Norman Jay has his groove rare
You could almost tell a history of London clubs through the lens of Norman Jay’s life. The blues parties, the ska and soul on his dad’s stereogram, early clubbing forays in London (and Wigan and Blackpool), his and brother Joey’s sound system, Good Times, the birth of Kiss, the Original Rare Groove Show, seminal garage-house night Shake & Fingerpop and the numerous radio shows he’s held down over a hefty, storied career as one of London’s greatest exports. In 2002, he received mainstream recognition for that with an MBE awarded for services to music.
We have combined two interviews conducted with an 18 month gap, one for Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, the latter for the first Good Times compilation.
Interviewed by Bill on 13.02.1999 in Ladbroke Grove, and Frank, travelling about the West End on 13.07.2000
Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1957. Moved out to Acton when I was a kid. [My brother] Joey’s a year younger than me. From a very young age, my dad was an avid collector of all sorts of forties and fifties music. Jazz, and also secular American music because my grandmother was living in America, in New York since the late Fifties. And once a year or twice, she’d come over and I can really remember that she always brought over the top five or top ten rhythm & blues singles of the moment to give to my dad. We were the first people in our area to own a radiogram. I think it was a Bush. He’d spend hours on that thing, playing records over and over again, so even at two or three years old, you’re already familiar with those records. so by the age of five or six we were tampering around with that radiogram. I’d collect all the singles and pile them up like a jukebox and watch them drop on the automated changer. I was fascinated with the automation. My dad’s still got it.
It’s funny how little things like that define you. I always used to put the records on and play them. And my brother always used to rip the workings apart to see how it worked and then put it back together. That’s how he got into building his own sound systems; and I became a DJ. I started buying records when I was five or six and I had a huge collection of ska records by the time I was ten. I remember buying things like Fontella Bass ‘Rescue Me’, which was a pop record really. To get my fix of reggae I used to get the bus from Acton to a record shop that’s still there today: Webster’s in Shepherd’s Bush market, by the tube. He was a magnet for reggae buyers. I’d spend all day in there and only buy one single, because it’s all I could afford. A single cost 5s. 11d.
What did you do when you first left school? By the time you left, had you already been to any clubs?
Oh yeah. Around my first year in school, 1969, I was gradually being converted to soul, although I didn’t really make a distinction between reggae and soul then. It was just black music by black artists. But I converted loads of my white mates to reggae. They’d come round and listen to the radiogram. I made a point of having older friends then, and there were these two kids down my road, Tubs and Barry, brothers. They were five or six years older than me because they were just old enough to own scooters. Mods, they were. They absolutely loved black music, especially reggae. But I didn’t know too much of the soul stuff they were into.
What was the racial composition of your school?
There were quite a few of us. But I never experienced that much of a problem with racism. It’s an in-built thing. You sort of knew certain areas not to go to. You didn’t need to be told. You just knew. Something inside you warned you of this. I was always conscious of this, and as a consequence of that, I think I never really suffered as badly as some of my friends did. Given the fact that my mum and dad, as black immigrant parents go, were very liberal. Unbelievably liberal. When I think of how harsh some of my black friends’ parents were. I was always encouraged to bring home friends, black and white. They never saw the difference. It didn’t exist to them. My mum was a childminder, so we used to have Asian babies, African babies, white babies in the house. We had white lodgers. Great environment. That’s what shaped my thinking.
Around this time I’d just discovered football. Big Tottenham fan. Even then I used to travel all over. Football was my all-consuming passion and I was quite a good player as a kid. Wanted to be a professional, but at the back of my mind was the music thing. I left school really early with no qualifications. I was getting £4 a week at the Evening Standard, which I thought was a lot of money. I heard from a mate of mine that there was a shop in the West End that sold soul and black music. It turned out to be the old HMV in Bond Street. This would have been 1971 or ’72. One afternoon I went down there and he had the rhythm & blues top forty in there and I didn’t know any of the records, but he’d write up little reviews about which ones he thought were good. The British ones were 45p and US ones were 60p; you had to order them and it took a week. So I ordered some and a week later I came back and he’d got them for me. So I asked him if he could get any other stuff and he said he could only get the bigger label stuff, but there was a shop just down the way, in 14 Hanway Street [it was called Contempo], that specialised in that. Went upstairs to the first floor and it was unbelievable. Records everywhere. There were two black guys working in the shop and one of them I knew. That’s when I discovered Blues & Soul and Black Music behind the counter. And it was packed. I discovered a whole new world just waiting in the shop. And religiously every Friday I’d go there and buy stuff.
