Only a handful of DJs can truly claim to have changed the course of music and club culture in the UK. And perhaps the most influential in this elite club is Norman Jay MBE. Starting out putting on parties with his brother and their legendary Notting Hill Carnival sound system, Good Times, Jay has educated and entertained an adoring fanbase for almost 50 years. From setting up Kiss FM to coining the term Rare Groove, he was key to the development of warehouse parties in the ’80s. A true lover of music, he is instantly recognisable from his fabulous collection of hats, as well as his sense of style and love of Raleigh Choppers.


What have you been up to this year? Any highlights so far?
Yeah, there’s been some terrific highlights. But the highlight for me would have been the return of Good Times at Alexandra Palace in the summer, when we bought the red bus out of retirement. It’s been a decade now since Good Times finished at [Notting Hill] Carnival, so it’s felt a bit like a traveller looking for a new home. And I think we found it on the terrace at Alexandra Palace.

What else?
You know, I still love playing smaller venues – small theatres, medium-sized pubs and smaller crowds around the country – places where you might think a DJ would never come. I still have a fan base around the UK that’s kind of grown up with me and what I do. So it’s great; everywhere I go, there’s faces I recognise.

You still enjoy travelling around the country, getting out of the London bubble?
I mean, London is where I’m from, and I’ll always be supportive of it and its club culture. For that, there’s no better city. I said that 30 years ago and, as far as I can see, it remains the same. However obscure the music, there’s someone somewhere in London playing it on any given night of the week. It just depends on how discerning you are. But you know, there’s a new generation schooled on digital media when it comes to music, so you have to compete with that.

Do you think reverence for DJs has died?
I don’t know about holding reverence to the DJs. I mean, for the community aspect of it, being amongst like-minded people, it’s physical, it’s a real-time experience. It’s about a shared experience, mutual joy. Social media can’t replicate that.

There’s something quite profound about that experience – coming together in a shared space?
Which is why people still want to do that. However much the cultural landscape changes around them, there will always be those who feel this need to be amongst other people. That’s as old as humanity itself.

You mentioned Good Times at the beginning. You are, perhaps, best known for that. How would you describe it?
Well, Good Times is a good time sound system. It’s my sound system brand name. I mean, it’s a brand name now, but back in the day, in the late 70s, early 80s, it was a physical thing. My brother Joey and I literally built it ourselves – and crafted it into what it has become. In 1980, we started playing at Notting Hill Carnival. That was what we aspired to, and we thought we could contribute something positive. But it was a baptism of fire when we got there. They were still dark days. Racism was rife. Panic on the street, as they said. I thought maybe we could make a difference here. Because I’m surrounded by reggae, roots. Africanism; it’s traditional. But there’s no funk, there’s no disco here.

How were you received when you first arrived?
Well, I was a fresh greenhorn, for sure. We had bottles of piss thrown at us and sometimes threatened with knives. So, that’s nothing new. But I was young and naive. And carefree. So, I was unafraid and held my ground. I put my flag in the ground. “This is where Good Times is.”

You were born in Notting Hill. Was Carnival an essential part of your growing up?
Not really, when I was young. My parents first went there in the 60s. And it was a real cultural thing for them, coming from the West Indies. For me, being born in England, I didn’t relate to Carnival early on. Then, as a teenager in the early to mid-70s, I started to go again. That was a very difficult time to be black in London – especially a black youth. By then, I was highly politicised, very left-wing in my politics. So, I was informed about what the state and the establishment were trying to do. This is when police stop and search was legalised. And some of them abused that power. Not all of them, but those who did had carte blanche to pull up a black kid on the street. But there was always going to come a point where, as a community, we were gonna say enough is enough. So, when I was around 17 or 18, I was a frontline soldier, standing up for what is right. For my generation, that was really important. Don Letts, the DJ and producer, was another.

So, do you think, in some way, the music and the DJing had some sort of political agenda?
My music definitely did. At the time, my mates were ex-mods and soul boys. And a lot of my mates were first-generation punks, not the catwalk punks that came a few years later. And they were politically switched on, part of the Rock Against Racism movement. My wife, Jane, was on the march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in 1978. She and her mates came up from Southampton with their banners. Of course, the Clash played in the park in east London that day.

You’re also well-known as a Tottenham Hotspurs fan. Was it the community spirit and the fashion that first drew you into football?
No, because sports fans were not known for being particularly stylish back then. But, I was exposed to youth culture and youth fashion from a very young age. And I always loved it. Coming from a working-class background, fashion and looking good was something to aspire to back in those days. But, yeah, I just loved the clothes, how the black boys looked. You know, the rude boys arrived in the UK from Jamaica in the 60s. And I always loved the way the mods looked; I love the scooters they rode. But I was just too young for that.

What was the first style you could join and call your own?
I was a skinhead when I was 13. Totally got what was going on but just couldn’t afford the clothes. By then, my three passions were football, music and fashion. Most of my mates then were white. White working class. It wasn’t lost on me the impact the rude boys were making on white working-class culture. Young men without money will always find a way to look sharp – and develop their own look. So, that became soul boys.

