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The Agony and the EcstasyCopyright Getty Images / Courtesy of Sky Arts

Dissecting the political impact of acid house

As rave documentary The Agony and The Ecstasy airs on Sky Arts, we speak to Norman Jay MBE about the political impact of the acid house scene and share three exclusive clips

Back in 1979, in a Chicago nightclub called The Warehouse, DJ Frankie Knuckles helped incubate the nascent genre of house music. Taking its name from The Warehouse, house music spread through the US underground and around the globe, and in London, it transformed into something entirely new. The acid house movement combined the hippie spirit found on the island of Ibiza with the sensation of taking a trip, be an ecstasy pill, a hit of acid, or a plane ticket to a faraway land.

By 1987, acid house had taken UK by storm with an irrepressible, revolutionary energy that evoked the utopian vibes of the Summer of Love. Peace, love, respect, and unity were the order of the day, albeit within the confines of illegal parties that were cropping up across the country, drawing thousands of revelers from all walks of life who wanted nothing more than to dance through the dawn. But the acid house scene was more than a cosmic display of hedonism. It was a movement that subverted the racial and class boundaries of Margaret Thatcher’s seemingly endless premiership. Although its political impact is often overlooked, acid house united a deeply segregated society, and what’s more, it empowered those who have been written out of history to rise and come to the fore.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of acid house, Sky Arts are broadcasting The Agony & The Ecstasy, a three-party documentary series that tells the story of the rave revolution through 40 seminal figures on the scene including superstar DJs Norman Jay MBE, Goldie MBE, Paul Oakenfold, and Dave Pearce, as well as producers, promoters, club owners, former police officers, and the unsung heroes of the scene.

Norman Jay MBE, one of the original godfathers of warehouse parties, first got his start at the tender age of eight, when he DJed a tenth birthday party. The Notting Hill, London native was born to Grenadian parents and came of age during the 1970s when collaborating with his brother with a reggae sound system they called Great Tribulation. A visit to New York City changed everything and they renamed the system Good Times, with a nod to Nile Rodgers’ disco band Chic. Good Times led the way as acid house came up, helping to spread the culture through the creation of London pirate radio station Kiss FM in 1985.

Norman Jay MBE spoke to Dazed about the political implications of acid house, and how the music forever changed the British landscape.

I love that in The Agony & The Ecstasy, you bookend the 1970s with your mode for transporting the sound system (trolleys in 74, removal van in 79) in order to set the stage for the intense racial and class divisions in Britain that existed when Margaret Thatcher came to power. How did she make things go from bad to worse?

Norman Jay MBE: It was a time of great unrest, social deprivation, and a country trying to recover from its loss of empire. It was all about the government asserting more control over the trade unions. When the government went to close down the coal mines, it was almost close to civil war. It was also about oppressing and controlling minorities as well. In 1968, Enoch Powell – a Conservative MP – made a speech called ‘The Rivers of Blood’, which really affected blacks and Asians, immigrants and kids like myself who were born here. That was a profound moment. That came in the same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated, coming right around the same time Robert Kennedy was killed as well; he almost assassinated us by words.

Thatcher’s Britain in the late 70s/early 80s I remember because I was unemployed. It was hard times and compounding that was the police’s overt oppression of black youth. It was akin to Apartheid being practiced on the streets of the UK where large Afro-Caribbean and African-American communities were based. It was a depressing time actually (laughs), but quite a good time as well because it meant that we had to take advantage of that situation to create and carve something for ourselves.

“I was trying to make my mark as a black Briton... I was determined not to be written out of the history of club culture if ever it was documented in this country” – Norman Jay MBE

I think of the 1970s and early 80s as a DIY period: because you had nothing, you made something. You were the first black DJ to be interviewed in NME. How did this play into your consciousness?

Norman Jay MBE: On one side I was trying to make my mark as a black Briton in a society that was trying to ostracise me and, at the same time, the dichotomy was British youth culture has always fed on the diet of African-American music. Anyone who knows rock’n’roll history knows that all the rock & rollers learned their trade from the original blues musicians. In the 60s, a lot of the fantastic records that I loved on the radio were by white pop bands. You know, I loved these pop songs. Then ten, 20 years later I discovered these songs were originally written and performed by black artists and I was kind of shocked by that, but I learned to accept it as a truism, as a fact.

Armed with that information and knowledge, I was determined not to be written out of the history of club culture if ever it was documented in this country. That was a conscious decision by me, to not let them airbrush us out of the rich British culture tapestry.

While watching The Agony & The Ecstasy, I realised it’s so interesting how times change. The impact of pirate radio and the significance of starting Kiss FM in an age where there was nothing – versus today, where we’re overloaded and have to keep the stuff out because it’s bombarding us. As I was thinking about Kiss FM, a Martin Luther King quote from ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ came to mind, where he says: ‘One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.’ Could you talk about the importance of pirate radio and essentially transforming British culture by subverting the system?

Norman Jay MBE: You’ve encapsulated it perfectly there. My whole raison d’etre when I became a DJ was to break the UK’s national radio monopoly. I knew radio and television are much more powerful mediums at reaching people, which is why governments fear them. In Britain, thankfully, they were a little more lenient when it came to starting things like a pirate radio station. Of course it was illegal but in countries like America, it was a capital offense. You only have to look at South American countries in recent history. When there’s a revolution, what’s the first place they take over? Radio and TV stations.

“(The government) were very nervous about (pirate radio) stations controlled by black people because they feared the ramifications if we turned political” – Norman Jay MBE

Britain had a strict law but it was quite relaxed to the point where we didn’t face 50 years in jail if we were caught. As long as we didn’t interfere with the bands that the emergency services operated on, the government was prepared were to tolerate it – provided we weren’t overtly political. They unofficially turned a blind eye to music. That was okay for white pirate stations but they were very nervous about stations controlled by black people because they feared the ramifications if we turned political. We were quite intelligent and quite clever about the way we operated with Kiss. We had black DJs, white DJs, Asian DJs: we represented the community. We had a mix of people, which was quite democratic.

My raison d’etre when I got involved with Kiss was to play black music from the black man’s perspective in England. Up until then it had been almost the exclusive reserve of white DJs. I deliberately set out to break that on my own terms. We broke a lot of barriers. We were the generation that rewrote the rulebook when it came to DJs and club culture. All I was ever striving towards was equal opportunity: to be judged fairly on merit, not because of race.

I totally get that. Acid house was like a return to the idealism of the 1960s hippie era, or even the 1970s disco scene in New York, which brought people together at places like The Loft. Why do you think music has the power to transcend?

Norman Jay MBE: It’s because the only criteria you need to listen to music is that you’re human. It doesn’t matter than you’re black, white, straight, gay, Jew, Muslim – wherever you come from, it’s a universal language understood by all. My dad always used to say to me when I was a kid, ‘Never trust a person that doesn’t like music.’

Music has a power I don’t really see in other forms of art: the ability to create unity. With acid house, it seems as though subverting the system to create your own world is incredibly liberating and powerful.

Norman Jay MBE: Acid house followed the elite London in-crowd, which was largely driven by music, fashion, and style. At that time, Soho was like a village. There was no middle ground: it was the elite, stylish, cool, funky, fashionable end from which I came. I was one of those people – hold my hand up – (who was) quite snobbish about not letting certain types of people in because we didn’t really want their vibe to be ruining a really cool vibe that we had nurtured ourselves.

The acid house scene came as a reaction to that elitist London scene. Those kids would travel from the suburbs, sometimes 20, 30 miles out, and would travel into town with a big gang of girls, a big gang of guys: high street kids. They were getting held back from a party where there’s only 160 people inside and there’s a massive queue outside and no one would get in – and what was all the fuss about?

“In that scene, you saw the make-up of the community. Everybody – black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay – and the whole soundtrack that underpinned that was New York/Chicago house. New music for a new era” – Norman Jay MBE

When acid house came along, those kids realised they no longer needed to subscribe to situations that largely oppressed them and they were able to create their own scene, which as bigger than anything going on in cool, funky London. You’d drive around the M25 on a convoy, hundreds of cars – the excitement of that! Not knowing where this place was and suddenly emerging from the woods or a big clearing, there’s a circus big top or an aircraft strip, tens of thousands of kids there. You couldn’t make that up! (laughs) It was absolutely unbelievable. And the edge of it was, it was absolutely illegal. Bring your own drink, bring your own drugs, if you were that way inclined, hear a soundtrack – and nobody was telling you weren’t good enough to come in. In that scene, you saw the make-up of the community. Everybody – black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay – and the whole soundtrack that underpinned that was New York/Chicago house. New music for a new era. It was our Woodstock.

Coming full circle, the very government that tried to shut down your parties awarded you an MBE in 2002. That’s wild to me.

Norman Jay MBE: Yeah, that is crazy. They say you eventually become part of what you one rebelled against; that’s how the mainstream works. Parts of counterculture always get assimilated but only certain elements of it. You grow up, you become respectable, you become a bit older and you’re less inclined to challenge things. But when you’re young and fearless all you want is change. All you want is good in the world. That’s why young people and music are so important.

Long after these old warmongers are dead and gone, hopefully there’s a generation that comes afterwards that has a completely different light on things. The one good thing about Donald Trump is that one day, he’ll die. Somebody young and energetic with ideas that befits the age that they live in will get voted in. Similar thing here. Once kids realise they do have the power to vote… Today’s young people are the first generation to teach older people, because of their handle of the internet and technology. For generations, from time immemorial, elders always taught youngers. Not this time.

The Agony & The Ecstasy airs this Friday (August 11) at 9pm on Sky Arts

Norman Jay MBE plays Good Times Goes East at Mick’s Garage, London on August 27