Norman Jay MBE is no less than a UK DJ icon. A first generation Black Briton born into a Notting Hill-based Caribbean family, Norman first came to wider attention via London’s mid-‘80s Rare Groove scene, underpinned by his ‘Original Rare Groove Show’ on the city’s then pirate dance music station Kiss FM, having initially set out his stall via annual appearances at the Notting Hill Carnival, where his brother, Joey, re-branded his Great Tribulation Reggae sound system to the Funk / Disco / Soul-geared Good Times Roadshow.
Norman’s new book, written under the guidance of ‘Bass Culture’ author, Lloyd Bradley, outlines his remarkable journey and is an especially important testament given there is so little documentation regarding the evolution of the UK dance scene from a black perspective, leaving massive gaps in our understanding of how the Windrush generation and their offspring have served to culturally enrich this country. It’s 6 years now since Lloyd wrote the excellent ‘Sounds Like London’, which charted the rise of British black music throughout the 20th century and on into this new millennium. It was a photo of Norman record shopping that I used as the main image for my blog piece about Lloyd’s book, such is the centrality of his place in this history:
My own writings on the British lineage obviously draws on my first-hand experience of the black music scene and black culture in general, which has allowed me many insights. However, I’m not black, so, despite the crossover, my day to day life was very different and I never had to endure intolerance and insult because of the colour of my skin. I may be able to empathise to a level, but my understanding can only go so far because it wasn’t my personal experience, and this is why a book like Norman’s is so necessary.
Norman’s DJ history is already well documented. What set him and Good Times apart was his pursuit of a more soulful approach at a time when the sound system was regarded as strictly Reggae’s domain. Alongside other black DJs like Jazzy B, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson and the Mastermind crew, he’d help redefine the musical landscape in London, and eventually take his sound and selection global.
His story takes in numerous landmarks, from beginnings – following a New York epiphany – at Notting Hill Carnival and the numerous blues dances / house parties he played at during the early ‘80s. This was before he landed his slot on the game-changing Kiss FM in 1985, where he also became a shareholder, and kicking off his seminal Shake & Fingerpop warehouse parties in conjunction with Judge Jules’ Family Funktion collective, bringing Rare Groove (the focus on ‘70s Funk, which was being widely sampled and looped as a Hip Hop essential in the US) and Boogie (a retrospective London term for the US Disco Funk tracks that first came into the UK on import during the late-‘70s / early-‘80s) to the forefront of the capital’s club culture in the period prior to the House / Rave explosion. This would subsequently inspire Norman’s High On Hope residency at Camden’s Dingwalls, launched at a time when House and Garage were often mentioned in the same breath, Garage being the New York / Newark flavour of what was called House in Chicago, both genres named after clubs – the Paradise Garage and The Warehouse. Norman’s distinctive approach was more on a Garage tip, although that term would gradually slip away (nowadays people might think you’re referring to the later derivatives, Speed Garage and UK Garage), House soon becoming the catch-all.
The ‘90s saw Norman, somewhat reluctantly due to his mistrust of record companies, take up an A&R role for Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label, which had been set-up by the major label PolyGram. He’d also become one of the original residents at Ministry Of Sound and a regular guest at Cream in Liverpool, the venues that spawned the superclub era. In 1993 he moved on from Kiss, which had gone legal in Sept ‘90 (Norman hosting the first show from their new Holloway Road studio), then turned up on BBC Radio London a few years later with his Sunday evening show, which ran until the mid-00s. In 2002, the UK establishment recognised his ‘services to deejaying and black music’ and he was made an MBE – the first DJ, bar those who had been cited for their charity work, to receive the award. From breaking into warehouses to Buckingham Palace, Norman’s journey had been extraordinary.
With his place in the pantheon of true UK DJ legends assured, he’s concentrated on club and festival appearances during more recent years, for which he’s still in great demand, resplendent in his role as ‘heritage DJ’. His long association with the Notting Hill Carnival ended in 2013, but his name will always be synonymous with the event.
