Tea With Normski
Give em 10% Normski, thats all you need. Thats what he said! Give em 10% percent
Im walking through Camden with Normski, having just met him outside Camden Town tube. Were weaving through the crowds of hippies, goths, tourists, locals, nutters and Im desperately trying to keep up with Normski, both physically – hes walking fast -and verbally, hes talking ten to the dozen. Hes talking about receiving some early advice. At this stage, it seems an odd piece of advice to be given – to hold back 90% – however, three and a half hours later, when our interview is complete, I kind of understand.
That place right there, see that place there, that was my first ever job, tea boy in a record shop. See those steps, that was where I shot the Ultramagnetic MCs.
He stoops down and takes a shot of the same scene on his phone, with a middle aged tourist taking the place of the rap stars. Normski grew up round here, Primrose Hill to be precise. And thats where were headed for a cup of tea and a chat – but not before we go on a whistle stop tour down memory lane. I say whistle stop, and I mean it. Everything Normski does is at 180 miles per hour. The way he talks, moves, gesticulates, thinks. Hes an absolute fireball of manic energy. As we cut through the market, Normski greets every second person like an old friend. We walk down the canal, where he points out the activity centre he used to go canoeing with as a kid. Then were outside his old school, then were outside his old block of flats, looking up at the window that he had as a bedroom as a nine year old. We snake into the green, plush squares of Primrose Hill and reach our destination – a little cafe just by primrose Hill itself. Weve been together 15 minutes and covered about 20 years.
You getting all this? he asks. Most of it I say, whilst actually thinking no, youre talking at the speed of light in riddles while were walking at something resembling a gallop, of course Im not getting all this He laughs. I thought you might be recording it all, wearing a wire or something!.
We order our drinks, an Earl Grey for Normski and a strong coffee for me, as I realise Im going to need it to keep up. I set up my recorder now were stationary and we begin a long, meandering conversation that covers the entire universe, and so much more. These are simply the heavily edited highlights….
So, throughout your career and everything that youve done, it seems music has been absolutely central. Is that fair to say? And When did you first fall in love with music?
Yeah, I think thats fair to say. All through school I played something, at 11 I was playing the trombone – I played Violin, that didnt last long. It was painful to practice. It grated. I Lived in a multi level house in Kilburn until I was about 8, with loads of the family all spread across different rooms. From Gospel being sung in one room to R&B playing in another – Al Green, Stevie Wonder that kind of stuff – those were the sounds I grew up around. One of my uncles whos passed away now – Uncle Ronnie – he had a soundsystem which was one 15 inch speaker box, painted in gloss paint with Sir Hall (that was the family name, the Halls) written across the front in brushstrokes. Just one box, but he plugged that in and that was the soundsystem. So yeah, I come from a really, particularly joyous and musically inclined family. They partied a lot, I used to go to sleep upstairs in that house, under the pile of coats – and Id hear the bass thumping from the party downstairs. My family are a very loud and animated Jamaican family – theyre all well correct man, no ragga people in my family. First, second generation kids of people who built this country, built up the transport in particular. hard working but LOUD!
A bit later on, when wed moved round here – I was bout 12 by now – me and my mates were into funk and on our way to getting into electronic music, but it hadnt really kicked off yet. We were a big crew of friends with families from all over the place – Jamaicans, Barbadians, French, everything – we were into Jazz, you know JAZZ, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis – we were into that, aged 12. Used to play bongos and congas and whatever – in fact me and Zak Ove, a Trinidadian kid who went on to become a heavy percussionist – he was on Soul to Soul records, like Keep on Moving and all that, we used to play percussion together when we were like 12 years old. We learnt photography together too, me and Zak. He inspired me Zak, his dad was Horace Ove, the famous filmaker and photographer. Everyones house around here had space for the kids, we were welcomed into each others houses – thered be 10, 15 of us hanging out and everyones house round here had space for us – it was so safe. You could walk everywhere, people were from all over – it was an amazing time man. This area, so much comes through it and links back to it, all throughout my life. Much later on, when I was doing photography I met Finley Quaye, another good friend, he was doing some stuff at Mayfair Studios at the time – right here in the middle of Primrose Hill, no longer there by the looks of things. I met him for the first time in A Guy Called Geralds studio over in Hammersmith. It used to be in Riverside Studios, we were fighting between TFI Friday crowds and trying to get some Drum & Bass out. Gerald used to have this little corner there – it was this wonderful little creative box over in West London.
Anyway, rewinding a bit – my first band, Night People we got together in the mid 80s when I was at college. I was the drummer. Some rich African lady who used to live down Princess road she loved us, thought we were amazing. She bought me a drum kit. The plan was for her to take us to Lagos! It never happened, but she wanted us to get really good so she could take us over to Lagos and play gigs. I think she was the wife of a prince or something, she was absolutely loaded. In the band everyone played everything, everyone played drums and had a go – I was the drummer, but everyone had a go. I played a bit of bass, everyone had a go on everything. Everything was shared.
You mentioned you were into Skateboarding too?
