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From Pirate Radio To The Greenwich Peninsula: We Spoke To Norman Jay MBE About Three Decades Of DJ’ing In The Capital

Ahead of his performance on a beach in Greenwich this weekend, we caught up with Norman to talk Notting Hill, selecting tracks, and his prior experiences of beach-based partying.

At the end of July, a full-blown beach is going to be built on the Greenwich Peninsula for the Corona SunSets festival. Along with a host of other artists, legendary selector and legitimate national treasure, Norman Jay MBE will be bringing his eclectic record collection to the newly-sanded shores of SE10.

Over the past 30 odd years, Norman has made his way from pirate radio to international DJ – via his world-beating tenure at Notting Hill Carnival with his Good Times soundsystem – by playing what he wants, when he wants. Unlike a lot of today’s DJs, Norman has never been concerned with churning out self-produced tracks, stacking as many dubplates as possible, or headlining stadiums. He simply knows the crowds he plays to, and he’ll do anything to make them move.

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Before he jumps on the decks this weekend, we caught up with Norman to talk Notting Hill, selecting tracks, and his prior experiences of beach-based partying – real beach or otherwise. Speaking of which…

Hi Norman! Have you ever played a festival on a beach before?

Yeah I have, but never in London! But I've done beach parties in the Caribbean, in Australia, and New Zealand. In Japan I did a sunrise – as opposed to sunset – party on a beach. But I've never done a beach festival in London.

What's the crowd like at a beach festival? Especially compared to the rain-soaked festivals most of us go to in the UK.

Well my first preference is to play outdoors. Although I do play in clubs, I cut my teeth and honed my skills playing outdoors. Whether under the sun or under the stars, it's a different crowd dynamic when you're outside – people just seem less inhibited and there's a feeling of all-round euphoria in the open elements.

Speaking of which, why are festivals in the UK so special despite our rubbish weather?

Because we're mad. We're a nation of eccentrics, and because we don't get good weather here we've learned to party in any weather. So when we do get it, good weather that is, we're beside ourselves: we don't know what to do! Only the British could have a beach festival in Greenwich, in the middle of a moody summer in England.

How do you think that's going to be – this sort of exotic setting transported to a very English, city environment?

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I've no idea; I've no real expectations. All I know is that it will be good because the English people make great festivals.

True. You made your name playing these intense, crowded city environments like Notting Hill Carnival. What's it like playing these smaller street parties compared to the larger festivals?

I'm not really bothered about the size of the event. It's the people who come that make the event. The DJ is not the star. The DJ is there to do a job. The DJ's primary function is to provide the soundtrack: to people having the time of their lives, or whether they're just there for one day of escapism, you know, escaping the drudgery of a bad job, a difficult home life – just the issues of living and surviving in the city. So when we get a weekend or a sunny day, we go for it. I just provide the soundtrack. Feel good music and good times.

So you're always aiming to please above all else?

Yeah! That's my primary function. I'm not there to do anything else. I'm not there to teach – the teaching is a by-product of entertainment.

But will the surroundings affect what you choose to play?

The surroundings sometimes have a bearing. But again, I'm very crowd-focused. I've done parties in some fantastic spaces and some downright absurd and even dangerous places. Sometimes it helps if there's an edge, but a beach festival should be a celebration of summer sounds across all genres. If it gets hot, you slow the music right down. If the weather turns or begins to get cold then you have to get people moving. But essentially we're hoping for a hot day – a typically un-British summer's day – and the music will reflect that, depending on what time I'm playing. If I'm playing in the afternoon, the music will be like the early doors at Carnival: toe-tapping, head-nodding, finger-snapping music, stuff people know and maybe one or two curveballs that they don't. But if I happen to be playing later in the evening, and it's not so warm out there, then it's my duty of care to the crowd to get them moving.

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You touched on Carnival and the 'edge' of some places you've played. Do those early days in Notting Hill inspire your sets today?

