As Fatboy Slim, Brighton, England’s Norman Cook became the grand poobah of the electronic faction known as big beat, and the first to emerge from the normally exclusive DJ culture a full-blown rock star. The success of his sample-based house/hip-hop/rock mishmash has been equally applauded as validation for an underappreciated art form and scorned as a breach of techno’s ironically inflexible imperatives. In short, Norman (in all his many guises) crafts bubblegum music for the turntable sect that can be easily telescoped to 30-second sound bites for car commercials. Nonetheless, he fills each album with enough catchy hooks, imaginative sampling and euphoric boogie-down beats to make up for years of stoic dance-floor redundancy. So what’s the problem?
Cook’s days as mixmaster started in the early ’80s, a role he reconvened after a stint as bassist for the Housemartins. After the release of a couple of singles under his own name in ’89, Norman gathered some likeminded noisemakers to form Beats International. The music tracks on Let Them Eat Bingo are constructed almost entirely out of other people’s songs and recordings. The dubby bass line of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” provides the bottom for the UK hit “Dub Be Good to Me,” a cover of the SOS Band’s classic “Just Be Good to Me”; a Billy Bragg up/down electric guitar stroke from “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is vamped into the basis for “Won’t Talk About It”; and so on. The Rasta-rubbed Excursion on the Version followed, but then plans for a third Beats album developed into a collaboration with trombonist Ashley Slater (formerly of electro-funksters Microgroove), and Freak Power was born. This jazzy ‘carnation hit big when the single “Turn on, Tune in, Cop Out,” a delicious taste of Norman’s future from Drive-Thru Booty, was picked up for a British Levi’s ad. (The album called Turn on, Tune in, Cop Out is a best-of compilation.) While preparing the second Freak Power disc, More of Everything…for Everybody, the restless auteur also became Fried Funk Food, another dub expedition with Slater that surfaced on The Real Shit Vol. 2 and a limited-edition EP packaged with Drive-Thru Booty; Pizzaman, a back-to- the-roots house maestro heard on Pizzamania; and the Mighty Dub Kats, which released a string of pumped-up singles, most notably a remix of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” Amid all this activity, Cook co-founded Skint Records, started his own Southern Fried imprint, adopted the Fatboy Slim moniker and was more than ready to bring the big beat to the masses.
Fatboy’s music almost defies serious criticism: either you like his mindless shit or you don’t. Each album favors something different in his bag of goodies, but it’s always the same flavor of treat. Better Living Through Chemistry (the title an obvious nod not to psychedelia than to the Chemical Brothers, for their early encouragement) lands just on the left side of the dance floor with the bouncy single “Santa Cruz” and the unadulterated techno of “Give the Po’Man a Break.” But the party truly comes alive when Slim samples Yvonne Elliman’s cover of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” (“Going out of My Head”), Edwin Starr’s “Everybody Needs Love” (“Everybody Needs a 303”) and Keith Mansfield’s “Young Scene” (“Punk to Funk”). You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby does indeed come ever closer to RPM perfection with even more obscure samples and a heavier use of vocal snippets and guitar breaks. “The Rockafeller Skank” (with its ubiquitous “Right about now, the funk soul brother” refrain), “Gangster Tripping,” “Build It Up–Tear It Down” and especially the monumental “Praise You” all go to a very beautiful place where scratch-happy MCs, cool gospel divas and twangy axe-players shake their asses in unison. Despite (or because) of that album’s saturation exposure, the follow- up, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars stays close to the house with some furious funk-inflected racket (“Mad Flava,” “Drop the Hate”) and chattering hip-hop mixes (“Star 69,” “Song for Shelter”). Conventional pop structures emerge — as do real live vocals by Macy Gray — in “Love Life” and “Demons,” and the ghost of Jim Morrison makes “Sunset (Bird of Prey)” unique for the Fatboy cannon. But it’s the Bootsy Collins-aided silliness in “Weapon of Choice” that is most memorable. Together, these albums make for a trifecta of fun.
The Illuminati, Camber Sands and Pimp EPs, all released at the end of 2002, are essentially well-padded CD-singles, each with five remixes and one new song. Both “Illuminati” and “The Pimp” are enjoyable thumping numbers that return Bootsy to the trenches, but “Camber Sands” loses itself in its own ambiance.
On the Floor at the Boutique and Live on Brighton Beach showcase Cook doing what he does best: remixing other artists’ songs (like the Jungle Brothers’ “Because I Got It Like That”) while ravers sweat, drink and dance. Big Beach Boutique II offers the same thing but allows room for other mixers like Midfield General (aka Damian Harris, owner of Skint Records), Groove Armada and the Lo Fidelity Allstars. The deceivingly titled Fatboy Slim/Norman Cook Collection groups eight remixes — including Wildchild’s “Renegade Master” — with five Beats International tracks, while Greatest Remixes is self-explanatory (although it omits Fatboy’s fine take on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”). We Praise You, a low-rent homage to the world’s most famous DJ, presents remakes of varying success by fans as divergent as DJ Gordon and Poster Children.