Ahead of Winter Sessions appearance

Of all the 80s London dance scenes, the Wag Club was the most elitist, Soul II Soul was the most black conscious, and Norman Jay's Shake 'n' Fingerpop was perhaps the most hedonistic. The Wag club's infamous Friday night Blackmarket was headed by Barry Sharpe and Lascelles Lascelle, whilst Jazzie B would choose the music at his warehouse funki dread raves. Whilst both Jazzie and Jay would grow to hate the clipboard Nazis who ran Blackmarket, they would be highly successful in promoting their own different brands of warehouse party, if at slightly different times. It was the first time “rasta men would be dancing next to sloanes” remembers Jay, while it was too early for ecstasy - “it was Bring Your Own Beer on the flyers, and it was a spliff thing”.

Jay was before the acid house scene, which ruined the party for Jazzie B, as he remembers in a recent Clash interview: “Acid house brought in the drugs, and to be honest with you, the whack people who used to come to the dance - it was awful man, some of those people - you talk about wags now and nerds and stuff well in the days of when we were doing dances those people…”

Jay was around before Jazzie and the hip hop that informed his aesthetic; he remembers DJing at the first acid house party: “It was a night called Hedonism in an old factory in Alperton in west London. Some of the DJs there went on to be massive in their fields. Paul Oakenfold played at that party, as did Jazzie B, Colin Faver. A lot of big names in the house and Detroit techno scene played at that party.”

Jay was around in '85 to play with the nascent Massive Attack click: “Bristol was one of the first cities I was invited to go and DJ outside London. It was the Wild Bunch that invited me down to come and play. I played at Thekla, then I went to an after-hours blues party in Saint Paul's with them.”

Today, Norman Jay is tired. He suffers from altitude sickness, and coming off the back of a three-night tour around the French Alps ain't exactly gonna get you coming out smelling of bougainvilleas.

Sitting on his bed in his five-star hotel overlooking Mont Blanc, in his
socks, a shirt and slightly battered herringbone Bingi hat, Jay, MBE
begins gingerly, almost disillusioned with himself - however, almost disillusioned with himself - however within a few minutes he has replaced this with a command and occasional Caribbean vehemence that sits him back up at the lectern he deserves.

He is booked to play at Winter Sessions, the legendary festival in Chamonix this April. Talking on the festival he says: “There is a special flavour - a similar vibe as you get when you're doing beach parties or full moon parties, they have a special quality about them - I guess playing music to people when it's snowing up a mountain has a special quality to it - it's different and amazingly exciting.

“I don't ski, I don't snowboard - I wish - but at my time of life I'm not going to learn now!” says Jay. On a more serious note, Jay adds: “I come to this place - I see very few black people here. Not because they don't wanna come, not because they're excluded - they simply don't have the means.”

Jay has done so much time in the scene that it is easy to forget formalities that were unthinkable in the bad old year of 1981 [New Cross fire, Brixton riot]; around the time that Jay began to be interviewed by the major music press: “I was the first black musician to be interviewed, when I was interviewed by the NME in the early 80s. This was the bastion of white British rock - guitar music - they interviewed little Norman Jay - a little black guy who plays in warehouses around London - I mean 'wow!' But that was a start - and every journey begins like that - and I still meet people like Dizzee Rascal, and Roni Size, and others who've gone on - when I meet them they shake my hand and say - 'Respect' - because if it wasn't for you - it couldn't happen for us.”

Despite claiming that Jazzie was more about black awareness, and less about just smashing a few beers and dancing to the house-inflected Sound of Philadelphia, Jay retains himself an awareness of the reversal he has created, in allowing black music to be a dominant genre: “Me and Jazzie would break down those barriers - because these people in Middle England would begin to see you in their magazines. They would begin to see you on television - I get interviewed by the Independent, The Times - you won't find me in Mixmag - I've been with Jonathan Dimbleby and been the panellist on Question Time.- and we can use it as a shining example - to all the youths who are watching it, with their chips on their shoulders - saying 'Life's a bitch it ain't fair to me'. If I can do it - you can do it.”

Words by Miguel Cullen

Norman Jay plays the Winter Sessions festival in Chamonix on April 22. Click http://wintersessions.net/ for more info

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