It's May 2023 and through an internet worm hole, I'm listening to an excerpt from Kool Fm 94.5 FM on Instagram. Featured in the post Eastman the man behind the legendary pirate station talks to the Kool listeners.
As I listen, I realise this transmission is a pivotal and historic moment, not just for Kool FM but for the jungle/ drum n bass scene. He's leaving the station and Eastman chokes up.
It's been three decades in the scene as the ‘head' of Kool FM. On New Year's Day 2023 he gave his last emotional address. Suzy G (his partner of thirty-five years) and East officially handed over the reins to Rinse FM. In the background, the voices of a plethora of kings and queens from the scene punctuate his address: “gwan East.”
For me as a young guy, Kool FM was the “natural trend” my “information centre” for all that made me come alive: JUNGLE. It was pivotal in my formative years as names like ‘Det' and ‘Brockkkkiiiiiieeeee' would take me through on days like Super Sunday.
Unlike the DJs and emcees who became celebrities in the scene, Eastman was/is somewhat elusive-he even states “I like to be behind the scenes.” Kool staff always paid respects on their sets “maximum to the guvna Eastman and Suzy G,”- you know what they say ‘behind every successful man is a good woman'.
As a journalist however, I had to know more about Eastman; a man who helped take the scene to its global audience. Indeed, I wanted to know the history behind “East” but more significantly what does a man with over half his life in Kool FM suddenly do when the station becomes ‘legit.'
Sweating (it's a sweltering day), I get to our pre-arranged destination Costa. I see Eastman sitting down, his eyes are shut as he faces into the rammed Stoke Newington High Street. Decked out simply in a cap and dark clothing, I walk in and say, “how you Eastman sorry I am late.” He opens his eyes, a second to get his bearings, “no problem” he states in a slightly gruff voice. Dare I say there's a definite black inflection. It's a voice that is a product of London and the social melting pot of different colours and creeds. I notice a scar on his face. I get him an extortionate coffee and piping hot milk which he asks for. I sit down and we begin East's HIStory-
“I was born in Malta but eventually grew up in London.” States Eastman as he takes a sip of that piping hot coffee, “We moved into this area [Stoke Newington] in say 1969 and I went to Brooke House School; it was a notorious secondary school. I moved to the school about two weeks late as we had just move into the area.
“In the class there was about thirty-eight kids, thirty of them were black. I don't know why but I just gelled with the Black kids. In fact, I was saying to my missus [Suzy G] you know I went to school with the first generation of Windrush Kids; Horace Burke aka ‘Ruddy Ranks,' Parsons, Chris Witter, Ellison Barnaby, Owen Hewit, and Leroy Shaw. All these people were in my class.”
In those early teen years Eastman started his journey into Jamaican culture. Eastman (by his own admissions) vicariously and intentionally assimilated Jamaican culture and reggae which (at the time) rode a wave of global popularity. Through people like his “best friend Ruddy” (a relationship sustained for 53 years) Eastman listened and loved reggae.
“I remember we used to have a tape record and we would have reggae tapes and sit down on the grass in the middle of the flats. We would play the tapes with like four or five of us listening. One of the first tracks I heard was Deadly Sting (1973). It was two watts of us listening to this tape in the grass-it was about sharing the music.” He adds “The thing is when I was listening to the records, I would ask my friends if I heard something I didn't know. I was interested in the culture. I loved the food, loved the woman, I just loved it all whole heartedly.”
As a reggae enthusiast Eastman went from an avid listener to building a sound system.
“Anyway, eventually I built a sound. I had a friend called Griff who had friends from East Ham back in my late teens, I think. They had a sound called Eastman. At the time I was going to call myself Tubbys but there was a white guy called Tubbys (Keith Swan)-he's still going. We clashed a few times in fact, and he only lives down the road. Anyway, the East Ham crew wanted to join my sound.”
“I joined up with them and we did a few things. Anyway, I left one of my boxes down at a guy called Kenny one day. So, I told him ‘I'm coming to get my boxes.' He then says ‘we ain't together anymore and I am keeping your boxes' “Eastman almost ominously adds, “So, I went ‘really.' So, I came off the phone and told my dad. I went to his house with my dad, and we knocked on the door but they would not answer. My dad then started chopping down the door with an axe. Funky Flirt called my dad “gangster Bill.” My dad and me went in and dad made them load all the boxes in our van. As I left, I told them “I'm Eastman sound now” and that is how I got the name.”
In the mid-70's, Eastman ran a crest of a wave along with other sounds like; Gemi-Magic, Sir George and Unity as reggae thundered through London clubs like: Phoebe's, Cubis, Club Norick. But in the late 80's Eastman started to wind down his sound system as reggae struggled to stay relevant. London clubs were reluctant to put on reggae dances. Reggae's boisterous and expletive laden twin ragga took over and became Jamaica's next big export.
“Late 80's ragga started to take hold but I was not keen on the ragga sound and how things evolved. I liked the culture and the roots of reggae: Don Carlos, Dennis Brown, Gregory Issacs, I-Roy, General Echoe. Ragga lost the culture and roots. Degrading woman, having sex in the dance I just did not like it. I still played out as a DJ, but I did not do it as a sound system thing.”
As is the case something ends and something begins,
“At that time Kool came into my life and I started doing more radio stuff. I was also doing stuff with my dad at Club Telepathy (1990). People started saying ‘Eastman going acid now' “, he smiles wryly, “but that wasn't the case.”
