In 1988 the young dancehall artist Shabba Ranks released a record with Home T and Cocoa Tea entitled “Pirates Anthem.” Undergirded by a round, rolling bassline, the song centers on the cat-and-mouse game between unlicensed British West Indian disc jockeys and the DTI officials who attempt to stop them. Shabba salutes the resourcefulness of the music rebels who “build five more strong” when authorities “bruck down one” unlicensed station.
“Pirates Anthem,” now a quarter-century old, could be an aural sketch of the West Indian radio scene in Brooklyn today, where frequencies across the dial are occupied nightly by Caribbean voices, unfiltered. “People basically support their country’s culture,” says “Captain” Jason Benn, a popular promoter and soca singer who immigrated to New York from Trinidad in the late ’90s. “The stations reinforce these identities that otherwise would be lost.” Benn hosted a show on the Fire Station 104.7, before it was shut down last month, and two of its operators arrested. As small pirate stations proliferate and the FCC levels harsher penalties against them, the future of this medium – still relatively new to New York – is in doubt.
The crew mistakenly thought that flying a Honduran flag would them exempt from local laws.
In contrast, London’s underground pirate radio culture started in the ’60s, with deejay “pirates” playing rock ‘n’ roll from barges and marine structures outside of the territorial boundaries of the United Kingdom. Renegade broadcasting has continued uninterrupted there for decades. In 2010, Rinse FM, one of the best known pirate stations, was finally granted a community license after 16 years underground.
New York City’s first pirate adventures, meanwhile, came in the ’80s. In 1987, an aging freighter off the coast of Long Island was used to beam John Lennon and Bruce Cockburn into the city. The operators wanted to protest the “stale and stagnant” state of local rock radio. The effort was short-lived: the Coast Guard boarded the ship a few days later after they failed to heed FCC warnings. The crew mistakenly thought that flying a Honduran flag would them exempt from local laws. In another takedown from that era, two friends from Midwood, Brooklyn were arrested in 1989 after the FCC finally caught up with them after a decade of broadcasting an unlicensed talk show.
West Indian New York deejays were not early adopters of pirate strategies. By the 1980s, New York – unlike London – had substantial black music programming on commercial radio. “LIB kicked it off,” DJ Dlife explains, referring to WLIB, an AM station, where he mixed in the late ’90s before moving on to pirate and FM radio. “Bob Fredricks, Ian the Goose, Dahved Levy, were all there. They played dancehall and soca, plus they had news and sports – even Caribbean sports!”
WLIB was owned by an African-American investment group lead by Percy Sutton, the former lawyer of Malcolm X. Al Sharpton called it “the heartbeat of the black community” for its large listenership, frank talk and diverse musical selections. But, in 2006, WLIB changed its programming to gospel.
Troopa Traloopa – the official DJ for dancehall stars Mavado and Serani – grew up around reggae. After moving as a youngster from his native Jamaica to Brooklyn, he continued to get music from family members who were in Bounty Killer’s Alliance crew. WLIB wasn’t on his radar: “I didn’t listen to AM,” he said. When he did flip the dial, he preferred the FM stations. “There was Massive B on Hot 97,” he recalls, referring to the premier hip-hop station where Bobby Konders and Jabba played on Saturdays and Sundays. It was not unusual to have Jamaican soundsystems like Rennaissance, Stone Love and Odyssey on to promote upcoming clashes in the city.
Other stations made money by parceling out blocks of time to ethnic programming. “105.9 used to rent out time on the weekends,” Dlife remembers. “Big C used to play soca there on Saturday mornings. That was before it turned into a Spanish station.” These days, Link Up Radio broadcasts a mix of reggae interspersed with real estate advice and dubious health products on 93.5, a commercial station with the same pay-for-play business model.
It was in this archipelago of commercial Caribbean programming that the first West Indian pirate stations in New York appeared. “In the mid-’90s there were very few,” said Dlife. “I remember Bashment 103.1, with Mad Man Maddy. It was straight up underground – it took listeners away from LIB.” Jason Benn also remembers Bashment: “A lot of guys like Back 2 Basics, Natural Freaks, even Vibesman Redman played there… pretty much every big deejay that you now see came from 103.1.”
Many of these guys are Friends-And-Family. That means only friends-and-family are listening.
The most celebrated pirate station in New York, though, was probably Wah Gwan Radio 95.9. Dlife was a selector on the station, which was launched by Steelie Bashment. It became known as the “Hot 97 of underground stations” for its line-up of New York’s top reggae deejays. Wah Gwan even added a wrinkle by streaming live at www.steeliebashment.com, but after pressures from the authorities and internal conflicts, it eventually transitioned into an internet-only station.
Their legacy remains, however. At the moment, there may be more pirate radio stations in New York than ever before, each one catering to a different audience. Nonetheless, it seems like many pirates seem to focus on soca rather than reggae. “Reggae – for whatever reason – is the music that took off in America,” Jason Benn explains. “You have a Rupee or Kevin Lyttle, who have one hit song. But mostly soca is an underground music in New York! They wouldn’t play it on commercial radio. So many Trinidadian deejays turned to the bootleg stations to communicate with the fans.”
Troopa was less convinced of New York’s pirate stations being genre- or island-focused. “I played alongside Guyanese selectors at Xclusive. They just wanted the hottest selectors,” he said, referring to a station that recently slid down the dial from 97.5 FM to 88.5 FM. “There are Haitian-owned stations that play reggae and soca,” Dlife noted. His analysis is pretty simple as to why: Economics. “Stations are run by whoever has the resources to start them.”
The New York market, Troopa says, can handle the increasing number of stations. “There are enough listeners. Each borough has a few pirates. Brooklyn has theirs. The Bronx has some; Queens too.” And Benn sees the increasingly crowded airwaves as a kind of democracy: “To get an ad on WLIB back in the day for a party at the Elite Arc or Aristocrat Manor you had to spend $3,000. What the bootleg stations do is allow the average man to have a curry-cue or barbeque at Frankie’s and advertise it for $300 dollars... and 200 people will come out.”
“They are rules to this, just stick within the guidelines.”
Dlife, however, remains worried that the deluge is diluting the medium. “Many of these guys are Friends-And-Family. That means only friends-and-family are listening,” he laughs. And with such crowded airspace in New York City, he says, it is inevitable that some will encroach on existing stations wavelengths. Fire 104.7, for example, interfered with WSPK, a licensed Top 40 station in Westchester leading to complaints and FCC action. “They are rules to this, just stick within the guidelines,” Dlife warned. Reflecting on the recent arrests, Benn laughed and predicted “people may make have to go back to handing out flyers.”
In spite of the increased FCC pressure, Troopa believes the pirates will survive. “Everybody wants to know what New York is playing,” he says, having recently returned from an international tour. “And people here want music. So once you have a stable place to have your antenna, the pirate stations will go up. And if we like a tune, we can play it again and again and again, without asking anyone. You can’t do that on Hot 97.”