Music visionary, Tosca Jackson sat down recently to talk to Madame Soho about his role in orchestrating the pioneering dance radio station, Kiss FM. As we settled down at a table in Soho House and switched on the voice recorder, the music connoisseur detailed a whole range of topics from race and music to illicit substances, Kiss FM’s underground roots, style, acid house and Soho’s subcultures during the 80s and 90s.
Madame Soho: Hi Tosca, it’s nice to see you. Can we start by asking you where you’re from?
Tosca Jackson: You too mate. I was born in Forest Gate, which is proper East End – bruv. My mum has lived in the same house for 50 years. It was an interesting childhood. I was brought up in the 70s. Recently I was watching an 80s cop show where it shows people that would literally walk up to you and call you a nigger or sambo. My mum and dad were the first generation of immigrants. I wouldn’t say it was tough – it was all I knew – but there was a sense of it being harder for us, definitely.
MS: What is your earliest memory?
TJ: Well if I’m honest, I suppose it was asking myself the question why am I black and everyone else is white. I lived in a community where we were a minority. It wasn’t as it is today. When I was growing up in the 70s, the stuff I was interested in – especially football – never had too many black icons. I remember having a feeling of disappointment about that. I did have family members around me. My dad was very audacious. He made sure I had good schooling and education and that sort of stuff, but when I was younger I had a sense of injustice, definitely around my colour. And that was definitely played out in society itself. I don’t know if you ever saw Love thy Neighbor? It was a TV show in 1976 when I was 6 years of age where the characters call the black guy nig-nog and sambo. It was quite acceptable then and that’s not even 50 years ago.
MS: How did you come up with the idea for Kiss FM?
TJ: As a kid, the two things I was interested in were football and music. I used to do a bit of dj-ing and I worked for Serious Records which was up the road in Soho Square. I was 17 or 18 and used to take a lot of speed and I’d trip into fantasy, and Kiss came from a fantasy. The original fantasy was to have a tape recorder on Primrose Hill and broadcast. What people don’t realize is we only had 4 radio stations in this country at that time. And I used to listen to pirates like Horizon that played the sort of music that I wanted to listen to. There was clubs like The Horseshoe, just round the corner from here in Tottenham Court Road, and it was cooler than most places. There were nice birds in there, and good dj’s like Froggy. Where I grew up, near Wanstead, is practically Essex. I used to say to people that I was an Essex boy and I was heartbroken when I found out that Forest Gate was actually in East London. So Kiss, I would say, came out of an idea for necessity. I ended up dj-ing in a place called The Electric Ballroom in Camden on a Friday night with a guy called George Power. George is Greek and to this day still owns a radio station called LGR (London Greek Radio). And the first Kiss FM was actually called City Radio in 1984. How that happened was Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson and myself used to dj at the Electric Ballroom on a Friday, and George was the promoter as well. We used to put up the ariels for extra money for LGR. They used to broadcast over London at weekends and it was fucking massive. They advertised every single Greek business in London and were making a fortune. Kiss came from the fact that LGR broadcast, then on a Monday they never broadcast. So I said to George one day, “Why don’t we use the frequency to play the music we like.” and he agreed. And the first inception of Kiss, what we called City Radio back then, went out on a Monday night. The impetus of Kiss was this. There was Paul Anderson, George Power, Gordon Mac, and I would go on about 3am when I could hardly string a sentence together. I remember going out one night and a kid saying to me, “I heard you on the radio the other night” and I was gob smacked. And from that point on it became like a driving force. I wanted a radio station.
There used to be a hoodlum called Tony Palmer, and me, Norman Jay and Cleveland Anderson met round Tony Palmer’s house just before the City Radio turnout, and they said they wanted to start a radio station, and they wanted a score (twenty pounds) off everyone cause they were going to rent a flat in Alexandra Palace and start broadcasting. And I said “you know what, I think I’ll start my own.’ The interesting thing about Kiss is that initially it was George and myself, Pyers Easton, and Gordon Mac. We were looking for somewhere to broadcast. As London is in a valley, we went all over the place, Ally-Pally, Crystal Palace and Charlton. And in Charlton, we were just about to give up when we knocked on Nicky Holloway’s door. It turned out Nicky lived opposite a parade of shops and we went cold calling to see if anyone wanted to rent us some roof space .The last shop was a bric-a- brac second hand store run by a radio enthusiast so when we asked him could we put an ariel on his roof, he said ‘yeah, no problem.’ He ended up providing the ariel space, then we went to a council estate just up the road, found an empty flat and kicked the door off and started broadcasting. It was the 7th October 1985. It’ll be 30 years next month.
MS: What were your standout moments at Kiss FM ?
