The Good Life – A chat with Norman Jay MBE
Legendary DJ Norman Jay MBE brings a full slice of Notting Hill Carnival to Sheffield with a Good Times set at The Harley's Reminisce This on Saturday. Crossing genres from soul and disco to sixties pop, funk and more, Good Times brings together the best of a head spinning multitude of genres to heaving, friendly dancefloors, streets and buses around the world. But we were just as excited about chatting Choppers and youth culture with the DJ on the Hill…
Exposed: Hello Mr Jay! You’re coming to Sheffield for Reminisce This at The Harley this Saturday. Do you get up here much?
Norman: I used to play at Leadmill and Gatecrasher but it’s been a few years. Sheffield's always been good to me though. I haven't been up for a few years but I used to know a few of the boys from Warp Records back in the day.
It’s a good night, Reminisce This. Lots of lovely danceoffs from breakdancers and the like. Is it difficult to keep your moves fresh when you’re behind the wheels of steel?
Ah I don’t dance anymore! I just DJ.
One of Exposed’s freelancers – and In Session producer – Amy Bbellin (sic) is on straight after you on Saturday. Any advice?
Just go there and be Amy! Do not try to be anybody else. For better or for ill I think people appreciate it if you’re yourself.
Do you get nervous?
Nah. I was a DJ at Notting Hill carnival long before I played festivals or anything like that so I was well trained and prepared. I learnt to DJ outside on the street. I've spent a lot more time not being paid than being famous!
Is there stuff you miss from playing to a bunch of friends on basement soundsystems?
Nah. I do parties, I do clubs, I do festivals. I spent a couple years doing the closing party at the World Economic Forum! And I did all the stuff for the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics. They’re all different and you have to have a varied approach for all of them but the thing is to treat your audience with respect and try your best to entertain with whatever means or music at your disposal. That’s my outlook.
You've worked across a ton of genres, haven't you?
I guess it’s the eternal search for the perfect beat. What unites us in our love of music is the process of discovery. That’ll never wane. No matter what it is you’re into, if you’re passionate about something the only way to have a history is to create a future. I’ve always understood that.
I love the blog posts on your website. They feel like they're from the heart and they're a great insight into the life of a DJ…
Yeah, I enjoy them. I'm really lazy though! I love writing but it takes me so long. I'm one of those one finger typists. It takes me ages to do so I stray away from doing it.
Did you pick up writing skills when Kiss was pirate and it was all hands on deck?
Well I always had some interest in writing, but I'm not that well read particularly. One of my main interests – my lifelong interest – is British working class youth culture. Music, fashion, the arts, the rebellion, creativity…It's fantastic and you don't get it anywhere else in the world. I mean, [the blog's] just based on observation and experience and maybe I'm not the best person to articulate it. I'd like to write a book but I can't do that one yet cos I'm still living the dream!
Reading your chat with The Guardian the soundtrack to your life your Ska-influenced upbringing really reminded me of This is England, which is filmed and influenced by Sheffield. You like?
Yeah! I'm a huge fan of all of that – wannabe mod, ex-skinhead, ex-suedehead, ex-soulboy, ex-rudeboy. I've been everything! My wife's a first generation punk and we share the same interest in the evolution of British youth culture. I'm an old mod, ride a scooter…
Well I wanted to ask you about choppers as well. Don't you collect them?
Noooo! I don't collect them, I have a collection. When I was a kid I always lusted after a Raleigh Chopper cos I could never afford one. They cost more than my Dad earnt in a week! Then twenty years later I see one in a junk shop in bits, buy it off the dealer for next to nothing, put it all together – and realised a childhood dream. By then my kids were small so I gave it to them and my interest grew from there. I was travelling hundreds of miles a week as a DJ and I'd pass through these small towns, find a local bike shop and they'd be chucking these bikes away!
It's the same as with records. We're a nation of self-confessed keepers aren't we? Self-appointed curators. I hate it when they knock down old buildings, sell off old buses and postboxes and what have you. I think in the north of England they've managed to hold onto a lot of things like that. That's one of the things I love when I travel up north to Liverpool or Manchester or Sheffield.
You know, where you're playing at The Harley is at the end of the road from Broomhall, which has a great afro-caribbean community. Friend was telling me about all the parties she used to go to in the basements along Brunswick Street in the seventies and eighties. Huge soundsystems!
Yeah, where I was in the Grove in Notting Hill, you'd go round people's houses and that would be your first experience of music, of partying and going out.
Does the city you're playing in influence your set?
Well I used to do the back room at Gatecrasher and there I'd play more soulful, more disco, more vocal-led stuff, while Paul Van Dyke and Judge Jules were banging out the techno next door. But then I'd play at Love2Be which was big, epic breakdowns – not too many vocals. As you get to know regional people's tastes you start to cater for that a bit more. But obviously give a bit of yourself as well.
Good Times is the best of what I enjoy, what I play at carnival, what I used to play on the radio. It's meant to be a potted musical history of where I've been, where I'm at and where I'm heading.
Are there tracks that've been there for years? That you can't leave at home, no matter how much you try?
Yeah! From sixties northern and sixties pop – which is what I love – right through to now rom obscure northern and RnB, to Motown and Stax, through James Brown Funk Era and Philly, through disco, through eighties and electronic. A mixture of electronic and analogue music basically. It's like the ingredients of a really good cake! The notion of just doing one thing all night long fills me with dread. I always know a handful of people in the crowd so as far as I'm concerned I'm playing to my mates. Audiences are friends and family.
That makes it sound like a life-long mixtape.
Yeah! That's what I enjoy but it's presented in a way that's accessible to people. With me when I play out these days, always expect the unexpected!
Norman Jay MBE brings Good Times to The Harley on Saturday 16 February. as part of the venue's 28 Days at The Harley eventathon. Tickets here.