretching of vowels, extreme alterations in volume, use of comic accents, and at the extreme, onomatopeia. In pirate MC-ing, this excess of form over content, timbre over text, creates jouissance; for the listener, there's an intense, sensual thrill in hearing language being physically distended and distorted in the throat. Like babytalk, toddler-speak and lovers' sweet nothings, the MC chanting is all assonance and echolalia, the voluptousness and viciousness of primary oral/aggressive drives (twisted, extruded vowels/staccato, percussive consonants). As if this grain-rich semiotic extravagance wasn't enough, the MC's patois patter is further drenched in what Julia Kristeva calls the "semantic fuzziness" of slang.
Pirate MC discourse isn't just demotic, at its best, it's democratic too, with a strong emphasis on audience participation. Witness the following Index FM phone-in session, taped on Christmas Eve 1992.
MC#1: "Sounds of the Dominator, Index FM. And it's getting busy tonight, London. Rrrrrrush!!! 'Ello mate?"
Caller#1: ( slurred, giggly, very out-of-it): "Ello?"
MC#1: "Yeah, you're live, go on!"
Caller#1: "'Ello, London, I'd like to give a big shout out to the Car Park possee, yeah? First, there's my friend, my brother, Eli, heheheheh, then there's my friend over there called Anthony, and he's like, smasher, he's hard--"
MC#1: " Like you mate!"
Caller#1: "Innit, of course! Man...
MC#1: "You sound wrecked--"
Caller#1: "Yeah, I'm totally wrecked, mate--"
[UPROAR, chants of "Oi, oi! Oi, oi!"]
Caller#1: "My bruvva my bruvva my bruvva my bruvva my bruvva---"
MC#1: "Make some noise!"
Caller#1: "Believe you me, mate, 'ardkore you know the score!"
MC#1: " Respect, mate! Ardkore noise!"
Caller#1: "Oi, can you gimme 'Confusion', mate?"
MC#1: "Go on mate!"
MC#1: "You're still live."
Caller#1: "Gimme gimme gimme 'Confusion'!"
MC#1: "Yeah, we're looking for it, mate!"
Caller#1 (not convinced): "Yeah? 2 Bad Mice, 2 Bad Mice--"
MC#1" "We're looking for that one, mate."
Caller#1: "2 Bad Mice, 2 Bad Mice--"
MC#1 (getting more and more emotional, close to tears): "Last caller, we're gonna have to go. Respect going out to you, mate! Hold it down, last caller, rude boy FOR YEEEEAAARS! Believe me, send this one out to you, last caller! From-the-Dominat-ah!! Send this one out to you, mate. You're a bad boy, BELIEF!!! 90-3, the Index, comin' on strong, belief!!! With the Dominator, now.
MC#2: "Don't forget, people--New Years Eve, Index FM are going to be throwing a free rave in conjuction with UAC Promotions. [growling] Rrrrrave, rrrrrave!!!! You know the score! So keep it locked for more information on that. Three mental floors of mayhem, it's gonna be. Lasers, lights, all the works -- you know the score. Absolutely free, just for you. So keep it locked for more info. Also we're going to be doing a guest list, just in case it gets, like, a bit too packed---"
MC#1 (gasping feyly): "Oh goshhhh!!!"
MC#2: " ... and we can't let no more people in."
MC#1: "Keep the pagers rushing! Come and go.OOOOOOH goshhhhh!!"
MC#2: "Keep the calls rushhhhh-ing!!".
MC#1 (hysterical, orgasmic, totally off his tits): "We're comin' on, we're comin on strong, we're wild and free and comin' on strong, believe... Deeper! Deeper into the groove--"
MC#2: "Keep the calls rushhhh-ing!"
MC#1: "Deeper, deeper!"
MC#2: "Oh yes!"
MC#1: "Yeah, London Town, we've got another caller, wants to go live!"
Caller#2 (sounding quite well rehearsed): "Hi, I wanna a big shout to all Gathall Crew, all Brockley crew, Pascal, Bassline---"..
MC#1 (admiringly, under his breath): "You're wicked."
