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Culture, Music

Master of the Rare Groove

by Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 17.09.2012

Norman Jay is best known for making people jump around on the dancefloors of the world, and he’s been doing it for over 30 years. His diverse playlists and wide variety of music styles have led to the urban legend that he coined the phrase, ‘rare groove’. We caught up with the little Englishman and his big record bag in a shipping container above the Puma Yard in London a few weeks back and talked to him about his MBE, the roots of dance music and island culture’s effect on Britain and the world.

Mahala: You’ve been making people dance for a long time now…

Norman Jay: I’ve been DJing the best part of 4 decades. And it’s fair to point out that I’ve spent more years DJing for free as an unknown than I have in my periods of success. But that’s not to belie the success, it’s been a fantastic journey, a journey I’m still living, making, enjoying and most importantly, still have a passion for.

How do you gauge the evolution of dance music over the last 30 years?

Seeing the evolution of dance music, or black dance music, since the beginning here in the UK… I’m a Londoner born and bred, I was born a year after the first race riots that occurred in the Notting Hill area in 1958, and my parents were involved in helping the Notting Hill Carnival grow and get a foothold and grab hold of the national consciousness. And I picked up the baton, I guess, in 1980 with my sound system, Good Times. I went to New York in 1979, at the height of disco, and I had an epiphany, I guess. Suddenly I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do at the Nottinghill Carnival, which I’ve been going to since I was a child, but felt I wanted to add other sounds to the usual Afro-Caribbean mix of reggae, calypso, lover’s rock. But I came up, I mean I was brought up, loving soul and R&B and disco and all these new forms of music and I felt I could bring that to the party. And when I came there in 1980 I basically survived a baptism of fire. I faced intense hostility; all manner of threats. Death threats, knife threats. But I was young, fearless, naïve… I grew up very quickly over that bank holiday weekend in 1980 and learned that it’s not an easy thing to play with people’s emotions, especially when they’re raw. When people are partying, for the most part, they like to party to what they know and my whole attitude to music has made me a bit of a maverick. I like to play music outside of the comfort zone, join the dots, push barriers, take risks. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t. I guess it’s just like sport, there are very fine margins between success and failure.

I remember dancing like a bell-end every weekend in the early 90s when ecstasy arrived in South Africa. We all felt that this was the start of a massive social revolution, but it was really just about losing your shit on the dancefloor…

Well, the whole notion of going out and socialising… music is merely the soundtrack, but it happens to be part of one’s growing up, the shaping of a person can be traced back to the music they’ve enjoyed and been exposed to. Like everything in life music is constantly evolving, it’s a constant learning process. And the UK is interesting because when clubbing first started to take off in the early 60s, the UK’s had an appreciation and celebration of black music since the end of the second world war, when the first GIs were stationed in England and that was broadened by the influx of the first generation of Caribbean settlers from the Windrush of 1948, who brought their distinctive island feel. And that coupled with you know having to live and work in a country that at first didn’t accept them. I’m a child of that era and it really warms my heart to see the way that music in particular has been such a unifying force. It’s the one thing, whether you’re not very good academically, with the modern technology, everyone can try their hand at it. You show me a kid who doesn’t like music. It’s the one universal language. All kids, no matter where they come from, understand and love music. And I feel qualified to say that because my DJing has taken me all over the world. I’m proud to say I was one of the first generation of DJs. I earned my Olympic rings. I’ve played on all five continents.

The perception I guess, to those who don’t spend times in clubs or partying, is yes, there’s a hedonistic edge to dancing and partying and there are some negatives that go along with it. But it has a deeper social relevance and meaning. It enables people to focus, to freely express themselves. I’m not a sportsman, I wish I was, but I was crap. But I found that I had an ability, some might say a talent, to encourage people to dance. And fortunately I was able to make a career out of it. That’s what I do, it’s what I know, it comes as second nature, I don’t get nervous about it, I don’t think about it, whether I’m playing in front of 30 sometimes 40 thousand people sometimes, or playing to 20 people in a little dive somewhere.

Can you explain the role that the UK played in popularising, or broadcasting to the world, what was really ‘black music from the islands’?

The music morphed into something that was completely British and Britain would be very much poorer without the input. You have to understand, Britain, because of where it is geographically and because of history, having the strongest navy, creating an empire… they pulled off an amazing con trick. You think about it. How can a little country that is 800 miles from one end to the other, control (or some might say ‘enslave’) two thirds of the globe. It was an amazing con trick. Certainly didn’t have enough people to pull it off. But English is the most widely used language in the world, it’s the language of the internet. And the British were very clever. And that’s the legacy. Not to decry the country. I’m extremely proud to be British, never decrying my Caribbean roots, either. Of course I understand and love my heritage, but that’s not my home. I was born here. I understand the psyche here and I know truly what it means to be British.

It was always a minority movement. But if you understand the history, if you really understand where we are and why and how we’re here… take for example April 23rd St George’s day, white flag, red cross, if you understand the history of this country, it’s really weird that the fascist right wing adopted this flag and support St George, because history shows that St George was of African descent. He didn’t even speak English. St George was an Arab, for want of a better description. Yet he is the patron saint of this country. Everyone has had to play a part in this country and the legacy is here for all of us to share.

Was receiving your MBE a watershed moment for you. Was it like finally, I’ve arrived?

No. I felt that before. Nobody could tell me I’ve arrived. I was born here. Anybody who was younger than me, in that place, I had more right than them.

Check out the first instalment of our exploration of British Jamaican culture and standby for the interview with David ‘Ram Jam’ Rodigan coming soon.

And read our 3 part Olympic series here.

*All images © Luke Daniel.

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