Name: Norman Jay
Current Event: Norman Jay will appear at the Funk The Dam festival in Amsterdam from 8th - 10th November. Other acts include Craig Charles, Crazy P, Greg Wilson and many more. Get your ticket here.
Recommendations: My book, Mister Good Times, is a great start for an overview of London and UK social history! Also, I would like to point readers in the direction of researching the likes of Aretha Franklin or Miles Davis.
If you enjoyed this interview with Norman Jay, visit his website for everything you ever wanted to know about him.
When did you start with music and what were your early influences?
Back in the 60’s; Rocksteady, ska from Jamaica, Motown, Stax and Atlantic - all the great artists of the era were on those labels.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I made it up as I went along to be honest. There was no template - not one I had access to. It was about instinct and emotion mainly. You're learning on the job and whatever works, you do more of the same.
What were your main challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main challenges were barriers like racism but I'm glad that happened - it taught me to become stronger and have faith in one's own ability. I lived the culture of this music so that qualified me to go out there and try and do something about trying to spread the message and love of the music.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I wasn't always interested in the studio, I never had access when I was growing up so I saw my place as the person in the middle of this paradigm - I articulate the music from the artist to the crowd, putting it in perspective and context with other similar sounds, making a soundscape people can relate to. It's my job to assemble a musical jigsaw in a way people can relate to.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines, if used properly and sparingly, enhance what you do, if not you become a slave to them, and I am definitely not a slave to the machine. I use it, but I have never been an early adopter.
Tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional live performance process. How does this manifest itself in your work?
Well, you're just putting in unnecessary strands between the music and the artist. I play from the heart, an emotional maverick and reactionary DJ, I read the crowd not the screens. Music can be marginalised when you twiddle too many knobs, people spend too long looking at screens taking photos. Algorithms try to do what we as humans can do, and no machine can beat my brain.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I'm not a studio bod so my collaborations are based on human contact. If people hear something I play they love I'm happy to exchange in the real world, but I do keep some things to myself so I don't sound like everyone else out there. Ultimately, networking and speaking with people within the scene are important to me.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I'm lazy and random. My days start at home, I don't do showbiz, I keep myself to myself and only deal with music in a work situation. I don't jump over social media and let everyone in the world know what I'm up to. I might be old school but it works for me. People have an entitled sense to know everything about you, but actually they don't have that. I try to provide my best performances to the live audiences who hear me. I don't put mixes online or give anything away for free. That stimulates the interest for those who are discerning enough. Starting out today you have to do all that but I'm older, and past caring. My history is out there and my credentials are intact. I just want to entertain and educate - I like to coin this as edutainment.
Could you describe your creative process behind the decks, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
It's a symbiotic relationship with the crowd. I'm lucky, I'm one of the few DJs that people trust to take them on a musical journey. I learned to play for six hours and go from 50’s r&b to right through to drum & bass competently.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
This is too technical for me. Emotion and instincts is how I play. That question is for people from 'generation me', electronic artists. I played in Brixton on Friday to a 74 year-old woman with her great nephews who came to hear me play because she knew there would be something for her. There were also younger dancers there, in fact most of the crowd were below 25 years-old and I don't know many DJs who have that wide appeal.
What do you achieve and draw from each DJ’ing experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Playing to different crowds is great. Playing to millenials is hard - they can't function without their phones. I get that, my son has explained it to me, but it's easier to play to a slightly older crowd because they are there for a shared experience rather than to film it. It's about what comes out of the speakers and connecting with the crowd that way.
How do playing music at home and presenting it in the club compare and relate? What can be achieved through them, respectively, and what do you personally draw from both?
Both are necessary. I seldom play or listen to current gig or uptempo dance tracks at home. That's because what I like to listen to at home is often far more musically refined, expansive and often slower and more eclectic than my live DJ sets. Although If I happen to be the opening act at say, a festival very early on in the day when there very few people around, I have on ocassion reverted to my self indulgent 'home listening' set just to keep myself motivated.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Carnival always excites sight, smell, touch and taste and it's phenomenal. Drugs dull your senses so I've never seen the point in that. Touch when it comes to raising your hand or joining with the person next to you is great and I hope I have stimulated four out of the five senses. Maybe sometimes I've even stimulated a sixth sense but I won't tell you about that!
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is the be all and end all. It is the end product of creative expression. I'm all for it however it manifests itself. Music is a soundtrack to that expression.
What could music be beyond its current form?
I have no idea. But just like the sun will rise and water will fall, the world will always enjoy music, unless of course the earth was to go deaf. We need the human and communal feeling.