Godfather of the Pirates
Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. interviews Lepke, (Leroy Anderson), a pioneer of Pirate Radio broadcasting in Europe. Having started Dread Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) as a pun take-off of the BBC, Lepke has continually challenged the boundaries of legal broadcasting.
Is it official; did you start the first Black Pirate radio station in Britain?
Yeah, I started the first Pirate station in this country; it was a black Pirate station. As far as I know, it was the first in Europe. I heard there was something in the sixties, some guys tried a lickle ting around here in Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill in the sixties, but it didn’t last, it didn’t work.
Why did you start a Pirate station and how did you gain the knowledge and the know-how to set it up?
I started the station because at the time there was a need for black music to get more exposure: i.e., basically reggae music, then later on we moved on to broader black music. Earlier in the 70’s I used to live in New York and I used to tune my radio in and hear pure black stations, Spanish etc… So from them times I was thinking, maybe that can gwan in England still.
Why was it that there were no black stations in Britain at that time?
I’m not sure, but I think the BBC had a strangle hold on the broadcasting at that time, because it was mainly BBC stations. So exposure for reggae music was only about a couple of hours a week, if that.
Who were the early DJ’s at that time?
Reggae on the BBC, Tony Williams was one, Steve Bernard was another and later on, David Rodigan came along.
How important was the Pirate stations for niche music such as reggae at the time?
It was very important for the niche music at the time because when the Pirate stations came on the scene, it created business opportunities. People could advertise their shows, artists could get their records played, so it was really good for the station to come along.
When you first started, what kind of teething problems did you have? Did you
We used to make tapes, the first sessions were pre-recorded. People didn’t realise that a lot of the stuff was pre-recorded. We were getting to grips with the technical know-how, how to tune up the medium wave transmitters; it was not as simple as just plugging in and switching on. Another problem was convincing DJ’s and people that a station is here and that we can now do something. It took a while to convince the public and people that we could do something.
How was the station received, when you first launched?
The first few months it was only picked up in the local area, around College Park and Harlesden and then spread from there. People just couldn’t believe, ‘boy, we got something on da radio.’ Initially we only broadcast on a Sunday for a few hours.
Who were the early DJ’s on your station then?
Apart from myself, there was a DJ called Chucky, alias Douglas Wright, a next DJ would be Doctor Whattu, also he used to have a little sound system and he was more technical and used to help with the transmitter and stuff like that and Lloyd Rainford. Then a little way down the line, Miss P, my sister, joined the station. She later went on to become the first black female DJ on Radio One. Then later she joined GLR.
What was the name of your station?
The first name for the station was Rebel Radio, then later on a friend called Mike Williams joined the station and said, “Why not make a pun of BBC and call it DBC (Dread Broadcasting Corporation)?” which we did and so we became known as DBC.
So your sister Ranking Miss P joined the station and that is where she cut her wax?
Yes, she took a lot of convincing, I told her to come and join the station and become the first black female on the radio. She took a lot of convincing, but eventually she joined the station. Then after she was with us for a while, the BBC decided they wanted a piece of the action and offered her a job.
How soon was it before other Pirates began their stations and were you instrumental in assisting those Pirates?
DBC started in 1981 and ran on until roughly 1984, up to that point, DBC was the only black-owned Pirate station, but then a few more new ones came along which were white-owned. I think KISS came about and a couple of others. Then there was JBC which was a follow up to DBC, because Miss P had gone to the BBC and the other people at DBC didn’t want to carry on, so JBC was the next official black pirate station. From then on you had a few others spring up around Harlesden, like TIME radio, TRAFFIC JAM and a few others. I was helping people all along the way and a lot of the DJ’s that were with DBC went on to join JBC and spread out onto a lot of other stations. Up to today, most of the stations in the North West area, one or two DJ’s from JBC days will be on those stations. Further to that I helped set up stations in Luton, Nottingham and gave advice to the first black station in Birmingham,which was Radio Star, a guy called Cecil, I gave him advice way back in the day.
So really you are the King of Pirates, you are the original “Black Beard”?
Truth be known, DBC helped so much black media from that time, because we hardly had anything, because what happened, which was good for DBC was the BBC took it hard when we called ourselves DBC. They had Lenny Henry with a show called the Lenny Henry show, where he plays a pirate DJ, his character was supposed to be me. (Laughing) They were trying to take the piss out of me, but that just helped us to spread all over the country. Whatever they did, it just backfired on them, because it just spread the whole thing all over the country big time.
How determined were the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) in those days to clamp down on Pirate operators?
