'Sonically Connected': Harlem's Favorite DJ Stormin' Norman Talks Building Community Through Music

DJ Stormin' Norman spoke about his musical influences and love for the Uptown community.

Brandee Sanders
June 05, 2024

For East London-born, Harlem-based Norman McHugh, better known as DJ Stormin' Norman, mastering the art of synchronization goes beyond the nostalgic records that spin on the slip mats of his turntables. From Uptown to the UK, that spirit of harmony flows among the scores of people who come to see his musically vibrant sets; coming from all walks of life to experience collective joy through songs—even in the rain.

For the Sundae Sermon visionary, the evocative relevance of music has been evident throughout his entire journey; from the Blues basement parties back in England to DJing on-air at WBLS, and cultivating one of the most storied festivals Harlem has ever seen, Stormin' Norman celebrates cross-genre, global music in the heart of the community. Ahead of Manhattanville Community Day on June 8, Columbia Neighbors spoke with Norman about his journey, the backstory and vision behind Sundae Sermon, and how cultural celebrations build community. 

How has coming from East London inspired and influenced your journey in music?

I grew up in East London and came to America as a teenager. My parents are both Jamaican and there were a lot of soul records being played in our home. My joy in music came from my parents. Throughout my career, they came to every New Year party I DJed, from the smallest to the fanciest, and were always the last ones on the dance floor. The British idea of soul music was influenced by a lot of the music coming from America. Although the love for soul transcended both countries, there were some differences in the music. Certain songs were hits in England, but weren’t the biggest hits in America. My musical curiosity started when I was about six years old. In England, back in the day, there were house parties called “blues.” My sister, whose boyfriend was in a sound group, took me to one of these daytime gatherings. I noticed the DJ at the party had a telephone in his ear that was connected to the mixer, and I had so many questions. I later learned he was listening to records through the phone. That’s one of the experiences back home that sparked my curiosity and eventually forayed me down a path where music became my essence.

When was the first time you experienced the power of music? When did you discover your passion for it?

I think I’ve always had some form of passion for music, but when I learned how to DJ in college is when I started to experience and tap into its power. One of my mates from high school was going into the Navy and asked me if I wanted to hold on to his two turntables and mixer. I set up the equipment in my parent’s basement and started playing a mix of my dad’s old records as well as the ones I was buying at the time. I learned how to mix accidentally. It was an exploratory journey for me. After months, weeks, and days of frustration, I figured it out. I then had an idea to take two of the same records and play them simultaneously. My love for dance and understanding the “1234” count transferred over into mixing and helped me stay in tune. Finding a sonic balance between two tracks moving at the same was a lightbulb moment for me.

I ended up going to Iona University for a track scholarship. Some of the other guys who were on the team came from the boroughs—Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. They would take me to the clubs in New York City and that’s when I began deepening my passion for music. We would go to these legendary places like the Limelight, the Palladium, Mars, The Tunnel, The Underground, Nell’s, and Danceteria. Sometimes, I would even venture to these places alone because I was just a kid who loved music. I’d be in these spaces with a shirt and tie on and you’ve got all these club kids who go to all of the dramatic schools in New York City doing backflips and spinning on the floor. I knew those were my people. Witnessing and experiencing the passion for music spoke to me, and it’s where my love for uplifting people through music came from. It’s about taking a record, playing it, and seeing what the reaction is. That’s basically how you build your set. As you play more, you understand what moves the crowd and what doesn’t.

If you could choose one album or song that reflects your journey, what would it be and why?

Musically, I like everything. I’m a little bit of a butterfly. I would say “As” by Stevie Wonder. That song is so sonically connected. When people make music, there are certain chords in songs that capture listeners. The songs might be across different genres—from pop to hip-hop—but the chords evoke that same sense of emotion. Stevie Wonder speaks to you sonically. He builds you up and takes you down. As far as the song being a reflection of my journey, it captures my intuitive side. I think I’ve always been a positive person, and I feel like I’m very in touch with myself in terms of how I feel about things and people. It’s almost like I stand outside of myself when I meet someone. I can tell when a person is happy, sad, or has a lot going on. I wouldn’t say I’m clairvoyant, but I see it in their eyes. I feel it. “As” takes you on an emotional journey. I play it at the end of all the Sundae Sermon festivals. I play songs through feeling—which might be connected to my love for dance—that’s basically how I travel through my sets. I play from the heart.

When did you move to Harlem? What made you want to call the neighborhood home?

My first experience of Harlem was East Harlem. After graduating from college, I started DJing at this hotel in Connecticut at a happy hour my mom told me about. After a couple of months, the hotel owner expressed interest in connecting with a radio station like KISS FM or WBLS to do a live broadcast of the mixing. One day, I connected with the program director from WBLS who provided me with the opportunity to play on-air. I was living in New Rochelle, doing a live broadcast in Stamford, and then driving to Manhattan to do live radio. I ended up moving to East Harlem because it was more convenient. In 2006, I moved to Striver’s Row and have been on the West Side since then.

Once I launched Sundae Sermon, that’s when I started to understand Harlem a lot better in terms of its landmarks, places like Rucker Park, politics, and all of the neighborhood things. The community’s rich culture and history are things I infuse into my sets. I’ve had to make playlists for Black History Month and Women’s History Month and have used them to highlight folks who were born and raised here. Harlem is like a little East London to me; it’s got a little bit of everybody. In Harlem, every new person who comes in gives it their own spin.

"Harlem is like a little East London to me; it’s got a little bit of everybody."

What was the vision behind Sundae Sermon?