This is the 70s, right?
That’s right. I was into Brown, James Brown, while others were into Bowie. Then came punk. And that was great because white kids started listening to reggae and coming to black clubs. That was really down to Don Letts, who was the unofficial punk DJ and resident at the Roxy. He had this great reggae record collection. And then bands like the Clash and Jon Lydon from the Sex Pistols who loved the music. That’s when I started listening to some of their lyrics and understanding that they were political, too.

Did you ever play at the Roxy?
Not when it was a punk venue, and Don was playing there. But later, at the same venue. It’s where I met Jerry Dammers [from the Specials]. This would be the early 80s. He’d seen what I was doing at Carnival and asked me to be part of the Free Nelson Mandela campaign. Even though my music was happy and upbeat, it still reflected my politics.

What sort of music were you playing at this time?
Yeah, my early funk records were all the records that the British government were fearful of at the time. You know, back then, words were whispered into the ears of the big record execs not to release or promote certain records.

Tell us about Shake & Fingerpop.
My raison d’etre with the music was always about unity. Songs of love – embrace your brother or sister, no matter whether they’re black, white, gay, straight; it doesn’t matter. And I was into that kind of utopian experience if we could achieve it. Shake & Fingerpop was my funky alter ego. Nobody knew who it was for ages. We broke all the rules with the club. Most clubs back then didn’t want to hire black DJs – they wanted “blackness”, but not black people. Of course, I was angry about that, so I decided to do something about it. So, we just did what my dad and uncles had done before with their sound system parties. But we found empty warehouses and charged 50p on the door. It was really a communal thing, shared love. Those were the original warehouse parties in London. We played with Judge Jules and Family Funktion and people like that. We’d be on different floors, and there would be art installations. It was really multimedia. You’d get, maybe, 3,000 people in. That never goes away. It’s the same with jungle, the same with grime. Young black kids are always going to coalesce around the music. They create that for themselves.

Today, we speak of Rare Groove as a genre. But you are the one who coined the term. How did you come up with the name?
I’ve been asked that question so many times. In truth, it was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek thing. We’d just started Kiss FM, and I needed a name for my show. In fact, it was called the Original Rare Groove Show. No one else was playing the music I was playing. By then, I had a huge record collection which included loads of black music that white DJs didn’t play and didn’t even know about. I didn’t have the money to fly to America and buy up loads of records – so I had to seek out my records.

And Kiss FM. That was so influential, wasn’t it? And the whole pirate radio scene in the 80s.
Yeah, Kiss started off as a pirate station – before that, a lot of the pirate stations were coming out of suburbia, with DJs who could afford all the equipment you needed to do it. And they weren’t necessarily playing the really good records and just playing the same old stuff. So, there was a real need for Kiss. From the start, we were adamant it wasn’t going to be a black station – or a white station. It was a crossover station – for the people making things happen in London – black, white, Asian, whatever – the people doing exciting things. I was in clubs every night – so I knew who was playing the real stuff – so I brought them into Kiss FM. Like Jon More from Coldcut. He was running a club down in Deptford at the time. He was mashing together different music styles and was getting these large crowds. So, we got him involved. His DJing style was totally different to mine, but it worked on the station. We just thought outside the box and responded to what was going on.

What do you think of the scene today?
To be honest, I’m not in touch with it. I haven’t got my finger on the pulse. But that’s out of choice. But you’ll never stifle that creative flame in London. And its ripple effect. It used to take ages to get around the regions, but now it’s almost instantaneous, thanks to social media. There are still people doing it, and that is exciting to see.

We talked a bit about your love of clothes. Perhaps the item you are most known for, though, is the hat.
Yeah, my hats are distinct. That’s because some of my most prized hats are made by my lovely wife, Jane. So they’re one-off unique creations. The hat thing comes from the rude boys. But at some point, that look sort of got parodied, so I keep my style more mixed up. But before the rude boys, even, I remember people like my uncle who always wore a hat. That was just about a sense of style – you know, proper suited and booted.

You’ve dedicated your life to music, but when you’re not, how do you enjoy your downtime?
I’ve always made sure that I’ve had a work/life balance because I have other interests. I’ve always been into certain things that symbolise Britishness – things like the Raleigh Chopper bike. Of course, I couldn’t afford one as a kid – they were the PlayStation of their day. And I’ve always been into Minis. I love the original Morris Minis and Mini Coopers. I passed my test in 1977, Jubilee year and the year of my son’s birth. And the scooter scene. I used to go to the ride-outs and gatherings, and no one knew who I was. I could be anonymous. I loved the fact I didn’t have to talk about music.

If anyone wants to find out more about your career, how can they do that?
My book Mister Good Times came out a couple of years ago, which I wrote with Lloyd Bradley. Or you can enjoy it as an audiobook, read by David Monteith. And they make great Christmas presents.

Finally, we ask all of our Journal interviewees to complete the following phrase:

You Must Create.. good times in order to have a happy memory.


Shot on location at Birch (Selsdon).