My earliest travel memory is going to New York as a teenager in 1979 on a £99 ticket. That was my first taste of travel; I’d never left the country or been on an airplane before. It was a life-changing experience. My parents were thinking of migrating because the majority of my family were living in New York and New Jersey. I loved it but I didn’t want to live there. I went for the next five or six years and used to spend my summers there — sometimes two to three months at a time. An amazing time to be there — musically and culturally.
I’ve been touring Australia every year for the last 17 years. Headlining the Sydney Festival in January must be the biggest gig I’ve ever done. I’ve played all over Australia but Sydney’s where my heart is, I’ve got lifelong friends there. The weather’s great, the festival season’s great, people know me — it feels like home from home. I don’t think I’ve played anywhere as many times as I’ve played there; it used to be New York, now it’s Sydney.
My DJing has taken me all over the world. I was one of the first DJs to get their ‘Olympic rings’, having played on all five continents. In the eighties, I compered on a couple of Rough Guides around Europe — Prague when it was behind the Iron Curtain, East Germany, Russia, Poland, it was really eye-opening. I was one of the first black DJs from England to go and play in those places; it was proper pioneering stuff. In the early days I was able to spend time there. Nowadays it’s just in and out. But I did all the culture and tourist things first time around — Berlin, Moscow, St Petersburg, Krakow were all amazing.
Travel’s changed me. It’s definitely made me the person I am. I was always tolerant and loved my fellow man and brother, and having travelled I love them even more. It took me to Africa — I was one of the first DJs to go and play in South Africa post-Apartheid, Namibia, Ghana, all over Africa. I never did the backpacker thing but I stayed in plenty of crap hotels and slept on enough couches.
One of the most culturally and emotionally stimulating places I’ve been to was Bahia in Brazil. I went there about 15 years ago with the British Council and a good friend of mine when he was Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University, Professor Paul Gilroy. It was one of the most emotionally amazing things I’ve ever experienced. It was a cultural eye-opener, learning about black history and a black civilisation — it left an indelible mark on me. Professor Gilroy was doing a book-signing tour and I was doing the music afterwards with DJ Marky. I spent two weeks on the road, we went to Sao Paulo and Rio — which was great but I wasn’t that impressed — but Bahia in the north was like stepping back in time to how Africa once was. Amazing.
I was made a guest of honour at a World Cup match between Namibia and Zambia. One of the chiefs of the villages in Namibia invited me to visit while I was in South Africa, and presented me to the players. That was an amazing experience, going to shanties and talking to local tribespeople, eating with them… I was also given a guided tour of Soweto and Alexandra in South Africa. The DJing has been fantastic but I’ve had some real cultural highlights, too. When I went to Australia for the first time I visited a school for a DJ workshop, gave a lecture, and did some cultural programmes for them on an Aboriginal radio station just outside Brisbane.
I’m really looking forward to the Winter Sessions in Chamonix. I did it last year and it was absolutely off the hook. It’s an amazing weekend of events. I’ll be there with Zero 7, Trojan Sound System, Cheeba, Soundcrash Sound System… The good thing is that although it’s run by ex-pat Brits, it’s not just a Little Englanders’ thing happening in France — it’s very international. I don’t know where those kids get their energy — they’re on the pistes all day and I’ve never known a group of people party as hard as those guys do at night. And then they’re up at 7 or 8 in the morning and they’re straight back on the pistes. It’s hardcore, especially in that weather.
I’ll keep playing whether people want to book me or not, whether people want to pay me or not. I’m too old now to go and drive a cab or work in McDonald’s. No one’s going to give me a job selling insurance. I still have as much love for it today as I’ve ever had, particularly this year as we’re going to be doing some fringe stuff around the Olympics. Notting Hill Carnival’s in doubt this year because of the Games but all things being good, we’ll be back, bigger than ever in our rightful place on the hill.
Norman will appear at the Winter Sessions in Chamonix (30-31 March). http://wintersessions.net/
Born in Notting Hill to West Indian parents, Norman showed a talent for DJing at an early age. A trip to New York in 1979 inspired him to take it more seriously and led to him establishing the Good Times sound system at Notting Hill Carnival in 1980.
Having gained a reputation at illegal warehouse parties, Norman set up pirate radio station Kiss FM with Gordon Mac in 1985 — it later gained its legal licence in 1990.
In 2002 he was awarded an MBE for ‘deejaying and services to music’, in 2004 he appeared on BBC’s Question Time and he regularly DJs at celebrity weddings and events.
He is a recognised authority on black music and UK club culture and regularly presents and appears on TV and radio programmes.