City Paper is not for tourists
Fatboy Slim is one of many pseudonyms for Norman Cook, aka Beats International, Freakpower, the Mighty Dub Katz, Pizzaman, Fried Funk Food, and surely a load of others. People always note that Cook was the bass player for the mid-’80s, commie-Christian-Brit-guitar-poppers the Housemartins. But as Cook has said many times of the Housemartins, “They didn’t play the music I played; I was just another member of the band on the payroll.” Cook wasn’t even an original member of the band. Even so, he is now denying Housemartins reunion rumors that started simply because he helped former bandmate Paul Heaton, now of the Beautiful South, with some rhythm programming for that group’s new album. But even before joining the Housemartins for its second album, 1987’s The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, Cook was a DJ. After the group disbanded, Cook began to produce dance music, hitting big in 1990 as Beats International with the Let Them Eat Bingo album and its single, “Dub Be Good to Me.”
After a divorce, a breakdown, a couple of minor albums as Freakpower, and numerous 12-inch dance records under various guises, the slim Cook took on his Fatboy persona in 1995. Cook says the name comes from a “Louisiana blues singer from the ’40s, famed for a song called ‘Baby, I Want A Piece of Your Pie.’” But then again, Cook also says of biography, “I don’t see why people have to be hampered by the truth.” The “Santa Cruz” 12-inch launched Fatboy, getting Cook high-profile DJ slots at the Chemical Brothers-hosted club the Sunday Social, and its favorable reception encouraged him to keep recording. A few more successful singles, like the acid and soul fusion “Everybody Needs a 303” and the Who-fueled “Going Out of My Head,” led to 1996’s Better Living Through Chemistry (which came out in the U.S. last year). The album was a low-key phenomenon, its style of funky breakbeats and rockish grooves giving title to one of Britains’ many electronic music subgenres: Big Beat, named after a club Cook founded in 1996 in his town of Brighton after he grew tired of driving to London to DJ.
Better Living Through Chemistry and the Big Beat trend, lead by the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Bentley Rhythm Ace, among others, helped break electronic music out of the clubs and into homes and radio because it’s music that rock fans can relate to. Where house and trance music have speedy, four-to-the- floor beats, and jungle has polyrhythmic chaos, Big Beat has slower, funkier drums, heavier riffs, frequent use of the guitar, and gritty soul horn samples. But perhaps most importantly, Big Beat often features hiphop soundbites or catchy shout-outs that lyric-accustomed rockers can hook their ears into. Nowhere is this truer than on his propulsive single, “The Rockafeller Skank.”
Cook describes the music of “The Rockafeller Skank” as “‘Hawaii Five-0’ on acid.” The single mix is a compact version of song-twangy guitars, perfectly timed breakdowns, and an infectious vocal sample from rapper Lord Finesse. For the album edition on Fatboy’s second CD, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, Cook extends the mix to include all sorts of studio trickery, speeding and slowing the beats, words, and music like a mad scientist twisting knobs under a hallucinogenic cloud. He also introduces the song with a hilarious sample of a spazzy kid calling a Boston radio station requesting “Funk Soul Brother Check It Out!” because “My favorite artist right now is Fatboy Slim! That guy kicks ass!”
Happiness, humor, and irreverence are integral to Fatboy’s ethos. Cook likes to knock the piss out of things; in a subtle dig at Pepsi, he licensed the cut “Michael Jackson,” from Better Living Through Chemistry, to Coke for use in American TV ads. The new album’s title cops Virginia Slims cigarettes’ ingenuously empowering slogan. “Gangster Tripping” takes a sample of an MC shouting “We got to kick that gangster shit” and puts it alongside hiphop beats, big brass blasts, and a distant calypso feel, subverting gangsta rap’s po-faced posturing. “In Heaven” could have been a single almost as huge as “The Rockafeller Skank” were it not for its central vocal sample of hiphopper Freddy Fresh intoning, “Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven.” It has a miniskirt groove reminiscent of the tune Laugh-In played during its famous around-the-horn joke session and finishes with what sounds like Fresh pleading, “Please don’t play this for anybody. I don’t normally do this.”
Fatboy’s love thang is evident in anthems like “Praise You,” an artfully fluffy, piano-driven soul tune that recalls the good-time, baggy grooves of early-’90s Madchester bands like the Happy Mondays and the Farm. “Love Island” also borrows dance sounds from the early part of this decade, with its overdriven bass sounds, electronic horn lines, clipped polyrhythms, and a consistent chant of “House.” With its squealing low end, “Acid 8000” also looks back to a time when Roland 808s were kings, while “Kalifornia” mixes electro and acid like sampledelica pioneers Coldcut. The initial wave of good vibes provided by house, hiphop, and techno inform Fatboy’s sound, but rock and blues are equally important: “Build It UpTear It Down” kicks with a big chorus, dirty guitars, booming drums and the incantation to “Bounce!” while “Soul Surfing” is R&B electronica-style, a sort of blue-eyed soul as seen through the eyes of the machine.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby is an evolution from Better Living Through Chemistry not because it’s so much different, but because Cook has progressed into an electronica virtuoso, as comfortable playing the studio as Jimi Hendrix was playing his guitar. Unlike so much electronic music, Cook’s stitched-together sounds are kinetic, given life with a jolt of soulful electricity. It may be constructed in a lab, but Fatboy Slim’s tunes are as head-bobbing, bodacious, bright, and joyful as a funk band at its steamiest.CP