Norman Jay MBE

Posted: October 17, 2011 in DJ

Jazzie B passed me onto Norman Jay. If you’ve ever been to an event where he’s been DJing, I’d put money on you having had a wicked time. He plays music from all kinds of genres but the common theme is that it’s happy, good time music. Some music that you know and love and some stuff that you want to know the name of so you can get it for yourself. My own particular Norman ‘moment’ came a few years back at Notting Hill Carnival when he put on Paul Simon’s ‘Late in the Evening’. Paul Simon at Carnival? Shouldn’t work. But when you heard it loud, all irresistible funky bassline and joyous horns, it just felt like a party.  Everyone around me went mental.

It seems he’s been present at every notable club moment in history, from disco to hip hop to house music and his dedication to getting peoples feet moving resulted in him getting a gong from the Queen a couple of years back. Which makes him the first recipient of an MBE that I’ve interviewed.

PMO – So you know Jazzie B pretty well? Do you remember how you first met him?

NJ – We did a house party together close to Finsbury Park tube. I cant remember the exact year, ’84 or ’85. His sound system was on one floor and my fledgling Good Times sound system was on another floor. I’m sure it was a Sunday night or something and nobody turned up!

We had 10 or 20 people, if that, and about a decade later, when Soul II Soul were conquering the world, I met Jazzie in New York when Keep On Movin’ was number 1 in America. Fantastic achievement from a British band. We went up to the penthouse suite where the record company had put him and we were laughing and reminiscing about that moment. At that time Soul II Soul were conquering the world and my DJ career was at its pinnacle, I was playing at all the biggest spots in New York. Bit of a back slapping thing going on really but it was fantastic – we looked back and laughed. Who would have imagined 10 years on that we would both be living large in New York given our backgrounds and where we’d come from?

PMO – When you started DJing did you see a future in it?

NJ – Nah! It was always a hobby. Most of the time I did it for free and a lot of the time spent a lot of my own money. It was something I loved. Loved clubbing, loved dancing, loved music. Buying records was my drug because I don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke and I don’t do drugs. Buying tunes was my poison.

PMO – If I’m right you’re 53 now. Do you still have that drive when you were younger about music?

NJ – Yeah absolutely. Still gigging several times a week, still playing everywhere around the world. I’m loving it as much as I ever did.

PMO – How do you still have the energy? Im nearly 40 now and I don’t want to go out so much anymore.

NJ – Don’t do the alcohol, don’t do the rock n roll, don’t do the drugs. Healthy eating, a happy home life, contentment, that’s what gives you the energy.

PMO – I saw something on Twitter about a ‘disco nap’

NJ – Yeah! That’s my euphemism for having a siesta. That prepares you.

PMO – We can say that Norman Jay recommends an afternoon nap then yeah?

NJ – Yeah absolutely. Even if your employers are not up for it. Sneak off! Go and have an hour in the park.

PMO – Did you never think about making your own music?

NJ – I did consider it but just because you’re a duck, it doesn’t mean you like water. I realised from a very early age that I was born to make people dance by playing tunes and I never learned an instrument, although I do have regrets about that. I wish I had.

PMO – Do you ever have a day when you don’t want to listen to music?

NJ – Yeah, most days! Most days I don’t listen to music at all. That’s the secret. I work in it, I don’t really want to do a busman’s holiday. Whenever I come back to it I’m always fresh. I have other interests outside of music which helps my head and helps keep me focused. I go to the football when I can, I’m into classic cars, I’m into classic bikes.

PMO – I saw on Twitter that you were looking for a ticket to the Arsenal Tottenham derby. Did you find one? I presumed you were so well connected that someone would sort you out.

NJ – People might presume that but that’s not actually the case. I don’t go out of my way to court footballers or people from that world.

PMO – I read that you did Thierry Henry’s wedding.

NJ – I played at his wedding and I also played at one of Obama’s inauguration parties which is far more interesting that doing a footballers wedding.

PMO – With the Obama gig, did you get to meet the man?

NJ – It was the only licensed club event in Washington that week, all the others were official black tie balls. I was in New York at the time and got a call from a friend who knew I was in the States asking me to come down. I think I only got immediate security clearance because of my MBE.

PMO – It must have been pretty amazing to be in Washington at the time.

NJ – Oh absolutely. It was a monumental time in history. I’ve done a few things like that. I did a closing party at the World Economics Forum in Dallas believe it or not.

PMO – What does that entail? Is that a room full of politicians?

NJ – It’s a mixture of politicians, ambassadors, captains of industry, blue collars, maybe one or two presidents.

PMO – Is that a hard crowd to get moving?

NJ – No, that’s the wonder of drink and I suspect other things as well. Once the networking gets done…networking comes before anything.

PMO – If you play all these all diverse kind of crowds, what’s your preferred crowd?