In 76 we started skateboarding, we had it going on! My generation started it off in this country. I was aspiring to the guys who were a couple of years older who really started it here. There was a couple of brothers, Kieran and Colin Young, they used to live on King Innes Road – they were Californian I think. They had that look, the Californian surf long straight hair, they were the sickest skaters. John Subloski he designed skateboards and you used to see him on Primrose Hill testing his boards out. The Turnbull brothers, still really good friends of mine – they were there too. So many guys around Primrose Hill were getting into skating in the mid 70s. We used to get the 68 bus from Chalk Farm garage, boom – we were at South Bank. We used to get the 31 bus going the other way, boom – Meanwhile Gardens. We were the first skaters on Meanwhile Gardens. Mark Sinclair, big up your chest! We had a skateboard team by 1980, The Harvey Jones Thunderbolts. We werent no good! Harvey Jones toy shop used to be on the Parkway, they sponsored us. Theres always that point though, isnt there, when some people begin to excel at something and you realize, OK, Im actually a really shit skateboarder arent I, basically? I havent got the balls. So then you slow down, but you remain a fan of it. I loved it, but from then on I really started getting into photography more and more…
And how did it come about, your involvement in Photography?
I got my first camera from my mate Teo, he just had one and he said you can use it, you use cameras and that. There was a lot of lending and borrowing going on at the time. When I was fourteen I did a course nearby, a short course with this New Zealand guy called Ray, Il never forget him. He taught us the basics of taking a picture, how to develop, how to make a contact print and boom, the worlds your oyster. Not long after that, my Mum and step-Dad both worked at London Transport and they had a photography club there. This guy Albert, who used to run the photography club at Chalk Farm garage was selling his old darkroom stuff for next to nothing. They came home with a Reid and Sigburt 35 mm enlarger, which sadly perished in a massive fire I had in Old Street. It was a quality bit of old brass, mahogany and coarkboard, sort of 1950s handmade equipment.
I went to college for my sixth form year doing a datex photographic lab skills course, one year intensive at Kingsway College off Farringdon Road. It was a full time course, all the stuff you could use in the photography field – lighting, chemicals, liquids, colour printing, black and white, photographic theory and history. I loved that course, I excelled so much. I did work experience at somewhere called the Fleet Street press agency up on Exmouth Market. My first assignment was to go along with a professional photographer and we were doorstepping a young day nurse, named Lady Diana Spencer – she was literally like a teenage bird. I used to get given the prints and Id run down to Fleet Street with these in envelopes giving them all to the picture desks at the newspaper offices. I look back at it – I had the part time job in the music environment at the same time at weekends. So I got all of that fluff at the weekend and learnt all about photgraphy in the week. Within 12 months of leaving college I was a professional, freelance photographer.
The very first photo I had published was in what was then called the Camden Journal, its of this car in the square down the road and the car has gone headfirst into the basement – it didn't smash, it just got jammed, head down. This old lady had been given the car as a present from her son – who just happened to be Mr Levvit – the architect who designed our block of flats – his mum was used to old morris minors and didnt know how to drive it. I was just wandering around, taking photos of my mates, doing a bit of reportage – and this guy stops me and says theres a good picture round the corner, you should go and have a look. Sat in the house above is this painter and decorator, just carrying on with his work with this car, arse over, crashed nose-down in the basement.
DIY Parking – Normski
So, being involved with music and having developed the skills in photography, I suppose you were all set?
Yeah, so between something like age 16 and 18, it all ties together – my love of music and photography. I loved live music, I was in a band, I was becoming a professional photographer – it was all set.
Theres a place near-by called Martial Arts promotions and theres another little set of recording studios behind there. I started doing photography stuff with them and at the same time covering gigs for Record Mirror Magazine, which was based on Hampstead Road. So Id go to gigs, take pictures and then, with my gear – I could print them at home. Someone, somewhere said you should sell these and one I day I just went for it and started getting into it. I started contacting mags and selling my photos. From then it was really quick boom – record companies – boom – in the magazines – boom. So this was like mid 80s now and Hip Hop is coming through. I think about 87/88 Id been called up by ID magazine, which was all about new talent and that. Also, 87 was the beginning of Hip Hop Connection magazine and I became the chief photographer for that so, you know, all of a sudden people were like Normski, Normski, Normski. I was getting flown out to America, back and forth all the time….
So, then, how did you go from being this in demand music photographer to becoming a TV presenter and fronting Dance Energy? It seems a big jump…
I went along to Dance Energy and they loved me, I was really informed with the street music side of things – Soul ll Soul, Massive Attack all these people, these were the new voices of the UK -same age as me, same interests. I came back from New York where I was out hustling for work and went to this interview to get involved with photography for the show. They said – have you ever thought of being on the other side of the camera? and I said no, not really I hadnt. But they said we think youd be amazing. They wanted people from the world it focussed on to be fronting the show. We had a little rehearsal and they did a screen test, I had to wait for ages and I thought – what am I doing here, I should have stayed in New York. Eventually, we did the test outside – they started filming and I was a natural. By the end of the day, Id got it. I was a breath of fresh air for them It was my town and my people.. I had baggy vanilla coloured tracksuit bottoms on and a red hoodie and red and black suede Champions on my feet. I was right for what they wanted.