Major turning point for me was when Shaft came out. It revolutionised music and totally changed my perceptions. Because you’re black you think you know about all of these things before anybody else. But there was this kid in my class, the most unlikely white kid, who had an older brother called Dermot and he was Irish. He was into people like Simon & Garfunkel and a lot of singer songwriters before anyone else had heard of them. And one day he came in the playground: ‘Norman, have you heard about this film called Shaft?’
He’d already seen it. I’d never heard of it: ‘Yeah, course I have.’
I went round his house one weekend and he played Shaft. It was the most unbelievable piece of music I’d ever heard. And I was buying stuff like Chairman of the Board, loads of Motown, late sixties Stax. It was pure musical drama; musical theatre. Wicked. So I went straight from Ealing Broadway to Tottenham Court Road, round to Contempo to get it. I played that record to death. So I knew that feeling you got when you heard a record that drove you mad. That rush. That feeling. It’s like sex. Oh my God. It was one of the few non-reggae records I brought back that my dad loved. Straight away. That’s how I got into that Blaxploitation thing, because up until that point I hadn’t bought an album yet. I couldn’t afford them. Around that time I also discovered James Brown. I’d never really listened to records (lyrically). I was never that deep. If the overall sounds excite you, then if you want to go a bit deeper and hear what they’re saying, you can do. Which is why I like dance records, because it’s escapism, fantasy. Dance records are for the moment. You want to dance to them. I always liked funky upbeat records.
Can you tell me a bit about your American family.
I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Brownswood, the roughest part of Brooklyn, and in Crown Heights. My aunt and uncle, when they used to come over, they used to tell us about the racism, because we had no concept, but you were aware of the whole racial thing going on. You knew that. It scared us shitless. When Martin Luther King got shot, I didn’t really know what had happened, but I knew it was something really terrible. Like a relative had died. I subsequently learned that a lot of those black political records were banned. They were stopping certain records coming in on the pretext that they were protecting the domestic singles market. Which I subsequently learned was crap. I’d be reading about these records and wanting to know more I’d go to the store and they couldn’t get them. Why not? Listening back to those records you realise how powerful they were. They were street records. The voice of the street. That’s when I started to listen intently to records, especially James Brown records. ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’, that gave me courage to stand up and be who I am. Because British blacks, we didn’t have an identity, really. The first time I went over to America and met a proper African-American for the first time. Even though it was brother to brother, I realised that we were culturally different. When I first went there, it was just at the change over between the old New York stereotype gangster pimp. When I went over there that was what I was expecting to see. And the whole disco thing was just blowing up over there and the black guys were cutting their hair short and that’s when I saw the first rumblings of the whole hip hop thing. Ghetto kids weren’t going to the disco thing, because they couldn’t get in the clubs. Blacks weren’t admitted.
But black gay clubs were the start of it all really.
I can’t really say because I didn’t discover black gay clubs till later. When I first went there, the street scene as I knew it, in the boroughs, because you had to be 21 to get in to the clubs anyway…I can only give an English kids’ perspective, but it was a fantastic time to be there. It was going through change.
In England, the all-black environment was a different thing [like blues parties]. It was always a highly charged emotional thing. Very heavy sexual overtones. Dark room. Sweaty bodies in a cramped room 21 storeys up. There was always sex music and, inevitably, the drugs. There was always a highly charged emotional thing. Almost like a church congregation, only with secular music. When I went to white things, they did things differently.
What are your memories of the community round Ladbroke Grove?
Very different. It was almost 95% black, urban, street. In those early days it was quite lawless. At times almost bordering on anarchy. You have to remember it was the post-76 carnival riot, I was a child of that. Watched all of that. but that was very important socially. Up until then, as a black youth, walking the streets of London, being constantly harassed, and not necessarily physically intimidated. But I knew a lot of my friends were, by the police, the Special Patrol Group, which as a result of the whole social political climate of that time, they abolished.
And also the sus law….
The sus law, yeah. Stop and search. It was like being in South Africa. Just as random. The police were arbitrarily overstepping the mark. So carnival August 1976 was when the angry young youth of London just said enough is enough. And I was of that age. I was of that whole time, that was me they were attacking. And again that was in my neighbourhood.
What actually happened that day in 1976?
That summer, there was a huge event going on in Margate. So a couple of my mates owned cars, so we’re gonna get out of town, go up to Margate. There was a club there called Atlantis and I can remember loads of soul boys. This was the summer when the whole punk thing blew up massively in the media, and there was a kind of an allegiance between the punks and the soul boys, and they were being harassed and persecuted and just distressed. Anybody who dressed a certain way was considered fair game. The soul boys were a bit cleverer, cos it was a fashion thing for us as well.
