London’s house and techno heads were fed a lean diet via their radios in the 1990s. Kiss FM was shuffling its schedules to accommodate its commercial ambitions, elbowing quality house and techno to specialist slots while the days got poppier. And London’s pirate stations seemed to bounce in unison to either drum and bass or reggae, depending on where you were. Four/four was a rarer and rarer beat. And then, Girls FM arrived on the radio dial in 1995. Managed by former Brighton pirate DJ Kenny Hawkes, it pushed all forms of house and techno and helped forge the emerging speed garage sound too. For a few years, it was the best station in the capital. And with its monster transmitter, the loudest too.
Station manager and DJ Kenny Hawkes, and former Girls DJ Luke Solomon talk to Jane Fitz
KENNY HAWKES: There was me and another guy Fitzroy that ran the station. We had 22 djs and ran seven days a week. We were on air 4pm-2am from Monday to Thursday, then on Friday-Sunday it was 24-7.
LUKE SOLOMON: I was working in a record shop with Ty Holden, Stop On By in Barnet. Kenny used to buy records from there. We got friendly, and then he got the job of running the station and he approached both of us to see if we wanted to do shows. I did Sunday evenings 8-10pm and Wednesdays 12-2am.
KH: We had the most powerful transmitters. We would go down to this guy in his 50s in south London, and he built them for all the old stations back in the 60s and 70s. We would run it all the time except for Friday night, cos Friday was when the DTI used to come out. We would put up a real low wattage one; you knew they were going to track it down and take it so we would leave them a cheap one.
LS: The intention for the station form the outset was that it was going to be different from anything else around. Like talking, especially Kenny and myself, we didn’t do that usual pirate radio DJ speak. We’d use the mic properly and talk about the record and try and be professional.
KH: We would insist that the djs spoke good English rather than ‘on the ones and two’s’ and all that. We’d say ‘look if you can’t talk normally, then don’t talk at all’. Some people would talk too much and they would get a reputation for that. Sometimes it would be ‘oh god, so and so’s on… shut the fuck up!’
LS: The music that me and Kenny and Ty were playing was completely different to anything that was going on in London at that time. We were playing house music that was coming on import and get it long before anybody else. We were breaking a lot of new records. Labels like Power, Strictly Rhythm, Prescription, Cajual, Relief. People weren’t really playing those.
KH: You felt like you were part of something, part of this secret movement that not a lot of people knew about. I always wanted to transcend that with the station, always insisting on people playing different stuff . Some people wouldn’t be very eloquent on the microphone so you would say, look don’t bother, just make sure you play good music. At the time there was whole fluffy-bra brigade with what became handbag house, really uplifting cheesy nonsense, real disposable rubbish. Lots of Kiss FM djs were playing it and i was like, no! There was a few djs that i had to ring up and say, could you not play that record again and they would ask why. I would say, ‘oh Fitz told me to ask you’. But it wasn’t, it was me. I just wanted people to take risks.
LS: Because I worked in the shop, I had access to so much music. It was mostly house, sometimes some disco and some weird stuff, but mostly new house music that people hadn’t heard before. After the shop I went to work at Freetown Records, and then me and Kenny started doing Space at Bar Rumba on Wednesdays and it all sort of crossed over for about three to four years, finishing around 98 or 99.
KH: The Djs played good music and there was a variety from dub to breaks to hip-hop, techno and house. It was a lot of fun and i think a lot of people benefited out of it. Kenny Charles, a lovely guy, used to play garage but he would play it at plus 8 and it used to irritate the fuck out of everyone cos he was playing so fast, the vocals would become like Pinky and Perky. But he was probably responsible for starting the whole speed garage thing. It wasn’t calculated, it just happened at the right time. I think i said to him, you know when you play this fast it becomes like high energy and you know what high energy is, don’t you? I was like anything to stop him playing garage this fast.
LS: Kenny, me and Ty broke a lot of records. MK for instance. And we were getting them really upfront. A lot of the djs on the station also picked up on those records and they started to pitch them up and play faster, before anyone else. That was really the beginning of speed garage really, I had a huge amount of respect for Huckleberry Finn and Kenny Charles because they were doing something different to us but also to anyone else. And Kenny Charles really broke things, by playing a lot of records we were, but faster. Kenny had a major show, on Saturday night around 95-96.