The authorities were watching because in those days they just couldn’t believe that black people could come out and do this, do you know what I mean. So they thought “there’s money going in there from somewhere else, someone is behind it.” Plus apart from that Rita Marley is my eldest sister, so back in the day I used to hang out with Bob when he was in London, so during that time when certain people used to watch Bob and his movements, they would see me linking with Bob and things like that. Bob passed away in 1981, so up until that point, with the link, they thought maybe Bob had had some input in to it. So, they kind off held off of DBC, but as the years went on and more Pirates came on, they started to get heavy.
So you actually think the DTI turned a blind eye because Bob Marley was your brother-in-law?
Not because of Bob, but because they were trying to infiltrate to see where we were coming from. We had so many funny incidents that happened along the way, but we were kind of left alone, somebody was saying, “leave them alone, let's see what this is about.”
Were you ever raided?
On Medium Wave I was taken to court once, but on FM, by that time we had developed the technology to use a link system, whereas before we used to just have the transmitter in one place so we could link from a couple of miles away. So they would always come and take the big transmitter, but not raid the studio.
You say you originally started the station to service the needs of the black community in terms of music, but did it ever move beyond that in terms of the information you may have provided the community with? News and that sort of thing?
Yeah, we used to do early news items and local events happening, but nothing more than that. We found that any time we advertised anything left wing then we would be raided. So if we said, “There is a Rock Against Racism March, next Sunday in Brockwell Park,” or something like that, we would get a lick, you know what I mean. Anytime we did anything considered left, there would be problems.
Today the airwaves are saturated with Pirate stations playing all sorts of music. Do you think they have the same sort of impact as in the 80’s when you started up?
Maybe some do, but some of them are literally a joke. Some stations are doing good things for their community, like GENESIS, they’re kind of leaning on the political side, so maybe they have an impact.
Do you feel a sense of disappointment in any way, knowing that the younger generation don’t really know that you paved the way? Your sister has gone on to a very successful career in radio. You’re the guy who laid the first stones for most of these pirates and you remain relatively anonymous.
That’s what I would have wanted, for it to spur the people to do it right. I feel some of them just aren’t doing it right and are wasting the airwaves. But one day someone will recognise what they are doing and what I’ve done in the past. It’s just life.
What do you think about the current music scene?
It’s good man, if you’ve got something to say, say it, as long as you ain’t chatting rubbish on the record. I love the style, because back in the day we used to play a lot of sound tapes late in the night. We used to play “Saxon” tapes and everybody knows that out of that style came Drum ‘N’ Bass and the “Ragga Twins” and stuff like that, all of that came out of those original styles. So we kind of helped to spread that kind of music that later went onto become Drum ‘N’ Bass.
What is your opinion about the hyper-masculine image of reggae music, the homophobic lyrics and the alpha-male posturing of the artists?
I wouldn’t just say it’s reggae, it’s black music, i.e., rap music as well. With the promotion of that side of reggae, you will find that certain companies control the business and have done so for a while and they deal in what’s put out to the mass media. So the cultural stuff doesn’t get the exposure as the negative stuff, the cultural artists ain’t getting through, because the big labels are not going to sign a serious cultural artist.
Who is responsible for that? Is it the market or the people who control the market?
The people who control the market, it must be, because you control the market, you dictate who gets played on the radio, it’s down to the labels and stuff. Which label you’re on. If you’re on a big label you’re gonna get pushed to certain stations. It really affects the youths hearing all that stuff. The shooting and gun violence, it affects the youths, because that’s all that they are hearing.
What do you think about the state of black owned stations now?
Big business came in. WNK came and CHOICE came, WNK, Joe Douglas for whatever reasons couldn’t keep it going, he got into some difficulties, so he had to let go his license. Then CHOICE came, I say CHOICE but there really was no CHOICE. They made their money and then decided to sell-out to CAPITAL radio. I could not believe it when I heard that. So it really made me sad to know that what started as a call for black radio, a legal black radio, we now don’t have any legal black radio. I’m not sure about the status of the station in Birmingham, but this is where we are today.
I remember back in the day, I’m sure you were talking about launching a Pirate TV station; was that you Lepke, were you serious?
(Laughing) We were serious. We had a transmitter and everything. I had a transmitter made, but it was not as simple as plugging it in and switching it on. This transmitter, you had to have your aerials pointing in the direction of the transmitter, it was directional. (Laughing) We had a test transmission and it worked.
What was your first test image?
It was something I had recorded from the BBC, something about black history. Yeah, I was serious man, I would still love to see it done now.