Bizarre Inc on DE
They were gonna have Cat, from Princes crew, she was going to be my co-presenter – one guy, one girl. She wanted more money and they were like fuck it then, well just have Normski on his own. I was at the front of it, but there were loads of people involved – it was a real group effort. The first show we did, the first person I introduced on the stage was KRS1! He said to me – Ive never seen so many black faces in a tv studio in my life. That was it – the cool kids had something that was theirs on tv for the first time. Its in the blood now. There were very few programs at the time representing our reality. It was the first.
People always said – how did they get the audience for Dance Energy? We used to go to clubs all over the country and literally hand pick the cool people that we thought really represented the nation. Then we did Style Squad, with the fashion police thing – we were all over the country talking to people, taking the piss. The first one ever was in Brighton I think, it was funny – if you sped it up Itd be like Benny Hill! We did Bristol, we went all over…
Style Squad in Bristol
We did Dance Energy on Radio 1, too. I touched on radio stuff there. Then quite quickly, I went to Channel 4 – I was advised by Michael Jackson (BBC top dog at the time) to go over to Channel 4 where I did stuff like Board Stupid. There was a bit of a cull going on at BBC and we all got shipped over to Channel 4. Doing TV was great, but it did effect my photography – it got to this point where no-one would take me seriously as a photographer anymore. They were like youve made it man, what you talking about?
What about Acid House, which obviously featured a fair bit on Dance Energy – were you into that yourself when it exploded?
I was on the outskirts of that, because I was really deeply involved in Hip Hop at the time. Although to be fair, Id started shooting people like Kevin Saunderson and meeting all these techno and acid house producers. I shouted ACIIIED on a couple of records; when Bomb the Bass did his video I was the guy with the smiley face on his head running around in it. So I was a part of it, in a way. I went Shoom with my mate Greg – we were both drummers so we loved the music, it was us. As a photographer I really got into it when it crossed with Hip House and all that. I was at Clink and that, I was there. We werent really into the pills and that, we were smoking weed and drinking Super T and that! I was into the drum and bass stuff when it kicked off, in the nineties I toured with A Guy Called Gerald for three weeks, I went to Metalheadz at Blue Note on Sunday nights religiously – I lived just behind it in the 90s, before I had my massive house fire. People thought I was in there when it went up in flames, but I wasnt. I came out of the club and saw some fire engines and it was my place, up n smoke. Its the music man, its destroying me! Every time Im having a good time, something fucking goes wrong!
Anyway, I was designing a sleeve for KMS records in Detroit, Kevin Saundersons label – so I went out to Detroit a couple of times in 87. Also, with the Music Mirror I was sent out there – taking the first generation pictures of Derrick May, Juan Atkins and all that. I went to Detroit and just freaked out – ended up on a fucking record out there, rapping!
Magic Juan – Yeah Yeah Yeah (feat Normski)
Their Japanese cars and sound systems and everything, it was fucking mad. So when Acid House was kicking off here, I was over in Detroit. So when I first heard the acid stuff, to me it was kind of like a remix of what was happening in Detroit. And I think, whats important to say is that it was all over the country here, it wasnt really just this London thing – it was Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds – these were the places that were really into it.
So, youre playing at Society next Thursday at Dalston Superstore….
Yeah, with Robert Owens. I love Robert man, hes been on my show on Hoxton FM before. Theyre going for the whole Dance Energy theme, and said to me will you play a Dance Energy set, and Im like of course. What they dont seem to realise is that a Dance Energy set just means I can play whatever the fuck I want! I mean, we had all sorts on the show – house, hip hop, soulful stuff. Im really looking forward to it. Ive played with Josh Caffe in the past and I know all that lot – Hannah Holland and people like that, I fucking love them all. Ive been djing for the past 20 years, and for me, being a drummer, its like playing the drums through the decks, you know? Its like, full circle. My whole life, man, its like one of those two thousand piece jigsaws – every time you start putting it all together, it gets shaken and youre like oh shit, you have to start again. You start putting another bit of it together and somewhere along the line its all one big picture. Theres a lot of overlap….
Hes not kidding about the overlap. The condensed life story he tells me moves about all over the place, one minute were in 1976 talking about skateboard wheels and by the end of the sentence were talking about the director of the BBC in 1996. The thing that yolks it all together is both his deep affection for music and a burning energy that seems constantly in danger of consuming the man whole. Normskis a legend of late 20th century UK Youth culture – hes one of these figures that seems to have been everywhere at precisely the right time to witness, and be a part of, the latest phenomenon. Be it Hip Hop, Acid House, Detroit Techno, Music Photography, Youth TV – hes made a mark and played a part. We leave the cafe (which is, by now, waiting for us to leave so it can shut) and head back out onto the Primrose Hill streets that have so formed and shaped him. After a warm hug, we go our separate ways – I stagger off back towards Camden Town dazed and bewildered by the sheer life force of the man, thinking back to his opening line Give them 10% Normski. If that was 10% that Id just experienced, the recommendation Normski received to hold back the other 90% was sage advice indeed.