Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Norman Jay MBE: The best of times

Norman Jay MBE
Norman Jay MBE Norman Jay MBE Norman Jay MBE Norman Jay MBE

When I was first approached to conduct an interview with superstar DJ Norman Jay I, of course, jumped at the chance to talk to surely one of the most knowledgeable musical minds on the planet. Norman 'Jukebox' Jay, who's musical expertise is known far & wide and his vast expanse of artist knowledge is almost encyclopaedic + the cherry on the cake is the fact that all the above is recognised with the award of an MBE.

So, not too daunting then! Well it could possibly be IF Norman wasn't one of the nicest people on the planet and if this interview wasn't named '30 Years Of Good Times', I would have called it 'The Reluctant Hero'. Such is his passion, as you will realise when you read this interview, the whole of Norman's life in music wasn't with the aim of accolade or indeed title - it is, dear reader, devoted to one thing and one thing only!… The music!!

Before we get proceedings underway, shall we have a quick (ha, like that's possible) run down of Mr Jay's life milestones thus far… The Dj'ing bug started, although unknown at the time, when Jay (Born Norman Bernard Joseph) was 8 years of age, Dj'ing at his cousin's party. His love of different musical genre grew as he was exposed to the varied tastes of his farther - tastes that would include all the classic soul, reggae, blues and R&B labels of the time, indeed a golden age for most.

As a young man Jay started to make regular trips to visit family in the US, Brooklyn to be exact. Again this proved to be a place where he would witness the progression of many types/tastes in music, including the Good Times of disco. These clubs would, in subsequent years, qualify as some of the most influential in music history and certainly in Jay's life. It was while he was in the States that he was invited to play a block party by a family member - the seed was now well and truly sown… more events were set to follow as Jay would now attract a following all of his own.

Fast forward to his partnership with DJ Gordon Mac, and No.1 ground breaking dance station KISS 100 FM was born from an inspired pirate radio idea. The '80s would also see Jay become a Record Label owner and one of the most respected DJ's in the UK/face to watch out for. As tastes changed, this DJ stuck to his guns and played the tunes he wanted to play - whether true to the type of event he was booked for, or indeed, not! As his ability to read a crowd and mix in different genre + find forgotten refreshing material from unknown/established artists became his calling card.

His brother, Joey, would start his own reggae sound system called Great Tribulation. It was through this introduction (30 Years Ago) via his brother that Jay suddenly found himself able to evolve this Sound System which became better know as 'Good Times' sound system (a name harping back to his disco experiences). I have missed out other stepping stones for this tireless DJ'ing super talent, but I'm trying to keep this interview to a long one - instead of a super long one ! lol …Such is the prolific talent that is Jay. So now to concentrate on the matter in hand, which is the 30th Anniversary of Norman's Good Times, and what good times they have been...

B&S Editor Lee Tyler catches up with said DJ Hero (another tittle I could have used) Norman Jay MBE as he is surprise, surprise on his way to yet another gig - this time in sunny Birmingham! Not exactly globe trotting capital of the world, but it was only Tuesday and this is Norman 'US President's choice' Jay we are talking about, so ANYTHING is possible!

LEE: So how the hell did you pick the tracks to go on this 30th Anniversary collection - it must have been such a job just to whittle it down to just 16 track?

NORMAN: No, no actually, I can supply album titles in the blink of an eye - it's what the record companies decide to let you have, what they can be bothered to find!? But more importantly, how much they charge for it, which decides what goes on albums. Record companies ALWAY try to steer you to the stuff they licence all the time, it's like re-selling the same seconded hand car to ten different people. And if you try to dig out anything fresh, it depends if they've got the resources, or if they know who owns it OR if they can be bothered to find it! Then there's a premium attached to that, or they say they're not gonna let you just licence 'one track', you've got to licence 10 from the catalogue - you've got to buy hem in bundles!? So people don't really understand that - people who buy, or the people like yourself who review the music (I understand Norman!) …"Well, why did he plumb for this, why has he gone for obvious tracks?" BECAUSE obvious tracks are cheaper. And with the declining CD market… it defeats the object of putting on expensive rare tracks, then only going on to sell only five hundred CD's!? There has to be a balance.

LEE: The beauty is with you is, you could probably do them a favour I would have thought. You could pick them (the record company) something that's nice AND cheap, but still good?

