IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR;
MELVO BAPTISTE MEETS UNCLE NORMAN JAY
A few months ago a video popped up on our FB timeline. It was Glitterbox resident Melvo Baptiste playing ‘You Can’t Hide‘ by Teddy Pendergrass to an adoring and hyped up crowd of Millennials. It struck us here at Faith just how amazing it was how a record over 40 years old could stand up production wise and touch a young DJ and crowd obviously far too young to have heard it the first time.
For those that don’t know Melvo’s uncle is one Norman Jay. Norman and Melvo’s father Ernie grew up in Acton and as teenagers were regulars on the burgeoning London soul/ funk scene that was centred around clubs such as the legendary 100 Club, Crackers and Hunters amongst many more. They also schlepped up north to iconic events such as Manchester's Ritz all Dayers and Blackpool Mecca’s Highland room searching out new sounds and scenes.
It then dawned on us here at Faith that Melvo would have grown up with these records as a kid around the house and also working on the Good Times sound system at Carnival (selling cans of soft drinks long before finally being allowed to play music). So thinking about both the legacy of a record like ‘You Can’t Hide’ and the family connections of Good Times we got Uncle Norman to join his nephew Melvo to share their musical journeys, with our Editor Terry Farley sitting in.
Melvo: ‘We've got this lineage for the family. Norman you introduced me to so many great records over the years, records that I still play in my radio shows and in clubs now. What was amazing was a record like‘ You Can’t Hide ‘ is 41 years old this year, is how these records are eternal, they can still rock a dance floor. People in their twenties, people in their forties, fifties, it doesn't matter. What is it in your opinion, is it about those records that seem to have that eternal lifeline?
Norman: Well, I think because those records pre-date the electronic age, when human emotion was involved in making the records, all the senses were put into the making of the record, the creation of a record. The human, emotional and drama captured them in the beginning, by the musicians. It hasn't been equalled even with the technology you have today, still trying to re-create that impact. It's that impact it's in the blood. It's the impact, but it's the drama. This was black American experience, jazz.
M: Back then were you the guy singing in record shops on a Saturday afternoon, trying to figure out the records.
NJ: No because, I think I was too geekish for that. Cause I used to buy music magazines then, you know, black music newspaper, Black Echoes, Blues & Soul, and read the reviews. And you’d get a list of forthcoming releases. I used to go to the 100 club with your day, every Thursday. Greg Edwards had his first residency there. Ronnie L was the guy who owned the 100 club then. It was also Ronnie's job to go and collect all the fresh boxes of imports from Contempo records (on Hanway street a legendary spot where two cool black lads Alex and Jeff held court behind the counter),which was like 50 yards down the street. So he used to warm up before Greg came. Ronnie would open the box and play them, all the pre-released records. Greg would come on later and play some of the same. But for me being the geek collector, Ronnie was the man.
M: Could you tell me about Contempo?
N: Alex and Jeff who worked there knew your tastes because they learned your buying patterns. I'd go to Jeff, and he would say ‘you need this, you need D.C LaRue ‘ …And then Alex would do the same, I’d say I'm only earning 12 pound a week back then!
M: That’s a beautiful tie in as well. You mentioned D.C LaRue and ‘Cathedrals’, recently reissued by Faith, a record that even for me, I can go out now and play that on a Saturday night and it will rock the crowd, it's a real dancer’s record. Do you remember the first time you heard that and how people were reacting to that record at the time?
NJ: Yeah, but true story. I had a dilemma with buying that when it first came, because I remember it was advertised in Blues & Soul as one of the first batch of original 12 inches, they called them disco disks then. You could buy an import single for 65p and these retailed at £1.75. That was a 10th of my weekly wage! [Laughs] But, sonically they sounded much better.
Melvo: So, we must touch on that. Growing up with you and my dad always around, we were always talking music and my dad, even now his memory for a record and a moment is phenomenal.
NJ: Mine’s good too when it comes to records, but that’s all… don’t ask me about anything else.
M: And maybe even more than the music, it's about the element of dance and how important dance was in the Clubs back then.
NJ: Well, it was really important to us because that was the only outlet, creative outlet and freedom of expression that we had. It was either that or if you were lucky enough to be in a shit mundane job for crap money, most of the time you worked 40, 50 hours a week, you had to work Saturday mornings. Some people had to work weekends. Life really was miserable, especially if you were a person of colour, you know, you leave the house, you don't know whether you're going to get picked up by the old bill, beaten up, you know, it, wasn't a great time. History has kind of glossed over that, but these were proper hard times. And speaking personally, the only solace I found was in my music and the only creative escape I had was dancing in clubs, which is why I've always loved records and played records that had the day ‘Saturday’, ‘weekend’ ‘going out’, ‘party’. Those records were speaking to me because that's how I lived.
