Kool History

Kool FM was a London pirate radio station that also broadcasts as an internet radio station, started on 28 November 1991.

It was one of the  first pirate stations ever to play Hardcore Jungle. Simon Reynolds called it "London's ruling pirate station" in an account of the beginnings of jungle music in the early to mid 1990s. Similarly, Billboard magazine referred to Kool FM as "leading jungle station" in a 1995 report about the genre. In January 1996, Kool FM Midlands started broadcasting to the Midlands on 105.6 FM, based in Birmingham; by then dedicated to drum'n'bass. In 1998, US magazine Vibe compared it favourably to Kiss FM (a former London pirate radio station which had become legal): "Meanwhile, UK pirates like Kool FM continue to broadcast even better music without interference from authorities. In the same year, Kool FM featured in a BBC documentary about pirate radio.

From August 2010, Kool FM was rebranded and now operates as an internet radio station, Kool London, providing a live audio and video stream of radio shows. Kool London have also launched the Kool Archives, a Mediafire account that is regularly updated with recordings of the live shows and has recordings that span from 1992 to the present day.

The station has won 'Best Radio/Internet Station' at the Drum n Bass Awards numerous times, most recently in 2012. (13th time). In June 2013, Kool London broadcast live for eight hours a day from the Royal Academy of Arts as part of the RA Schools Show, forming part of a graduate's final year project.

Kool London now broadcasts all day, 7 days a week. On November 28 2021, Kool will celebrate 30 years of non-stop broadcasting.

This following article originally appeared on VICE UK and was written by Jamie Clifton.

If pirate radio has a home, it's in London's tower blocks and tinny car radios. Bar the capital, where else can you find one DJ playing Ghanaian gospel and another spinning some ancient dub track, followed by a crackly ad for "Reg's Records," in which a man named Reg nervously offers to buy up all your dusty reggae vinyl? Chances are: nowhere—mostly because no other city has nearly as many pirates simultaneously on air at any one time (around 70 at Ofcom's last count).

Many of these stations come and go within a matter of years—an inevitability, considering they're illegal to run; punishable with fines, the seizure of equipment and, for repeat offenders, a prison sentence. But some pirates stick around. Some have as firm a spot in London's cultural depot as Carnival, or the ICA, or G-A-Y, or that time David Blaine sat in a glass box above the Thames and a load of shirtless English men threw Stella cans at him.

Few pirates embody this perseverance better than Kool London, the city's longest-running jungle station. Founded as Kool FM in 1991 by DJs Eastman and Smurff, it's spent nearly a quarter of a century transmitting hardcore, jungle, and drum 'n' bass from antennas installed on the roofs of Hackney's council flats.

"The way it started," says Eastman, now Kool's remaining co-founder after Smurff's departure in 1998, "is that my little sister had a group of friends from Hackney Wick. I knew one of them—this Turkish guy, T—and he had a brother called Smurff, who approached me and said he wanted to start a new station. He'd done a couple of little ones before, but they kept getting hit by other pirates—smashed up and that. He said, 'I want a bit of muscle behind me to do something new.' I was running a reggae sound-system, and was also head of security at my father's club, Telepathy, in [Stratford]. The security side was what he needed, so that was that: we set up Kool."

I'm sat opposite Eastman at an east London recording studio. Behind him, in the vocal booth, recording the radio advert for Kool's next club night, are the Ragga Twins, Flinty Badman, and Deman Rocker. The two MCs have been involved with Kool since pretty much day one, and played a fundamental role in the birth of jungle, lending their vocals to the producers who created the genre.

"The first show we did was from Banister House [housing estate] in Hackney. It was November the 28, 1991," says Eastman. "We commandeered Smurff's brother's bedroom, put our stuff in there, and went down to [another building on] Clapton Square to set up the transmitter on the roof. There was nothing better than getting up there, plugging everything in and hearing that 'sshhhh'—that white noise [meaning the equipment was working]. It's always an amazing feeling."