TJ: In 1986, we did a party called the Haunted House Party in the old hospital in Hampstead. I had the bar. There was Jazzy B, Femmy Fem, Norman Jay and the others, and I had to shoot off to dj at Bentley’s in Canning Town and when I got back the Old-bill had cordoned off the street. So I drove up and around Golders Green around the back of Hampstead and got to the venue through the back. When I got in there the party was huge and I remember seeing the power of what we had. Gordon and myself were making so much money at one time from the parties, that I had to hide it in my pants. It was a lawless time, and when I was made the offer to sell my stake in Kiss I accepted it, and slipped off into another phase of my life.
MS: When did Kiss FM go legal?
TJ: It went legal in 1990. I kind of left the operation in 1988. I was smoking lots of cocaine at the time and was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. The only regret I have about the whole thing is not doing a legal show on Kiss. But I’ve kind of redeemed that now with my new station, Misoul. I can say I’ve actually done a show on legal radio now. But I don’t have any regrets, really. As I said, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. What Gordon (Mac) did with the station was the right thing to do. I was in a mess at the time and it needed Gordon, the person that he is, to get it to where it needed to go. And he got it there.
MS: You mentioned 1988, the year of the second Summer of Love. Acid House music and parties became big. Were you involved with any of these?
TJ: Yes I was. I worked for Serious Records at the time and I remember signing the Chicago house producer, Bam-Bam. I remember taking him to Shoom – the first ever Acid House party – in 1987 and him having a little skirt on dancing on the table and the whole place loving it. Then there was Clink Street in 1988, the first ever prison in England turned into an Acid House party. RIP (Rave in Progress) used to have bashes there, Mr. C, ‘Evil’ Eddie Richards and that lot. It was an interesting time because the drug laws hadn’t evolved to deal with the chaos. I remember the Monday nights – Land of Oz – at Heaven nightclub, and Paul Oakenfold playing at Solaris even earlier in 1987. I remember getting stopped on the Harrow Road once. I had a test-tube on me and I remember telling the copper I was a chemist going back to work, and he just suffered it. There was a hiatus, culturally, in the late 80s which meant you could do what you wanted. There weren’t the drug laws to deal with it. People were going to New York and coming back with MDMA. I also remember being in New York in 87 with a load of people doing MDMA, and we all wanted to bring that experience back here to London. I remember Steve Silk Hurley and Marshall Jefferson – the house pioneers – were working in Chicago for the council at the time, then they came here after they had number one records in England. It was quite farcical watching the way the whole scene evolved. Larry Sherman who owned Trax Records would have a big of Charlie. It seemed like it was lawless, we were all young and never had any boundaries. Margaret Thatcher kind of created an environment where you could do what you wanted, and we did.
MS: What do you think about Soho ?
TJ: The great thing about Soho is that it was the place with all the Shebeens ( illegal drinking dens and gambling houses ). There was Ferdenzi’s, and number 9 D’Arbly Street, 11 Greek Street in the basement, and loads of others. Those places were designed for the afterworld. The people that had come out of the clubs at 2 or 3 in the morning and wanted to carry on drinking. They were great places. Full of working girls and you could always get a drink. Again, it was lawless. The street lighting was dimmer. It was the beginning of the pill age. You had people like Philip Salon, the promoter, moving about up there. What I really loved about it was that the chaos existed alongside MPL, Paul McCartney’s company which was around the corner from here in Soho Square, and 20th Century Fox had their offices here too. The people that visited the shebeen’s, the underbelly of London, intermingled with straight people in high society. I’d say that, during my period, the cultural side of Soho – the art and the music for instance – wasn’t as prevalent as it is now. It was more rough and ready. You had all the peep show’s up here, the 50pence slot machines and all that. It was very different to how it is now. I’d head into Soho when I wanted a good time. That was how most people I knew saw it. But now it’s kind of evolved into a place where there’s more art, more culture, more pop-up shops. I suppose if Soho was a brand name it would be quality, or understanding. Soho in New York had similar principles. In the 80s it was an artists haven but was dimly lit and rougher than it is now. But I always gravitated there like I do here. I always thought about Soho like, ‘these are my people.’ I’ve always liked the unexpected. It was the kind of place where you could hear a great tune, then the next minute someone’s leaning over you having just been stabbed. And Soho was sex. I think when it started to change was when Stanley the tool company moved up here. It became more corporate. It became like a cutting house for film companies. Stanley moved into Wardour Street.