We go to Atlantis, a big fight breaks out on the beach. With all the scooter boys against the soul boys, and the punks. But there weren’t enough of us. And basically all the soul boys were black, so that gave them even more ammunition, because you knew it was pretty right wing. We got run out of town, chased back to the station. We were back in London by about three o’clock in the afternoon. So we were like, ‘Where shall we go?’ Reluctantly, well there’s nowhere else. Let’s just go down to carnival.
So we’re on the train, train doesn’t stop at Notting Hill, police on the platform, trains are just going through. What’s happening there? Train doesn’t stop at Holland Park. What’s happening there? Get off at Shepherd’s Bush. Curiosity’s risen now and we’ve all walked back, ten of us. We come over the hill at Ladbroke Grove and see loads of people running. And all the side streets were clear. It was like a ghost town. Couldn’t hear anything Get down by Cambridge Gardens and suddenly a mob of black and white kids came running round the corner, being chased, everyone panicked, stampeding to get out of the way. We stopped across the road and watched. There were all these police in plain shirts with truncheons, running everybody. I knew right away, it was a riot, it was going off. I remember there was a camera crew, got half beaten to death. The camera smashed up, black guys were on the rampage. Part of me was quite fearful of that, because I don’t like to see that kind of anarchy and lawlessness. But at the same time, all the years of frustration, the amount people I knew that had been physically beaten by the old bill, this was payback. Got stuck in there for two days. Couldn’t get out. And the rioting went on solid three days, nights. It was really terrible, really scary
Where would you go to hear sound systems back then?
There wasn’t sound systems as such. Black communities obviously had to be self-sufficient, so they’d organise paid parties, blues. That was completely unheard of in the UK at the time. It was an Afro Caribbean tradition brought here. To help raise money to rent properties and eventually buy properties. You couldn’t go to the local pub. You weren’t made to feel welcome in any place of entertainment. Whether you were being paranoid or not, the fact is the racism was there. It was hard for an immigrant to come here. Whether you were Black, Asian, Irish, anybody, that was the climate. But I can honestly say that I never personally suffered that kind of persecution. Partly because of my upbringing, and the liberal attitudes of my parents.
They were driven by a different kind of passion. At that time, England was quite reserved. When the drug culture came about they really learned how to get loose. They loved it, no more than you do, no less, but it was a controlled passion. As a person who trod on both sides of this, I was richer for those experiences.
What kinds of nightclubs were about then?
In London we had loads of small clubs. There used to be a chain of clubs called the Bird’s Nest, about four or five of them. One in Twickenham, one in West Kensington, one in Waterloo and another one in West Hampstead. This would have been 1973 or ’74. The West Kensington one used to have a soul night on a Sunday night which I went to. That was a complete revelation to me, because I’d never heard all the music that I’d been buying played loud in a club environment. It blew my mind. It was half empty, not many people there. But I found what I was looking for.
When I went to my first northern soul gig I was intimidated. When I first went to Wigan Casino, there were three black guys and two of my white friends. Five of us went up in my Mini. Bouncers out there gave us real grief, until they realised we were Londoners. ‘We came from London for this’. And the crowd backed us up. It completely took me aback. They were the friendliest people I’d ever met. All my perceptions were shattered in one night. It was such a fantastic feeling. I didn’t know any of the music they were playing in there. People dancing all night long. A completely alien culture. But I loved going to places were I wasn’t comfortable and I liked going to places which were completely new to me and challenged the usual conventions.
What did you think of the music at the Casino?
I didn’t know any of it because it was too obscure. It wasn’t my perception of what northern soul was. One or two of the records because I’d read about them, and the DJs used to announce it. I always remember Russ Winstanley always announcing. I only knew the last three records of the night.
The Three Before Eight?
Yeah. I couldn’t really get with the drug thing in there as well. By that time I was just flirting with weed and I couldn’t deal with the pills. It wasn’t massively overt, but you knew it was there. And when I was in there you know, again, people put you into their stereotypes, you’re the black guy you must be the drug dealer. So all night long we had guys coming up to us. That was disappointing. My lot hated it. They couldn’t chat up the birds because all they wanted to do was dance all night long. The blokes were just so into their music. Our lot were cockney wide-boys. They were fashion. That’s the thing with London. Music’s part of a whole bunch of things. I was up there wearing straight leg Levi’s, and it was just when the punk thing was coming in; I had a mohair jumper. They looked at me like I was a complete freak. I was called a queer and a faggot. But I loved the fact that they called me that; it was rubbing them up the wrong way and challenging their perceptions.
Were there any other black kids there?
There was one, he was well known there as a dancer. And his nickname, inevitably, was Chalkie. Chalkie White. He was famous for his dancing. He came up and spoke. He was really friendly, but my lot were taking the piss out of him because they’d never met a black guy with a northern accent. We must have sounded equally weird. We were there at the first night of everything. When Crackers opened, we were there first night. Ten people in the place. But there was also Sunday nights at the West Hampstead Bird’s Nest. The difference between us and those northern kids is that we were into new things. New music, new sounds, new clothes. We didn’t want to look back. Looking back was rock’n’roll and dinosaurs. We wanted the latest, the hippest, which is why London appeared to be quite faddish.