NORMAN: It's only a favour if it's selling half a million copies for them! Other than that, unless you're a major artist that is selling a lot of compilations for them… Some of the record companies aren't even sure. For other record companies it's turnover, it means that you're exploiting their catalogue. They are just sitting there and earning them no money, then someone like me comes along and wants to use it and help them make money from it - then the artist can make money from it - some companies are up for that, but big ones like Sony and Universal don't care!? There's no interest at all…

This is the first album where we have been granted digital download on most of the tracks and if you licence a track which Universal or Sony own, they grant you that for a period where they grant it with conditions, or you pay a huge premium for it - so we start with a budget and then obviously have to decide how much of that budget we spend on getting 'this track' against three cheap ones that have been out on comps before…

LEE: You sound a bit pissed off?

NORMAN: No I'm frustrated! Because sometimes people say "it's great Nom, BUT you could have put this well good one on there…" and they don't know what we have to do…

LEE: Looking at the tracks you've selected there is a real cross mix, as per usual for a Norman Jay set - there are some that people know straight away, there's others that are gems and some that are growers AND other ones that people won't know.

NORMAN: Well you've got it in a nut-shell, that's exactly how I compile Good Times - I'll never be all things to all people, but I try to be most things to most!

LEE: Well that's a good place to start! (laughs)

NORMAN: (laughs) Or even something to some people.

LEE: I've seen you many times in Dj'ing action and when I first listened to the album I didn't want to look at the track list - I just turned it up… and up! That's the beauty of it, It was just like standing there in front of you in a club, at The Big Chill etc… I could have told you who put that CD together just by listening to that album.

NORMAN: (Laughs) Oh great! …But that's what I want - it contains tracks that are signatures of mine, which I've played for years and years. It's not necessarily aimed at the connoisseur - The connoisseur you'll never please them, so I don't actively set out to please them. It's about hooking in the younger people who have not heard this type of music before - it's an entry level, a starter point...

LEE: One thing I totally agree with when I look at your biography is the word "tireless", I would even say that you verges on prolific! Your work rate has been nothing short of astounding!! Do you look back on that as time gone - that was that?

NORMAN: Not really, I am all about what I'm enjoying now, which hopefully will be part of tomorrow. That's what really interests me and that's what really motivates me - at the same time you are writing your own history I guess.

LEE: Not just your own, but everyone else's - you've been instrumental in bringing certain genre to the forefront no?

NORMAN: Yeah because I just use the position I'm in to access the people and say "hey, give this stuff a chance!" …One of the things that has happened in recent years is the advent of the iPod Shuffle - suddenly what I've been doing for years, playing mixed genres to one dance floor… The kids are now used to that through hearing the same on their headphones. Now is makes sense to them, so it doesn't matter what went before because the fact that you are into it NOW is what counts - we've won them over!

LEE: On that premise do you wish you were starting your time again?

NORMAN: No, na, na, No - I can't unlearn what I have learned!? It's like anything in life. If you come through the school of hard knocks mate, that's a teacher that prepares you for anything! So no, I wouldn't change a thing…

LEE: So you're looking at your listeners saying, "right, you now get what I've been doing all these years?"

NORMAN: Yeah, but not in a smug way, or in a patronising way - just happy that… It's not everybody who can appreciate things at the same time. Equally, I may be well ahead of the game when it comes to certain records or certain clubs and I'm happy when that happens. But I am the last to get it with certain records, I have always held my hands up about that - it doesn't bother me in the slightest whether, by the time I hear a record, it's a year OR ten years after every one else has enjoyed it. It's what you do with it when you have it is what counts! (hey, that's my strap-line!) I don't care if you don't give me that record up-front, or I am the last to get it!

LEE: Do you still get 'that feeling' when you unearth a gem?

NORMAN: Yeah, yeah, I still do - but that gem doesn't necessarily have to be an old record. It can be something new as well…

LEE: When was the last time that happened?

NORMAN: Errrr …Just recently actually!? (laughs) An old drum and base tune, I was like "where the hell was I when this was going on?" I probably said no to it when it was new. I absolutely love it to death now. I'm sure you are like that as a man who writes about music (well I try!?), certain things you get way ahead of the pack and it might frustrate you that they're not up with it like you are - like other things, years later they go "ahhh, now I get it!" It doesn't matter when they get it, the fact that they get it is what counts.

LEE: Yeah but un-like you, I like being smug when I tell em' (laughs)…

NORMAN: (Laughing)…no, no, no - I don't really care…

LEE: I now what you mean ...So was it at the first Good Times when you thought to yourself "this is it, we've nailed it?"

NORMAN: No, no, it was never that - it was an evolution, never a revolution. It's a gradual process… I guess it would be from the late '70s to the early '80s that it materialised. Prior to that I didn't have any hopes or aspirations of being a DJ, as we know, I was just a music man. "Get Norman to play, he's got millions of records!"