KH: There was Arthur C Clark, he was really into techno; Keith Fielder, who was doing Sex, Love & Motion; Huckleberry Finn – I wasn’t 100% into his music but what he did, he did better than everybody else. Rob Maynard. Ty Holden would play house and then do a dub show and things like that.
LS: My thing was always wanting to have records before anyone else and play them before anyone else. When i was working at Freetown I was doing promotions for labels, like Narcotic, so i had these connections. Kenny and me were two of the few English djs who were on the Strictly Rhythm mailing list. And i’d also get records cos i was making them, me and Rob Mello made a record for Prescription, so we’d get those. And there was British stuff – JBO, 2020 Vision, Herbert’s Phono label was a big one. Kenny was always a big supporter of Paper Music. And again we got it really upfront, so people would tune in for that reason.
KH: I kind of cut my teeth at that time, i really learnt the trade. It’s purely through passion and love for music and turning a lot of people on to different music. I didn’t particularly like some of the shows but i knew what impact they had on our market. I would definitely have them on cos they were good at what they did. I would always go out my way to find great non-commercial music. I appreciate without handbag or trance there would be no such thing as the music i was into, there had to be a yin and a yang. I had to put my marketing head on, be adult about it. I remember trying so hard to find a trip hop dj! It was just about breaking the boundaries and having a good selection of dance music rather than just one genre.
LS: Me and Kenny have similar taste in music but very different djing styles – so there was no one really playing what we were. And it was always a big deal for me and Kenny, phoning each other and saying, have you heard this? Friendly one-upmanship, turning each other onto music. And he would make them sound different, and i guess that’s true for me. There were certain records you just kind of knew. I’d know from the phone call I’d have with Kenny, to the point where that would be ‘our record’ and we’d make a point of playing it. Paperclip People, stuff on Red Planet. And I started Classic then, so I’d get Sneak’s You Can’t Hide From Your Bud on acetate. That was immediate. I played it on the radio and the amount of calls and texts that came in… And playing it in the club, it completely destroyed the dancefloor. I really don’t think there’s been a record like that again. I don’t think there ever will be, the way music’s changed. Those moments are rare.
KH: I always used to get stressed before my shows. I used to do Thurs and Fri 6pm-8pm. I used to have so much work to do with the running of the station I had real problems concentrating. I think i have a couple of my sets and they are just like, blurgh. Just bad mixing, cos i have got the phones going mad cos someone wants to meet with me.
LS: You could get lost in your own world and not care about the reaction. And you’d play a a lot of records you might not normally and then realise the reaction you’d get and go, ooh hang on. Then you’d play it at the club and be like, this sounds fucking great! You could be experimental, even when you were being experimental anyway. We did things like playing a lot of Red Planet, Jeff Mills, but slowing it down. Kenny, probabaly more than me did that a lot. We’d go to the techno shops, Fat Cat and Tag, and come out with techno records and play them at minus 8.
KH: We had guests – Carl Craig, Chez Damier, Ron Trent, DJ Pierre, Derrick Carter, Stacey Pullen… They would be djing in Europe. Kiss weren’t gonna book them, they’d be like, who? But for the people that were into good music those guys were icons and it was great.
LS: Girls was influential in getting Kenny and me the night at Bar Rumba. And then the people I met through doing that I’d get to come and do shows on the radio. Chez Damier came and did a mix show for me and then came down and did the Wednesday night. My show fell in the middle of the night so I’d go to Bar Rumba and do the warm up, then get in the car, drive across the bridge to Elephant and Castle, do a two-hour show and then come back to Space and do the last hour. It was pretty full-on but then i used the radio to big up the night. A lot of people would listen to the show and come down to Bar Rumba.
KH: We had this huge map of London on the wall and we used to stick a little pin in it if you got a shout out so we could see how far we were getting out. You could see quite clearly the M25 around it and in the corner there is a big box that says ‘London’. Victor Simonelli came in and was just staring at it before he had to go on and he turned to me and said, so where is London on this map?
LS: I had to pick Carl Craig up in a battered old Fiat Uno and took him down to an estate in Kennington. It wasn’t really ghetto, it was quite respectable. The way the station was run was like a proper radio station so the studios were in shady areas but the flats were always cool and there was nothing really that scary. But i remember Carl being kind of amused by what was going on.