The first UK pirate station was Radio Caroline. Founded in 1964 to play the pop and rock that the BBC wouldn't, it was run from a ship off the coast of Essex. More stations based on boats and disused sea forts followed, hence the whole "pirate" thing, and, by 1965, roughly 10 to 15 million Brits were tuning into "offshores" on a daily basis. By 1967, the BBC were forced to react, launching Radio 1—its first pop station—in a bid to claw back listeners. Helpfully, the government then outlawed all offshore stations, but the legislation had little effect on what, by now, was far more than just a few amateur mariners playing Canned Heat EPs to an audience of bearded philosophy students.

Many of the originators moved their operations to towns and cities, where stations broadcasting without a license were harder for authorities to pinpoint. Offshore, your only real option was to set up on a highly visible hunk of floating metal. Onshore, the favored method was to pre-record your show, climb up to the roof of a tower block and play your tape through a homemade transmitter, which could be hidden when you were done. More and more of these stations began to spring up throughout the 1970s and 80s, to the point where, at one time, there were more illegal stations on air than legal.

Cue a proliferation of the new breed of pirate: stations effectively broadcasting raves live on air, with MCs spitting over DJ sets and the audience phoning in requests, rather than shouting them up from in front of the decks.

"The audience for Kool was instant," says Eastman, recalling the early days, from late-1991 into early-1992. "We were mainly just doing the weekends back then; we wanted to keep out the way of the DTI while we were finding our way, and if you were on full time you'd get hit [by raids] a lot more. But it didn't take long for us to get on 24/7."

The Ragga Twins—as you've probably realized, given the name—were instrumental when it came to the ragga side of things, the Caribbean influence that spawned its own subgenre, ragga-jungle, before making itself known again in the formation and evolution of dubstep. Already friendly with Eastman after growing up in the same part of Hackney and MCing on his sound system, it didn't take long for the duo to get involved with Kool.

"You'd be listening from home and think, 'Rah, that DJ is going in—let me get up there before they stop playing those good tunes,'" says Flinty. "And so we'd just go up there and lounge in the studio."

"Kool was one big family," adds Deman. "It still is now, but back then—in those early, early days—it was mad, especially after the birthday parties. The Sunday after them would be a proper super Sunday, because man was still buzzing from the party before. We'd converge on the studio with six or seven MCs and three DJs, and we were jamming."

The first of these birthday parties, at the end of 1992, was one of the station's earliest triumphs. "We hadn't done any events, but we thought we'd put a little do on for our one-year anniversary," says Eastman. "We done a little rave at Arcola Street in Stoke Newington, and it was packed—the phone-line for it was non-stop."

A couple of years later, as the genre was beginning to properly take off, Kool threw a birthday party that cemented their status as London's prime jungle pirate. "We had our third birthday at the Astoria and we shut down the whole of Tottenham Court Road," laughs Eastman. "We had 3,000 inside, and there was something like 4,000 or 5,000 outside. They had to close the club next door for the night because nobody could get in or out."

The success of these Kool parties led to the setting up of Jungle Fever, a regular club night that's still going today. "The name Jungle Fever came from the Spike Lee film [of the same name]," says Eastman. "The film's about mixed relations, about black and white, which I thought was fitting, as rave culture was doing more for race relations in the UK at the time than anything else."

The nights were wildly popular, but didn't come without their own era-specific, firearm-y issues. "In 1994, we did a Jungle Fever in south London = there was some trouble there in them days," says Eastman. "Police had to stop that one because there were some guys outside the venue waving guns about, arguing with security."

It was because of this climate that Kool—along with a number of other pirates of the time—ended up unfairly accused of involvement in the UK drug trade. Memorably, The Evening Standard ran a front page splash making out that Rush FM, one of Kool's contemporaries, was part of one of London's biggest drug operations.

It was also around the mid nighties that someone from the BBC came to speak to Eastman, and [the Radio 1 show] 'Radio 1 in the Jungle' was born—the first time mainstream radio touched our music. Some of our guys were on there, so it took us from being a London station to being known nationally."

