Norman Jay Interview: Best Of British

Mark Dale caught up with the London legend for a chat about football, fashion, identity, British culture, youth culture and clubbing culture.

Becca Frankland

Date published: 10th Dec 2015

Image: Norman Jay

Norman Jay is one of Britain's most cherished DJs and most knowledgeable black music enthusiasts. An out and out Londoner, Norman made a name for himself in the capital as a DJ at 1980s warehouse parties and in specialist clubs, playing a mixture of musics including 'rare groove', a genre which his eclectic, lesser known playlists of soul and funk helped define.

He was long associated with Kiss FM in London, first as a pirate radio DJ and continuing when the station went legit, then with the BBC. Further associations with Gilles Peterson's Talkin Loud label and with Strut Records helped cement his reputation around the UK and internationally, the latter releasing brilliant compilations of the music heard at the Good Times soundsystem, an integral part of the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which Norman plays at with his brother Joey.

Norman has also been an integral part of some of Britain's best loved music events having featured regularly at The Big Chill, Southport Weekender and Glastonbury.

He has been active on the UK club scene since the 1970s, when he used to indulge his love of soul music at the famed soul nights of the north like Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino, following the matches of his beloved Tottenham Hotspur that he'd attended in the region during the day.

He also took inspiration from the club scene of New York, which he visited several times in the late 1970s. His experiences helped form a knowledge not only of all forms of black music like reggae, hip, hop, soul, funk, disco and house, but also of the culture and fashions surrounding these musical movements.

As a UK pioneer of DJing and DJ culture, Norman Jay was awarded an MBE in 2002 for his services to music and broadcasting. We spoke to the man himself ahead of his Glitterbox London gig. 

Are Spurs gonna finish top 4 this season?

I'm quietly confident. It's a good, young side, they're gelling and they can only improve. We like what we're seeing over at the Lane this season. A young squad, not just a young team who, if they fulfil their promise, will take us places.

Are you equally as confident you'll be able to keep hold of Harry Kane?

Yeah, until we get enough money for him. That's the reality of football, especially in the Premiership. We all know that. You hold onto him until someone comes along with a bigger cheque book. 

You're a London boy, but it says on your Wikipedia page that your parents emigrated here from Nigeria.

I'm Notting Hill born and bred, but that last bit's completely wrong, so I'm glad you asked me. I wish they'd take that down. My parents are actually from Grenada in the Caribbean. That's caused me no end of grief that inaccuracy. It was written by someone who didn't do their homework, they assumed. 

May I ask under what circumstances did they emigrate here?

They were recruited by London Transport, well, my dad was. He didn't really come of his own volition. The British government sent people from the GPO, the post office and London transport because there was a shortage of manpower and labour. They were actively recruiting in the West Indies from the end of the 1940s right the way through to the late 1950s. 

Do they regard themselves as British now?

Oh yeah. Well, they've spent their lives here, haven't they? So, that makes them more naturalised than most people. Anyone who's younger than my parents can't contest that they're British. 

In Manchester, where I'm from, we also have a large black community and it's also true there that these people, if not the first generation immigrants, then certainly by the second generation, regard them selves as British. Do you think that kind of integration is more difficult today?

Well, we've been here for 200 years. Most people are either ignorant of that fact or tend to forget it. I have relatives who fought for this country in the Second World War, they were ground crew with the RAF. I think the fact that they fought for this country in its hour of need makes them more relevant than perhaps some might give them credit for.

Yes. What I'm thinking about is that it seems more common in the black communities who came here in that time to have this proud sense of belonging. It certainly wouldn't be uncommon for me to go into the family homes of my black friends and see pictures of the royal family on the wall....

Absolutely. No different in our house.

Indeed you'd often be more likely to see a Union Jack on the home of one of your black mates on special occasions than you sometimes would on your white friends. But I don't think you see that as much with people who have emigrated here in more recent years.

Well, there are those that came pre Colonialism and those who came post Colonialism. They're bound to have a different take on things. I think that's the same if you speak to French Africans or Dutch East Indians. Some generations feel affiliated, others disenfranchised. Or feel they don't owe allegiance to anybody. It's where you're raised that counts, not where you're born. 