KH: Ty Holden got DJ Pierre and had to go and pick him up. It was night and the weather was really bad and they got to him about 20 mins late. He jumped in the car and Ty said are you ok? And he was like, well no actually motherfucker, you are late and I am soaking wet. So Ty turned round to him when he was kicking off and said listen mate there is only one person more pissed off than you in this car and that is me and that just shut him up. Apparently, i don’t remember the show but i remember him saying afterwards he really enjoyed himself.
LS: My memory from that time isn’t that good. I remember jumping up and down with my hands in the air at Bar Rumba. And dribbling. The mad thing with the radio then was that i used to smoke a lot of weed then. I wouldn’t think twice of getting stoned and walking out there. The thought of that makes me shiver! I was in my mid-late 20s, you’re completely invincible. You heard stories of people jumping out of windows. But i never really encountered that. There was something towards the end of 1998. We were in this warren of estates in south london, it was a scary area and i remember being absolutely terrified, listening for any noise. But that was one place. It’s amazing how much less paranoid you are when you’re younger and more confident.
KH: I was about 25 or 26, and then you don’t have any fear. You don’t really think about the future, you just get on with stuff. It was a very carefree attitude and you felt like you were involved with something very powerful, more powerful than oneself.
LS: You felt you were kind of on the edge. We were one of the few stations, or even the only station at the time that had dummy transmitters up. That worked in our favour a lot as we didn’t get taken down a huge amount. And they got bigger and bigger.
KH: I remember me and Luke driving down to play in Brighton, and we got the station all the way down to ten miles outside of Brighton. I rang up Fitzroy saying, oh my god you won’t believe where i am! So that was a powerful rig. If you made a search on your radio in your car it would just lock straight in.
LS: We had a big old following. There was talk of listening figures in the millions.
KH: We had something like 2million listeners a month – we were really doing it. Guys that ran other stations were really respectful and said things like ‘you’re running tings at the moment’ and i’m like ‘yep, i know!’ We were just confident and we knew what we were doing was blowing everyone else out the water. We even had the Kiss FM djs listening to us.
LS: We knew there were a lot of people tuning in. You could sort of tell by the amount of tickets you sold and how many people came to the parties. You’d have regulars and they’d always phone up. And we used to get a lot of listeners in prison and people still tell me they used to listen and that our shows helped them. And at the parties we used to get a mad mix of people, especially the ones at Bagley’s. We had a big West London crew, reaching out to Staines and Twickenham. A lot from surrounding areas, and then reaching down to Brighton, and then north, Islington and up to Barnet. And when it came together it was mad – you had hardcore gangsters and really middle class people and it was really like that.
KH: There was this one jingle that said ‘girls fm for 100% house and garage’ and it used to irritate the fucking shit out of me, i hated it so much. I remember walking down Soho and there is a pub on the corner and it had a sign saying ‘best pub in soho, 100% house and garage’ and i was like, mmm I wonder where they got that from.
LS: We all made jingles. I used to do a show on a Sunday night with a very close friend who’s actually dead now. He wanted to be an actor and I got him to do a lot of jingles for me. And they were really good. Really funny. And then i’d do the last show on a Sunday i think and there was a point where we’d go off air and we ended up doing this gardening show, and it was stupid. But we used to get a lot of people and it became this really big thing. There were lots of things like that which were quite thoughtful and having a giggle and doing something that was a little bit more out there.
KH: Its kind of hard to say what mark we made, I think we sort of stepped up the standard cos after a while there were a few stations. I can’t remember there names but they would mimic our style and approach.
LS: I remember when i got to know Derrick and we started Classic he used to take the piss and say your’e so cool you have this job and a night and a radio show. And thinking back it was quite cool to have all of these things. At the time, in the middle of it, i was still wasn’t an accomplished Dj and i wasn’t technically where i wanted to be. I still had a lot of ambition and i saw those things as as a step to where i wanted to go.
LS: The radio was different from anything else on air. You knew how it was marketed and how it was branded you knew you were a part of something special. I always had a problem with the name, i’ll be honest. Girls FM? Really? At the time i was like, it’s a bit of a weird thing to say on radio. You’re listening to Girls FM.But it became an entity and the legend overtook the name. Girls FM now sounds like it’s got a massive history. I’ve started doing radio now, a weekly MFF podcast. It’s funny cos my wife said to me, you should speak to a couple of people about doing radio. I’ve been with her for 20 years, but she’d forgotten all about it.
These interviews are taken from Jane Fitz’s upcoming book, Pirates, published by DJHistory.com