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In Conversation: Norman Jay

Norman Jay is one of the original selectors. Innovative, an impeccable collection of records and all the knowledge of how to throw a good party. In a career dating back to the days when disco tracks were laying down the foundations for the first wave of dance music that was soon to become what is known as house, the Notting hill DJ was there for the whole ride, and couldn’t help but leave his mark on the scene. Having been one of the stars of the pirate radio days of Kiss FM, Norman has come full circle and more than proved his credentials with stints working for the BBC as well as consistently being one of the biggest names on the DJ circuit. As he prepares to bring his selections of rare grooves to Mint Club in Leeds (30th October), we caught up with the godfather himself to get an insight into what it is like to be one of the most respected selectors in the country.

Norman Jay

Could you tell us a little bit about what you have been up to at the minute? Any new projects you would be able to tell us about?
Production wise no, I haven't been working on anything lately. At the minute I've been working on getting some tracks together for a compilation which should be out next spring, but it's mainly events that I’ve working on at the minute. I have one coming up at Christmas which is going to be a boat party on the Thames, we are calling in Tinsel on the Thames, we are also trying to source a venue so we can put on a Good Times NYE party. 

Having been spinning records for well over 30 years now, has there been a particular period of time you enjoyed the most?
I guess the mid nighties to the mid noughties. Probably around 1991 to 1995. There were some great soulful house tracks being made then, the first disco re-edits and some amazing hip-hop. Also it is around then the whole Ibiza scene exploded and myself and some other DJs experienced some of their most successful periods in their career; it was not only a brilliant time to be Djing but to be going out as well!  I was doing my Sunday night show BBC Radio London at the time to which reached up to 150,000 people, I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to play at some of the super clubs of the time likeTthe Hacienda and Gatecrasher in Sheffield. One of the reasons why this period was so good is because the dance music scene became more democratic, a lot more fresh faces were able to make their way onto the scene from the level of being a bedroom DJ, it is much harder to break through now.

What was it that inspired you to take such an interest in DJing from such an early age?
I was a serial party goer and avid record collector, the DJing didn't really interest me because back in those days as black DJs were never really given a shot. Then it got to a point where I was becoming disillusioned with the music that was being played when I was out and I just thought to myself I am buying better records than this, and my own little parties at home are better than the clubs I am going to. By default I found myself doing my own parties. My first parties were great, basically I’d turn my parents’ house into a club for the night and then it quickly outgrew that. I was putting on parties in huge Victorian houses and then it became so popular I started to look at all of the industrial spaces lying empty, pretty much anywhere I could wheel a sound system in and put a generator round the back.

Norman Jay

When you were starting out as a DJ, what was the process you went through to find new records?
I very rarely bought records retrospectively, I always bought new records, I only wanted what was new and what was coming out. I was quite lucky that I never had to go on records buying trips to hunt out old classics like so many other DJs. 

Before the emergence of house music, funk was one of the biggest dance floor genres, where there any funk records you were playing at this time that would always receive a memorable reception?
There were a few timeless classics, no matter what the big genres are of the days there are some tracks that are absolute staples that cross over immediately no matter what type of genre is being championed. There are certain funk tunes that I have played in the middle of a house set for example as well as some disco tunes that I have dropped in the middle of a hip-hop set where the crowd have been forgiving and acknowledged that you are a playing a great tune. A good DJ however will always be able to read the crowd, a good tune should be played out of instinct rather than design, I’m an emotional DJ, I never work out my sets or BPM or things like that, it's all about being a selector.

You started out playing at warehouse raves as well as being one of the most recognisable voices in pirate radio – how did you find the transition of Kiss becoming a registered radio station and being asked to play at some of the top night clubs around the world?
It was a natural progression, I was from the generation of pirate radio DJs who were DJs first and presenters second, it was always the presenters who were trying to become DJs! It was a great learning curve for me, spending 15 years at the BBC after being on pirate radio taught me a lot of discipline, it also teaches you the right way to speak to your audience, properly. You realise you have a much wider audience so you cannot get away with slang. 

Your Rare Groove radio show is held in very high esteem, what was the original inspiration behind starting the show and how did you decide what type of records you were going to play?
It was always completely random, I never picked a set of records. At that time in my flat my records used to be absolutely everywhere and I would just pick up and handful before my show and run out the door and rush to the station. Everyone who worked with me knew I was like that, I do things quickly on the spot which was great training me for me, I function the best in what I’d describe as organised chaos!

At the time of the Rare Groove radio show, were you aware of the impact the Chicago house records that you were showcasing would have on the British dance music scene?
All I knew is that I loved them! But what I did know was when Jungle and Drum & Bass started breaking through I knew that they were going to take things to the next level.

You are behind one of the most famous sound systems that regularly appeared at the Notting Hill carnival – what was it about the sound system you think that drew such a large following?
I don't think there is much better than partying in an urban environment for free. You could have two free days of listening to a great selection of music heard in an environment that no club up and down the country can replicate.

You had plans to expand the Good Times sound system into a festival known as Good Times in the park, however this did not go ahead, do you have any plans to bring back the sound system or to have a second attempt at the festival?
It was hugely disappointing that it could not go ahead, we had worked all year round to put the event on only for it to be cancelled for unforeseen circumstances. I think it would be easier to organise this kind of event outside the capital but it has to take place in London, coming from Notting Hill, along with the sound system, it has to take place there.

Your 12th compilation album entitled Skank and Boogie will be released this coming December, what kind of records can we expect to hear on the album? Is there a particular reason you have decided to compile these songs together?
I am trying to shine a light on an area of music that I’ve always known, always loved and always played that is largely forgotten. I submitted around 60 tracks and it has been narrowed down to about 15. It's a handful of reggae and 80s boogie tracks so the compilation pretty much names itself, Skank & Boogie

Skank & Boogie

You are appearing at the Mint Club in Leeds later this month alongside two master turntablists, Mr Thing and Herbaliser, can you tell us a little bit of what people should expect from the event and the kind of records you might be playing?
It will be an eclectic mix of the Good Times party stuff, everything from 60s stuff right up to Drum & Bass. Whatever the crowd seems to lean towards or gets the party going is what I’m going to be playing!  

Interview by Elliot Ryder

Photos courtesy of Norman Jay

In Conversation: Norman Jay

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