A Pirate's Mutiny
"Come around eleven o'clock. It starts gettin' thick 'n' chunky around then," Bo the Lover growls into his cell phone. Bo, a.k.a. Brindley Marshall, has promptly returned a page. It's Friday night and the caller is inquiring about a hip-hop dance party that Marshall's Pure Funk DJs are throwing at the Honeycomb Hideout on NW 79th Street in Miami. One reason the crowd is thickening: a raucous radio advertising campaign. As everyone in the music business knows, radio is the pump that streams patrons (i.e., cash) into dance clubs. And somewhere out in the Miami night, between spins of hip-hop songs, DJ Big Dog is barking into a Hot 97 (97.7 FM) radio microphone: "Get on over to the Honeycomb Hideout!"
Ask any number of the young dancers lining up to be frisked by security guards and they'll tell you Hot 97 is their favorite station. Ask people at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and they'll tell you it is illegal. Still illegal.
Last July FCC agents and U.S. marshals shut down the station, which was then operating from the externally blighted and internally slick Pure Funk Playhouse on NW Eighteenth Avenue and 67th Street in Liberty City. The raid was part of an operation that seized broadcast equipment from fifteen South Florida pirate stations and was the subject of an October 1, 1998 New Times feature story, "Making Airwaves."
That crackdown was the biggest in FCC history -- until last month, when federal agents swooped down again and yanked transmitters from a whopping nineteen unlicensed broadcasters between Miami and West Palm Beach. Eleven of the busts were in Miami-Dade County, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robyn Hermann. In a repeat of events following the July raids, the pirates immediately began buzzing again, like bees emerging from the hive. DJs on Hot 97 were back on the very day the U.S. Attorney's Office issued a press release on the December raids.
Hot 97 is not alone. Although hip-hop DJs are still leading the insurrection, stations of every stripe are spinning out of control. They have been broadcasting regularly in January on at least seven unlicensed FM frequencies, including 89.1, 90.1, 92.5, 94.3, 94.5, 103.9, playing music that ranges from Haitian compas to R&B to Middle Eastern. Two of those frequencies, 89.1 and 94.5, were targets of the December raids, but quickly returned to the air. These stations continue to provide the soundtrack for this real-life suspense thriller, with lyrics like these that Busta Rhymes drops (that's slang for rap) to a slow tempo: "This is serious/We could make you delirious/You should have a healthy fear of us/Cuz too many of us is dangerous."
Hot 97 has returned to the air, but Marshall insists he has not. Other DJs have taken over his moniker and frequency, he explained to New Times this month. "What the brothers did was they stepped to me and they asked me 'Can we use your handle?' Because we [pirates] use courtesy," recounts Marshall, who has a resonant voice, the build of a fullback, and a tuft of black hair beneath his lower lip. "I said, 'Can I get some advertising?'"
Marshall is heard on taped commercials for Pure Funk events over at least two pirate stations. He says he has warned the new Hot 97 crew that they are living on borrowed time. "I told them, 'You got to keep moving around, because if you don't, they're going to gitcha.'"
Unlike underground radio in much of the United States, South Florida's unlicensed DJs are closely linked to local dance clubs. Miami-Dade's pirate industrial complex stretches from the grimy streets of Liberty City to the glamorous avenues of South Beach. While Marshall was doing his thing at the Honeycomb Hideout, DJs on 94.5 FM promoted hip-hop shows at Club Amnesia, featuring the groups Juvenile, Big Tymers, and Hot Boys. How brazen are these pirates? They give out their phone number on the air. When New Times dialed it and asked a DJ's opinion of the FCC raids, he quickly hung up.
The December raids worked in at least one case. SupaRadio (104.7 FM), a high-quality but unlicensed hip-hop station that eluded the FCC last July, has fallen silent. It advertised on flyers for "Ol' School Night" on Thursdays at Charlie Brown's, a club on Washington Avenue in South Beach. DJ Nasty and DJ Eon were among the featured performers.
Until recently it seemed that Mixx 96 (96.1 FM), a pirate powerhouse that played Caribbean dance music until agents shut it down, was also history. But it could again be heard last week.
While some pirates press on with the mutiny against the FCC, others have jumped ship in the wake of the latest raids. "We are now strictly an Internet radio station," says Mark Christopher, a founder of the Womb (107.1 FM), a Miami Beach ambient and techno-music station. Of course, that's what he said last July, after federal agents visited the station but found no transmitter. Sometime last fall, the Womb returned to the airwaves. DJs fed their signal from a studio near Collins Avenue and Fourteenth Street to a building at Drexel Avenue and Twelfth Street. On December 8 federal agents showed up at the Drexel apartment and confiscated a transmitter, an antenna, and a computer worth about $6000. "We sat up on the roof and watched them take it away," Christopher says morosely.
Confiscations are hard on a DJ's savings account. But the punishment for broadcasting without a license is a cakewalk compared with penalties for other felonies. "You only have to show up in court if you are claiming that you want the equipment back," Hermann explains. She says only four of the unlicensed broadcasters have filed suit to recoup their transmitters and antennas.
Marshall is suing to regain possession of his two 1000-watt transmitters and other audio equipment. The case has yet to go to trial. "We are going to apply for a license," says his lawyer Bill Ferguson. "We're going to do it the right way." So far a court has ruled on only one seizure, according to Hermann. Federal Judge James L. King upheld the confiscation of broadcast equipment agents took from a man named Marcus Calvo at a building on SW 83rd Avenue in West Miami-Dade last July. The station had transmitted on 104.1 FM.
Back at the Honeycomb Hideout, Marshall is making sure things are under control in the cramped parking lot. Would-be dancers amble past him to the security check and police tend to a motorcyclist who was hit by a car nearby. The hip-hop entrepreneur says he doesn't appreciate the FCC interfering with his work. He notes it is impossible for a man of little means to buy a station worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, which in most cities is the only way to obtain a license. "This is how I make my monies," he explains with an urgent tone. He suspects that commercial stations like Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) and Hot 105 (WHQT-FM 105.1) are behind complaints about the pirates. "I don't want to be defiant, but can I live a little, too? Can I eat, too? Can I share a little of the wealth?"
Despite the FCC, business isn't bad for Marshall. Inside Honeycomb Hideout dozens of dancers are silhouetted in a dimly lit banquet hall masquerading as a night club. Behind a twelve-foot wall of speakers, DJ Ha-Ha works the turntables and microphone. The bass is so loud it makes people's chest cavities vibrate. You can't order liquor, but you can get a Polaroid taken with your sweetheart. On some nights there is a "bootie-shakin' contest" with a $250 prize for the sexiest hip swiveler.
Five miles away Hermann isn't swiveling much these days. She's buried under prosecution files for all the Miami-Dade pirate radio cases. "When the first raids were done, a lot of operators thought, Now it's safe to go back on the air. Now there's been another major enforcement in the area. We hope we've got it stopped," she says.
Hermann thinks the raids have had a deterrent effect. But it sure doesn't seem that way.
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