On Friday 14 September, Incognito and Norman Jay MBE will be at Bedford Corn Exchange for a one off show. Both Norman Jay MBE and Incognito are inextricably linked to the acid jazz scene and Talkin Loud records, and for one night only, Bedford Corn Exchange will celebrate UK club culture with one of its most devoted proponents.
Awarded an MBE for services to DJing and music, he is currently taking his legendary Good Times party to selected venues around the UK, continuing to convert generations of clubbers to the cause, championing new sounds, yet never forgetting his musical roots, thus guaranteeing nothing but ‘Good Times’.
Clanger editor (and self-confessed superfan), Erica Roffe, spoke to Norman Jay MBE ahead of the show to find out his thoughts on the evolution of clubbing, his favourite musical decade and what his fail-safe floor-filler is. In fine Clanger tradition, the first question had to be…
Bedford Clanger: Ever been to Bedford before?
Norman Jay MBE: I have, but it’s been a long time. We had family in Bedford so we’d visit them.
BC: Is the show part of a tour?
NJ MBE: No,this is a one-off collaboration. Incognito are on tour and so am I and our paths fortuitously crossed in Bedford!
BC: What drew you to soul music?
NJ MBE: My parents played a lot of music at home and I just connected with funk and soul music. I’m a failed musician, really. We had a record player and a piano at home and I gravitated towards the record player because I couldn’t play the piano. As a DJ, you’re the middle man between the musician and audience; sharing your passion.
BC: You were at the heart of the Rare Groove scene in the mid-80s. What was that time like?
NJ MBE: Rare Groove began around 1985/86 and it was a term I coined loosely around records you couldn’t easily get in your High Street record shop. You had to be a dedicated crate digger to find them and for me, the most enjoyable part of the process is the path of discovery of new music.
We ran the Original Rare Groove Show at the Bass Clef in Hoxton Square on a Monday night. The venue held 200 people and it was packed every week. At that time, that part of Shoreditch was a no-go area. It was home to gangs, drugs and prostitution, but thanks to people I knew in the area, I was protected and left alone to run my night which continued for 6 and a half years. At the weekends I’d be DJing at House clubs and then every Monday I’d go back to my roots, under the radar; they were very special nights. [They definitely were – Ed] Despite Pete Tong declaring Rare Groove dead many years ago, it still survives to this day.
BC: How has the changing face of London and the UK changed the music scene?
NJ MBE: London is still the undisputed centre of club culture in the world. It is a creative hub. It is the only city in the world where, however obscure the music you like, you’ll always find someone, somewhere playing it. I play all over the world and nowhere else gets music, club culture, festivals or events like we do in the UK. America gave us jazz and soul music. They gave us a conservative version of these genres and in the UK we f**ked with them and created our own thing. Nowhere else in the world could have created grime, drum & bass or acid jazz. We’re great at subverting.
BC: What part does pirate radio play in your story?
NJ MBE: In most other countries there are heavy sentences for anyone running a pirate station because the government wants to control the airwaves. That’s why I call it Radical Radio. In Britain they essentially unofficially sanctioned pirate radio stations by being fairly lackadaisical about it! When we set up KISS we didn’t have a rule book; we just wanted to play good music. I was responsible for encouraging the DJs to join us and we had Coldcut’s Jonathan More, Gilles Peterson, Jazzie B and Trevor Nelson among others. All sub-genres and black music genres have been supported by pirate radio and it was instrumental in helping club culture thrive.
BC: You’ve been a DJ for four decades. What was your favourite musical era?
NJ MBE: I’d say the 90s and the noughties, when House music took hold. More people were involved; we went from playing in small 200 capacity clubs to warehouse raves to thousands of people from all backgrounds. It reflected the growing multi-cultural aspect of the UK and it’s not possible to go back from that.
BC: Analogue or digital?
NJ MBE: I haven’t played records for years! As a working DJ I’ve always used the latest means necessary; I’m not a purist.
BC: Do you have a set playlist, or does it develop organically in response to the crowd?
NJ MBE: It’s always organic, I never plan how it’s going to go. The crowds that come and see me know and trust me so I can take musical risks. I can be as mainstream as I want to be, and as anally retentive as I need to be – and somewhere in between lies the truth!
I’m a selector, you can be the best mixer in the world, but if you’re a crap selector, you’ll be gone!
BC: Is it hard to marry commercial success with creative integrity? It seems that both you & Gilles Peterson have managed to retain your integrity despite your success. Do you feel like you have?
NJ MBE: That’s because we’ve got no interest in becoming millionaires! Some DJs believe they’re bigger than the music they play. Gilles Peterson and I have never been interested in being famous and we’ve never felt threatened by anyone. I’ve never had a problem working with anyone; I love collaborating.
I’m honest; I’ll jump on as many bandwagons as I like – if you’re into it, just go for it. I’m comfortable playing Northern Soul into acid house followed by an obscure Blue Note record. It’s all good to my ears.
Credibility is borne out of honesty, which is why Gilles Peterson and I are still going strong.
BC: Do you think musicians have a duty to comment on politics – to challenge, to educate & to protest?
NJ MBE: Musicians do have a duty to protest, but they’ll do it in their own time. People are still being oppressed and they’re writing from these experiences. Maybe these songs aren’t being heard but it doesn’t mean they’re not being written. The anti Trump rally [on Friday 13 July, at which Norman Jay MBE DJ’d as part of the march] proved that a huge number of people are engaged in politics.
BC: Has the recent rise in intolerance and racism throughout the UK been evident in clubs when you tour the country?
Not at all. I’ve seen no intolerance. Over the years I’ve DJ’d on the hip hop scene, the house scene, the jazz scene, the rude boy scene, the reggae scene and the Nothern Soul scene, accepted by all musical genres and style tribes. As a black DJ, most of my audiences around the country are 90% white, while in London it’s much more diverse. I’m not judgemental and I hope I lead by example.
BC: How significant was being awarded the MBE?
NJ MBE: It was hugely important. I was the first DJ in the world to be awarded it, and the only one to have been presented the award by the Queen.
BC: Who is your musical hero? Which musical hero were you most thrilled to meet?
NJ MBE: My musical hero is constantly changing, although I’ve been going through an Aretha Franklin phase for the last year or so. I’ve been into her music since 1966 and I always play a track of hers. The hero I was most thrilled to meet was James Brown. I was the DJ on his last tour and he had an incredible majesty and presence. Everyone called him Mr Brown.
BC: Most reliable floor-filler?
NJ MBE: Think by Aretha Franklin. It speaks of freedom in these times of Trump and the nasty Brexit era.
BC: Any plans for retirement?
NJ MBE: I have no plans to retire. I’m currently writing my autobiography which will be out later in the year and I’m enjoying the festival season. See you in Bedford in September!
Incognito and Norman Jay MBE will be at Bedford Corn Exchange on Friday 14 September.
Starting the night off are DJ’s Gian and Mark Russell from 7.30pm
Tickets and more information are available here.