By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Start with a chunky funky beat. Layer in a mind-bendingly catchy sample that screams, "This is fun! This is fun! This is fun! This is fun!" Add a few rap'n'diva bits to increase memorability. A recipe for Puff pop pastry? Nah, it's the basic formula for big beat. There is no song on a typical big beat record, little melody, less harmony, only hooks, rhythms, and tartly tangy ear candy that can be slurped up via the crappiest club sound system or car radio. The bastard child of hip-hop production techniques and house music serotonin levels, big beat is easy to do, yet tough to do well, and no one does it better or bigger or beatier than Norman Cook, a/k/a Fatboy Slim.
This popster-turnedclub-careerist is a master of what to include and what to leave out. One cut into You've Come a Long Way, Baby, Cook drops one of the few between-song audio skits that provoke smiles after repeated listening, splicing in a tape of a fan calling a radio request line to hear "The Rockafeller Skank." With little encouragement from the DJ, the kid recites "Right about now, the funk soul brother/Check it out now, the funk soul brother," sounding as white as snow, even messing up sampled rapper Lord Finesse's delivery. Cook then cuts in the original sample on beat just as he'd cross-fade from one mix of a record to another during one of his DJ sets.
No other current dance guru has Cook's cross-genre knowledge. His winning streak began when he was the former bassist of the Housemartins, an '80s Britpop act that topped the English charts with a football-chant-accessible a cappella rendition of Isley/Jasper/Isley's "Caravan of Love." The hits continued with Beats International, Cook's own downtempo dance collective, which exploded with a dubbed-out reworking of S.O.S. Band's "Just Be Good to Me" set to the bassline of the Clash's "Armageddon Times." Cook's solo output is rooted in the adventures of those early covers: he sets bits of soul in radically removed contexts, making wholly new compositions. This pack-rat approach has its precedent in not only M/A/R/R/S's "Pump Up the Volume," but the entire British Invasion history of revamping pre-crossover American blues riffs with arty adolescent adrenaline and angst.
Although Cook's underground dance credibility is high for a popster of his proven commerciality, the aesthetic running through his '90s catalogue of pseudonym-driven dance personae (Mighty Dub Cats, Pizzaman) is as much ragged rock as it is hip-hop and house. His boundary-breaking approach suits the American electronica climate, which reclaims anything British and dancey that manages to move major units as modern rock novelty. With "The Rockafeller Skank" rebounding up the charts, Fatboy Slim stands as the next Brit bloke act to blow up out of the clubs and into the malls, even if Cook doesn't resemble a rock star. (Well, he does the drugs.) Despite big beat's quick-fix single mentality, You've Come a Long Way, Baby plays like a proper CD, with enough tempo, intensity, volume, and rhythmic variation to sustain interest after the sugar buzz wears off. Don't expect much intellectual or emotional engagement: there isn't a sole star vocalist or guest player. But this album is a lifestyle artifact as much as the latest No Limit product or ska/swing/skanky-assed-hippie-jam-band flashback. As his frenzied import mix-CD On the Floor at the Boutique testifies, Fatboy is fed up with credibility-obsessed club elitism and wants nothing more than for you to shake your rump to his trash-heap funk.
That doesn't mean Cook doesn't practice his own reverse snobbery. While recent big beat DJ faves sample huge chunks of Guns N' Roses, the Verve, Blur, and "Tequila," You've Come doesn't reveal a single sample that's identifiable to even a disco trainspotter such as yours truly. Cook learned from his burns: after sampling so many high-profile records in Beats International's "Dub Be Good to Me" that he allegedly lost money, he now covers his tracks. The Fatboy Slim sound is so heavily vari-speeded, re-EQed and Pro Tooled that Cook could be biting Celine Dion for all we know. If naughty Norman wants to get busy with big-name acts, all he has to do is wait for them to hit him up for a remix. After his treatment of Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha" topped the British pop charts months after the original fizzled, everyone from Madonna to Chumbawamba has requested a Fatboy frappe. The only one to get one is the Beastie Boys, whose upcoming "Body Movin' " single is a current Cook DJ set crowd-pleaser. You've Cometakes on symphonic Indian drones ("Right Here, Right Now"), guitar-pickin' funk ("In Heaven"), horny Stax soul ("Gangsta Tripping"), vintage punk rock ("Build It Up, Tear It Down" and "Soul Surfing"), body-poppin' electro ("Kalifornia"), Madchester groove ("Praise You"), speed garage ("Love Island"), and acid-house drum'n'bass freakout ("Acid 8000"). Despite the stylistic switch-hitting, everything sounds like Fatboy music--across-the-board perky, stupid party music for smart folk. You know "Woolly Bully" and "Louie Louie" would have sounded like this if your father had the technology.