We caught up with the king of Carnival before Funkademia’s 13th birthday party and ask - is Norman Jay MBE the most upbeat DJ in the business?
When we heard that Funkademia had booked Norman Jay for their 13th birthday party, we were surprised. After all, this time last year we sat in The Cornerhouse with Funkademia founder Dave Payne, as he told us that they decided against booking big DJs because, “Funkademia has always been about local Mancs coming out and having a bloody good dance to great music played by local lads. That's the thing, the ethos. The regular DJ's we've had over the last 12 years have been doing it so well, why push them out for some big DJ?”
But Norman Jay isn’t just ‘some big DJ’. He is one of the most influential British DJs in history. He is also, as we discovered, one of the most positive thinking DJs we’ve ever met. Nothing seems to phase this guy – and, with a pedigree that stretches back to the early 80’s and acclaim for introducing warehouse parties, raves and house music to British clubbers, he’s got a lot to be happy about. “I was born lucky,” he says, when we ask him to think back over his career, “Born under a lucky star. I’ve been fortunate that good things have happened to me.”
He may be lucky, but he has also worked hard to get where he is today. His full title these days is Norman Jay MBE, after the Queen awarded him the honour in 2002 ‘for deejaying and services to music.’ Ask him about it and, as we found, he still chuckles. “I thought it was a gameshow prank. I didn’t take it that seriously until the telegraph arrived with the royal seal.”
The Norman Jay story starts back in 1980, when Norman and his brother Joey decided to get a soundsystem going at Notting Hill Carnival. They got some second hand gear together and built their own speakers – bringing down the ceiling in their house during the process. “That was back when we were learning our trade, trying things out,” remembers Norman. “The ceiling was old anyway but my old lady went absolutely crazy. My dad was quite sympathetic, he was cool about it. We got the roof fixed and we laugh about it now.” Carrying their gear through police cordons in their dad’s Ford Cortina, they gave the occupants a tenner for electricity and set up at 37 Cambridge Gardens.
Those low-key beginnings saw the birth of Notting Hill Carnival’s biggest party. “We never really followed any musical trends,” he explains. “We just did our own thing. I suppose we were just fortunate to tap into the mood of the moment – a whole generation of kids, London kids especially, who were coming to Notting Hill Carnival had grown up with us and liked our attitude to parties. It grew from there, really.”
It hasn’t all been as easy as that, though, especially in the early days when Norman and Joey faced down a lot of hostility to what they were trying to do. Thinking back on it, Norman stays cheerful. “There was a lot of hostility. A lot! But that was half a lifetime ago. Attitudes have changed since then. The satisfying thing now is that we went through that incredible baptism of fire back then and we’re still going. It’s survival of the fittest. We’re here today thanks to the tenacity we showed all those years ago and a never say die attitude.”
Since then, Norman has become one of the biggest pioneers of black music in the UK, bringing soul, funk, disco and later house to audiences. We asked him if he agreed with Estelle when she said that black musicians still fight to get the recognition they deserve. “With all due respect to Estelle, it’s the old line trotted out by everyone as an excuse to why they don’t make it,” he says. “It’s a personal view, but I think it’s difficult for everybody. It’s not just hostility towards black music. It might appear to be easier for some people and more difficult for others, but we all have to make our own luck.”
As a pioneer, we ask him about that elusive ‘next big thing’. But Norman insists that he’s never followed trends. “I just follow my own instincts. If it happens to coincide with how the mainstream are thinking at the time, fantastic. I flirt with the mainstream but I don’t swim in it.” Does this, we ask, mean that he believes the key to longevity in this business is to ignore trends? He thinks for a moment. “Different people want different things,” he finally says. “People who go clubbing aren’t robots, and the world would be a really boring place if everyone liked all the same music all the time. It’s fantastic that we have the choice. We’re very fortunate. In other parts of this planet, they’re choosing between a glass of water or food to eat. They don’t have a choice. We do. The fact that we’ve got choice means that we shouldn’t be squabbling about music. We should be out there enjoying it.”
This attention to the plight of the less fortunate will come as no surprise to his fans. He recently posted a blog entry on his website, telling fans to listen out for news on the Good Times Charitable Foundation. Asked about it, he says, “It’s in the early stages yet but it’s something I’m seriously looking to do. In recent years we’ve done a lot of charity work under cover. We don’t really want to profit form it or get lots of publicity from doing it, we just do it when we get the time because it’s the right thing to do. We already do huge gigs a couple of times a year and raise several thousands of pounds for various charities. Now we want to consolidate that and do a charitable foundation.”
Moving back to the music, we mention that we’re looking forward to the Funkademia 13th birthday party. But before we can ask him what he thinks of the city, he jumps right in. “I love Manchester. I don’t like the football teams, but I love the city,” he says. “I come up to Manchester a few times a year. Sometimes I come up to do house gigs, sometimes funk and hip hop and old school gigs, but no matter what I’m playing, the crowd always gives me a lot of love. I really appreciate and thank them for that.”
We ask what to expect from his set and he says, “Expect the unexpected, quality and a real feel good factor around the place. I hope lots of girls turn up because there’ll be loads of great music for girls as well. I don’t want it to be a boys only, head-nodding session for anoraks and geeks. I want a party atmosphere!”
And no doubt, so will Funkademia. In many ways, the pairing of Funkademia and Norman Jay MBE has the potential to be one of the most upbeat and feel-good nights we’ve seen. Both attract a hail-fellow-well-met crowd, both embrace eclectic, soul-drenched sets and both have a feel-good factor that will keep you smiling for days.
Words: Claire Symonds
05/11/2008 by Johnny Vegas
Excellent interview, can't wait to see Norman this Saturday
Rated 5 out of 5