Did you go to Blackpool Mecca, because they played new music there.
I didn’t go in its heyday I went just before it closed, 1977 we went. But those splits were well documented in Blues & Soul, so I was reading avidly about these things. We watched their petty debates about what was and what wasn’t allowed and we were laughing at them!
I wasn’t working, but I was making money. We used to hitch all over the country. Londoners never hitch anywhere! Travelling to northern things. I needed the adventure. You’d go up there for a football match during the day, kick it up at the football and yet at night those same people you’d been rowing with at the football, you’d find you had a common bond: music. That was really weird. I was into club culture before it was club culture. I didn’t drink so pubs held no appeal for me. I used to go up to these matches in the north and take a holdall with me and go to clubs afterwards. My lot thought I was a mug. But that’s how I discovered Reds in Manchester, because I knew of John Grant, Colin Curtis and Ian Levine. I went to Blackpool Mecca, again after a Spurs game, when we were in the Second Division. Trouble all day on the seafront with hooligans. I was there with a couple of mates to stay, and by then I’d perfected the blag, because cockneys are quite good at blagging into places for free. About six of us got in to the Highland Room for nothing and had the time of our lives. I noticed then the division. It was not necessarily new, but it was more modern. The kids in there, I remember, were wearing exactly the same soul boy clothes as we were wearing. They were into different aspects of the same sort of music. It was modernist, which is what we were. And there was also the fashion element, which we had in London but wasn’t part of it in the north. I remember hearing Ian Levine, and I liked some of what he played, but he played all the records that I’d left behind in the shop.
I had progressed into the Philadelphia thing in a big way by then. I bought everything that came out of Sigma Studio, religiously.
Even the Ritchie Family?
Oh yeah! ‘Brazil’; I got that record. We didn’t have those hang-ups. You’ll remember the big debate that went on between Tony Cummings at Black Music and Dave Godin at Blues & Soul. What a lot of tosh! I used to read that with amusement. Old v. New. While they are arguing the toss over that, we were queuing to buy Brass Construction’s debut album.
Around the time I left school which would have been about 1974, the 100 Club started an American R&B night and they got this guy that no-one had ever heard of to do it. At that time Capital Radio had just started. And it was the first time we’d seen a black DJ. It was always a white guy. Always. We went in there and there’s a black guy playing the music, and talking with an American accent and playing black music. It was called Bluesville’s House Of Funk.
Who was the DJ?
Greg Edwards. It was black. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was full of the hippest black guys, who I later discovered were gay. Didn’t know at the time. There were a lot of gays in there. There were transvestites and cool white people. There was no tension. It was properly integrated and it was the first time I’d seen that. No violence; no-one getting their head kicked in. It wasn’t your Mecca disco. It was an uptown London after-hours thing. It cost 50p to get in and the queue went right round the block. I remember hearing so many funky things that night. It was million miles from their squabbles in Blues and Soul and Black Music. A million miles away from Wigan Casino. It was closer to what was going on in downtown Brooklyn. It was very influential. The imports would come in on a Thursday afternoon and Greg would be playing them for the first time that night. The next day you’d buy them, 100% new stuff. They weren’t playing funk at Blackpool Mecca, they were playing disco.
But they played stuff like Brass Construction’s ‘Movin’’, right?
They had to because it so popular. I remember when they first played ‘Movin’’ because it was the first time they’d played a funk record of note. I never heard any James Brown records there. They never did. They never played anything that blacks would call funky, which is why blacks never went to the clubs, because it wasn’t funky enough. The white kids liked it for the energy and the soulfulness. There was never any sexual charge, it was always about emotion: a man leaving his girl; I got no job; I’m living in the gutter; they liked those sort of songs. We liked double entendre sexual overtones. Well, I can only speak for London blacks because I was born and bred here, but 90%, maybe more, were into reggae. If you were black you were into reggae. But there was a group of us that had broken away from that and were looking for something else, which the whole soul boy fraternity offered. We were into clothes, we were into fashion; we were into music.
What’s your take on the jazz funk thing?
In the beginning the origins of that were black West End. Very small, very underground. Never read about them in Blues & Soul. There was a nucleus of clubs and the really astute people like Chris Hill realised there could be a huge demand for these things. They did it for the right reasons: they wanted to bring this music to a wide audience. But subconsciously, they excluded us . They wanted the blackness, without the black. It was great for white kids to like black music, but they didn’t want black kids in there for some reason. I can remember the earliest things at the Goldmine in Canvey Island. Chris Hill did the first Sunday night and it was almost exclusively black. If you look at photos of Canvey Island circa ’74 it’s black. Within a few years the clientele had changed. Not many people know that, but I went.
