The Glitterbox Interview: Norman Jay MBE
Arise Norman Jay MBE! Arise for another summer season packed full of varied, jump-up, supremely soulful beats as only he knows. Chief among his touring commitments will be a special appearance at Defected’s trend-setting Ibiza night Glitterbox, which relocates to Space from Booom! after a successful White Isle debut there last year. Jay is scheduled to make his own Glitterbox debut on 17 July, playing within a broad spectrum of artisan groove-sters also including Roger Sanchez, Boris Dlugosch, Horse Meat Disco, DJ Pippi and Purple Disco Machine. Such diverse talent well suits him and the over-arching aims of this freshest of Balearic events.
Elsewhere, Jay has a debut at award-winning boutique festival Bestival lined-up this September and a string of shows at everything from Made Birmingham (rubbing shoulders with Doorly, Julio Bashmore and Pleasure State – AKA MK, Lee Foss and Annabel Englund) and Up On The Roof (a couple of Good Times sets on the roof of Brixton’s famous Prince Of Wales boozer) to Groovefest in the Dominican Republic (Jay alongside DJ Pierre, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and Terry Hunter, as well as Defected) and Jersey’s Reasons festival (also boasting Josh Wink, Simian Mobile Disco and Secondcity). Back in London, on 9 August Jay hosts a Good Times boat trip along the Thames. More details are due but the event promises to be highly memorable.
In short, Norman Jay has never been busier or happier. It is a harmonious state of play borne out of years of intensely fresh musical education and experience. Jay grew up in Notting Hill during the Sixties and Seventies, channelling his juvenile anger towards recession and socio-political oppression into music. He visited New York to stay with family, witnessed the miraculous DJing of local legends Larry Levan and David Mancuso, and promptly returned home with a euphoric new outlook on life. Jay’s fledgling DJ sets started to broaden massively, pushing against the ‘de facto’ punk grain to incorporate rock ‘n’ roll, soul, reggae and house - Jay, in fact, was one of the first in the UK to play the Chicago-derived 4-4 sound.
During the Eighties Jay launched the seminal Good Times Sound System with brother Joey, aiming itself at Notting Hill Carnival’s vibrant masses. He also set up pirate station Kiss with DJ friend Gordon Mac and started running club nights with another friend, law student Jules O’Riordan – Jay dubbed him Judge Jules and dubbed their funky underground dance ‘rare groove’. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Kiss faced regular interference from the authorities, as did Jules and Jay’s illegal warehouse raves. There was extreme racial and homophobic abuse, too. Jay’s willingness to play the records of white and black artists (many of the latter, from the emerging and predominantly gay Chicago and New York house scenes) prompted awful abuse and might easily have derailed him. But, thankfully, he kept at it....
Today, Jay is an internationally-renowned entertainer – MBE no less - as comfortable playing edgy east London basements as he is glitzy Hollywood parties; not to mention playing football star weddings and appearing on political BBC TV slugfest Question Time. There are rumblings of new activity in the studio – a venue intentionally de-prioritised throughout his career – but performance continues to dominate. For Jay, it is DJing that delights the most. But don’t let us tell you. We’ve got the man himself over post-weekend brunch to do just that....
So, it’s 11am and you’ve just woken up – big weekend?
It was my busiest weekend so far this year! I had five gigs, and they involved travelling the length and breadth of the UK. I haven’t had that kind of situation since the Nineties. And the weather...it was kind. The crowds everywhere were brilliantly receptive; they gave me plenty of energy and some great memories.
What have you heard about Glitterbox ahead of your debut there?
I’ve heard really good reports from lots of random people, and they keep saying to me ‘why haven’t you played there?’ I’ve known Simon [Dunmore] for some time and he has a Midas touch with these things. I know I can be free musically and express myself. The night leans towards house and disco: I have an ongoing love of those genres but Glitterbox is great because it offers a variation of the theme...I love that because I like variety in what I play. At the same time, the line-ups are amazing...people like ‘Louie’ Vega, Todd Terry and Horse Meat Disco.
