© Dean Chalkley
One of the world’s most distinguished DJs, Norman Jay MBE has lived a life fuller than most can imagine, having witnessed practically every pivotal moment in UK black culture over the past half century. With his new autobiography, Mister Good Times, out this week, GQ sits down with London’s legendary DJ to reflect on his extraordinary career
Some people use photographs to recall past events, others use diaries, calendars, or anecdotes from loved ones. Norman Jay MBE uses music. This should really come as no surprise – he is, after all, one of the world’s most esteemed DJs. Over the course of his 61 years on the planet, he’s been present at and often instigated some of the most significant moments in black British music culture, and each one is filed neatly in his mind, right next to the music he’d been listening to at the time. When someone else might reach for a calendar to jog their memory, Jay will instead reach for a record.
“Music was always a soundtrack to events in my life, or events that I’ve witnessed,” Jay tells me on what might have been the last sunny day of the year, while enjoying a coffee outside The Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton. “It’s pretty easy for me to recall a time and a place, why and when things happened, just by remembering the records that were around at the time, remembering the music. If you asked me what I ate last week or yesterday, I couldn’t tell you, but when it’s significant things with regards to black music culture and club culture in this country, I’ve made that link and that’s how I’m able to remember.”
His recall technique is the topic of conversation because he’s just finished writing his autobiography, Mister Good Times, the story of his life that also doubles up as a first-hand account of the growth of black music culture in the UK, thanks to the fact that it was Jay who was largely responsible for spearheading said growth. He is the pioneer, the author of the musical blueprint that black people in the industry will follow for years to come.
To those uninitiated, here’s a (very) brief rundown of what Jay has achieved throughout his career. During the Eighties, he brought funk, soul and disco to Notting Hill Carnival for the first time with Good Times, the sound system he shared with his brother, Joey, in turn changing public and media perception of the event, while he used its platform to establish himself as an up-and-coming DJ. Soon after, he co-founded pirate radio station Kiss FM, which went on to become the first legal radio station to play black music in the UK. Around this time, he also became involved with the emerging warehouse party scene, his Shake & Fingerpop events being among some of the most legendary nights to ever be hosted in London. More club nights, DJing slots on BBC radio and a shared record label with Gilles Peterson, Talkin’ Loud, soon followed. In 2002, he became the first DJ in history to be awarded an MBE, “For services to deejaying and black music”.
I felt that I made a contribution to politics through the music I was playing. I was adding the soundtrack, if you like, making people aware
Despite having formed a deep connection to music during his childhood (with his father’s record collection always soundtracking life around the home) the way that Jay sees it, it’s at Notting Hill Carnival “where the story for [him] as a DJ begins”. When he first set up camp there in 1980, Carnival was largely unregulated and it presented an opportunity for black people such as Jay to showcase their talents without having to go through the then impenetrable, racially-biased gatekeepers to the UK’s existing music industry.
“Long before the established protocols in clubland were established, I was doing what I was doing at Carnival which lead to the establishing of those so-called protocols,” he explains, reflecting on whether or not he’d be where he is today if it weren’t for Notting Hill Carnival. “It was a creative platform that we created ourselves. There was no other way through for us in those days, so rather than feel weighed down with this so-called chip on your shoulder, which people of colour were usually accused of, I used it in a positive way. I thought ‘OK, I’m going to do this my way. I don’t need to subscribe to their route of doing things.’ That was a powerful motivator for me.”
Although Jay borrowed the name for his and his brother’s sound system from Chic’s 1979 hit "Good Times", the era during which he rose to prominence probably isn’t remembered as fondly by those who lived through it. “England wasn’t a good place then, not for a young black working class kid, a child of Windrush,” he remembers. “It was always a struggle, but my parents instilled a really great work ethic in me and supported what me and my brother were doing. We could have easily gone off the rails, but it’s a lifestyle choice that you make and I chose not to go that way.”
