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The Festival Experience with... Norman Jay MBE

Henry Lewis spoke to the legendary selector about his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, memories of the Big Chill, and keeping it eclectic.

Henry Lewis

Last updated: 21st May 2017

Image: Norman Jay MBE

Norman Jay MBE has been an integral part of London's booming music scene for decades now, and is easily one of the most integral parts of a rich tapestry of culture and art that the city possesses.

Beginning by soundtracking warehouse parties throughout the 1980s, Jay earned his stripes as a top DJ by refusing to stick to any one genre, thus becoming an intriguing, and must watch selector.

Throughout his career he has been involved with heaps of influential music events, not least Notting Hill Carnival where his Good Times Soundsytem was one of the most sought after performances of the weekend, with some 15, 000 people party goers at a time touted to have witnessed it in its peak.

Good Times also spawned a heap of discs that celebrate Jay's love for a wide range of music, with funk, soul and house at the heart of them and it's this love of all things musical that means he continues to appear frequently across festival season, igniting raves across the world. Ahead of unique cycling event Eroica Britannia, which comes to Friden Grange in June, we caught up with Norman to get his views on the joys of festival season, football and more.

Hi Norman, how are you?

I'm good mate, apart from a bad back I'm fine.

Did you have a good weekend?

I did actually, both music and football...

Yeah I saw you were down at White Hart Lane

Obviously I had to be there for that.

How was it?

Very emotional, very special. I caught up with a lot of lifelong friends that I haven't seen in decades, everyone made the effort, it was great. Really good. To be honest, the result was immaterial, we weren't going to let anything spoil the day. A win was a bonus and great, and a poor Man United team it has to be said. It was a special day, really good.

Are you quite confident for next season at Wembley?

I'm not confident for next season, it's just a personal thing. I'm really not into Wembley at all and it'll spoil the momentum and we're going to have to start again when we go back. I hope I'm wrong, but it's the most expensive place to go, it's a nightmare to get to and from. I've never gelled with the new Wembley I have to say, I'm proper old school.

So it's one season at Wembley and then you're moving back to your new stadium?

Yeah that's right, we have a year there and then we're moving back. I've already put my marker in there that if Spurs are planning a reopening ceremony, which is quite realistic, I want to be part of it as a DJ. So I've already thrown my hat in the ring for that one if it happens.

And the music part of your weekend, what did you get up to?

I was at the Camber Sands weekender, the funk and soul weekender. Which was not surprisingly good. I did it for the first time last year and it was amazing that amount of people of different age groups, different backgrounds are just into decent black music. The way I play is kind of maverick and a bit schizophrenic, a bit all over the place.

Obviously I've been around for a while, and I loved and enjoyed many different types of black music down the years. From northern up to acid house, to drum and bass and grime. The crowd were really receptive, it was really good. I never plan sets, I'm an emotional DJ, I'm reactionary. Whatever comes out, comes out. Obviously if a certain style or certain tracks are working well and the crowd are really pleased then I'm duty bound to give them more of that. I'm limited by the two hour thing.

You're playing Eroica festival this year as well right, that one looks interesting...

I often wonder how I'm on the radar of these great British eclectic esoteric groups. I don't cycle, but I've always loved cycling. I've got a thing for two wheels, I guess because I own a collection of rally choppers, I own a collection of scooters and I just have a thing for small wheels I guess.

Has that grown throughout your career or is it something you've always been into since childhood?

I guess it is. With the bike thing, with the rally chopper thing - I couldn't afford them when they were new. They cost more than my Dad was earning in a week in his job, they were like the Xbox of their day - out of reach of the common man for a few years until the price came down and bikes were handed down. I've owned a collection for about 25 years and I think my forthcoming album cover is going to be a photo of me at White Hart Lane with a bike. I did a photo session there the other week, a couple of  days before they closed the ground. The club allowed me to go there and do a session, so I'm on my chromes, on my chopper on the pitch.

There's a group cycle scheduled in at Eroica as well isn't there..?

I know but I'm going to have to miss that unfortunately. When my management told me that I was going to be part of this Eroica I thought that's fantastic, I've never done anything like that before and I wanted to get up there in the day and enjoy the ride but unfortunately I've had a death in the family and the memorial is the on the day that I have to play there.

I won't get up there until late at night which means I'm going to miss everything unfortunately. I can still come up and soak up the atmosphere. If they have it next year, fingers crossed nothing goes wrong. I'd love to take part in all the cycling events or at least watch them.

You will have seen a lot of events come and go living in London throughout your life, one of which being The Big Chill...

Well that's one that springs to mind. I wasn't there when it first started in that little pub in Islington. I think I was there from the second or third one onward, at the Larmer Tree down in Hampshire, until it moved up to Herefordshire and was part of its growth. To this day that's still my favourite festival. That was the festival that made Norman Jay as a festival DJ. I've done loads of the smaller ones but with that I went from playing in front of under 200 people who were essentially all laying down in the sunshine with wild geese and chickens running around, to less than ten years later, headlining in front of 30,000 people.

I grew with the festival and the festival grew with me and I managed to form a very loyal fanbase among the chillers. I'd play music there that, not that I wouldn't play anywhere else, but I'd play anything from Hendrix who I really love, to the Small Faces, to James Brown to acid house to drum and bass.