You mentioned France. Thinking back to football for a second, some of the second generation French football players don't seem to want to go and play for the national side, they'd rather go and play for the country where their parents came from.

It's a choice you make, isn't it? It depends how patriotic or how unpatriotic you feel. It's sometimes a case of where you feel you belong or where embraces you.

There's loads of aspiring young footballers that the national team would never look at, so if either of their parents were born there, they choose to play for Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Some perceive it as an easier route through, others as a chance to play for any international side that gives them the opportunity. In some cases England's loss is another country's gain.

I've got quite a few older friends who remember you coming up from London to go to soul nights in the north like Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca. But in those days you weren't famous, you hadn't even started DJing yet. Why do you think you stood out in the memory of these people?

If I'm really being honest probably because there weren't many black people there at the time. And there were hardly any who travelled to those clubs all the way from London. I knew of Wigan when it began, but it took me four or five years to get there.

I went to Old Trafford and Maine Road before I ever went to Wigan. My first trip to Old Trafford was 1972. Even then I knew there were clubs up there happening, I'd heard of The (Twisted) Wheel. I was fascinated, but it was just before my time.

Then I got my first car in 1977, a Mini Cooper, and I thought, right, I'm off to Wigan. I remember trying to persuade people to come with my to share the cost of the petrol. 

I'd go up for the football in the afternoon and for the clubs and the music in the evening. I remember Spurs being in the second division, the one season we went down, and Blackpool were in the same division. As soon as Blackpool away was announced it was, right, I'm going to the Mecca.

Alongside football, club culture and music you've also always been interested in fashion. I remember seeing you at Southport Weekender one time and you turned up in a nice jacket and what looked like a small pith helmet. And it was baking hot in that room! But there you were, dressed up like that.

Ha! I dare to be different. I don't know if that's the punk in me or the Mod in me but, you know.... Just another marginally Great British eccentric.

You mention punk, Mods and we've talked a little about your past as a soul boy, you've seen a lot of youth movements happen during the time you've been active on the club scene...

And I've loved them. I've always loved groups that dared to be different, to challenge the status quo. There's no fun swimming in the mainstream. The only reason to use the mainstream is if you want fame or money. But if you want fun, you don't swim in the mainstream. 

Of all those youth movements that you've seen, which ones were the best dressed?

Oh, the Mods. I was just too young to be a Mod first time around and by the time the Mod revival came in 79 I felt a bit too old, I'd already had a kid by then.

It's a particularly British thing that I love, something that I've loved about all British subcultures from the Teddy boys onwards, appropriating styles and fashions, subverting them, mocking them sometimes and making them your own. We first did that with clothes, then when we became confident enough we did that with the music. I loved that.

I'm fiercely proud of being British, I'm a patriot and I love the fact that we have a irreverent attitude to most things in everyday life. We have the ability to laugh at, mock and take the piss out of ourselves. That's what makes us great and unique across all the arts, music, fashion.

We dare to fuck with things, play with them and music is no exception. America gave us jazz and soul, but it would never have given us drum n' bass or jungle. Those are uniquely British things. If you think about soul music they gave us the music, the soundtrack and we turned that into a lifestyle. 

There was no music scene in America like here, those records weren't played in clubs. If you went to America in the sixties, which I didn't, but I certainly went throughout a lot of the late seventies, you wouldn't have seen what you saw here.

Black people danced to black music and white people jumped around to white music and never the twain would meet. It's only when we took the music here that it became socially acceptable, it was taken up by the white and blacks, the working classes of this country, particularly in the north. 

I always love the stories of musicians on things like the first Stax revue or some of the original blues artists who visited, who couldn't believe the mixed audiences they would get here or the respect they were shown. I think there was one blues artist who loved it so much he ended up staying and lived in Oldham, Rochdale, somewhere like that, for the rest of his life.

Yeah, I think a few did, PP Arnold being one. A few stayed and made great careers for themselves here.