Melvo: Great connection for you right now. Something, again, you always did as a DJ was not just playing great music, but it was associating something with that moment. If the sun was out it was ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ or if it started raining, it was Frank Sinatra. But also, there was a comment from a US singer called Danielle Ponder recently and she said that, in moments of injustice or despair comes great music or great things.
Melvo: You were always great at finding moments and picking records with a message, Public Enemy, Nina Simone. With George Floyd and then the aftermath with Black Lives Matter it was a tough year. My mind was kind of in a strange place all year. It was difficult. But records helped ones like O’Jays ‘Give the People What They Want’, it was such a standout record for me., and again, it was making that lineage and connection there of when I'd go and watch you play. There was such a message in those songs that are still so apparent, and so real today
NJ: Well the voice is powerful, it’s ethereal. In the African tradition, it's always been the voice and the sound of the drum because the drum equates to the heartbeat. That is older than any Western culture, and that music, those key elements have always been in the black lineage in the black tradition from whether you go back 400-500 years, even before times of slavery, you know, the tradition is the drum. It's the message, and the spoken word. You look back in black history, music has always come out of suffering. You know, the blues came out of suffering, you know, Southern blacks in America, trying to find their faith in church, singing. It's the ultimate human expression, the voice.
Melvo: And for you playing music with such a powerful message has always been something you've never shied away from. Have you found that music is desperately important? Do you think it can affect government and people?
NJ: Yeah, I'm of the opinion that music is hugely important. You know, I was told from a very young age, never trust anybody, or do business with someone who doesn't like music, and I've always found that to be true.
Melvo: Can we move on to the Notting hill Carnival and ‘Good Times’. That’s gone down in folk history, just as the most amazing street party, the most amazing weekend of anyone’s life. You told me a story one day, where your brother Joey would jump on first, playing his selection of dub. you would then come on and if you played anything that sounded like soulful music, Joey might have to jump back on and kind of back you up a little bit. So, even then as a DJ, that must have given you the chills sometimes because no one wants to clear a dance floor. Did it take years to kind of evolve that carnival crowd ‘
NJ: Yeah, it did take a long time and I'm glad it took a long time because the longer it takes you to learn something the better you become and the more you're able to perfect it, you know? But at the time I was young, fearless, and really on a mission. I was evangelical about it. I was on a mission to get our sort of music accepted at carnival. In those days, carnival was much more black. You know, this was just post the Notting Hill uprising of 76. I was a young soldier. I threw my stones, fought oppression. It was the dark days between 76-77 and 1980-81. I didn't go for a couple of years after that because it was just too dread to go there. You know, I called them the wilderness years. The idea of play there, making my debut there was just in my head from about 77-78.
Melvo: One thing that I'll touch on quickly there is it's really easy for us who probably joined carnival Part 2. You forget that the seventies and early 80’s even existed, that the decade before where it was a dangerous place to be. My mum would tell me stories where I think she was pregnant at the time with my sister and it kicked off at carnival and people are rushing and she was trying to hide behind a tree.
NJ: Playing carnival during that era taught me that you couldn’t, especially in high-tension places; play with people's emotions because in an instant, the crowd can be volatile and hateful and believe me, there's no more volatile crowd than carnival. With the steamer gangs, everything could be set off in an instant. Play the wrong record and you could start a riot.
M: Could you give me some examples?
N: I was playing my NY tunes and within seconds of the tunes being played It's all ‘Take it off you batty boy’ a full can of coke would come over, bottles full of piss would come over. Bricks rocks would come over. You know, my dad's down there, my sisters said they could get hit with this stuff. So, you know, I'm sensitive enough to think this has got to stop now because we have got no control of the situation it could come on top. So my brother would come on, put on a dub tune then the Rastafarian’s would come to the front see a Rasta playing the music and then chill.
M: That must have been frightening?
N: Personally I wasn't frightened, I wasn't undeterred. It just strengthened my resolve. But it just made me rethink you can't come with all this New York stuff and the stuff that you hear in Crackers and the stuff that you roller skate too. It’s a completely different thing. I had to rethink it in that afternoon and thought, well, there are a lot of black girls here. They all like their reggae and they all like their Lovers Rock. What's the closest thing I got to Lovers Rock… what are now called 2-step. You can nod your head, you can snap your fingers. And I used to get on the mic and encourage people to do that. Don't have to dance just nod. At this point though I think I need to point out that there's basically two parts of the Good times story at carnival. 1980 to 89 was the years on Cambridge Gardens, and then because of the riots and the violence in ‘89 I thought, I'm not doing this again.
M: You took some time out then?
