“It started with a fascination of records and record players, which after all these years never left me. And somehow, by luck or design I managed to make a career out of it.” Norman Jay hadn’t even reached his teens when he played his first gig. Growing up glued to the radio and deeply passionate about his record collection, he fast became a serial clubber with music and nightlife in his spirit, most nights of the week spent in the club alongside his favourite tunes and his favourite people. We chat briefly about why, unlike his brothers and sisters, picking up a conventional musical instrument never appealed to Norman, who tells me he simply didn’t feel he had the discipline required to learn one. With an admirable sense of pride, he claims his only discipline was being a serial clubber and a serial record buyer. You can’t argue with that.
Norman spent the best part of his youth digging for treasures in Soho record shops, befriending the staff and becoming part of that fascinating music community so many of us feel proud to be a part of. Back in those days, no two record shops were the same. So Norman would dip in and out of stores, stocking up on his favourites of jazz, reggae, hip-hop and house in each one.
Without a doubt, most of us download our music nowadays – it’s cheap and convenient, but of course it’s never the same as having a physical copy in your hands. Norman tells me he never jumped on the download train. Whether it was a generation thing or otherwise, he never gave up buying records, “Even though I don’t play them and haven’t done for years, I still buy records.” He always plays with CDJs and USBs onstage, purely down to the convenience factor, though he often has his sons remaster all his old favourites for him – a sweet thought of sharing music and memories that brings a smile to my face. I can’t help but wonder, and have to question the size his record collection must have reached by this point – but to no avail, “no idea. I’m too old to start counting now!” But it’s fair to say, it’s got to be an enormous, enchanting collection spanning a good few decades of legendary tunes.
Never considering himself much of a follower of fashion, Norman has often been described – and describes himself – as a bit of a ‘maverick’ DJ. But he does try to remain dancefloor friendly when the vibe is right. “I could easily stand it front of any crowd and play stuff they’ve never heard of in their lives and show off. But you have a duty of care as a DJ. My maxim has always been: make friends with your dancefloor as quickly as possible.” That doesn’t mean he’s never taken risks in his work, though. Sometimes things go wrong by accident, and sometimes things go wrong deliberately. “It quickly focuses everyone’s attention when the power switches off or the records aren’t working! It’s the ability to change. If something’s not working, just change it.”
“There’s many young DJs out there that are brilliant, who could still teach me a thing or two!” Norman tells me when I ask how he’s adapted to the constantly changing music industry, and the technology that comes along with it. But he’s totally happy to stick to his roots, never feeling the pressure to keep up with the latest trends – something which earns him a great deal of respect. “The one thing that I’ve always understood, you know, however you try and reinvent the wheel… I know it’ll always be round.” It’s safe to say, people will always dance and listen to whatever comes out of the speakers when Norman’s in charge. I ask Norman about the difficulties that stood out for him the most when he first started out as a DJ, and without a second thought he admits he sadly faced a great deal of racism in the early days – something far too present in those days, as it still is now. But he moves on, “The road to any kind of success is never easy. You learn from the mistakes and you learn from the experiences, which I’ve spent my whole life doing.”
Norman played his first ever Funk The Format festival last year, where we were blessed with incredible weather and an impressive turnout. He tells me happily that it felt like a home gig to him. “There were so many faces in the crowd that I recognised. Brighton and the South Coast has always given me a warm welcome and shown me a lot of love.” And he’ll be getting ready for a huge weekend of partying, playing his very own event Good Times on the Thames the day straight after on Sun 18 June. Limited to 220 people, Good Times is an incredible summer boat party he can’t wait to provide the soundtrack to.
He really is a firm believer that good tunes are merely a soundtrack – a backdrop to people having a good time. He insists as a DJ the most important thing is to consider the people first. “You could be playing the best music in the world – if the people are not feeling it then you’ve got no night – it’s not happening. Or you could go somewhere and the music’s absolutely dire, the DJ’s probably the worst you’ll ever hear but the crowd are going mad. Then you tell me who’s right.” Now that’s something we can all agree on.
Norman Jay plays Funk The Format at Hove Park on Sat 17 June 2017. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch him playing the Good Times on the Thames boat party on Sun 18 June.
Photo © Dean Chalkley