When did you first DJ?
Well, back then there were no black DJs, so you didn’t aspire to be a DJ. There were no role models. I wasn’t aware of other black DJs.
You must’ve been aware of the sound system culture from Jamaica?
Oh yeah, but I chose not to be part of it. It was my brother. He was into building sound systems. All the kids round my way were. Being part of a sound was the done thing. It was almost like a gang. You played in a church hall or in someone’s house. And I’d already tasted West End life, so I didn’t wanna go and stand in a bloody church and get kicked out at 10.30! We were soul boys, black soul boys. Even our community used to patronise us: you know, soul boy, gay boy. That’s the association they made. Chris Hill was doing these things all over the country: Lacey Lady in Ilford, just like the northern network, we had a southern one: Royalty at Southgate, there was a club for every night of the week. Monday night would be Scamp’s in Hemel Hempstead, Tuesday was Sutton Scamps, Bumbles on Wednesday, a club every night. But this circuit had no black DJs, meanwhile in the inner city, people like me were starting to make ripples. Hadn’t graduated to clubs yet. As it turned out the biggest DJ at Crackers was a Greek, who had a black following: George Power. He was totally on the button, understood what black kids were about. He became a legend. In our eyes, inner city urban kids, George Power was more important than any Chris Hill or Robbie Vincent. They didn’t mean anything to us. They weren’t as cutting-edge, or as up to the minute as George. But you needed the Chris Hills because they were taking it to the masses. I went to those events because they were like the gathering of the clans. I went to the first three or four Caister Weekends, the first Funky All-Dayer at Reading. Smarties in Manchester. Cleethorpes. Central in Leeds, Angel’s in Burnley.
By 1976 I’d started to make pilgrimages to New York, because by that time my dad was living there; my family was living there. And Freddie Laker! God bless him, because without him I’d probably have taken another ten years to get our there. But with £99 return you could go every couple of months if you saved up. I always used to go in the middle of the summer when it was stifling hot. Even in my aunt’s street, they used to have block parties, where the streets would be blocked off. My uncle had a sound system. My uncle used to – up until about 1990 – used to run one of the biggest calypso clubs in Brooklyn called the Flamingo. It was an illegal, after-hours thing, but everyone used to go there. My cousin used to play there. I played there a few times. In summer they had a huge sound system. It was really funny that it ran in the family. My uncle had a huge sound system that they’d built that he used in the club, then take it out. Got over there and one afternoon they’re setting up in the street. It was a July day. Boiling hot. You know what it’s like. The streets were sealed off, everyone brought sandwiches, hot dogs, barbecues. My uncle set up four decks, right on the pavement outside my aunt’s house. This would have been 1979, because ‘Good Times’ was the record. My cousin Terry and one of the other guys from the street on these big bollocks turntables ‘Good times!’ – it was wicked! I’d never seen anything like that. Here, you were used to going into clubs that were essentially pubs with record players, not even sound systems. Crap tannoy systems: that’s how you heard your music. That’s what really struck me, because coming from a black background the first thing you did before you got your records, was you got your sound system right? That’s a prerequisite. In the American clubs, they understood that. It’s innate. You can play the worst record in the world, but if your playing it on the best set, then it’ll sound a $1m.
You ask any black guy. You got your heartbeat bassline which means the bass is so heavy it’s like a heartbeat. It’s sexual. It’s rhythmic. It’s tribal. It goes back to some tribal thing. That’s why we are innately funky. And white kids aren’t. You watch white kids dance and they do it to a different beat.
They dance to the beat, rather than the off-beat.
Yeah. Well that’s what funk is: it’s the off-beat. They like to dance on the beat, white kids, that’s why they like northern soul.
Because records were so cheap over there, everyone bought two copies of a record. Over here it was so expensive, you could barely afford to buy one. But my uncle, he had two of everything and because he was in the record pool, he got promos too. I went there, and I came back with, ohh, I was getting $2.68 to the pound, and walking around there like a dollar millionaire and my uncle had just moved, because it was just after that big power cut in 1976 when the lights went out. Basically, everyone went out and helped themselves. And my uncle and his family were no exception. My uncle got enough furniture to re-furnish their place, basically, so they had to get rid of all their records. I was like a kid in a sweet-shop. I took as much as I could physically carry. That’s what motivated me to play records. I thought, ’Yeah, these’ll be good for the sound system’ because all sound systems have a record library. I remember telling my brother Joey about all the gear I’d seen out there: the decks, the mixers. Because we’d always traditionally had, you know, Garrard decks, an MC, my selector, and doin’ all that. You couldn’t play ‘Good Times’ like that. You couldn’t play Brass Construction like that. I bought a pair of second-hand Consort decks and my brother by that stage was pretty proficient in reconditioning things. I did a party at my mum’s and about 200 people turned up, mainly West End kids. It was like having a West End club in your mum’s house! In essence that was the very first soul blues, because traditionally blues were always reggae. I’d quite openly claim it was the first soul blues. All the local guys turned up and they were like, ’What’s all this? Where’s the reggae?’ ’There ain’t no reggae here tonight. I’m playing the records, and there ain’t no reggae.’ I used to get a lot of grief in the early days.
