After 20 years in the business, the original celebrity DJ has no time for superstar egos. <i>Josh Sims </i>meets Norman Jay, dance music's self-effacing hero

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The Independent Culture

Norman Jay was booked to play records at Prince's party for just 90 minutes, but three hours later there was no sign of the Purple One. "I was starting to get uptight about it," says Jay, kicked back in a Hawaiian shirt, penny loafers and his trademark hat - today it's a pith helmet. "But then there he was, pushing his way through the crowd towards me, and I was thinking, 'Oh no, he's really not happy about something'. But he told me that he loved the music and coming from Prince - that was wicked!"

Norman Jay was booked to play records at Prince's party for just 90 minutes, but three hours later there was no sign of the Purple One. "I was starting to get uptight about it," says Jay, kicked back in a Hawaiian shirt, penny loafers and his trademark hat - today it's a pith helmet. "But then there he was, pushing his way through the crowd towards me, and I was thinking, 'Oh no, he's really not happy about something'. But he told me that he loved the music and coming from Prince - that was wicked!"

Loving the music - all sorts, all colours, but especially American R'n'B, Aretha, Motown, the old-skool disco classics - is what it's all about for Norman Jay. He's been spinning records since he was eight and now, at 42, is considered one of the foremost DJs in the world. He can pack a club to overflowing in just about any city. He co-launched Kiss FM, proving the catalyst for the likes of Coldcut, Soul II Soul, and Lisa I'Anson. He started the UK's first warehouse and garage clubs, coined the phrase "rare groove" and was instrumental in the launch of the influential Talkin' Loud record label.

He also regularly plays to the kind of private parties that make paparazzi pop their flashbulbs with excitement: for George Michael, Michael Caine and Lenny Henry; for Tommy Hilfiger and Vivienne Westwood; for Mick Jagger's 50th birthday... "enjoying the odd ironic moment, playing all the original black records to the people who appropriated the sound and made their millions." And now he's back at the Notting Hill Carnival with his brother Joey, celebrating 20 years of one of its main attractions, the legendary Good Times sound system.

"That's the great thing about Notting Hill," he says. "It still has a sense of community. I was born on Ladbroke Grove, I've been evicted with my mum and brothers, I've lived on every road. It's home to me. Of course, it wasn't 'Notting Hill' then. It was 'North Kensington', the dregs of the earth."

These days he's certainly welcome back at London W11. As we sit outside a bar off Portobello market, Jay is constantly interrupted by passers-by wanting to say hello, to shake his hand. It never bothers him. But while he's used to having celebrity friends - Jamiroquai and Paul Weller are close pals - he's not entirely comfortable with being a celebrity himself. Confident in his position as father figure to a generation of DJs, Jay is a pleasing mixture of enthusiastic music buff and modest old-timer, taking pains to distance himself from what he considers a "plastic, paranoid, insecure world".

The era of DJ-as-brand - their new-found power to make or break records, to earn £10,000 for four hours' work, to top charts and be a club's big pull - doesn't appeal, though he recognises that his status is what the celebrity party circuit buys into. That and the fact that he is (rather irritatingly for your correspondent), "the last word in discretion - which is why I get rehired.

"When I started there wasn't this DJ culture. Of course I have a vested interest in perpetuating it, but it's all tosh," he says. "The only talent a lot of DJs have is the ability to convince everyone they're brilliant. The real test of a DJ is to be put in front of the wrong crowd on the wrong night with the wrong records and still get them dancing. I'm comfortable with the fact that I'm respected by my peers and the people who pay to hear me play. But I always hope they don't come to hear 'a Norman Jay set', but for the total experience, for the music."

He admits that "even on the worst days it's the best job in the world, and every day I say a silent prayer that I'll always play records, whether it's in front of a crowd or not." But he's not the kind of DJ who will play what he wants regardless, even if he senses a mood shift in his audience. His attitude stems back to a time when buying records was a family responsibility, and listening to them a bonding family activity. And for Jay there was also a social message to be gleaned from his choice of grooves.

"I loved the old late-Sixties music coming out of black America and still do," he says, his enthusiasm making him bop a bit in his seat. "In part it was because they were American. America gave me my culture - James Brown, Muhammad Ali - it gave me a pride in being black that I never got from Britain. And the songs were a message, a wake-up call. It was social commentary and the best way to get that across was to put it to a dance beat for those with the ears to hear it, just as DJing was a way out of the ghetto: you didn't have to go to university to set yourself up with a pair of decks and perhaps discover some latent talent. It's no different from rap today."

Interestingly for a man who has used music to escape his own personal ghetto, rap isn't his bag at all. As befits a life lived under the influence of the passion and up-tempo melodies of the Philadelphia Sound, he tries to keep clear of rap's negativity. His two sons, Russell and Mark, aged 18 and 22, haven't been short of an extensive musical education, naturally, but they still bring home the odd CD of sin. "I tell them that of course they can appreciate rap, but they have to always be aware that it's not about them. I don't want anybody telling me how hard their life is. I know, I've been there."

Jay has that sort of old-fashioned family-values attitude to good living that's all too rare. Even that pith helmet seems to be a statement of maintaining standards."There are those who are into fashion and those who are into style, and you can make up your own mind as to which one I'm into," he says. "I've always worn a hat. I can take it off, pull out my afro and nobody recognises me. But it's also because there was a time when hats were symbolic of elegance. You weren't dressed without one. It's all about being attentive to the details." *

Norman Jay plays at the Notting Hill Carnival on 27 and 28 Aug. "Good Times with Joey and Norman Jay" (Nuphonic) goes on sale tomorrow.

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