NJ – The street kids, or everyday people are my favourites. People who are like me and I’m like them.

PMO – Which brings me nicely onto Carnival. I saw the official statement on your website but I think people didn’t really understand why Good Times wasn’t there this year. Was it a crowd safety thing or…?

NJ – It was a a lot of factors.

PMO – It wasn’t one thing?

NJ – It’s never just one thing. I’ve been doing it too long to be affected by one issue. The overriding issue was that I wanted a break. After 30 years I’m entitled to take a holiday, have a gap year.

PMO – I read you comparing it to Glastonbury taking a break. I think you were sorely missed, you and Rampage both, two big holes either end of Carnival.

NJ – Of course…but it was timing as well. Because of the timing, with the police and the authority in that kind of mood, post London riots…I didn’t need it. I was actually glad that I wasn’t around performing in that kind of climate.

PMO – Just to clarify, do you mean that you were uneasy about playing at that time?

NJ – No I made my announcement two months before. We’re living in very harsh austere financial times. People are so used to getting everything for nothing but people have to realise we don’t get sponsorship from Carnival. We have to fund it ourselves.

PMO – It’s not supported by people selling drinks or anything?

NJ – No.

PMO – So that’s a kind of gift from you every year then?

NJ – Yes.

PMO – I think people would have understood your absence more if they realised that.

PMO – You were brought up in Notting Hill.

NJ – Born there, but brought up in Acton. All my immediate family for many years were there in Ladbroke Grove.

PMO – It’s obviously changed a lot over the years, what do you make of it now?

NJ – I still love it, I will always have an affinity for the place. Its almost like an umbilical cord. It’s the area that gave me a platform for my success.

PMO – I get the feeling that there is a lot of money here now and people are sorry it’s lost some of the character it used to have. How do you feel about that?

NJ – One could level that accusation but with Carnival, it’s the only event that people can come to and its free. Whereas Glastonbury, you’re paying a couple of hundred quid or the Big Chill – you’ll pay it. You’ve a right to expect a certain level of staging. At Carnival, every year we somehow muddle our way through to put a show on with no aid, no Boris, no Arts Council grants, nothing.

PMO – How do you see the future of Carnival? Do you think the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea should fund it, do you think Boris should fund it?

NJ – Well they should do because Carnival generates £94m at the last costings. They should redistribute the money it generates – we don’t see a penny of that. It’s almost like they’re putting it on for the benefit of the police! The people who are selling food and drink have to pay a phenomenal amount of money for the licences and 95% of the time they don’t even make enough money to cover the cost of doing what they do. Everybody runs at an operating loss.

PMO – Where does the profit made from Carnival go?

NJ – No idea. It’s Kensington & Chelsea making the money in licensing, it’s the insurance companies who charge sky high premiums for anything to do with Notting Hill. The people who contribute nothing are profiting the most.

PMO – Do you think the future for Carnival might be to somehow charge people?

NJ – Some way, yeah. In the 21st century they have to look at that. We need some new kind of financing. The current model is unsustainable.

PMO – Do you have a favourite DJ? Do you still listen to other DJs?

NJ – I never did. I came before that whole DJ culture. I’m a fan of music. With the greatest respect to my peers, you’re only as good as the records that you play. I’m a fan of the people that make the music, you know, the artists, the singers, the producers. I never really swallowed the whole superstar DJ thing. Maybe its because of my age. I’m the first generation of ‘celebrity DJs’.

PMO – Do you feel like a celebrity?

NJ – No I don’t. I don’t do the whole rock n roll thing, the whole socialite thing. I’m not out seven nights a week. I still love parties and festivals, I still love being with crowds of people who are celebrating music and enjoyment. I love all of that, I live for that.

PMO – You don’t get stopped in Tescos?

NJ – I really couldn’t deal with that. As my immediate family and my lovely partner Jane says to me, I’m fundamentally shy. I’m very quiet, keep myself to myself.

PMO – Presumably you’ve got to meet some of the people whose music you play over the years?

NJ – Absolutely. I’ve had the pleasure of working with just about everyone who has contributed to UK club culture over the past 20 or 30 years, people that I’ve been in awe of.

PMO – Are there still any musical heroes that you’d like to meet?

NJ – Well, they’ve all passed away now! I would have loved to have met Miles Davis, Bob Marley. I’ve met Stevie Wonder. I was really privileged to have been the last DJ to have toured with James Brown.

PMO – Talking to you, you come across as being very content.

NJ – I am, I’m very lucky.  I’ve got friends who have had their homes repossessed, a friend who is dying of cancer.  I’m very content – I get paid for doing something I love.

  1. Pete Holmes says:

    Very interesting interview Lee… good work. Looking forward to the next installment of Pass Me on.

  2. Rob says:

    Very revealing, I’m a big Norm fan and have learned a lot about the man from your interview! Thx

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