Jungle was in many respects a London ‘thing'. Those in the sound system era gravitated to jungle with its deep bass reminiscent of reggae. Of course, outside of London we had areas like Bristol and others pushing jungle, but London was the hive for the sound.
“People keep bigging me up for Kool but trust, “Eastman vehemently states, “without Smurff there would be no Kool FM-we did it together. I knew his brother first when I was DJ'ing reggae. Smurff's brother used to hang out with my younger sister, and he would hear me playing reggae tracks at home. He was always nodding his head. In fact, when I played out, he would always come down “
he adds context to the beginning of Kool,
“So, he introduced me to Smurff. In those 88 days he was DJ'ing hardcore and techno. He was a great mixer. He could mix without headphones-he was talented. So, I eventually met him, and, in those days, I did security, and I was a big guy at the time. So, he was like ‘East I have a couple of stations, but other stations keep tearing the aerials down.' He said he needed someone who could make sure this did not happen.”
As we know ‘timing ‘is everything and as Eastman takes another sip of that coffee, I can see the steam has drastically reduced.
“So, when Smurff came, I knew about the rave scene, acid house and stuff. I said that I have man like Brockie and others who were getting into the music and dj'ing. So, I said to Brocks you want to come down and emcee Co-gee and Ragga Twins then came on board-they automatically followed what we were doing. We started Kool.”
“When we first set up it was in the square near Hackney Marshes. For a couple of years, we were in Nightingale Estate and even at times (something people did not know) we were in the same flat as Rush FM. I remember Rush had the kitchen, the front room was ‘no man's land' (where we would drink and smoke) and then Kool had the bedroom. We were good friends in fact and we did that for about 6 months. We had all the rigs together in one place: Defection, Rush, Kool, and Paradise (a reggae station)”
Eastman then shrugs his shoulders and adds,
“Kool eventually had to come out of there. It became too hot. I remember Dica (who owned Rush) was there with Smurff-now he ain't a troublemaker. Anyway, they were both on the roof doing something. The police came and they were sitting at the bottom of the block. Next minute Smurff called, and he is like ‘East you need to get me out of here.' Dica threw a toilet at the police. It went mad and they got helicopters out to find them”!
At the time, the government/establishment were the kryptonite to all pirate stations. With the negative assumptions (some warranted) of pirate stations, it meant stations were always on the lookout.
“For 6 months the police drove past Nightingale everyday-they were looking to take our rigs. They were never like that before that incident. In truth the police never liked the Department Trade Industry (DTI), and they would turn a blind eye to what we were doing. Sometimes they even came in the studio and were like ‘we are going to come back tomorrow and hopefully you are not here.' After that incident though the police were all over us. I had to look for new premises (I think that was 95) which I found in Chingford.”
That move allowed Kool to really establish itself.
“About 6 or 7 years in Smurff said to me he couldn't do this anymore. He had had enough. I really tried to persuade him. I told him we had started this thing together. Smurff said that if I wanted to, I could stop the station. For me though I had put too much time into this, and I just couldn't stop this. I told him have whatever time he needs and when he's ready he can come back. It was hard because we had such a good understanding. When he left, I had to be a bit more upfront and deal with my stuff and his stuff as well.”
In those following years, Eastman took Kool FM from a London pirate station to a station synonymous with jungle and drum n bass. Dj's and emcees in turn like: Andy C, Brockie, Det, Skiba, Shabba, moose, Remadee, Wildchild, Footloose, navigator, Mampi Swift, Tamsin, Funky Flirt, Funsta, Devious D, DJ Rap (and more) became the proverbial underground household names.
However, everything with a beginning must have an end.
“Sue and I discussed it back and forth for a couple of years with Geeneus from Rinse; he's like the top person there. The last meeting was just me and him. I met him at the rinse fm studious and the deal was struck.”
Now 65 years old, East and I discuss his thoughts and feelings. He takes a slightly deeper intake of breath.
“I was so glad I sold it when I did. It was the right time. Things just fell into place. Also, the energy had gone out of me, my legs were playing up. It was nearly 32 years of constant Kool, climbing up ladders, avoiding the police, having guns pointed at you, fighting we did everything, messing with the DTI never knowing if we could get arrested. If this was a year ago my phone would have rung at least ten times while doing this interview.”
Suddenly Eastman's phone rings. He looks and puts the phone down. He then looks at me with a smirk on his face, “I've just had one call!” We both acknowledge the perfect timing of the call. It's a light-hearted break that was needed.
Now out of Kool, East is concentrating (full circle it seems) on getting Eastman sound system back up and running with “phone calls” and “testing equipment” for the “right sound”. While he states, “sometimes I just chill” he seems perfectly at ease with days filled with “swimming”, getting more time “for fishing” and an increasing amount of DJ bookings.
It's approaching 6pm and Costas is winding down-it's a natural end to the interview. East's coffee finished some time ago and the only customers in the shop (aside from East and I) is a lady in leggings and a billowing top who has been engrossed in a book. Costas staff are wiping down tables of various crumps, used napkins and stains from all manner of drinks.
And so, I pose my last question: legacies.
“For Sue she was like everyone's mum, and she would always be there for everyone and helping people. For me” another intake of breath, “Honesty-not lying to people, telling people the truth-I'm straight up and my maturity which made me (I think) professional. I think people can say I have never knocked anyone for an event, or anything in radio. People know me for that. My legacy I expect is being a man of my word.”
Catch Eastman Sound every Sunday morning 10am-12pm on Kool FM