Norman Jay Live - Notting Hill Carnival (BBC 1Xtra) - 2013.08.27 by Mixdeluxe on Mixcloud


Those mixed audiences we're talking about, you've played to similar ones yourself throughout your career. I'm thinking of places like the 80s warehouse parties you did, your Good Times soundsystem outings at Notting Hill carnival and at Southport Weekender.

They were mixed not only in terms of different ethnicities but also in terms of holding people who had sometimes very different musical tastes. Do you think that's something missing from today's party scene where everything is so compartmentalised?

Yeah, people are kinda polarised again for whatever reason. But I think if you go to clubs that are not in the mainstream I think you'll find that nothing's changed. Black, white, Asian kids, if it's what they like, they're there regardless. I think that's healthy, I love that.

All the best clubs I ever went to, for the most part, have always been mixed. Yeah, I've been to a few black only clubs but, you know, I never found them inspiring really. Same thing at the times when I've been the only black guy to go to a white club. I never felt good in that either.

I come from a culture and a whole lifestyle of going to mixed events, ones where people are there, regardless of ethnicity and other such concerns, but because we have a shared interest in the music. Or the clothes. I love that.

I've always enjoyed that mixed audience the most also. I could never enjoy going to a night where there weren't any women, for example. The best is a good mix of male, female, black, white, Asian, younger, older, straight and gay.

Absolutely. For years I played at predominantly black, gay club in London. For a while I was the only straight DJ who was allowed or able to play in black/mixed gay clubs there.

I've always loved that because there's a level of energy and an edge there that you don't find in straight clubs. You just don't. That excitement, that performance, that sense of theatre and drama, you really don't get that in straight white or black clubs. 

What were your clubbing experiences like when you went to New York?

Again, I was going mostly to mixed/gay nights, full of high drama, excitement and music on a level that I only ever could have imagined previously. I loved it. The colour, the vibrancy, the musical soundtrack. And learning to have fun with the music, people enjoying it.

It was a complete culture shock coming there at that time from the UK, where that kind of British reserve only lifts when you've had a skinful of drink or you're off your head on drugs, amphetamines, spliff or whatever. I don't want to condemn that, I love it. You don't get that anywhere else in the world.

I'm a lifelong teetotaller, never drank, never really dabbled with drugs, never took pills, coke or anything like that. I've had the odd spliff, but never to a level where I've felt impaired in any way. But no one else could have given you acid house culture like we had in this country. 

Do you remember which clubs specifically you visited in New York?

It was a fantastic time. I remember everywhere I went, what records I heard there and who played them. It's a permanent fixture in my memory. I went to Paradise Garage, Nell's, The Tunnel, the rollerskate disco sessions in Central Park on Sunday lunchtimes, I went to black block parties in the south Bronx, everywhere. Proper culture vulture.

I stood outside Studio 54, but never went in. I didn't want to risk getting knocked back. In those days you had to be 21 and a famous face. If you had an English accent it was a passport into anywhere, even Studio 54, but I didn't want to risk getting knocked back for my age.

Even though I was 21 I looked really young for my age and you had to have your papers to prove your age. If I'm honest I had no real inclination to go in. It was the equivalent of The Talk Of The Town in Leicester Square in London, it was naff. It was all about celebrity, before the age of celebrity. I don't buy into that. 

You've been a DJ on pirate radio and at illegal warehouse parties. How does it feel to now be part of the establishment?

Well, I don't really consider myself to be part of the establishment. But it is true to say you eventually become what you once rebelled against. I guess that rings true for me. I guess also that subconsciously I might have aspired to do that without ever realising it.

I dunno, I was just an angry young man then. All I ever really wanted was an equal opportunity and in those days the opportunities were not equal. So you had to go out and do what you had to do.

When you were offered the MBE did you have to weigh up accepting it at all or was it an immediate yes?

Yes, of course. I didn't think twice about it. Why not? I don't hold with any of that old baggage that any recipients of any other awards from her majesty have previously struggled with.

It's your own personal choice and I chose to accept recognition from the monarch of the country where I live and was born. Not everybody has that. It's nothing to do with 200 years of slavery. If you want to carry that baggage with you... I can't affect what happened yesterday. I can only influence what happens tomorrow. 

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