Can we talk a bit about your sound system at Carnival?
I was playing (at Carnival) the kind of tracks that I’d always loved; funky stuff, that I’d never heard in clubs because I’d always thought that they wouldn’t play. But I subsequently learned that they never knew. That’s how the whole rare groove thing blew up. I took it for granted that people knew these records. It turned out they didn’t. We had a sound system had all the equipment to deliver the sonics of a record that you couldn’t hear in clubs, because they were crap. My brother used to test the whole sound system in my mother’s house. Once the vibrations brought the whole ceiling crashing down. My dad went absolutely mad. We were soundchecking, as we always did, speakers everywhere, bits of turntable, speaker columns, soldering iron, in the house. Did I mention my parents were very liberal?! We did all the first gigs as Great Tribulation. The clubs were very restricted then: no dancing after 2am; no dancing on Sundays. Fuck that! You came here on a Saturday in the seventies, there was music blaring from everywhere. It ain’t like it is now; there were no yuppies there.
It was around this time that I became quite politicised. I knew what was going on with the whole white scene, I became quite angry and disillusioned and I was determined to challenge it. So I organised a black DJ union. No-one had ever undertaken to do anything like that before. My and my brother organised a meeting at my mum’s house of all the big black sound systems. I’d heard about Funkadelic in East London, Good Groove company in East London doing stuff. We didn’t know who they were. So we got in contact with them with the idea of forming our own black pirate station. This would’ve been about 1982 or ’83 and even on pirates then there were no black presenters. Again. But a lot of the guys I was dealing with then, weren’t that politically aware. We had a big meeting, about 20 people came: Paul ’Trouble’ Anderson, Jazzie B, Max and Dave (Hard Rock SS), Mastermind, Derek Bolland. East meets west for the first time. What motivated me to do it was this night going on in Canning Town: Bentley’s at the Bridge House. Froggy played there. It was almost exclusively black. Froggy was the idol around there. But there was some young black guy who was the warm-up DJ who was really very good.
Greg James may have taught Froggy to mix, but where Froggy had the edge was he had a sound system which most black kids could relate to. Which is why, out of all the Mafia DJs he had the biggest black following. He played the music that the black guys in the East End loved. He was a modernist, which is why he lasted longer than the others. I got there, desperate to go somewhere good (Bentley’s). The crowd’s 90% black; great energy. I was really impressed by the warm up DJ. Fuck! This kid is playing all the records I’d bought over the years and never heard out. And he was only the warm-up. The crowd would be firing and then Froggy would come on and play the same old soul boy classics. Maze. Yawn yawn. At the end of the night I went up to him, which I never did normally. I said: ‘Wicked!’.
He said, ’You’re the first person that’s ever said anything like that to me. It’s really great.’ I knew he was called Derek Bolland because I saw his name on the flyer.
He said ’Who are you?’
I said, ’Don’t worry’ because he played a couple of Leroy Burgess tracks in there which no white DJ had ever played. It was so black and underground: ‘Let’s Do It’ by Leroy Burgess [under the name Convertion].
’That Leroy Burgess track: brilliant.’ He said, ’I love that stuff but I don’t know where to get it.’ This is music to my ears.
I said, ’Well, I’ve got everything he’s ever done.’
’Who are you?’
This went on for the next few weeks and he kept getting thrown off early by Froggy. I said, ’Why does he throw you off?’ I didn’t understand about the politics and all that bollocks. I said, ’Listen, I’ll give you a sound system to play on.’ Derek’s reputation was just beginning and on one Friday Froggy couldn’t do it and Derek did it all night and it fucking rocked. A black DJ playing black music to a black crowd. It was a fucking revelation. Paul Anderson was there that night, too. Anyway, I brought him another Leroy Burgess track and he couldn’t get it out of my hands quick enough. Straight on the deck. The crowd go potty. I tell him: ’Listen, there’s lots more where this came from. I’ve got a house full of this stuff.’ At last, I thought, I’ve got an outlet for this music. Anyway, Froggy got wind of what happened that night and they sacked Derek. So we boycotted the club. The numbers went down. Froggy, you ain’t doing it no more, and they were going to close it.