All this is of course covered in the book, particularly the cloak and dagger of the illegal warehouse parties that were Shake & Fingerpop’s stock-in-trade – illustrating how the Punk-like DIY ethos collided with the emerging dance culture in London during in the in London during the pre-Rave ‘80s, presenting Norman, and his brother Joey, with the perfect environment to plug in their Notting Hill battle-hardened sound system and bring the party.
Reading the book you’re struck by the fact that he was never someone who stayed within the confines of his own boundaries, it was certainly one of the factors that set him apart. He remembers bus trips around the vastness of London as a boy, taking in new places and experiences. His beloved Tottenham Hotspur, who he started watching as a teenager in the early-‘70s, weren’t his local team, but necessitated a trip across town – clubs like Queens Park Rangers, Chelsea, Fulham and even Arsenal were significantly closer. He’d then begin travelling up and down the country to watch Spurs away matches, taking in further impressions via the towns and cities he found himself in.
He took this same eagerness to explore over to New York with him in 1979 when he went to visit family, checking out various corners of what was the cultural capital of the world back then, and soaking in the new innovations, both in the clubs and on the street – the Hip Hop era then incubating, whilst the Disco / Dance scene, although declared dead that very year by the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash, was returning to its underground roots and soon would enter what was arguably its most creative period. It was in New York that Norman made his DJ debut, playing at a block party with his Uncle Leo, who had his own sound system – Dr Wax Roadshow. It was as a result of this that Norman set his sights on the Notting Hill Carnival once he’d returned to the UK.
All this highlights Norman’s open-mindedness, sense of adventure and willingness to look outside his immediate surroundings for further inspiration – he was never one for being pigeonholed into what others thought he was supposed to be. This refusal to follow the rule book would reap dividends.
When I put together my first ‘Credit To The Edit’ compilation in 2005, Sav Remzi at the record label, Tirk, asked a few esteemed DJs of the time if they could offer their endorsement by way of a quote, which was a great help in promoting the album given I’d only returned to DJing less than 2 years beforehand, so wasn’t really known outside of underground circles, my early ‘80s background and the specialist black music scene I was a part of still very much shrouded in obscurity at that point. I was flattered, yet somewhat surprised by the compliments Norman’s contributed, in which, amongst other things, he described me as ‘a genuine old skool innovator from back in the day’. It surprised me because, as I was ending my DJ career in 1984, Norman’s was just gaining momentum, so I hadn’t reckoned on him knowing much about me, given I was in the North whilst he was in the South at a time that the 2 scenes, although parallel, were very much separate.
What became clear to me was that Norman knew all about the North from first-hand experience, and had been checking things out up here, often tied-in with Tottenham away trips, since the days of Wigan Casino, the Blackpool Mecca and Manchester’s Ritz All-Dayers. It was another example of his disposition to look beyond his own horizons in order to see a bigger picture. I had a similar mentality myself, and was a regular visitor to London in the late-‘70s / early-‘80s, checking out many clubs and DJs, including Crackers in Soho, Norman’s favourite club from his pre-DJ days, where George Power held court, providing a major influence for him and many others. I know that this awareness of what was happening on the other side of the tracks worked to my advantage back home, just as I’m sure it would have for Norman.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Norman’s accounts of going to watch Tottenham, especially a particular match in Liverpool that reads like a scene from ‘The Warriors’ (the cult-classic 1979 movie about a gang from Coney Island navigating the badlands of New York as they try to get home in one piece). It was a reminder of just how rampant racism was back them – racial abuse at football matches has been back in the news during recent times, but as abhorrent as this is, back in the day you weren’t talking about individuals or groups of people spewing abuse, but the whole side of a football ground, literally thousands of people in unison, as Norman personally experienced.
This made me think of my own impressions from going to football matches around that time. Despite being born on Merseyside, I’m a Man Utd fan – this is the result of my older brother, like many others at the time, beginning to follow United in the wake of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, which is at the root of the club’s widespread support, both in the UK and overseas. But Manchester was then a faraway city to me, with nobody offering to take me to a match there, so my early experiences of watching football was going to Everton, either with my father or one of his friends.