Caller#2: "---Smasher...We're in the house and we're rocking, you be shocking, for 92, mate!!"
MC#1: "Believe it, mate!"
[UPROAR, "Oi oi! Oi oi!," etc)
Caller#2: "ARD-KORE, you know the score!!!"
MC#1: "That's it, London!"
Caller#2's mate: "Pukka!!"
MC#1: "Where you coming from, mate?"
Caller#2: "South London, mate, Brockley--"
MC#1: "Wicked. Shout to the South London crew. What's your name?"
Caller#2: "Ian, mate. Greenhalgh. Greenhalgh."
Caller#2: "Oi, can you play 2 Bad Mice, 'Six Foot Under'?"
MC#1: "Yeah mate, we'll dig that one out and stick it on, just for you".
Caller#2: "Nice one! Sweet as!"
MC#1: "Index! Yeah, London, you're in tune to the live line, Index FM, runnin' t'ings on London right about now. The one and only."
Rapt then and now by this phone-in session and others like it, by the listeners' fervent salutations and the MCs' invocations, I'm struck by the crusading zeal and intransitive nature of their utterances: "rushing!", "buzzin' hard!", "get busy!", "come alive, London!", "let's go!", "time to get hyper, helter-skelter!", "hardcore's firing!", and, especially prominent in the Index-at-Xmas session, the near-Gnostic exhortation "belief!!".
Gnosis is the esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth that various pre-Christian and early Christian cults believed could only be apprehended directly by the initiate, a truth that cannot be mediated or explained in words. In pirate discourse, "the score" or "the key" is code for the secret knowledge to which only the hardcore, "the headstrong people", are privy. And this is drug knowledge, the physically felt intensities induced by Ecstasy, amphetamine and the rest of the pharmacopia. The MC's role, as encryptor, a master of the sacra-mental ceremonies, is to ceaselessly reiterate that secret without ever translating it. The MC is a potent inclusion/exclusion device; if you're not on the bus, if you're not down with the programme, you'll never know what that idiot is raving about.
The cold print of my transcript of the Index-at-Xmas session can't convey the electricity created by everyone in the studio coming up on their E's at the same time, by the NRG-currents pulsing down phone-lines and across the cellular-phone ether from kids buzzing at home. Listening to pirate phone-in sessions like this one, I felt like there was a feedback loop of ever-escalating exultation switching back and forth between the station and the hardcore "massive" at home. The whole subculture resembled a giant mechanism designed to generate fervour without aim. "Come alive, London!", "coming on strong": a power trip for the powerless, a mass hallucination of in-the-place-to-be grandiosity. Degraded descendants of Radio Alice, the pirates mobilize a goal-less, apolitical unity. Massification, excitation and amplication: this alone is the pirates' raison d'etre. A massive could be just two kids at home, huddled 'round the wireless, rolling spliffs and getting seriously "red-eye." By maintaining lines of communication between all the micro- massives across the city, the pirate station keeps alive the idea of the macro-massive as a virtual presence, a latent potential, thereby shoring up the community's belief in its own existence during the fallow, dead-time intervals before and after the rave, or in the long dark period of 1993 when the huge commercial raves were declining and 'ardkore went back to small clubs.
The rave and the pirate radio show (the "rave on the air") are exemplary real-world manifestations of two influential theoretical models, Hakim Bey's "temporary autonomous zone" or TAZ, and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari's "desiring machine." Described as an "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system ... defined solely by a circulation of states," the desiring machine is characterised by flow-without-goal. ("Go with the flow" is one of the MC's big buzzphrases, as is the non-sequitur "just passing through"). Powered by E-lectricity, the rave sound-system or pirate radio is a noise factory; the feedback-loop of the phone-in sessions makes me think of Hakim Bey's vision of the TAZ as a temporary "power surge" against normality, as opposed to a doomed attempt at permanent revolution. A power surge is what it feels like--like being plugged into the National Grid. A great MC's effect has a literally electrifiying effect on the listener; the audience is galvanised, shocked out of the living death of normality. "Come alive, London!"