Sundae Sermon was birthed out of my love for dance. When I first started DJing, I was doing a lot of events downtown. There weren’t many parties in Harlem that fit my eclectic musical vibe. I’d always venture out to Brooklyn or Queens. I would go to this event called Soul Summit in Fort Greene Park and a party along the Queens waterfront, hosted by DJ Jellybean Benitez who is known for Madonna remixes, and would end up seeing a lot of my friends from Harlem there. I started to wonder why we had to travel so far to get this experience. Although at the time Harlem was very hip-hop, some people enjoyed disco, house, and reggae. The initial inspiration was to create an experience Uptown that united these genres and in turn, united people.

Playing on the radio vaulted me into playing bigger functions like NBA All-Star Weekend and other major events and galas, which is a natural progression in terms of being a DJ. I was on the road a lot. Between the years of 2002 and 2007, I pulled away from music so I could focus on spending more time with my son and my family. I packed up my turntables, equipment, and records and put them away in a room. All of my records were in 13x13 boxes stacked to the ceiling, probably about 10 deep. One day I came home and a couple of rows had fallen. There were records all over the floor. As I started picking up the records, I came across music that was nostalgic and started playing music for literally two days straight from my place on Striver’s Row, with the speaker in the window and nobody complained.

It inspired me to want to organize something at one of the local parks. I connected with a couple of friends to make it happen. I wanted to create our own party with a throwback vibe that was reminiscent of our clubbing days; filled with music from the late 80s and 90s. Hosting it on Sundays would bring the energy of the historic LGBTQ+ club Paradise Garage; it was a space where people could be free and it was only open on weekends.

A Sundae Sermon festival in St. Nicholas Park. Photo credit: James Nova Photography on Flickr

As far as the name Sundae Sermon, playing music from the heart is like a spiritual experience; it’s like going to church. I wanted to host the music festivals on Sundays because most of my friends have kids, so it’s easier for everyone to come and bring their children and picnic baskets to vibe out to the music, almost like a family reunion. I added the “AE” to “Sunday” to make it unique. When we started, about 50 people showed up and half of them were our kids. Eventually, it grew to thousands of people.

"Playing music from the heart is like a spiritual experience; it’s like going to church."

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had challenges around the politics of planning events of this scale and having to constantly present our permits as we grew. I knew historically a lot of other gatherings of this nature across the boroughs in places like Brooklyn and Queens were getting shut down because there was a lack of understanding regarding what these events were truly about. The reality of it was there was nothing like what I was doing in Harlem. It was brought out of a need for something that wasn’t here.  We were part of the new renaissance of Harlem. By year three, the whole top of Morningside Drive was packed.

How can cultural celebrations like Sundae Sermon be a driving force for building community and bringing neighbors together?

I’ve witnessed so many positive examples of community through Sundae Sermon on all levels. Musically, back in the day, clubs were a little bit less segmented when it came to music, and that’s the energy I wanted to capture during my sets; a celebration and blend of a range of genres that would speak to different people and connect them. For the Sundae Sermons, I’d bring in different DJs from two different genres to play, which was also a form of building community through music. I’d have a DJ who plays hip-hop and a DJ who plays house music, and then I’d come in and fill the gap. As far as the crowd, it was a big family. People would bring their kids and let them run around because it was a safe space. Folks would leave their blankets in the park hours before everything started, and they would be intact when they got back. One of the things I loved was when the festival wrapped up, people would hand-to-hand help clean the park, and it looked better than it did when we came there. We all looked out for each other. If you take care of your community, hopefully, it will take care of you too.

As we started hosting more events, I thought it would make sense to start involving the Harlem community by spotlighting businesses and nonprofits. I also started to incorporate themed days and activations like small business day, mentor day, and health and wellness day. There was one person from the neighborhood who stumbled across Sundae Sermon and came up to me after the event and said “I’ve been here for about an hour. I didn’t know one song, but this is so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it.” A mother came to me and said “Norm, I come to Sundae Sermon because I just want to forget all of my worries for a day before Monday.” That’s the essence of building the community. You don’t have to be like-minded, but there’s an energy there.

The idea of using music to bring the Harlem community together was sort of a second thought. I assumed if I created this space, it would happen organically.  I’ve always come from a place of meeting people where they are, and they come because my essence ultimately is about bringing people together. If you create something from an organic place, it’s going to give you back exactly that.

"If you create something from an organic place, it’s going to give you back exactly that."

Unfortunately, sometimes people in society have these preconceived notions about who people are and how they act, especially when it comes to people of color. We all want to be happy; we want to be accepted, we want to be respected, and those who want these things are generally the ones who are more progressive in leading things. My greatest satisfaction of doing Sundae Sermon is to see the happy faces.

What’s on the horizon for you? What does the next iteration of Sundae Sermon look like?

I’m on the board of the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance where I serve as the co-chair of events and programming. I have my event series on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. I’m working on building a nonprofit around Sundae Sermon that will support the festival and cultivate a mentorship program for youth between the ages of 14 and 18. Through the program, they’ll learn about different facets of the music festival industry and have the opportunity to connect and gain knowledge from leaders right here in our community. I’d also like to use the nonprofit to raise funds for other causes that are near and dear to me, including addressing issues like domestic violence. I also want to support organizations focused on cancer, which both of my parents passed away from.

Musically, I’m coming out with a Sundae Sermon EP this summer that will include originals and remixes spanning all of my musical loves from hip-hop to Caribbean to house music and more.

Follow DJ Stormin' Norman on Instagram and visit Sundae Sermon's website. Listen to his mixes on Twitch, SoundCloud, and YouTube. Experience a slice of Sundae Sermon at Manhattanville Community Day on June 8.

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