We offered to install the Good Times sound system in the club (Froggy was taking his out). We said: ’Listen, we’ll bring a sound system for you, the likes of which you’ve never heard.’ Froggy’s roadies were laughing at us with our Tesco trolleys full of gear and cables held together with sellotape and our home-made system. But when we turned this system on: no limiter, full frequency. BANG. Five thousand watts of pure power. You don’t have to have ten or twenty thousand; it’s how you use the watts you’ve got. My brother was a fucking genius at that. Blew Froggy’s away. I got invited to his house and he had an unbelievable collection of 12-inches, whereas I was more of a 7-inch collector. About a week later he came round my house. He stayed the night. He wouldn’t go home. He says: ’I’m moving in.’ He stayed in my music room all night.
Anyway, back to that black union meeting… It lasted all day. It realised my worst fears. You couldn’t put a group of black guys together with different aspirations. It would never work. We couldn’t agree on anything amongst ourselves. There was one guy sitting in that room called Tosca. He was a bit of a player in the eighties. He whispered to me: ’I’m hooked up with someone you know who’s going to start a station. I’ll come back and tell you about another plot.’
Anyway, as good as his word, he rang me a couple of days later and said, ’It’s one of mates, Gordon Mac’ ’Oh, I know Gordon Mac.’
‘Gordon and someone else you know is starting a pirate station.’ But he wouldn’t tell me who the other party was. So he asked me if I’d be interested in getting involved. At this time LWR (London Weekend Radio) was going on which was the first black pirate station and I’d be invited to meeting with Zack who was running LWR at the time. I went for a meeting with LWR and it realised my worst fears about it. They were just basically the black version of the Mafia, of what had gone before. Gordon called me about a week later and said he’d heard about the meeting and that Froggy and the soul Mafia were really pissed off. I think they were scared of what we were doing. He said, ’We’re going to do a black music policy, over the weekends, with American-style mixes. Have you got any samples of this?’ At this time I was getting KISS tapes.
Shep Pettibone’s Mastermixes?
Yeah, so I said this is what we’ve got to be about. He asked me if I wanted to do a show. I said no, but I did really. I just wanted to make sure other DJs got on. By this time I knew Coldcut, Colin Faver, loads of them. I wanted black, white, female, male, gay straight, a bit utopian, but what I didn’t want was the same white suburban guys playing the same tired jazz funk records for people in Orpington. I explained this to Gordon, but I think it got lost on him. Gordon was basically just a pub DJ playing in south London, playing in that black club in Streatham.
Yeah, but before it was called Ziggy’s. He didn’t want reggae on it, so I was no I don’t want to be involved. Tosca called me a day later and said, ‘You can’t be like that. We’re going on air in two days’ time.’ I didn’t know they were that far advanced.
’Do you wanna do a show?’
’Right, okay, you’re on at 7.30 till 9.30 on Wednesday.’ Bang, he put the phone down. My brother told me to do it, he said you’ve got to change it from within. We went down to Charlton in south east London and did the show. Nicky Holloway was on it at that time, Paul Trouble was there. Very nervous, hardly spoke. We had a little line where people could phone up (in a shop in Green Lanes) and people kept calling him and he’d call me saying people love your show, man! They love it. At that time most black DJs were playing the hits of the day: Jam & Lewis, Cherrelle, Alexander O’Neal. I came on playing Leroy Burgess, D-Train album tracks and a lot of small label stuff. I was intimidated by the mic so people kept ringing up and asking what the tracks were.
Shortly after, we had a meeting. Because they kept getting their mast nicked, they were running out of money. It was then they let me into who the third partner was: George Power. So George and Gordon were bankrolling it. No-one was playing James Brown at this point, so I remember going on and playing ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’, the full length version. Twenty minutes long. I called the show from the off the Original Rare Groove Show, not consciously or anything, that was just the name I gave it. After about six months George wanted out for one reason or another (I think he wanted to start a couple of radio stations in Italy). Gordon wanted to buy him out. £500 or something. So Joey and I put £500 in. Gordon repaid most of the money. I took it upon myself to recruit most of the DJs. We wanted to call it Kiss but he was scared about copyright. Let them sue us, we’re a pirate! We nicked the name.
What about the warehouse parties?
They were just starting around this time. Punks in the docklands were doing these all-weekend long parties. They were wicked. No security, and no violence. But the music was hideous! It was a mad mix of punk, reggae, rock, rockabilly, everything thrown in. I wanted to do the same only with good music. But I realised I couldn’t do it under the Good Times name, because of the expectations we would’ve had. So I came up with Shake & Fingerpop. It would be a party; not a music thing. No DJs’ names. Definitely no music policy stated, because if you put what you’re going to play on there, it immediately narrows your audience. The first one I did was in a carpet warehouse in Acton on New Year’s Eve 1985. 1,200 people turned up with little advertising. I did half a dozen all round here.