N: I took a year out in 1990, reluctantly, but I still thought I was doing the right thing. So, 1990, I walked around Carnival and the word was out that there's another soul sound called Shock set up around the corner by Powis Square. The DJs on there was my man, Ashley Beedle a few others. They were a few years younger than us, they were kind of young pretenders really, but they did the job, they filled the void. I remember sitting on the wall opposite with my mate and all these people come up to me asking “Norman what happened to Good Times “.
And in that instant, the penny drops Norman you're kidding yourself. You can lie to everybody else. But the one thing you can't do is you can't lie to yourself and it was in my blood. I'd been doing it eight years solid, still loving it, still believing that Good Times is destined for bigger and better things.
M: How did the next stage in Good Times come about then?
N: After Carnival ‘90 they bought in a register, which meant money. You got to register or you can't play, you've got to get insurance or you can't play, you've got to comply or you don't play. The expansion of Carnival was the carrot, immediately the penny dropped. I didn't want to play in the epicentre of carnival because for me, that's where all the aggravation was. Deep down I knew all my friends and the Club people would never come into the heart of carnival that was a place where angels feared to tread. After a really fraught and dangerous four or five hour meeting, I stood up in the middle of everybody (it was about a hundred sound men in the room ) I said, “yeah, Good Times, i’ll move, give me a list of the new sites”. I remember I was the only one that stood up. I had to walk to the front with the most hostile black men looking at me and I didn't care, I wanted out of there. My head was thinking if I get up first, I get to pick first, this lot are a bit slow.
M; So this is how West Row started?
N: I already had my eyes on the newly built Sainsbury’s car park at the top of Ladbroke Grove, where Mastermind is now. I thought that's a good spot because all my lot could just come over the bridge. In my mind, I thought I'd had it. I rushed to the carnival office to register. And I remember the woman in there told me you can't, that was the one spot that's already gone, ‘it's gone to Mastermind, Herbie Laidley.’
M: You must have bee gutted?
N: I was because I had already made up my mind. This is where we're going to go. I didn't have a plan B. Maybe I'm gonna have to leave the carnival. I definitely wasn't going to go back to Cambridge Gardens and I remember I was disconsolate. Anyway as I walked down the road from Sainsbury's there’s some steps that lead down to Southern Row and I walked down the archway. It stank of piss but as I got Southern Row. It really was a light bulb moment. That moment I looked in front of me and I knew, this is it. I run back up the stairs, run into the carnival office , ‘who's at Southern Row? No, one's at Southern Row’ they say. And I said ‘that’s Good Times spot ‘ .
M: You were in quite a unique position maybe then, because you had the heritage thing of your brother and the family and the traditional sound system culture. But then I guess a lot of the US DJs playing block parties and stuff with the more kind of US disco, but you were kind of marrying two cultures together.
NJ: The culture had come from the same origin because all the New York block parties you find, all those guys were of Jamaican extraction. You know, the biggest community of Jamaicans outside Kingston live in New York. So, you know, the Jamaicans that go to Kingston that go to New York, create the block party thing. Our lot, we create the sound system because the closest we could do that was at carnival. Where we're allowed to, and even in the beginning, we weren't allowed to put our speakers on the street and play, you know, I've always said the sound system is the bastard son at carnival, no one likes us. Originally, we were not supposed to be there. Now we're known as one of the original disciplines, but 20, 30 years ago, we weren't.
M: The amazing thing is that people often forget that connection between, it wasn't just about DJ playing records and a reaction. It was also about how good your sound was as well. And that was a huge part of it, right?
NJ: Yeah. Well, we married the two. Joey would spend months prepping and getting that sound ready. I didn't really get involved in that because I didn't need to. My role was to make sure we had tunes that nobody could play. Nobody could come near us. And I quickly learned very early on that, you know, 12-inch disco records will sound even better on a reggae sound system. We didn't have stereo, all sound systems played in mono. If you played funk records, you would never hear them like that in the club. You know, you'd feel bass at the end of the road.
Melvo: When we're talking about records that connected like that at carnival there's so many we could go through.