I watched a lot of Everton matches during the early-‘70s, who were a top team at the time, and was even taken to some away games, where the boot boy violence would often be going off when we arrived at the train station or bus depot, not to mention in the ground itself. It was the wild west at football back then, the era when hooliganism took a hold. I was at a particularly notorious FA Cup game at Goodison in 1973 when I was 12, where a number of Millwall fans were stabbed, both on the terraces and around the stadium after the match. I was sat in the Gwladys Street stand watching the outbreaks of brutality on the terraces below and, when we left, a few minutes before the end, there were lads openly tooled up heading outside to ambush the Millwall supporters, who would subsequently refer to this as their ‘darkest day’ (this bad blood between Millwall and Everton still exists – an FA Cup match between the 2 clubs only last season resulting in some of the most violent clashes of recent times).
Back then there was no steward, or even policeman, at a football match who’d throw you out for racial abuse, to the contrary they’d probably join in – racism was a default setting for much of the population. These were the years following Enoch Powell’s deeply divisive ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech and ‘send them back’ was the mantra of anti-black sentiment. Nowadays black players make up half of the England squad, but back then there were precious few who managed to break through to the top level, the most high-profile being Clyde Best, the Bermudan-born West Ham striker. The lack of black players wasn’t put down to lack of opportunity, but it was apparently because they were ‘lazy’ (a term that harks back to slavery) or they just couldn’t hack the English weather. So, apart from when West Ham were the opponents, I didn’t hear any racial abuse towards players – simply because there weren’t any on the pitch to abuse. However, where it manifested the most was when the Birmingham clubs (Aston Villa and Birmingham City, plus West Bromwich Albion, which was close enough) were the opponents. Etched forever in my mind is a chant the Everton fans saved for these occasions, fashioned around a cat food advert of the time, which began ‘if you go to Birmingham in the sun…’ and related to what was perceived to be a high black and Asian population in the city – I’m sure you can imagine how the rest of the chant may have gone.
So, given my own experiences, I can well imagine what Norman was subjected to that day at Anfield as he and his friends were led around the side of the pitch and out of the stadium, genuinely fearful for their lives. Liverpool, sadly, has a very racist past, but in more recent times it’s begun to pride itself on the cosmopolitan mixture of people that make up its number, becoming a far more welcoming city.
Ironically, at a time when black DJs were almost as scarse of black footballers, Liverpool had Les Spaine, resident at The Timepiece and surely the most successful black club DJ of his era, before heading to London to work for Motown in the late-’70s – Les, an inspiration for me, was certainly a trailblazer in this area. Norman was struck by the lack of black DJs playing in London during the ‘70s. Apart from Greg Edwards on Capital Radio you’d be scratching your head to name anyone else, unless you included American Boxer Freddie Mack, who settled in the UK re-inventing himself as Mr Superbad, the voice, and sometimes face, behind the more soulful compilations released on the TV advertised K-Tel label. Other notable exceptions were Don Letts, who played Reggae to the Punks at The Roxy, and Mike Shaft, the soul show presenter on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester, whilst the pioneering Count Suckle, who’d played R&B and Ska at Carnaby Street club The Roaring Twenties in the early ‘60s, had gone on to run his own venue, the Cue (later Q) club, catering to an older clientele.
As black footballers multiplied, so, thankfully, did black DJs – the ‘80s, when Norman emerged, providing extremely fertile ground for those determined to make their mark in a white dominated industry in which black music was the main currency. Norman was destined to scale the dizzy heights of his profession, receiving much deserved acclaim for the music he played and the risks he originally had to take just to do this, whilst inspiring the oncoming generation of DJs, both black and white – for it was never about the colour of somebody’s skin where Norman was concerned, but all about how you felt the music.
This is, of course, a continuing story, as Norman’s popularity in the clubs and at festivals illustrates – his current status further bolstered by a welcome return to broadcasting via Soho Radio, with some of his shows archived here:
Mister Good Times, published by Dialogue, is, as they say, available in all good bookstores, as well as, of course, via online sellers.
Discotheque Archives – Norman Jay:
Norman Jay Wikipedia: