Meet the king of the carnival

Norman Jay, DJ and friend to the stars, tells Ian Burrell about his punishing schedule before he manages to squeeze in a few sets at this year's Notting Hill carnival
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The Independent Online

The face that best represents the spirit of Europe's biggest street festival is crowned, as ever, by a battered straw hat and is at this moment being filled with omelette.

The extraordinary Norman Jay MBE, BBC radio's star performer at today's Notting Hill Carnival, is having his breakfast after an ordinary weekend in his extraordinary life.

After performing to massed revellers at Innocent's Fruitstock festival in London's Regents Park on the previous Saturday evening, he drove up the M6 and entertained crowds at Birmingham club Miss Moneypenny's before returning in the early hours to play at north London's The Egg. The next day he headed to the Malvern Hills to play the Big Chill festival before coming back to the capital, a tad late, to present his weekly show on BBC London 94.9.

This is the morning after; he looks a little delicate as he walks into his favourite record store on Portobello Road and signals his appreciation of the music being played. "It's nice to hear some Chic on a Monday morning."

Jay is the DJ to the stars, performing at Thierry Henry's wedding, Mick Jagger's birthday party and for Michael Caine and Robert De Niro. "I've even done parties for the British ambassador for Japan and for Sir Terence Conran," he says, after retiring to a nearby café to have breakfast. "I'm professional when I go there. See nothing, hear nothing. My job is to entertain the people in front of me, give them a soundtrack. Part of the reason why I get rehired is that I'm the last word in discretion. You won't see my story appearing in The Sun for 10 grand."

But the real secret to his success is his universal appeal, something that's reflected in the diverse crowd that surrounds his Good Times sound system, a fixture at carnival for more than 20 years and from which he will be broadcasting for the BBC this afternoon.

"It's like a living Coke advert," says Jay. "It reflects my attitude to life and my lifetime experiences. I've got friends from all around the world. I've got friends who are gay, lesbian ... friends who are social outcasts. Some are in jail. I've got very rich and very powerful friends. Everyone's valid and my life would be poorer if any of them wasn't in my life."

Parties for the ambassador, a gong from the palace, a job with the BBC. It wasn't always like this for Jay, who was a founder of the Kiss pirate radio station in 1985.

"The reason I got involved with starting Kiss FM in the first place was to give untried, aspirational young presenters like myself then the chance to broadcast," he says. "Back then the BBC was the antithesis of everything I was about. It was establishment and I was pirate, post-punk and DIY."

Such illegal broadcasters still enrage radio executives but Jay says they should be allowed to exist. "Pirates still have a very important role, giving a platform for kids to express themselves. Norman Jay owes his whole career to pirate radio - I couldn't see the BBC giving me a job in 1982." Growing up a short distance from the BBC, did he ever try? "No, my education was such that you are never given any insight into that being a possibility. You are conditioned to being a sportsman, bricklayer, milkman, postman, van driver."

The appeal of Norman Jay is his ability to convey through his music his deeply felt sense of optimism yet subtly reminding his audience that he knows his stuff. "I don't have anything to prove so I'm very relaxed about it and have fun with it. I'm not under pressure and hopefully that comes across because I genuinely feel that way, upbeat and optimistic."

Despite a diary that takes him all around the world, he describes himself as a "British eccentric" and never ceases to remind his listeners of the attractions of his home town. "London is still the greatest city in the world when it comes to night life. No other city comes close and I'm qualified to say that. It's a mantra to remind people: 'Don't get bored of this place.' London is the only place in the world where, whatever music you're into, someone somewhere, however obscure, is playing it."

For Jay, Notting Hill Carnival is London at its best. Having travelled to New York in 1979 - where he observed his uncle operating a Brooklyn-based sound system called Dr Wax Roadshow - Norman returned home anxious to try his hand and introduce carnival to the American soul, funk, jazz and disco he had discovered. "I thought people are going to love this but I never took into account the cultural divide. That was made fairly obvious within two or three records - 'Take off that gay music!'" he remembers. "I was young, idealistic and naive and so fearless. There's no way I would do that now. I took my life into my hands, risked everything. I suffered everything - abuse, cans, bottles, threats. But I was completely undaunted."

Things are different now and a good vantage point close to the double-decker bus from which Good Times performs is at a premium among carnival-goers. "The one thing that's special is the people who come," says Jay. "They bring with them an expectancy, a love, an excitement that's quite tangible. I don't experience that anywhere else. It's because we have been consistently good for years. And it's free, one of the few things in life that is."

Jay unashamedly aims his music at females. "I'm not interested in pleasing nerdy anoraks or boys with no shirts on," he says. "Girls simply like things. They don't have an analytical mind towards it: it's there to be enjoyed or not. They get the message quicker than boys and that's why my sets will always be predisposed to the fairer sex."

He might be an optimist but he still has a serious side. He is proud to have fought for Nelson Mandela's release and more pay for nurses. He remains "wary of big brands and deeply wary of supermarkets". Protective of his privacy, he says: "I don't use store cards or petrol cards. I don't want everybody knowing how I make my journeys. They are already monitoring what you do, where you go. We are video stars 300 times a day without our permission."

Unlike other DJs and musicians he deliberately shuns Rupert Murdoch's, preferring a simple website that offers a forum to his hardcore followers, the Cratediggers.

He was, however, proud to accept his MBE. "It means a lot to me, a working-class black kid from Notting Hill," says Jay. He has had his setbacks, getting axed from Kiss FM (after it had become a legal station) and then from Talking Loud, the record label he helped to set up in 1989. He regrets losing an hour from his current radio show.

But he has remained the optimist. And today, amid all the many attractions of carnival, many will head off to see a man in his late 40s in a straw hat.

Norman Jay broadcasts on BBC London 94.9FM, Sunday 6pm-8pm. The show is accessible online. He also broadcasts The Funk Factory on BBC Radio 2. His latest compilation CD, Good Times 6, is out now on Resist Records