Norman Jay MBE. A name steeped in as much dance music history as Technics 1210s or Studio 54. Raised in the heart of London, he quickly showed signs of DJing talent giving his first show at the tender age of 10. Fast Forward to 1979, and following a fateful trip to Brooklyn, New York, Norman decided to take his DJing career much more seriously the results of which are the legendary Good Times Sound System marrying up his Jamaican roots with a burgeoning dance scene of the 70s. With the sound systemic full effect he took Notting Hill carnival by storm laying down music seldom heard outside of the discotecques of NYC. Funk, Soul, Disco it all got played and despite fierce opposition and considerable hostility he won the praise and critical acclaim of his peers.
Its this dogged determination thats been at the centre of Normans rise to fame. The years with pirate radio station Kiss FM with luminary DJs like Coldcut, Jazzie B, Danny Rampling and Giles Peterson forged relationships and eventually his world renowned ‘The Original Rare Groove Show’. Along side another well known DJ (Judge Jules) Norman pushed a new remarkable sound coming from America – House Music. Already affectionally known as the Godfather, Norman would be among the first of London’s DJs to take house music to the mainstream and kick start a cultural revolution not seen since the 1950s and Rock n Roll.
Still a prolific radio jock, Norman has received many accolades over the years, from style icon in Mixmag, to ’A clubland Institution’ in The Face and the MBE for ‘DJing and services to Music’. This Easter (Thursday April 2nd) sees Norman back behind the decks for an eagerly anticipated set at Brixton Jamm, and A&R man Simon Huxtable had the huge honour of interviewing him.
Hi Norman, I cannot begin to tell you what a privilege it is to chat with you. Thanks for sparing us the time today. What’s a typical day in the life of Norman Jay MBE like?
Waking up late, because I’ve normally been working the night before. At the moment I’m in the process of moving thousands of records from my house into storage – so everyday for the last couple of weeks I’ve been moving a few at a time.
So this Easter sees you DJing at Brixton Jamm. Do you remember the first time you played there?
Yeah, it was actually only a few weeks ago. I have to say I was pleasantly shocked. It was my first gig back in the UK after getting back from my Australian tour the night before. I got to Jamm and you couldn’t move. It was wall to wall, amazing. Absolutely amazing vibes – what a homecoming.
Your family was very musical. Both your Father and Uncle were big record collectors; music I guess was inescapable. What were some of your fondest memories of growing up?
I always wanted my own records. They kept their own records. And I was better at looking after them than my dad was. My dad had loads of 78s, occasionally we’d borrow each others but I soon got a bigger collection.
Who were some of your influences, and did you ever get to meet them?
It’s a difficult one that. Subliminally I’d say that everyone I meet influences me. I’ve had no direct mentors where I’ve though he or she is my hero. I guess there’s a little bit of me in everyone I’ve ever met or played with.
Lets talk about that Brooklyn trip in 1979. It was your first proper block party. Can you describe the sounds and experience?
That was the birth of hip-hop. It was an amazing time to be in New York. I was very fortunate that I was there whilst that was going on. I took it all in and came back, and it was an epiphany for me. My direction became clear… what I wanted, what I needed, what I had to do. It was an amazing time. It gave me an insight and it gave me a direction.
Tell us about those early Carnival days. Having been to Notting Hill a few times, its on a whole other level to the St Paul’s Carnivals I frequented in Bristol. Marred in recent years by small pockets of trouble, its still one of the premier celebrations of Jamaican culture. How has it changed for you over the years?
I think it’s probably changed for the better. I don’t know about this year because we don’t have a site anymore. We’re like a premiership football club without a home ground. Our original site has been redeveloped, so I don’t know what the future holds for us. We’ll have to see.
You faced some opposition in the early days, how did that make you feel and how did you overcome it?
It was a sharp learning curve. The best way of learning is learning from your mistakes. Something that modern DJs don’t really have to go through. I learnt on the job, I didn’t learn in my bedroom or in a studio. My baptism of fire was playing to live crowds all the time. It taught me how to be adept at reading people’s moods. I’ve always lived by the law that I’m not a slave to the beat. Selection is key.
As someone deep in the music, what was the general reaction to those early house records?
To be honest, I wasn’t one of the original DJs who played house on the radio. I was one of the original DJs who played house in the club and on the party scene. It’s like marmite you either loved it or hated it. I loved it. It was like punk rock to me it was exciting, it had an element of danger.
After many happy years at Kiss, you were headhunted by Polygram for Giles Peterson’s label Talkin Loud. The wealth of talent you then brought to public attention is pretty awe inspiring. Was there anyone who later flourished that you wished you have signed?
Jamiroquai. We had to say no because Giles and I weren’t in the position at that time to really help Jay. We desperately wanted to sign him. I knew Jay, he was a personal friend of mine. He was a Norman Jay student, and I know Jay won’t mind me saying that because it’s true. We knew he would be massive.
Eventually, though you returned to your first love – DJing. Tell us about touring in those days. How stressful was it carrying all that vinyl around and hoping the airport didn’t lose your stuff?
Yeah, it’s what you did. Digitalisation makes everything easier. Now I’ve just got a couple of sticks. But I still carry CDs and occasionally vinyl. Years of carrying heavy record boxes and sound system equipment have really given me a bad back.
Where has been the most exciting place you’ve visited over the years?
There’s no one place. Everywhere has its charm. I love playing in Australia, I love playing in Japan, and my home is the UK and London, but everywhere is special. I’ve done classical music gigs, and hip-hop gigs and everything in between.
Tell us about DJing at Thierry Henry’s wedding. Was it the weirdest booking you’ve ever had? Any funny stories you’d be allowed to share?
Ha, no, I’ve had loads since. I played at President Obama’s inauguration party in Washington. The Henry thing is old hat now. But at the time it was amazing, I didn’t know it was the booking till I turned up. I ruined it as any true Spurs fan would.
You were also the first DJ to make the panel of BBC Ones political show – Question Time. Are you a political man?
The only DJ actually. I like talking politics in the confines of a bar or at the dinner table. But I’m not a debater. You forget that they’re all Oxbridge trained in debating. I’m not a politician. But if I have an opinion I’ll express it. My political leanings are definitely left. It was a privilege to be on Question Time.
From humble beginnings to international DJ and now style icon and celebrity. You’ve led a charmed life, but do you have any regrets; things you wished had worked out better?
I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve led a charmed life and I guess all I want is to remain relevant. I’m sure that’s all anyone wants.
If you could distill all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained over the years to give someone 3 pieces of life advice, what would they be and why?
Don’t take life for granted, keep your eye on the prize, and never give up.
Well it’s been a revelation to talk with you Norman. We could no doubt talk for hours more. Any last words?
I’m really looking forward to playing back at Jamm. I think South London definitely has the coolest clubbers now. It used to be east but there’s been a change. It’s happening in the south of the city and I think Jamm is near the top of that list of places making things happen.