Low-budget, high-rise: the heyday of Sheffield’s pirate radio stations
'It was about the freedom to party and dance and live how we wanted to'
By Jack Walton
“You’ve seen People Just do Nothing right?” asks Andy Tattersall, a self-proclaimed “professional man” in his fifties. I have seen People Just do Nothing, but for those who haven’t, it’s a popular BBC mockumentary following a gang of delusional pirate radio MCs in London who believe themselves to be musical revolutionaries despite actually having limited talent and success. “Well, it wasn’t exactly like People Just do Nothing,” he continues, “but that gives you some sort of idea.”
Now a university lecturer, Tattersall is telling me about his past life as a DJ on several of Sheffield’s premier pirate stations in the early nineties. Much like the show, the pirate radio scene in real-world Sheffield was ramshackle and low budget, ran out of studios cobbled together in high-rise council flats by those who were evangelical about making niche urban music accessible to a broader audience. The reason his comparison isn’t entirely accurate, however, is that unlike the hapless MC Grindah and co from the TV series, DJ Tat and his cohorts had both genuine talent and some success.
The first pirate radio station in Sheffield was established by Brian Thomas, known as Brunswick, and his brothers. Brian had worked on successful illegal stations in London during the eighties, where pirates were long-since established, and was hoping to replicate the formula in a new city, setting up Sheffield Community Radio in 1989. After first broadcasting in May, it quickly became a platform for black music in the city, getting records that would otherwise barely see the light of day to a mass audience.
‘Massive blocks of shit’
They rented disused flats on the Norfolk Park estate, the higher the better. If they could get to the 13th floor or above, that was ideal, as it meant the analog signal could be picked up further afield. At first, advertisement was mostly via word of mouth. Leroy Thomas — known to all as Bossman — was the muscle, a baseball-bat-in-the-car type who climbed onto the roofs of the blocks to fix the aerials. Brian and his brother Ian were the brains who scouted for local talent.
The only clue these flats had ever been lived in was a faint jaundicing on the walls and nicotine stains on the windows. And things didn't change that much when the pirates moved in. There were the decks, of course, normally two of them, tattered and cheap, standing pride of place in the living room. Usually the only other item of furniture was a second hand sofa to collapse into during ad breaks (complete with customary fag burns in the arms).
Often, the quality of the decks was “total crap,” says Richard Benson. “You got a couple of really shitty Citronic things and a tiny radio to monitor your show, that was it.” Benson doesn’t mince words. The flats, to him, were “massive blocks of shit,” the hallways “stank of piss” and the car parks were “riddled with junkies.” Even as the station grew in popularity, the setup was generally the same. The height of decadence was a temporary stint in a studio above a taxi rank in Heeley where they enjoyed “carpets and swively chairs.”
Benson met his DJ-partner Chris Duckenfield at college and they shared a mutual interest in electro and hip hop. They’d been to a few underground nights in London and decided to give it a try themselves, playing for anyone who would have them at the beginning. Then Benson got a job at Warp records and soon after a man walked in saying he’d caught wind of their work and offered them a show. “It was simple as that, really.” They put a collection of records in black bin bags, so it wasn’t obvious what they were up to, and got on a bus.
Most pirates have similar stories. A strange man appearing in your workplace, a tap on the shoulder outside a club, a torn piece of paper with an address and a time scrawled on it. Few details, just don’t be late. En route to their first show they wandered past a Waterstones with an Asterix and Obelix display in the window, from the French comic book series. Duckenfield took a liking to the name Astrix (without the e), so that became his pseudonym. Benson, rather than go with the obvious “Obelix”, instead chose Space, in a nod to his usual drugged-out state.
They were, at first, outliers in what was primarily a black community. Dave Hancock, who was recruited to play a show on SCR called Ska’d for Life in 1991, vaguely recalls “talks and threats” from British nationalist groups on the far right who were unhappy that Jamaican music was being played on the radio, but it “didn’t bother [them] at all.” By the early nineties, skinhead culture was dissipating, replaced by the mass love-in of acid house and what followed.