In many ways, music served as a distraction for Jay, a way to avoid the kind of trouble his peers might get into. He was always politically present, angry at the system that oppressed him, but he knew to never take it too far. Instead, Jay let his records speak for him. “I’m a veteran of the 1976 riots, the 1984 riots here in Brixton, the 1985 riots…” He pauses to think. “I wouldn’t even call them riots, I’d call them resistance to the Babylon. Even though I wasn’t an upfront fully paid member of any political union, I just felt that I made a contribution through the music I was playing. I was adding the soundtrack, if you like, making people aware. People always listen to music.”
The trouble was that, as Jay grew in popularity, people wanted to listen to his music without his involvement – as he puts it, the industry told him that “we love the music, but we don’t want the blackness”. It’s this attitude that motivated him to take things as far as he could with Good Times, providing a greater sense of importance to what could have otherwise been considered as nothing more than a hobby. “I don’t outwardly condemn the people that used our music culture to further their aims,” he says, treading carefully with his words to avoid being too specific, or causing offence. “But I did resent the fact that we were never involved [in the nightclubs and the media coverage]. The clubs were telling us, ‘we love all the music, we love all the funk, we love all the house’, but when you turn up as a black person on the door, male or female, they’re telling you it’s not your night tonight. There was always going to come a point, in my mind, where somebody was going to stand up and challenge this. For a long time, it was an accepted way of doing things. Just because you’re black, you’re a performing monkey. You can come and dance, but you can’t play the records, you can’t run the clubs, you can’t run the festivals, and you can’t monetise it.” Still, money, Jay insists, was never his main motivator, all he wanted was “an acknowledgement that we were here, we were part of it. That’s all.”
© Dean Chalkley
Yet in 2019 black music is indisputably more accessible than ever before, with genres that would have been previously considered niche, such as grime and afrobeat, even rising to the top of the charts over the past few years. In Mister Good Times, Jay says he believes that black music is the last remaining British underground movement, having hung out with skinheads during his youth and infused a punk spirit into his own DIY approach to navigating the music industry. But we’re also currently witnessing a more authentic representation of black music in the mainstream than ever before. There’s still a lot more work to do, but black music no longer needs to be whitewashed and diluted in order to be palatable to other audiences. You could almost say that Jay’s mission has, in part, been accomplished.
“We were the first the first generation [of black people] that became visible. Before that, we didn’t exist. We were always there, but we’ve been airbrushed out,” says Jay on the current state of the industry and race relations in the UK. “I love it now, this generation refuses to be airbrushed out.” You get the sense that Jay feels a deep admiration for young people, not just those who are young today, but also those who previously used their youth to do great things, people such as himself. “Music is the one language that everybody understands, no matter where in the world you go, particularly with youth,” he says, when quizzed on the role that music has played in improving race relations in the UK. “Music does what politicians can’t do, it unites people. Those who are up there whose pure aim is to control fear that. We’re not listening to their messages, we don’t care about their messages. I say ‘we’ in a loose sense, you know, anyone who’s young and educated knows that it’s full of shit. Governments are old men, old ladies in suits. They’re from another era, another generation.” Politics, music, race and youth culture all converge when talking to Jay, indicative of a career spent soundtracking decades of UK nightlife, despite the systematic oppression he and those like him faced.
When I look out from my DJ decks, I see all colours of faces smiling and I love that
According to statistics, however, nightlife is on the decline in the UK, with club closures across the country threatening the culture that Jay and his peers worked so hard to establish. This, he believes, is a symptom of technology and how it’s enabled young people to have access to entertainment at their finger tips rather than having to go out and seek it for themselves. “I’m still DJing and I watch the younger kids who don’t realise that they’re actually in the moment,” he laments, without resentment, but rather a concern that the younger generations are missing out on the true purpose of music events. “I’m lucky that I had the freedom to simply enjoy the moment, the experience of no phones. When you look around at the girl next to you, the bloke next to you, whether they’re on drugs or not, whether they’re off their heads or not, you just think, ‘fuck, this is unreal’.”