I did a huge one in a big empty school on Hampstead Heath, called Amityville. That party was legendary, because it was the first time the Hoorays, Sloanies and middle class white people turned up. These lovely looking girls with posh accents, Jeeps, everything. They drank more. Got more pissed. We had three white public schoolboys – Ed, Bill and Nick – who became Manasseh. Derek B played on the top floor, doing new stuff, Manasseh on the middle floor playing dub reggae and us downstairs playing the hippest black music you ever heard. Over 2,000 people turned up. The next day it was in the Sunday Times, all night sex and drugs party. The legend was born then. There were a lot of influential people there: fashion editors, journalists. So then I started getting these calls from the Face, Arena, and Simon Gough, who was then a stringer for NME, wanted to interview me. By this time I’d been doing the Rare Groove Show for about a year on a Saturday afternoon, and it was doing so well. It was so hip it made you sick. I’d give coded messages about where the next party was. We did them at Dickie Dirts in Camberwell and Bear Wharf in Southwark.
My mate Femi [from Young Disciples] used to go to college with Jules, because they were both at LSE. Femi thought he wasn’t a very good DJ, but he had got a good crowd. And the main thing was, he was white. His crowd would dilute the crowd, to make it more socially acceptable. Anyway, I went down to check him out one Friday and as sure as Femi’s word was, he played abysmally. He was crap. But the vibe was really good. He played a mish-mash of black records, which I owned and liked, but in a very amateurish sort of way. And his heart was in the right place. I approached him about doing parties and he said he was doing something with Soul II Soul the following week in Kings Cross. Jazzie was astute: get in with some white dudes, and your party won’t get busted. It was basically Jazzie’s party, with Jules fronting it.
When Kiss got huge and commercial, do you think it was inevitable that it went that way?
Yeah, of course it was. I remember saying in confidence to a few people – Gordon included – that after September 1st, 1990 it was over [the day Kiss launched as a legal radio station]. The honeymoon was over. The culture of this country and I know it’s a cliché but it’s true is we don’t know how to deal with success. We love a good loser. The thing was we’d done what we set out to achieve. We’d made the station legal.
Do you think the fact that Radio 1 has appropriated much of what Kiss did is a sign of its success?
It was a sign of the times. It’s a new generation asserting itself. As soon as they got rid of the old faces at Radio 1, you know, Kiss is a training ground, except they don’t have to spend any money training them.
I unwittingly opened the floodgates for all of that guest DJ thing when I brought Tony Humphries over in 1988. And I would’ve brought Shep Pettibone over, too, if a) I could’ve found him and;; b) I could’ve afforded him. These were my heroes. They were my icons. But I don’t think people were ready to hear them then anyway.
We’ve learned a lot from America in 30 or 40 years. Acid jazz could only have come from England. Rare groove could only have come from England. Jungle, drum and bass… We are now making music that the Americans used to take for granted years ago with jazz, R&B, hip hop, house. We’re creating our own and challenging them.
You’ve had a lot of experience of going to America, you know how segregated it is. Do you think the relatively well integrated society we have here has helped that?
But the fundamental difference here is we have a written music media. The written music media is the bedrock of everything that goes on. In America, they disseminate their information through radio. There is no, and never has been, a club culture in America. Purely because the racial and cultural differences never allowed it. We have had the club culture here for years, from the forties, and the mods after that. Which is why we never created the music. We were too busy being fans and appreciating it. That’s the fundamental difference: we had a club culture; America had a music culture. The only reason it’s happening in the US now is that they’ve taken the UK model and they’re beginning to have a club culture. It’s still in its infancy and it’s small. The Paradise Garage or Studio 54 does not a scene make. We had a soul scene that must have been spread over 50 to 100 clubs.
Doesn’t the geography of America work against it in this instance?
Yes. But they’ve always been able to have access to it; all they had to do was turn the radio. They didn’t have to travel 3,000 miles for that. Whereas we were denied that. We never had it on the radio. America does not have a fanzine culture like we have here. It was a way of uniting all the factions. Now we’ve got the internet, it’s beginning to happen. I think that’s the one defining thing that separates us from them and has made us the new powerhouse in the world. Muzik, DJ, they’re read all over the world. Even in America. That’s why British DJs are the biggest exports in the world. Even American DJs don’t go as far and wide as we do. You show me an American acid jazz DJ, or jungle DJ? They’ve got hip hop, house, R&B and you don’t get R&B DJs playing all over the world. It’s music led.
© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster