Norman Jay M.B.E Interview.
The Dapperest DJ Don Dada
Over the last three decades, Norman Jay M.B.E has remained possibly the most Dapper of all Don Dadas, with his CV reading like a who’s who of British youth and music culture.
With his roots in the Skinheads and Mod movement of the early 70s, the hat wearing, Raleigh Chopper riding Maverick brought sunshine tinged good time funk to the reggae sound system, dealing with the great tribulations that sound-tracked black British kids in the wasteland that was Maggie’s world in the early 80’s.
He helped take Kiss FM from legendary pirate to the legal voice of London’s airwaves, worked for Talkin’ Loud records, ran epic club nights like ‘Shake & Fingerpop’, filled warehouse parties, and brought the legendary spirit of ‘Good Times’ to masses of funk lovers around the world. Not bad for a bloke that used to do the admin for porridge maker’s ‘Quaker Oats’.
I first became aware of Norman Jay in the summer of 88, when the Bad Young Brother that was Derek B ( R.I.P) have him a shout out in his 80’s London anthem ‘Get Down’, and the Rare Groove scene was coursing through the veins of dancefloors up and down the country.
Fast forward nearly thirty years; I saw him play the most excellent Funk The Format festival in Hove in May. Just as the sun was coming down, I glanced around and saw thousands of people, eyes closed, dancing and utterly caught up in the perfect summer moment as Norman Jay MBE played classic after classic… Safe to say he is my sort of DJ.
When The Hype Met Norman Jay
Let me just take you back to Notting Hill in the 80s and the sound system culture. How much resistance was there because you were bringing something new?
The sound system was originally called ‘Great Tribulation’. That was run by my brother, and I decided the carnival needed to have a bit more soul and funk. We’d continue to play the reggae, but I’ll come on, and I start to play jazz-funk, disco, early hip-hop and electro. I was young, innocent, naïve, wide-eyed and then I am trying to play all this music to a predominantly reggae and soca crowd, you know roots reggae crowd.
Roots reggae, Lovers’ rock and Calypso were the soundtracks back then. You see in the 80’s Britain was a completely different place, wasn’t it?
There was so much resistance from the reggae crowds because I didn’t have dreadlocks – I was a soul boy. I was into the 2-Tone thing and the Mod revival. I was playing music totally at odds with the Afro-Caribbean Festival. But we won in the end.
Okay, so back then you said the two-tone thing so what artists and DJs were influencing you?
Well, I wasn’t influenced then because I’m the kind of the first wave of club DJs. So there was nobody really before us, I just followed my instinct and made up the rules as I went along because I didn’t have any DJ icons to speak of. I knew a few and heard of a few, but they weren’t icons because in those days we didn’t have that kind of connection with America that we have now. America was this far off place and occasionally these DJs made much sharper records, but that was only connection that you had. My impression was slightly different because I was going to New York and going to their clubs but again I wasn’t kind of schooled by the DJ. That’s a uniquely a British thing. I loved the music that was being played – it didn’t matter who was playing it, so long as the music was good and it sounded right.
You were travelling around a lot; you’re a Spurs Boy. How did the football fit with the music scene?
They were odds at each other; I also liked both. It was a reason; I had two reasons to go to a city because I was an avid reader of ‘Blues & Soul’ and ‘Black Echoes’ magazines. I was reading about all these clubs years before I managed to visit them and I kind of guess it was my clubbing bucket list, one day if I have wheels, will or have means I would travel to these places but I didn’t really want to go up there overnight, because of the kind of obstacles like the cost of getting there. Easier to go to football in the daytime, lose yourself in the evening and make yourself scarce. It was easy for me because I didn’t drink so it meant I didn’t need to go near any pubs where there was potential flash points or places like that, so I just kept away and would quietly amuse myself until the club opened.
The northern stuff… how was that for black Londoners coming up to a potentially white northern crowd?
I felt at home because I’d been reading about these places for years before I went, I didn’t just go up there on a whim. I’d always planned somehow to get to these places like Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca ‘cause I was a fan of the music first. I found that when I got to those places, I instantly met up with like-minded people and all my fears on the North/South divide thing over the football, which was pretty bad in those days. I had no problems at all even though on most of the occasions I went there I was probably the only black guy in the place, but it didn’t make a difference to me because the people were so warm, friendly, welcoming, the music was fantastic.
Take us back to when you and Gordon (Mac) launched Kiss FM first. Tell me what that was like?. When was the moment you thought ‘ We’re really on to something here‘, we are the voice of London, this is magic’.
Well, that would have been the second time we’ve acknowledged and accepted the amnesty to come off the air. The Home Office offered us an amnesty by coming off the air for a year or two then they would look favourably at our next license application, and they put that out to all the other pirates operating at that time, but we complied and stayed off the air.
Was that difficult?
Yes, it was in the beginning while other pirates were continuing but we kept our eye on the prize, it was the biggest prize at stake for us.
It’s a very brave decision though isn’t it? Because you were working with ‘The Man’ But did you actually believe them, or think they were just going to set you up?
Well, the first time around so this was the second amnesty, the first time round they reneged. So all the pirates just came back on. We treated the second time with scepticism, but this time, we were in a much better all-around position with our application – both financially and with a business plan, We were in a much better position the second time we tendered our application.
You think you grew up and learned some lessons?
Well, we did, but it’s just easier to comply than not to comply by going on air after they’ve warned us not to. Then you’d have no chance.
When the defining moment when you decided ‘I can make a living, I’m going to make music my life’?
I don’t know, it was probably before the radio for me, it was always a hobby, I always made my living as a professional DJ and running my own events and clubs and obviously doing things as large as Carnival. I never take it for granted really I just think one day I’m going to get a proper job.
How were your parents then?
My parents are both excited now, but they always backed us that was the most fantastic thing. Even now at nearly eighty-five, my father occasionally rocks up at gigs completely unannounced. He’s a well-known figure, especially with all of the black security in London for years, they all knew him and still now occasionally he might even be there at Paradise tonight because that’s local to him.
You stayed consistently Dapper over the last three decades, so what’s the Norman Jay secret for drinking in the fountain of eternal cool?
No there wasn’t a secret, I don’t swim in the mainstream stuff. It’s having an understanding of the British sub-culture. The British have been part of for a long time, new or emerging fashion areas or statements I’ve always been on that one, I was too young to be a Mod in the Sixties, but I was old enough to be, just old enough to be a Skinhead at the beginning of the Seventies. I was a Suedehead, I was a Soul Boy, I had first generation Punk, I was an original Jazz Funker. I’d been everything except being a New Romantic.
So were you a B-boy as well then?
In the beginning long before they were. I was a bit of a dancer. I used to dance on roller skates. I used to put on roller skate jams on Sunday afternoons in Hyde Park. I’ve still got my original BeatBox that I used to do my tapes on.
That must be worth a few quid now isn’t it?
It is. I had one, and my brother had one. My brother sprayed his all up, and his mate. Graffiti’ it, but I left mine in pristine condition. So I rarely used to take mine out.
How old is he compared to you then, was he older?
No, no, this is my younger brother. But my older brother was a Rastafarian, and I was a Michael Jackson want to be, I had an afro. I wouldn’t cut my afro for anyone.
Alright, moving on a little bit. So you were a Mod. How do you stay looking Dapper, what your style secret?
I’ve always loved clothes, and I’ve never been a follower of fashion. Classy, English working class styles, street styles. I hate baseball caps; I’d never wear a baseball cap. I wore a one in 1980 – long before most people in England. I’ve always loved hats, as you probably know, but it’s just that attention to detail and being smart – working class smart. That comes from the Mods, the Skinhead or the Suedehead look that doesn’t leave you does it?
No, you’re one of them for life, it never leaves you, and I could never do a show. I love proper suits, proper shoes and very good hats. I’m a vintage guy as well, love the fifties, sixties, seventies, clothes, original one pieces.
“It’s an attitude, a state of mind. Why be a pound man when you can be a two-pound man?”
How do your kids take that when they were young? Where they embarrassed of you?
No, no that was excellent, my boys, when they were young, were always made to feel, and kids are like sponges they watched, they learned you explain to them, good over evil, what’s right and what’s wrong and you just explain.
Isn’t it the stage of being a teenager to rebel against their parents?
Of course, but this rebellion manifests itself in different ways. Kids often do drugs, some go off and do whatever that they need to do, but core values are instilled whether they know it or not. Of course, you just got to allow them that space. So long as they think that rebelling that’s fine, they’re not, and when they grow up, they eventually realise that they actually become the very thing they once rebelled against.
Is your dad Dapper as well? Is that where you think your sense of style comes from?
No, I didn’t get it from him. Mine was from the peer group of the kids I hung out with and so I’m a child of the Sixties, and I remember the Mods always looking smart and thinking when I grow up when I get a job and leave school ‘I’m going to look like that.’ I’m going to be as smart’ As kids, we were always made to polish our shoes. As young kids my Mum and Dad made us do all our ironing, it’s just a Caribbean thing; if your trousers need turning up you learn to turn them up yourself. If a button comes off your shirt, there’s the needle, there’s thread, do it yourself.
