Interview: Norman Jay MBE
Norman Jay MBE is the Godfather of the Club Scene in the UK having started his career at the époque of DJing. Together with his brother, he helped to transform Notting Hill Carnival into the massive cultural celebration it is today through his self-made Good Times Soundsystem. Norman was one of a number of disrupters who transformed the landscape of radio in the 80s, starting the then pirate radio station Kiss FM. These pioneers eschewed the mainstay of radio that refused to play black music in the form of soul, reggae, funk and groove and decided to start broadcasting themselves. These exciting new stations were not licensed and so a battle ensued, with the authorities doing everything in their power to keep stations like Kiss FM from the airways. Aerials were constantly being torn down and erected back up in a cat-and-mouse chase. Eventually, the government had to back down due to the hundreds of stations springing up, and Kiss FM was granted a license. Norman Jay MBE was pivotal in this movement, playing music by black artists that no one else was touching at the time. After years organising parties and being an integral part of the British music scene for decades, he was awarded an MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, by the Queen for services to music, an honour rarely bestowed on DJs.
We spoke to him ahead of his highly anticipated slot on the Monoski Afterparty stage:
We’ve seen you play at the Ronnie in Meribel and it was by far and away the best day of the season. How do you find the vibe there?
Well it’s incredible, such a phenomenal atmosphere. Normally when I play there, I I’ve been in Australia and New Zealand on tour for two months, so the cold and the altitude is a bit of a shock to the system when you’re used to T-shirts and flip-flops. I’m usually straight in and straight out of the resort so it is quite intense. Year on year, it gets lifted to another level.
What was the first place you used to buy music and where do you get hold of new music these days?
The first place was an old shop that’s gone down, called Contempo on Hanway Street in Central London, round the corner from Tottenham Court Road Tube Station. It’s no longer there, as with all the original record shops, which is a shame because its London’s cultural musical heritage. Latterly, all through the 80s, 90s, 00s, I bought records in Soho, in the square mile, where all the record shops were clustered. These days, I don’t play that much new music when I’m DJing. I keep abreast of it, but I have such a vast knowledge of the evolution of dance music so I draw more on that.
And you still do radio work right? I’ve heard a few shows you’ve done with Gilles Peterson.
Yeah, we have similar overlapping tastes. However, what I play on the radio differs a lot from what I play live. In a gig, I play stuff to give kids energy, stuff that they can dance to. On the radio, it’s a bit more varied, you can flex your knowledge a bit and show your appreciation of other styles. I do radio now because it soothes me to do it. I wouldn’t want to do it every week and for it to get monotonous though. I’m happy to have an occasional guest slot on Radio 1 or Radio 6. It’s a fantastic medium but there’s a lot of regulation on the BBC which I find tough coming from a pirate radio background. I have an association with Soho radio which is a bit freer. It’s is a great internet radio station that I do shows on from time to time. But I’m a live DJ first and foremost as I much prefer to play live.
Do you prefer to play in club settings or festivals?
Festivals! Festivals all the way. Before I ever started playing in clubs I was playing outside at Notting Hill Carnival. Nothing can match playing under the sun or under the stars. When you’re outside at one with nature and the elements, it’s unrivalled.
Completely agree. Is there a gig that changed your life in your career as a DJ?
Well all roads lead back to Notting Hill Carnival for me because it was my original platform. I learnt so much there. I’m old enough to remember when black DJs just didn’t get hired back in the UK, so you had to create your own scene and opportunities, which is what I did and the rest is history.
What’s the most bizarre gig you’ve ever played?
I’ve done a few… I remember playing in the Brixton Academy one Halloween and they mocked up a cemetery. I played out of a coffin, full of Earth and headstones and everything.
Wow, that sounds amazing! Do you have any hidden talents? I read somewhere about your penchant for roller skating?
Ah yes, I used to roller skate and roller dance many years ago. I roller skated a lot all over London. So I think I actually could have been quite good at skiing but it never really happened. Nowadays I admire from afar the inline skating rides that swarm the bridges of London; they look fantastic.
You’re a massive record collector. How is your record collection organised and how do you go about selecting tracks to play?
Well I haven’t needed to do that from the vinyl collection for many years as I do my sets digitally now. But my collection is like my music library, just like a collection of books. There’s a method to the madness. I know where everything is even though it’s not in order.
And finally, do you prefer playing home or away?
Definitely home. I love playing in the UK. Not just London; all over the UK, because it is still the acknowledged centre of club culture. We’ve got a long history of it going back to the 50s. That’s why my gig at the Ronnie really works. Most of the kids there are British kids and they create an unrivalled level of excitement.
Well we can’t wait to see you on stage come April 10th.