“It was the best time ever for people getting on,” Benson states. “The rave scene had cleared a lot of trouble out. People from different social genres all came under one roof, largely because they were all off their heads on Es.” Their brand of anti-establishmentarianism wore the face of hedonism, rather than anything directly politically engaged. “It was about the freedom to party and dance and live how we wanted to,” says Tattersall. “People felt disempowered and pirate radio spoke to them.” Naturally, it was always interwoven with drug culture.
Behind their youthful optimism was a profound naivety. “We didn’t realise at all what we were getting into,” says Tattersall. Pirate stations had no licence so all the DJs were breaking the law. More than the police, it was the Department of Trade and Industry they feared. Hancock recalls being constantly “on edge” while playing and other DJs even recruited look-outs. “If there was ever any risk we’d come flying out like Sweeney and run,” he says. Whilst it didn’t happen to him personally, he recalls several stories of stations that were “busted in on by the DTI.”
People’s memories of this time are hazy, but one pirate DJ (no one knows who) is widely believed to have flung himself from a low-floor balcony (according to the more outlandish retellings, from the third storey) as the DTI burst through his door. He suffered only minor injuries, so the tale goes, and disappeared into the night with his bin liner of records intact. Indeed, it was the threat — not of the law or authority — but of having prized records confiscated, that kept them in fear, eyes forever poking through the blinds on watchout, poised to make a dramatic exit.
To avoid detection, the locations were regularly changed. A link was put up on the other side of the city on a hill so if the DTI tracked it down they’d generally hit the link rather than the station. DJs took a vow of silence and in the more professional, SCR-run studios, doors were steel-plated. On a few occasions, legal action was threatened against them and the show went down for a number of weeks. Invariably though, it returned with a new location. As the equipment was cheap, it would be little expense to restart at short notice, and the vast number of flats dotted across the estate’s skyline gave plenty of options as to where.
In spite of the underground ethos, Brunswick and co expected rules to be followed. Some DJs were sacked for swearing on air or not playing adverts. Pirate ads (dubbed a “Pause for the cause”) were used to promote the money-making sides of the business; raves, club nights and record shops, where many of the DJs worked.
‘We were taking over’
At the scene’s mid-nineties peak, there were six pirate stations in operation in Sheffield. SCR was the most well known of these, but they had successful off-shoots like Fantasy FM and upstart rivals like Hardcore FM — where Tattersall started. They all catered to different niches and most were based on Norfolk Park. There were 15 monolithic high-rises in total on the estate; lifts adorned with dirty nappies and mounds of ash, travelled in by people with only two types of face: the gaunt and spectral ones of the permanent inhabitants and the bright and invigorated ones of the music makers.
Transmission reached, depending on who you ask, out as far as Chesterfield and Worksop or all the way to Hull. Regardless of which is closest to the truth, it was a significant reach for a station run from a squat flat on a council estate, and evoked the ire of stations like Hallam FM when the transmitter encroached upon their airways. As it was analog, the transmission’s footprint wasn’t fixed, so it could waver on the FM band. This meant that it would also occasionally interfere with the frequencies of the emergency services.
Hallam was “the naffest station on the planet,” according to Hancock. “They were jealous because we were taking over.” Where they pandered to “cheesy chart pop,” the pirates saw themselves as Robin Hood figures, sating the appetites of the marginalised. “We wanted to fit into something so we had to create that ourselves,” says Winston Hazel, an SCR DJ whom many of the others cite as an inspiration.
Like many others, Hazel’s father was employed in steel. He believes those of the next generation fused this industrial heritage with black musical influences to create an “industrial clang” specific to Sheffield. “It reflected the sound of the steel works,” Hazel tells me. “A steel on steel knocking that we all grew up listening to and the heartbeat of the drop-hammers that used to be rhythmic through the night in my youth.”
