Forget Manchester’s Hacienda because in the early nineties East London in the UK was the raving capital. In the first of a 3-part feature, writer/filmmaker Jessie Grace Mellor goes back to the summer of love and raving discussing the impact of the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s tenure (1979-1990) on the creation of the scene while exploring the scene’s links with local pirate radio which remain today.
I was in Dungeons in the middle of a packed dancefloor, surrounded by casuals, soul boys, punks and New Romantics and all labels had been stripped away. Everyone was moving as one to the uplifting beats and I felt a sense of belonging. The year was 1990 and the raving scene was in its heyday.
Back then I lived in Dalston, Hackney, so I would rave at iconic music venues like 4Aces or Crowland Road in Tottenham. But I had chanced upon Dungeons in Lea Bridge road after a warehouse party in Clink Street, London Bridge, had been raided by police earlier in the evening. I quickly fell in love with the place. You gained access via a pub called the Greyhound Pub and the rave was held in tunnels under a busy main road. It was a great mix-a little bit grimy, fantastic acoustics made better by the almost-claustrophobic tunnels. It seemed to epitomise what made the scene so special – the acoustics made the booming basslines bigger, the sweaty atmosphere only added to the euphoric housey loops and the inclusively mixed nature of the crowd meant that rastas were dancing alongside football fans.
Rave found its home in warehouses or illegal raves
The era was an important time in England both musically and socially. Young people were reeling from the ‘greed is good’ mentality of Thatcher’s eighties and I believe rave sprung up as a rebellion to the status quo – through music. Infused with a similar anarchistic vibe to the punk scene, rave was a movement that bought music out of the mostly segregated clubs and in to the hands of the people making the beats in their bedrooms. It was young people rejecting the highly commercialised pop music of the eighties. They were taking control of what they listened to and what they danced to on a Saturday night.
Rave found its home in warehouses or illegal raves that often didn’t serve alcohol, didn’t charge high door prices and were set up simply to let people dance. Of course, the happy, ‘one love’ vibe was helped by Ecstasy, the drug of choice at the time, but for me it was, and still is, all about the music.
And the pirate radio scene – which had been bubbling along since the sixties but had its heyday in the eighties and nineties – provided the perfect link between this explosion of musical expression and the community who fuelled it.
Back then, pre-internet and mobile phones, the pirate stations were the conduits of information for the rave scene. They would feature ads for raves that weekend and give a number to call on the day where instructions to get to the often-secret venue would be given. Obviously, in our digital/social media age, the way we communicate and gather information has vastly changed. But has the increased accessibility to information and ability to ‘follow’ the DJs and music-makers we covet, bought us closer to them? Because, while the cloak and dagger aspect of how we partied at the weekend was exciting, what made it special was the fact that DJs we’d listen to on our local pirate stations during the week would be on the decks that weekend. We could be up, close and personal while they spun the tracks we were playing – or would soon be playing on our turntables at home. These classic tracks were often made in someone’s sound-proofed bedroom in the middle of a housing estate. That felt/feels different to today, where Twitter, Insta and the like, give an illusion of a rapport with celebrities we are unlikely to ever meet.
I’ve grown up with acts like Ratpack, Shut Up And Dance, The Ragga Twins and Rebel MC (Congo Natty) and their popularity hasn’t waned. Still playing to crowds of 20,000 and more, these are the DJs that have traversed – and most importantly survived – the shift from the analogue to digital era and now use social media as an extra tool to reach their faithful audiences. But these acts haven’t turned their backs on their old-skool roots. I recently interviewed DJ Sollie and Asher D, also known as actor Ashley Walters, and asked them if pirate radio still has a place in the community. “Absolutely,” said Sollie. “You don’t hear what we play on mainstream radio otherwise. The corporate minds don’t want us to listen to this.” Asher added, “The scene gave birth to me. Pirate radio is a thing very close to my heart. It’s where my musical career started.”
Some pirates have gone the commercial route and been granted a licence like Kiss Fm in 1990 and, more recently, SW London-based Flex FM, who received theirs in May 2017. But there are still approximately 60 pirate radio stations in London alone and most still feature long, over-the-top ads for local and national raves – alongside those for the local kebab shop or car garage. And by keeping in tune with the community they serve, they’ve helped keep the rave scene alive.
A lot of dance music fans would still rather tune in to a pirate station over commercial radio. This refusal to confirm has meant big rave promoters like Sunrise and Moondance have flourished, still packing out venues and dance festivals. There you’ll find original ravers like myself dancing along to the same beat as twenty and thirty-year-olds. And long may the vibe survive.
Editor’s Note- Jessie has written a film called Coming Up, a drama set around the pirate radio/rave scene in London in 1990. Jessie is sourcing funding to get it fully made. It will focus on that special time in British cultural history. The film will feature many of the names in this forthcoming trilogy feature on the rave scene.
Unable to credit images in the feature but glad to credit photographers if we are notified.