How do you prepare for gigs?
I’m entirely instinctual and reactive. There are no rituals. There is no method. I am not a slave to the beat. The whole seamless mixing of electronic music isn’t my thing; my life’s not about that. As such, I’ve made my career from taking musical risks and, fortunately, it has worked for me. Even the mistakes have been good ones. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to play with impunity. Look at Glitterbox – that a house label like Defected wants to invite me to play is great. I will tweak what I play for an event in Ibiza, of course, but I’m not just going to play house. We’ll have to see what looks like it will work at the time.
What is your preferred DJ set-up?
Playing outdoors is my first love. Indoor clubs are fine, some are fantastic, but generally speaking they’re a necessary evil. In terms of my set-up I’ll use memory sticks with CDJs. That’s been my set-up for the past year now. Although I’m not the best with it yet I am getting there. I like CD turntables because they’re tactile and I like the control and feeling. Technology, of course, is a lot more reliable these days and you can have far greater confidence in new developments. I certainly do.
Are you confident in today’s dance music scene Norman?
It’s in a good place. Dance music is democratic across all platforms – whether you like roots, EDM or house you’ll find it; it’s all well catered for. The younger dance crowds are, for me, far more open than the older ones. They’re the generation who grew up with the iPod Shuffle, so they’re accustomed to variety and a lot of new and different sounds. It’s funny. Multi-genre has always been my background, long before the rise of single-genre scenes. And now, look, we’re back to multi-genre which obviously makes me very happy.
Have you ever felt unhappy in your career?
It’s the continual variety that keeps me interested and inspired. I get to play without fear and that allows me to constantly challenge myself and avoid feeling staid. There are DJs out there who are excellent at the single-genre thing but if you try and take them away from that then they’re like fish out of water. When I fell out of love with house music, which was very early in my career, I found greater enjoyment from eclecticism...in continuing to combine other genres and styles. I think, today, the clubs are finally starting to realise that too. There’s an appetite for mixing it up now; personally, it keeps me highly engaged.
You’ve been around dance music at the highest level for decades – what can you possibly have left to achieve?
There are still countries I haven’t played before; festivals too, both large and boutique. Bestival will an exciting debut for me later this summer, for example. It’s brilliant to be recognised by so many different scenes and I never take it for granted. It allows me to do so many great things. I mean Simon invites me to Glitterbox and I’ve not played a straight house night in years, and I never take trust and respect like that for granted. I’m from a Carnival background...it’s too easy to play to partisan people; there has to be more than that.
What specifically is next for you?
Compilations are on my mind. I’m looking at a new one for later this year, possibly another Good Times record but with a lean towards northern soul. I’m considering a September release but that may change. Before that, there’s the Good Times boat trip on the Thames, 9 August. I can’t wait for that one. It’s a unique event promising everything from Sixties Mod and Northern Soul next to soul-house and drum & bass. I have a lot of other gigs to play between now and Christmas.
What about the studio? You’re known, almost exclusively, as a DJ but any desire, finally, to ramp up your discography?
The studio is definitely in my thoughts. Let’s just say it may happen sooner rather than later. Both my son and nephew are really proficient in the studio. Whenever I give them my input on something they’re both badgering me to join them or do my own stuff. So, yes, I do think it about. It’s just that I’ve always had an aversion to studios. They have no windows! And you need a lot of discipline to produce and I’ve not always had the level required. I like the creativity of the studio but, for me, it’s a big thing to consider. Time will tell!
Words: Ben Lovett
Glitterbox is at Space Ibiza every Friday from 12 June - 25 September, with Norman Jay MBE appearing 17 July - full line-up details and tickets here
Glitterbox makes its London debut at Ministry of Sound Saturday 25 July - full line-up and tickets