LEE: How many records do you think you've got now Norman?

NORMAN: No idea, I've never counted after all these years and I certainly ain't gonna start now!

LEE: How many rooms full then shall we say?

NORMAN: Yeah, a few lock-ups. (laughs)

LEE: (Laughing) A few Yellow Storage places…

NORMAN: Yeah that's it.

NORMAN: As a fan can I ask you a question…

LEE: Yeah go on…

NORMAN: How do you prepare for a gig?

LEE: I don't necessarily prepare in the way one would imagine I would. I don't work out sets, I don't work out BPM's, I don't work out running orders - I play purely off emotion, instinct and common sense. I have a couple of bags of lose gigging bags which contain - well back in the day they would contain records and stuff and occasionally I may say "maybe I wanna play this at the weekend" and go and dig it out from my music library to make sure it's there, or if I've been record shopping that day then I'll be "you know what, great - this'll go straight in the gig bag for tonight." I never plan it in anyway different to anybody else I guess. Some people are more methodical and meticulous than others… But for me it's pretty much random.

LEE: Upon asking DJ's the same question I get very different answers, some of them like to be fully prepared and others like to put one tune on and see where it goes…

NORMAN: Yeah it's not uncommon, and I've gone on record a couple of times saying that I've turned up to a house gig with a bag full of hip-hop and vice-versa. That's because of being lazy and not preparing. But then I think, that's a very steep learning curve because you still got to bring the same quality to people with what you've got!

LEE: So do you take a few records with you just in case?

NORMAN: No CD's, because my CD bag is so varied anyway, I could comfortably do a two hour set of any type of music I chose - from a '60s northern thing to a drum & base and dub set. All DJ's are different and we all work differently, that's the way it works for me - quite random and I like contact with my audience in more ways, I watch people rather than watch machines. Which is why I don't normally use or play with toys. I'm not doing a down on that at all, it's a preference, a personal choice. I prefer eye contact and human interaction with the people in front of me - OK, I may not be that animated, but a smile is better than a thousand tracks!

LEE: Well, whenever I see you, you normally have someone jumping around you (laughs). So that's probably a good indicator of how much they are enjoying it!

NORMAN: (Laughing) Well I am enjoying it! I am not annoyed about it, it's not a job, even though it is a job - it's fun, I'm really privileged. It's the most fantastic, liberating feeling in the world to express yourself in a way like that.

LEE: Very few people can say these days are doing a job which they say they enjoy, that they enjoy and get a lot out of…

NORMAN: Yeah - yeah, yeah. Even on the worst days, and I do have them sometimes, I still thank God that I am able to do this for a living and get paid for it!

LEE: LEE: Well, if you ever get down, just ring me and I'll remind you how lucky you are! (laughs)

NORMAN: (Laughing) Naaa I'm surrounded by really good family and a close set of really good friends so that's not lightly to happen.

LEE: I'm sure it wont… another question I wanted to ask you… where do you see Good Times going?

NORMAN: Eventually I would like Good Times to morph into a London festival, Good Times In The Park'. Then I can augment the DJ side, championing and giving a platform to young new British bands. Give a platform to young, new British artists or British bands. Not just soul and funk bands, anyone I happen to like - whether they're a Kasabian or a young Dizzie Rascal… Anyone who I think, because it has to be down to me - that have got something really good, musically, to offer. And I just hope to be a position at some point to be able to facilitate that…

LEE: Well that sounds feasible, sounds very possible.

NORMAN: Well it's not at the moment, because you're looking at half a million to even think about putting on a one day festival in London.

LEE: So you don't know the people…

NORMAN: Yeah I know the people but in these austere times… If anyone has a spare half a mill going then tell em' to give me a call!

LEE: Will do (laughs)… well I better get off the phone now Norman and give them a ring!

NORMAN: Well I say this to you know "I love Blues & Soul." In my early formative years Blues & Soul was my Bible, make no mistake. When I turned from fan into 'artist' in inverted commas, Blues & Soul were right there in the beginning, on the case giving Norman Jay support. So I take my hat off to you, you were there to help me in my formative years.

LEE: I appreciate that more than anyone, being the Editor, it's refreshing for me to know that you still feel that way…

NORMAN: I do! I can honestly say that hand on heart that I do.

Norman Jay's Good Times 30 is available from good retailers now. You can also catch Norman Jay in action @Plan B in Brixton (August 27) as part of the mighty House Rules Bank Holiday Special.

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