'Ardkore jungle itself is a desiring machine, a rhythm engine constructed out of cannibalised components. 'Ardkore is where rave's anti-politics of rapture (techno as euphoria-generator without pretext or context) meets hip hop's cut'n'mix (Deleuze & Guattari's "principle of asigynifying rupture"). As if individual tracks weren't crudely collaged enough already, the DJ's spin in rough-and-ready bursts from other records, creating a relentless but far from seamless inter-textual tapestry of scissions and grafts. In the mix, two records become a meta-track: beats mesh and clash, atmospheres collide and hemorrhage. The combination of the DJ's inexhaustible, interminable meta-music pulse and the MC's variations on a small set of themes, has the effect of abolishing narrative: instead of tension/climax/release, 'ardkore offers a thousand plateaux of crescendo, an endless successions of NOW's. Over and over, again and again, the DJ and the MC reaffirm "we're here, we're now, this is the place to be, you and I are we".
This radical immediacy fits Hakim Bey's anarcho-mystical creed of "immediatism," so named to spell out its antagonism to all forms of mediated, spectacular, passivity-inducing leisure and culture. The rave could be seen as a TAZ-machine, a mechanism for generating a series of heightened here-and-now's, a concatenated flow of sonic singularities and ultra-vivid tableaux. The TAZ is also a milieu-machine designed to circulate a large number of bodies until they lose their alienated self-consciousness and achieve collective conciousness, become a "massive".
If the illegal rave comes closest to Bey's conception of the TAZ (which must always be a physical, tangible location), the pirate radio station works both as a "virtual" TAZ-surrogate, and as an informational web that provides logistical support for the creation of future, geographically-realized TAZ's. Both these functions help to stoke the fires of anticipation and keep alive the dream that the TAZ will soon be reconstructed. While pirate stations provide ads and news about raves and clubs, this ancillary, logistical role of radio was most pronounced during 1991-92, when DJ's like the Rough Crew provided ravers with information, phone-line numbers and travel directions concerning Spiral Tribe's free parties, and even appealed for lifts for those without cars.
Perhaps what's most subversive about the pirates resides not in its advertising of illegal raves, or even in its own crimes of trespass on the airwaves, but in the way they transgress the principles of exhange-value, commodity-fetishism and personality-cult that govern the music industry. The pirates fill the air with an endless, anonymous flow (DJ's and MC's almost never identify tracks or artists) of free music (you can tape all the new tunes, long before their official release). In The Revolution of Everyday Life, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem argued that a new, utopian reality "can only be based on the principle of the gift". With their sacrificial expenditure of energy into the ether, their amateur pay-to-play ethos, the radio pirates have more than a whiff of the utopian about them. You can taste the freedom.
As it happens, the very first section of Bey's manifesto "The Temporary Autonomous Zone" is titled "Pirate Utopias," in homage to the island havens and coastal hide-outs established by the sea-rovers, buccaneers, corsairs and renegados of the 16th and 17th Centuries: anarchist settlements and city-state republics like Sale in Morocco, Hispaniola in Santo Domingo, Libertatia and Ranter's Bay in Madagascar. Just as 'ardkore junglists speak a creole slang-uage equal parts Jamaican, Bronx and Cockney, similarly the corsairs of the Barbary Coast and the pirates of Libertatia used a polyglot tongue woven from a multiplicity of European and Arabic sources.
The renegados --Christian pirates who converted to Islam and preyed on European cargo ships in the Mediterranean from bases on the North African coast-- were renegades in the original sense of the word: deserters from one faith, cause or allegiance to another. "Renegade" is a major buzzword in jungle lingo, appearing in song-titles (Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares"), as a band name (Renegade, one of producer Ray Keith's pseudonyms), a compilation series, and so forth. Something of the word's original treasonous connotations survives, in the sense that junglists defected from the mainstream of British (rave) culture and re-affiliated themselves to the alien folkways of Jamaican reggae and African-American hip hop. Junglist youth constitute a kind of internal colony within the United Kingdom: a ghetto of surplus labour, whose denizens are guilty-until-proven-innocent as far as the Law is concerned. Pirate radio is their audio insurrection against Babylon.
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