The hyperlocalism of the pirate format placed DJs within their listeners' lives. “I would meet people who secretly listened in their bedrooms so their parents wouldn’t hear them,” says Hazel. “We were in their homes making them feel connected to something, perhaps for the first time.” Others drove cars up to areas with good signal or used the shows as a springboard to explore other aspects of underground culture, like attending raves. “Everybody listened to it at the time,” says Hancock.
This brought with it a kind of minor celebrity status. DJs like Hancock and Tattersall worked normal jobs, a bricklayer and a TV repair man respectively, and weren’t paid for their pirate work, but developed reputations that still get them noticed in the street today. People taped the shows and would send them around the country. Radio also helped them cultivate audiences for their club nights, which paid well. “We go and play records for a few hours and make more than the kids who worked all week,” says Benson.
Benson recalls meeting one of his heroes, Mark Archer of pioneering techno duo Nexus 21, in Shelley’s nightclub in Stoke. His “fanboy moment” became surreal when Archer asked him if he’d ever heard of Astrix & Space, two exciting new DJs a friend at the University of Sheffield had put him on to. Archer had sampled a line from one of their pirate broadcasts in a new project he was working on called Altern-8. It was Duckenfield’s line he’d used ("watch yer bassbins, I'm tellin' ya") and they eventually went out MCing together. In the end it got “too big”, he says, and Benson had to turn down Archer’s request to accompany him on Top of the Tops, largely for street credibility reasons.
Regardless, the pathway from small-time to prominence was turbo-charged. Within a few months Benson had been offered a residency at Limit, a high-profile basement club in town. Similarly, Hancock was given a night called Trojan Explosion. He signed for Trojan Records and after about four months was sat backstage smoking marijuana with The Specials, who had asked him to play with them. “It all came from that pokey little flat,” he laughs.
‘People thought they were invincible but they weren’t’
Astrix & Space lasted roughly three years on SCR. Gradually, the production became shoddier and the station less organised. The venues went from shabbily endearing to unbearable levels of grime. In the final studio Benson played from, the toilet was hanging off the wall and pizzas from three weeks earlier “were growing arms and legs.” They didn’t even play their last show, as it had become “more of a pain than a pleasure”.
By that point they’d been making good money from club shows anyway. They signed a record deal with Warp (under RAC — Richard and Chris) from which they still receive royalties today. Moreover, as dance music began getting more mainstream recognition, the pirate scene fragmented between the polish of progressive house and the grittier hardcore side of things. Increasing crackdowns started happening on the illegal events run by the stations, another trigger for a gradual move towards legal ventures. “We all started to change what we were playing and it ran out of steam a bit,” says Tattersall.
The wave of ecstasy-mania that a generation rode through the early nineties finally broke and a heroin boom followed in its wake. Many people involved in the pirate scene moved with tragic ease from one to the other, Benson included. “People thought that they were invincible but they weren’t,” he says. Duckenfield (Astrix) had already kicked the drugs by that point due to a health issue, which drove a partial wedge between the pair and they drifted apart. Eventually, after “taking absolutely everything” for years, Benson holed up for three months in his mother’s house on methadone prescription — but thankfully emerged on the other side.
Towards the end of 1999, with the original cast of Sheffield’s pirate scene having long-since moved on — be it to successes, addictions or nine-to-five life — a series of controlled demolitions began on the Norfolk Park flats. One by one, the former studios collapsed to their knees in clouds of rubble and dust.
“It was of its time,” Hazel reflects, “had it been more structured or polished it would have lost its appeal. Listeners knew someone was just sitting somewhere in a little room with one light bulb by themselves and they loved that.” He believes that there is a gap in the market now, with radio having become slick and asinine, but also accepts that the creativity of pirates was borne out of a need which has now been met. “People needed to find a way to express themselves. All we wanted was to be able to go out and hear our music. We have that now.”