But before that I remember when Nik-Nak, the clothes shop, was on the corner of Wardour Street and Brewer St. that was the height of fashion for me. You had Liberto jeans, Replay and all that sort of stuff coming in. And you could sell that sort of stuff because people wanted look good. And that’s always been the essence of Soho. Soho has never needed to have social proof. It’s always existed on just being Soho. It’s never been defined by anything other than just being itself. It’s always been eclectic, and it’s never discriminated. It’s the kind of place that if you lived here for 30 days, it would really affect your life. From junkies rolling about, even to this present day, to the stylish people that you meet. And I suppose a byword for Soho is acceptance. You can come to Soho and be whatever is that you want to be – and that is really important.
MS: Do you have any fond memories of the Wag Club?
TJ: Yeah, I was in the Wag every Friday. I knew all the faces in there. I used to score good drugs up there. I remember a punter saying to Maurice the head doorman “ We’ve come all the way from Manchester “ and him saying “ We don’t want any Manchester in here.’ Another time I went up to one of the boys and asked him for some gear and he said ‘I aint serving tonight, I’m looking after Prince. I asked him where he was and he said ‘just here.’ He was sitting next to him. It was a great place. Madonna could be in there one night and next night nobody would be in there. The Whiskey-a-Go-Go (its original incarnation) had nothing on that place; it never really did it for me. But the Wag was different class. I stopped dj-ing at the Electric Ballroom on a Friday night cause I wanted to go the Wag. I thought, ‘fuck this, I’d rather be where it’s at.’ It was a great place with great people, and there was a real philosophy around the music. It was the best music you could hear anywhere. And it was kind of faceless to some extent, people were there but it didn’t really matter. It was all about the music. It was 1987 and I went out every night except for one. I remember my mum saying to me ‘don’t go out tonight son, I’ve never seen a black person look green.’ The Wag epitomized Soho, really. It was about art, culture and music. Some people were dressed up like lunatics and others weren’t. You could engage with it however you wanted to, but you knew you were going to have a great time. Another good thing about those times was we didn’t live in an age of surveillance, and austerity. People didn’t want to know what you were up to like they do now. People kept their curtains closed and turned a blind eye. They were more respectful of each other around that time, it was great.
MS: What’s the future of radio, what with technology and the internet?
TJ: We have a new radio station. It’s called Misoul. Me and Gordon (Mac)and Martin Strevens and we’re trying to recreate the past. If I’m honest, broadcasting doesn’t really interest me. I got involved because I’m vain and I like the sound of my own voice, and I’d invested some money and that sort of stuff, but now technology has taken over and I have a keen interest in it. I have a keen interest in how we talk to each other and how we express ourselves. If someone had told me 20 years ago I’d be paying a hundred quid to watch the telly I’d have probably said, ‘who’s your dealer mate, I want some of that stuff.’ I suppose the next phase of my life is that I’m not entering radio as someone who’s just broadcasting. I’m intrigued with technology and where technology is taking us. It’s like years ago, if you was a kid from the East End, you had to have certain credentials to get into banking that you don’t need now, and digital television means more choices. Life is like a a la Carte menu now and I really like it. It’s like, when I was growing up, I couldn’t have listened to the Osmonds cause I would have got stabbed. People would have said to me ‘are you fucking insane?’ I wouldn’t have been able to listen to people like Wagner, whereas now like is like a pick n mix. I can listen to Wagner, and I can listen to Luther Vandross and I can listen to The Clash if I want. I think we now more sophisticated about our taste, and we are more inclined to honor that, like what is we feel defines us. Technology delivers that.
What Misoul looks like now isn’t what I want to look like in the future. I want it to evolve. It’s called Misoul but I want it to be your soul. I want it to deliver you choice. If you want a playlist you’re going to get a playlist, if you want content it’ll deliver you content. That’s the model I want to develop. The idea of creating something that hasn’t been created before is what appeals to me. I want to build a platform that leads the way, or at least have a go at it. A big part of my personality is if I challenge my perception of myself, then consequently I’ll challenge the stuff around me. The key to it is working outside of my assumptions. And in a way, it’s the same as when we started Kiss 30 years ago, we changed the status-quo, because we worked outside of the assumptions of what people wanted or didn’t want. That’s got to be the mindset of the new station. We just did a weekender and sold 4,000 tickets but I’m not that bothered about that. I’m bothered about how we sell our product to people and how we evolve in the 21st Century. Everything has been affected by technology, for the better, and I like it. I like the fact that when I get home I can watch Deathwish 2. It’s fucking disturbing, but I love the fact that it’s available to me if I want it. Life’s a real feast and yu can indulge wherever you want to. And Misoul will be a technological platform we develop, and if it takes off then great, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but that’s got to be the way forward. And if you take that phrase working outside my assumptions, the people will decide. It doesn’t really matter what I think. We’ll deliver them a product and they’ll decide.
Photos by Ki Price Words and interview by Ray Kinsella