NJ: we broke a lot of records at carnival
Melvo: If we want to talk about lineage and records, that I would have heard you play and records that I can still play today and still see ridiculous reaction. One I have to talk about is Nuyorican Soul ‘It’s Alright, I Feel It’
NJ It’s one of those records that you can't wait to play it but you need to pick your moment. I was inspired because I remember I was playing something else and the sun came out, it was boiling hot, and I could see that people were wilting so I needed to slow the music down a little bit. People always dance better when it's colder. It was so hot. And in those days, we had no vinyl protection. So sometimes in the early days you put a record on and you've watched a record warp in front of your eyes. We used to stick loads of cardboard and stuff in front of us to protect the records, which used to obscure my line of vision with the crowd and it's very important you have eye contact with the crowd, but for this record, I took it off and I put it on and I remember I was mixing it into something and the drums kicked in and the mix was working. So, I let it roll in and then just I let it go, tthen it breaks down into that Jocelyn refrain. The people were cheering, but everyone's eyes closed, hands in the air. This is church. And then she starts singing and people realise it's Jocelyn Brown. And when it kicks back in in and the street erupted. I thought I’m going to let the whole thing play. And by the time it comes to the second breakdown and refrain where she's singing people think when is it going to kick back in and I said, let them wait. And then the most ferocious kick drum comes in. And it was like being at football, the crowd just roared and then an hour later I played it again.”
Melvo: Carnival is something that has been massively important for me as is radio. I always knew that I wanted to do was radio, since coming to the BBC studio. I wanted to end by asking is radio still important for you?
NJ: Well, radio it's come full circle for me. Back in the eighties I looked at our culture and thought, where are we missing? And that was a black DJ presence on the radio. So, when the offer or the chance to start at KISS in 1985 which was a pirate radio at the time I was all over it. Partly because or mostly because this will give us a chance. I'm gonna say us, my emerging generation, peer group, generation of DJs, you know, Trevor Nelson, Paul Anderson, Jazzy B will have a platform to be able to play music for London the way we experienced it. No gatekeepers. You know siphoning what we should listen to or filtering what we listened to. This is how we enjoyed it in our youth clubs in our street parties and in our home environment. And it comes from a position of honesty. What I was playing on KISS FM was same music that I was playing at somebody's christening on the 21st floor of a tower block in Hackney on a Sunday night.
Or the blues party in Ladbroke Grove. Wherever I am playing it all goes back to that for me.
M” Terry Farley wanted to me ask about that story you told him when on one of your many trips to stay with family in Brooklyn you got to hear MFSB’s ‘Love is the Message as Terry called it ‘unfiltered through a London Soul Boys preconception of what was and wasn’t cool.
N: That was a Labour Day block party outside my Aunt's house on Carol Street in Crown Heights. As it was the Labour Day weekend the police allowed them to have a street party. I knew this was happening because my Uncle Leo took the sound system from down the road, he had a club about a mile down the road, an illegal club. You could hear this fucking sound system from Eastern Parkway the six lane motorway, going right through the heart of Brooklyn. Then my cousin took the plugs. This is the first time I had seen this, here was a streetlamp outside my aunt's house. And Wayne just took off the cover off this street lamp and all the wires and everything got plugged into the system, so the electric was free.
M” Terry said it reminded him of a scene from a Spike Lee Movie
N: Yes then from all the houses everybody was making fried chicken, rice, everybody put their tables out there's food and that, and they blocked off both ends of the street. And they turned on the fire hydrants in those days (‘Shooting the Pumps “). It was boiling hot. I mean, proper, hot stinking, hot. And then Wayne puts it on ‘Love Is the Message’. He played the album version and he had two copies of the album and more and more people came out of their houses, dancing in the road. My mind was completely blown. I thought I only knew it because it wasn't played in our club environment. This is something I'd always loved from day one, When I first heard that in 1973-1974, I could only afford the seven-inch single version and then eight years later it's come home. So now I understand, and then my cousin was explaining to me, they have a different meaning of the word classic. There's certain classic records that they play in New York that's from the street that migrates into the clubs and ‘Love is the Message’ because of the universal is played in the street.
Melvo: They definitely do it different in New York…
NJ: Two big things don't have the same constraints and they play white records with impunity. That's the one thing I learned very quickly there, just because you're black doesn't mean that you can only play black records, but in this country up until then, because that was the convention, you know, black DJs didn't dare play white records.
Melvo: And even what you'd regard as like pop records which a lot of DJs would stay away from in New York, they don't, they play those records.
NJ: That's what I loved. And that's what gave me the courage. And I remember hearing ‘Pop Muzik’ by M played there. It had just been a hit in the UK and then when I get to New York it had hitting the streets.
M: This open minded view of playing music was passed down to me from both you and my dad and radio in one form or another has been fundamental to both our successes. I wanted to end by just asking why playing music to a audience is so important after all this time …
N: It’s your way of getting your message across. Sometimes that’s in a subtle way or not so subtle way. You know, I've always seen myself, especially in my later years as an emotional DJ, I play off emotion and I'm kind of in tuned with what's going on around me and the music I play more so now than ever needs to reflect what's going on around me commenting on what going on. Sometimes because there are no new records out there that are commenting on these things, I use the old tunes to illustrate what I'm saying. You know, and I always make subtle messages, like the messages in the music, those who have ears can hear it. ‘