Norman Jay - The Royal Norm
Friday, 29 February 2008
Norman Jay is a gentleman DJ. The Brit was the first DJ to be granted an MBE – Member of the Order of the British Empire – for services to the music industry. The self-described maverick may tout his MBE more than recipients from the establishment – and, even then, it’s usually awe-struck promoters who put it on flyers – but he remains steadfast in his love of music. He’s humble. However, Jay’s MBE represents an important validation of club culture – and black music – in the UK. It should be widely celebrated.
Ironically, the DJ acquired his MBE in 2002, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, at the same time rocker Mick Jagger was knighted. (Jazzie B recently trumped Jay with an OBE.) While the MBE has led to new opportunities, becoming something of a passport, Norman, who initially presumed the honour a hoax, doesn’t rely on it.
“It has [generated opportunities], which is fantastic, ’cause I think, deep down, all one really wants to do is to be in a position to choose,” he says. “A lot of the time for most of us in whatever we do, we’re not in a position to choose. Sometimes you have to do it, you’re left no choice – you work or you starve.
“In the beginning, it presented me with quite a few opportunities, it opened a few doors for me, but that wasn’t what I aspired to and that’s not what I wanted to do. I was able to choose whether I did go down that path or not – and I chose not to.”
Jay, born in Notting Hill to West Indian parents, started DJing in childhood, his whole family music fans. He was profoundly influenced by trips to New York, where he experienced the first flush of disco, then hip hop. It was in the Big Apple, too, where he’d play his inaugural block party and, later, Paradise Garage.
An energised Jay launched his Good Times Sound System back home circa 1980 with brother Joey. They rocked the Notting Hill Carnival. Good Times has since developed into a countercultural brand, Jay overseeing a series of compilations.
The DJ also co-founded Kiss FM, a pirate radio station. Indeed, Norman pre-empted the rise of acid jazz – apparently inventing the term ‘rare groove’ – with his Original Rare Groove Show. Bizarrely, it was during this phase he bonded with an up-and-coming Judge Jules.
No mere retro nut, Norman presaged the acid house phenomenon, promoting early illegal warehouse parties. (Don’t tell Her Majesty.) Norman would be at hand when Kiss obtained its licence in 1990. Today Jay prides himself as a wonderfully eclectic DJ, spinning house, funk, soul, jazz, disco, hip hop, reggae and rock. “Somebody called me the original iPod DJ,” he says.
Jay has lost none of his fervour. Many a younger DJ has succumbed to complacency – or cynicism, but Jay’s passion for music has afforded him immunity from the darker aspects of the biz. How-
“I never limited myself to being a single-genre DJ,” he says. “I mean, perhaps what you described you could apply to house DJs or techno DJs or trance DJs who just go ’round doing the same thing. Fortunately, that’s never been my way.
“I’ve always acknowledged my tastes in different genres of music, so that makes me a bit of a maverick in that respect. I love most things about music, most of the time. Yes! I love house music. Don’t get me wrong, I play a lot of house, but I have a rich music history which goes back many years and across many different genres.
“At a festival, in the two or three hours that I have [to play], I try to give people a potted history of where I’ve been, where I’m coming from, and where I’m at. It encompasses jazz, hip hop, classic disco, new soul – whatever I’m feeling, whatever turns me on, even if that means the odd pop record. I’ve made no secret [of it], I do love great commercial pop-dance tunes, similarly I love obscure funky disco records... Part of the attraction for me is that I’m never sure where I’m gonna go musically. All I do know is that it’ll be good, it’ll be enjoyable, and we’ll all love it.”
That said, Jay has reservations about contemporary music arising from technology. He refers to a “magpie culture” in which young producers freely raid – and sample – back catalogues. For this reason he favours reggae over dubstep. It’s authentic.
“[The music is] becoming increasingly derivative, especially from the dance end, which creates its own problems,” he says. “But, in saying that, on the live side, there are some interesting young musicians, singers and bedroom producers who are doing great things and should be encouraged.”
Jay has long fostered Britain’s urban artists, who struggle against American exports. Still, he’s critical of the UK hip hop scene and its tendency towards “infighting”. Ultimately, Jay doesn’t believe in privileging music according to its source.
“I don’t really care where the music comes from,” he says. “If it does something for me, then it’s right. Its origins are of little consequence. Sometimes, in my early days, yes, I did used to try to champion UK music, but I just thought it was futile. I like music.”
Jay briefly worked at Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud in A&R, but he’s never been a recording artist. And he’s not about to follow that route.
“If I’m honest, that’s not something that’s really interested me,” he says. “I’ve dabbled with it over the years. I don’t claim to be a Mozart or a Beethoven.”
Jay is content to DJ, and be regarded as a clubbing icon, his lifestyle documented in Good Times – The Film. He actually inspired a Lenny Henry character, his pirate radio jock. “I’ve known Lenny for a good many years,” Jat says. “Back in those days I suppose we were providing inspiration for each other. I was a rising DJ star and he was a rising comedian – so why not- People take their inspiration from the strangest of places!”
These days Norman Jay, the people’s DJ, enjoys playing the occasional exclusive event – such as a fashion show – as it enables him to diversify and conjure a different “soundtrack”. He gets off on a challenge.
“It’s all too easy just to be a club DJ,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. Anybody can do that.”
At any rate, Jay is returning to Australia. He has fond memories of past visits. Significantly, the crowds here appreciate his music. Nonetheless, even a legend like Norman Jay admits to being fallible.
“I try to please most of the people, most of the time. But I won’t claim to please all of the people all of the time.”
Jay isn’t ambitious. “I s’pose my greatest ambition is to stay in the game,” he reflects. “I’m just a simple man with simple tastes. I just want to continue to enjoy what I’m doing – and I hope the crowds continue to enjoy what I’m doing. If there comes a point when the crowds are not enjoying what I’m doing, then maybe I might look to go and sell hamburgers or sell insurance.
“I’ve still got the passion for it. My passion for music will never diminish. If anything, it gets stronger as I get older. I love it.”
WHO: Norman Jay
WHAT: Plays Playground Weekender, Del Rio Resort / Good Times at theLoft, King St Wharf
WHEN: Friday 7 – Sunday 9 March / Sunday 23 March
MORE: playgroundweekender.com.au / theloftsydney.com