Going back to what you were talking about littler earlier, you going over to New York so you’ve watched the ‘Get Down’ so how do you think that portrayed given you as an English kid going over and seeing it, it is true to life?
It was something; I aspired to I never thought I’d go to. America might have been Mars remember in the seventies people were only just beginning to cross the water to go to Spain. I was unemployed, in the winter of discontent, I had no job, I was made redundant, and my family was thinking about emigrating to America in the mid to late seventies because all my cousins were there, they were born there. The future of Britain looked bleak, but my mum said that no, she wasn’t bringing the kids there but I being the second oldest and all I means you go and have a look, I spent six months there.
I was in New York. I had family in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens, all over. So to go there in 1979 when hardly any kid of my generation have been to America in those it was the murder capital of the world, it was the first time I’d been or seen or been to Black Ghetto was when I went to New York.
How was that compared to Notting Hill at the time?
England was almost Victorian. We are closed on Sundays and half days on Wednesdays. New York then was like a Mecca, all the music producers, everything I ever read about black music seemed to emulate from New York or Chicago or LA.
You have cousins around the same age I take it. Did they go to the block parties?
My uncle used to run, in the late seventies the largest soca and calypso sound system in Brooklyn (The Doctor Wax Road Show) and every Labour Day in New York it’s huge. Millions turn out all the way from downtown Brooklyn it’s like a parade/carnival, it’s like the Afro-Caribbean, there’s a huge Jamaican, Cuban, Haitian, basically all the black people and Hispanics have this huge, huge thing. Four million people were attending. My uncle used to have a float and used to own a club; he ran a really successful Soca Calypso Caribbean Club in Brooklyn for about twenty years.
Well, so apart from Good Times and the MBE what’s your greatest achievement? And what did it mean to get a shout out by the legendary Derek B?
Well, that’s just one of the great moments. Derek and I were best friends from the early eighties, and I mentored him in many ways because in him I saw a young Norman Jay and we hit it off immediately. I used to get records for him because I was going to New York all the time and I had the knowledge, and he had the skills. So we DJ’d a lot, we put on a lot of parties together, and I was properly, properly moved and saddened when he passed.
He was the man that broke the mould didn’t he? He broke the barriers, he was a major influence for me because that time when I met Derek probably about eighty-one or eighty-two, he was young, still at school or just at College. He was a young kid, and he was a warm up, he was the warm up DJ Froggy at a notorious club run by a proper East end ‘Chap. Froggy used to be the main resident there, and Derek was his warm up. Derek was given his own night he became too popular to be a threat. So he did his Sunday nights there, and I helped him by bringing my sound system there because Froggy would let him use the gear on Sunday.
Well, then he had to turn to his street pals which were people like me. We’re like ‘Derek you need a sound system then we’ll bring more Good Times in there’, and in no time at all, it became like London’s biggest night by a long way. The queues were round the block on a Sunday. Because Derek was one of the first UK DJs and to be mixing and scratching on a level straight ahead of everybody else. He’s the nicest guy you could meet, and we worked together a lot, he actually got his recording deal, did the track and named checked the people who helped him. Derek encouraged me to learn to mix, even bringing his kit around to my house one day.
I was like that on the decks; I could mix straight away, not perfectly but if I could do the mix in my head I could do it right. That made people dance, and I just realised that I had a knack for getting people on the move.
‘I’ve always said this to all young DJs, make friends on with your dance floor as quickly as possible.’
So what would the tracks be then to get Dads on the dance floor?
It doesn’t have to be anything obvious, the more obvious the music, the more engaging it is to the audience and without short of being and again only blokes used the word “cheesy” and girls never do. I like to call it accessible I think the thing that people remember or know, that pushes the nostalgia button and then once people trust you, I’ve always maintained, I’ve always said this to all young DJs, make friends on with your dance floor as quickly as possible. If it means putting on something obvious then, I never really followed the kind of subsequent DJ etiquette in that regard I came before that so as far as I’m concerned, those rules don’t apply to me. But with my background, where I come from you had all day or all night to master all the genres you wanted to play.
You can say a lot about Norman, but he really is a one-off. He doesn’t seem to need to follow fashion or do things for the cash. He is a DJ of the people, for the people but mostly just for the music.
Make sure you check him out as he due to bring Worthing to an absolute roadblock on the 24th Sept at St Paul’s. Get your tickets now >
So what are your favourite ‘Good Times’ type dancefloor fillers?