Since 1996, when he horrified the international dance music elite with his frisky Better Living Through Chemistry debut, billed with scant regard to technological elegance as Fatboy Slim, 37-year-old English DJ Norman Cook has become nationally popular. Which is rare: Although 70,000 different kinds of electronica show up on American shores each year, the genre comprises mostly artists who never leave the creatively rich, reasonably well-supported subculture of dance music. Cook’s exploits, on the other hand, fill up recent CDs like Fatboy Slim’s Greatest Remixes (Brooklyn Music Limited) and The Fatboy Slim/Norman Cook Collection (Hip-O), anthologies that find him working his wack magic and gigantic hooks on everyone from James Brown and A Tribe Called Quest to Underworld and danceworld esoterics.
As demonstrated again by On the Floor at the Boutique, an action-packed DJ suite, obscurity doesn’t fit Fatboy Slim. In ’98, Cook, once a mere bassist for Hull band the Housemartins, jammed that point home, releasing “The Rockafeller Skank,” a song from You’ve Come a Long Way Baby, the second Fatboy Slim album. With its many repetitions—Cook loves repetitions the way Jay Leno loves cars—of “Check it out now, the funk-soul brother” and suavely retro Shindig! vibe, Fatboy Slim managed his career-making smash. Even the U.S. pop music press, always so relieved when electronica isn’t strictly speaking electronica, applauded.
On the Floor at the Boutique is the Fatboy Slim mix album originally released outside America in 1998 that Cook’s success now makes possible for his thirsty domestic audience. In remixing and sequencing 18 records he likes—loosely funky yet always targeted stuff like Fred Wesley & the Horny Horns’ “Discoitdown” and Mr. Natural’s “That Green Jesus,” as well as two Fatboy Slim tracks—Cook isn’t pushing cultishly revered past dance styles as eternal and groovy, as the Chemical Brothers did on their remix albums. And, in marked contrast to relatively obscure remix dudes like Austria’s Kruder & Dorfmeister, Cook hardly obsesses on roving sonic architecture or slow soul ecstasies. He just wants to have big fun at a rapid rate. He’s keen on the kind of fast-rapped dazzle that most real hip-hoppers these days are too high-minded to pursue.
Whatever his standing as an electronica artist, though, Cook with Fatboy Slim has definitively established himself as a player in a line of 20th-century British pop inventors that stretches from The Goon Show to the films of Michael Caine to early-’90s techno musicians such as Orbital. Like them, he mates deep reserves of cleverness with extreme common sense. As Fatboy Slim, Cook plays the role of stone funk fan, lost in cool old records. His genius is to know that, although he may never get on the one like Parliament, he might just figure out some snazzy facsimiles thereof. Or, as the beginning of On the Floor at the Boutique puts it with charming sloth, “I never worked a day in my life. I just laid back and let the big beat lead me.” Just don’t let Fatboy Slim kid you.