Yeah of course they inspire me. They were life-affirming. They were a baptism of fire, a coming of age. I learnt very quickly and sometimes, on occasion, the hard way. The crowd is king, not you. You're there to entertain them with whatever style of music it takes to entertain people with the limited amount of time that you have. The good thing about Carnival was because it was my own thing, I had seven hours a day, over two days, to play whatever I liked. Not necessarily in a selfish way – I managed to elicit a loyalty from the crowds that came. So they came back year on year for two days. The only expectation they had was that the music would be good. It didn't matter what style it was, so I was able to indulge my huge, varied record collection on the unsuspecting crowd.

Given that you've played so many different genres of music over the years, how have you learned to, I guess, read a crowd and gauge what they want to hear?

I'm fortunate and it's a situation I don't take for granted: crowds trust me. They turn up to hear me because they know what I do. But, you know, if I'm doing a house gig I'll play house music; if I'm doing hip-hop they'll get a hip-hop gig; if it's a jazz thing or a chill thing they'll get that. But if it's one of my own gigs, it's open season on 50 years of great music. And I try and impart a little of that in specialised gigs I do – like beach festivals.

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But at the start of your career what was it like when that respect from the crowd wasn't so established?

They were wild west times. You grew up very quickly. When you've faced down the death threats and the bottles of urine and the rocks and the cutting of your speaker wires and the thumping of angry fists on your turntables and people scratching your records, you learn very quickly from that. You can't go up there and be an arsehole.

That kind of seems like a rare viewpoint to have these days because a lot of DJs do try to act like that superstar. Do you think your 'music-first' attitude is fading?

Well… like everything in life it's a compromise, isn't it? Great promoters and great events hopefully choose the right DJs and the right acts to fit the crowd they hope to attract. If you get it wrong then everyone's a loser, but more often than not you get it right and everyone's a winner. I mean I wouldn't turn up with a chill mix to a young grime crowd. Likewise, I wouldn't turn up with acid house and drum and bass to a pensioners' day out.

You've obviously seen a lot over your years of playing in London. How have you seen the city's clubbing scene change in your time?

That's the good thing about it: it's constantly evolving. It never stands still. And I think that always allows new art forms to emerge; it gives a platform to new DJs, new artists, and young creatives. That's what makes London the number one clubbing capital in the world bar none.

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So is going out and clubbing in London in a good place right now?

Yeah I think so. But then I'm not really on it if I'm honest. I do a lot of international travelling and I do a lot of travelling all over the country. But I always look forward to playing in London, and London's still my favourite place to play. Some of the best gigs I've ever done in my 30 odd years have been in London. London is the best place in the world to be young, and to be into music, and to go clubbing.

You mentioned the respect crowds have for you – how have you maintained that over so many years?

I'm not a slave to the toys. My eyes and my focus are on the people in front of me, not the toys that I'm using. Younger DJs prefer to use laptops and electronic toys, and the focus seems to be on those and not on the audience in front of them.

Given that focus on the music do you have tracks that you know will get any crowd going?

No, because I play off instinct and emotion. I'm a reactive DJ. I'll change from one genre to another if one's not working. I've never been frightened to change things if it's not working.

So you don't know what you're going to be playing at the Greenwich beach?

No, I'e no idea until I get there. I don't know who's playing before me or who's playing after me. I plan to tune in to whatever vibe is going down.

Do you have a similar approach to finding new music? Do you let it come to you?

Yeah. It comes to me naturally. I don't go searching. Good music finds me, not the other way around. I don't care if I'm playing a track six months before anybody else, or a year after anybody else, it's what you do with it when it's in your position that counts. I've long since given up following trends. The punters are the best people. They'llask you for certain things, and if so many people keep asking for something then you're duty bound to go and find outwhat this particular track is, then you make a choice on it after you've heard it.

Lastly, why should people go see you at a beach in Greenwich?

Why ever not?

True. Thanks Norman.

The Corona SunSets Festival takes place on the Greenwich Peninsula on 30 July. To get your tickets, head to coronasunsets.com.18+.