It’s the emotional connection to the music that Jay believes we’re lacking these days, with the advent of streaming services such as Spotify, creating an increasingly passive approach to consuming it. “There’s no soundtrack to the highlights of your life, it’s just continual audio that’s meaningless,” he explains. “My head and my life aren’t like that, and most people’s lives in the real world aren’t like that. It’s about emotion, it’s about the ups and downs, it’s feeling great, loved, rejected, melancholy, or dark. Whether you’re using drink or drugs, those are our real feelings.” While Jay uses music to pinpoint specific events in his life, it increasingly feels as though the next generation of music lovers might have to do the opposite.
What’s up next on the playlist of Jay’s life? An autobiography can often signal that its author is ready to slow things down and start reflecting on past achievements rather than looking for the next big thing. Not by Jay’s standards. “I’ve been approached to write a book for many years, but I was nervous about doing it. My cop used to be, ‘well why would I write a book now? As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t had my best moments yet,’” he explains. “There are better things still out there and I’d hate to write a book and miss out on subsequent things.”
Exactly what the future might have in store for the original Mister Good Times is uncertain, but what’s clear is that he’s not ready to stop making people happy with his music any time soon. “I go where they go and I go where the music takes me,” he states simply. “When I look out from my DJ decks, I see all colours of faces smiling and I love that. Then my job’s done.”
© Dean Chalkley
The first records he bought – 1968
“Among others, I bought Desmond Dekker’s 'Israelites' and Johnny Nash’s 'You Got Soul'. I liked the idea of reggae meets soul.”
His first trip to New York – 1979
“'Good Times' by Chic is the tune that everyone associates me with, but there were loads of other great tunes around then. There was Loleatta Holloway’s 'Runaway' and, even though it came out a few years earlier, it was still a massive tune in 1979.”
The first year he took Good Times to Notting Hill Carnival – 1980
“I would have been playing Sister Sledge, but not 'He’s The Greatest Dancer', it was 'Thinking Of You'. I would have also been playing Archie Bell & The Drells’ 'Don’t Let Love Get You Down'. Even though those songs were old by then, by the time I played them at Carnival, no one had heard them before because they hadn’t come over from the US yet.”
The launch of Kiss FM – 1985
“Again, I wasn’t playing new records then, I was reviving a lot of old records. That was around the birth of the Rare Grooves scene and everything was very retro. I was reviving Maceo and The Macks’ 'Cross The Track',''I Believe In Miracles' by Jackson Sisters and the long version of James Brown’s 'Funky Drummer'.”
The first Shake & Fingerpop party – 1986
“The music was similar to what I played at Kiss FM, there were a lot of funk records.”
The launch of his Paradise Garage nightclub, High On Hope – 1988
“I was playing all of the early New Jersey original disco. There were early Chicago house records, original soul-disco classics and New York garage.”
The Talkin’ Loud record label launch – 1989
“It was a lot of hip-hop, all of the Daisy Age hip-hop. A lot of A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr and The UMC’s 'One To Grow On', all of that stuff.”
Joining BBC London – 1997
“There was a lot of chilled out soul and jazz stuff when I played then. I was probably playing The Young Disciples, as well as a lot of hip-hop and soulful house.”
Receiving his MBE – 2002
“I was listening to Sound of Blackness’ 'Optimistic', that was big then, as well as Nu Colours’ stuff and Kym Sims’ 'Too Blind To See It'."
Good Times’ last Notting Hill Carnival – 2013
“There were so many house records then. I would have been playing Masters At Work, some of my own house remixes, 'Jump Around', the big hip-hop tune from House of Pain. It was the big finale records. I played a lot of drum and bass then as well.”
The release of his autobiography, Mister Good Times – Now
“I listen to a huge array of different music now, from Sixties Northern soul, to classical and jazz, old and new. There’s a lot of reggae, quite a lot of drum and bass, and new disco.”
Mister Good Times by Norman Jay MBE is out now. At Amazon. amazon.co.uk
Head to GQ's Vero channel for exclusive music content and commentary, all the latest music lifestyle news and insider access into the GQ world, from behind-the-scenes insight to recommendations from our editors and high-profile talent.