Thing is, while junglists UK-wide might have heard of Kool, the station was still only transmitting—at its absolute maximum, if they managed to get all their gear onto a particularly high roof—as far as the M25. So, pre-internet, fans had to find alternative ways to get their fill.

"There were people driving to London from as far away as Cornwall and Bristol, sitting in their cars, recording a few hours of Kool with a tape-recorder, then going back north or south and sharing the tapes around," recalls Eastman. "And then we started doing the tape-packs [of Kool FM shows] — we had distributors up in Birmingham, so we'd send them there and they'd distribute them."

By 1996, Kool had opened a Birmingham outpost. "That was our sister station, and we had a few big names come out of that—DJ Hazard, DJ Spice, DJ Devize," says Eastman. "That was on for four or five years, but what happened is that my mate who was running it went and got a record shop straight away and set up the studio in the back, so it got noticed [and shut down]."

As jungle gave way to drum 'n' bass, Kool kept pace—the music was similar enough to what they'd been playing for the past five or six years, if not a little tech-ier. But when garage came along, they refused to jump on the bandwagon. "Garage was really the downturn for the station—and, actually, the whole jungle scene—because the commercials were pumping money into it, and a lot of people around us—Pay as You Go, Nicky Slim Ting, Maxwell D, MC PSG, people like that—left Kool and jungle behind, and went to garage," says Eastman.

Though they weren't regularly hosting the Slimzees or Wileys making their names on all these new stations, Kool benefitted from the grime scene: jungle had a huge influence on the genre; more people were tuning into pirates again; and Kool was the natural place to go for tunes before and after the rave. "Around the start of garage, people had told us jungle was dead," recalls Eastman. "We decided to stick to our guns—stick to what we know—and it's paid off."

In 2000, with the launch of the online station, Kool started reaching audiences it never could have imagined that first time Eastman and Smurff clambered up a Hackney tower block to set up their transmitter. "Because of the internet, we've now got guys doing regular sets from Toronto, New York, Australia,". "It's mad, when you think about it now—to have gone from a little Hackney thing to a worldwide thing."

As it stands, the internet looks to be the future of Kool. For years, various British governments have been floating the idea of killing the FM frequency altogether, with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey saying earlier this year that the UK is reaching a "tipping point" in the conversion to digital radio. And he's right: the vast majority of new cars and hi-fis only pick up the digital signal, "DAB."

I wonder if this digitization will pinch some of the magic away from pirates. There are hundreds of thousands of online radio stations, and Soundcloud pages, and Spotify playlists, and curated YouTube channels—base yourself solely online and you're in danger of being lost in the throng.

"Any competition keeps us on our toes—it's not a bad thing," Eastman points out. "And we're branching out into other things, too: Redbull have asked us to do something for their Redbull Academy Radio; a couple of years ago we broadcast live for two weeks from the Royal Academy of Arts. These things are such an achievement for us, because it's an acknowledgement from society as a whole, not just ravers."

Of course, there's also every chance the station will continue to thrive online, because what all the 2.0 competition doesn't have is the heritage. "We've got so much history behind us," says Eastman. "Jungle, to me, is a family thing—it comes from where we come from, and we've come up with it." This history is a powerful weapon in Kool's arsenal; if you feel like tuning in for six solid hours of hardcore and jungle, who are you going to choose: the guys who've been doing it for 25 years—the guys who nurtured the sound and quite literally took it global—or some bedroom DJ in Watford live-streaming over Justin.tv?

"If they wanted to, the government could take us off air right now; they could kill the FM frequency, just like that," says Eastman. "So I think the future of Kool is us really pushing the .com. The good thing about it, as well as the fact anyone in the world can pick it up, is that we have our archive up there, too, so people can hear sets and tunes from years ago, which obviously you can't do on the FM."

"You know what, in the early days, with the transmitters and that, it was about being a bit of a 'villain'—kids against the government," says Eastman. "But it was also about doing our own thing, playing our own music. It was all for the love of it. And what's important is that none of that has changed; we're older now and we've got to pay our bills, so the station has turned into more of a 'job.' But we still love what we do, and we'll keep on doing it for as long as we can."