Until then I was just doing all the dance festivals so it was just house and hip hop, which was great. Don't get me wrong I loved all of those, the crowds were younger and more energetic which is fantastic, but as I got older the Big Chill was just perfect for me. I was able to play reggae, slow things right down, speed things right up and not many festivals at that particular time allowed me to do that. I'd played northern to 30,000 people then some rampant drum and bass tune less than two tracks later. 

Some massive acts played there too, any particular performances stick in your mind?

Yeah I saw David Byrne there, he springs to mind, I can't remember - I was always there on the Sunday so I missed the main acts. The story behind that was normally I'd come from a mad house night the night before, no sleep, properly bleached and I'd said "I'll only do Sunday afternoons". By that time, everyone had had their big Saturday night and they'd been pissed up and everyone would be packing up and going home.

I didn't imagine anyone would be there for me on a Sunday afternoon so it didn't matter what I did or what I played and that was my mind set. It kind of flipped on its head and became the main set of the weekend. Sunday afternoon became what I used to call the oral anadin session. A lot of sore heads appreciated it, especially when you're hearing something like Jimi Hendrix or Bowie and the sun is shining. People just get it.

What was your first festival, as either a DJ or punter?

The first festival I went to? it's a difficult one that, I think it would be Notting Hill Carnival. Londoners never went to festivals unless they went to Reading or Glastonbury but carnival has been going on long before those. As a Notting Hill boy that was the first kind of free, street gathering and thousands of people that I can remember. Carnival in the late '60s early '70s and then by the end of the '70s early '80s, I had graduated from punter to participant [laughs].

I bet that was quite an experience...

It was - I had to grow up very quickly let's put it that way, it was a proper baptism of fire. In those days, Notting Hill Carnival was proper rough. I cut my teeth as a DJ there and that was the most difficult and intense, but looking back they were life affirming moments for me there, those crowds were hostile. If you got it wrong, you knew. Your gear would get wrecked, bottles and cans were be rained at you, I've been threatened with guns, knives, everything.

This was in the early '80s, 1980-81, this was post '76 riots and then things calmed down but then the streamer gangs  took over again all through the '80s. Then in '89 or '90 we moved from the epicentre, we moved north and established the good times everyone knows and loves.

I've been fortunate in my career where I've been there with the genesis of events that have gone on to be major and influential.

The first dance festival I played? Creamfields. I played at the very first Creamfields probably in the 90s, with David Guetta believe it or not, when no-one knew who he was.

Was he any good?

He was good actually. There's been many standout moments in the festival trail. One of the standout moments was being the first black DJ to play Reading rock festival. I did it once, I had no idea what I was going to do but a mate of mine thought it would be a great idea for me to play one of the tents over the August bank holiday.

I turned up at Reading and everyone had long hair, looked like goths and it was guitar band central. I thought what am I going to do with this lot? Luther Vandross is not going to be working here. I go in the tent and play the hardest core hip hop you have ever heard, and drum and bass, and they went wild in that tent. That would have been in the early noughties and it caused chaos in that tent and I don't think they booked another dance DJ since [laughs].

Reading is definitely a lot more diverse now though I'd say...

It never used to be, when I went there it certainly wasn't. I got the look , like "this guy, what's he playing?" and I just thought "right". Everyone then started mosh pitting and stage diving, and I thought wow - I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. The more they got into it, the harder and faster I played. Fortunately I had a few drum and bass tunes in my box. Amazing.

Going back to what we were saying before, with Kayne West, Jay Z and Beyonce headlining Glastonbury, these primarily rock festivals have moved with the times a lot more...

When I was growing up that was never happening. It's great to see those acts because they open the door for people like me at those major festivals. 

I think all festivals realised they needed to be more open. When I first played Glastonbury in the early noughties it was very rigid, it was always rock and guitar and very white. I never really felt welcome to anything like that, but I guess these are changing times.

It's been 15 years since you were awarded your MBE - how did that come about?

I have no idea, but the fact is, it did happen. I was the first DJ ever, and I'm very proud of that, to be recognised from the world of our music, from club culture. I think it was down to the many years I did at Notting Hill Carnival, that's the only thing that I can think that has been consistent and it helps social cohesion. We were doing those multicultural things, long before the word was fashionable. At carnival I always encouraged black, white, Asian, Jewish, straight, gay all the style tribes. They were probably all quite fascist in the way the looked at other style tribes but over the weekend, they would accept other styles and enjoy them for what they were or I would tell them off over the mic.

"Don't stare at me if I'm playing a guitar track, because you know I like this, and you know you do too" [laughs]. I guess it's how you present, it's the form in which you present music to people, is how they determine it. I'm honest, it doesn't always work being eclectic, but the best thing that happened to me as a DJ was the coming of the iPod and then once people  were able to put music on shuffle then suddenly it made sense what people like me were doing.

Again it's a position I would never abuse and it's a position I'm really grateful to have attained. Crowds trust me now and I have more license. I talk to DJs all the time where they say "how do you get away with playing that, I'd love to play that style but I'd never play it. Just don't really care - I guess people would appreciate that honesty. I'll be as commercial as I need to be, unashamedly commercial and DJ friendly or I'll be as obscure and anal as I need to be.

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