Fatboy Slim: big beat, punk, Al Green and gigging in Dubai
The DJ notes, on past experience, Dubai gigs have their own distinct atmosphere. “Every crowd is different, every room, the weather, it’s always unique, but certain cities have their own vibe and Dubai is one of them.”
Brighton-based DJ and music producer Norman Cook, also known as Fatboy Slim, may not have been troubling the charts as regularly as during his turn-of-the-century heyday since his last studio album under the Fatboy moniker, Palookaville in 2004, but that’s not to say he’s been off radar. The big beat pioneer has released a handful of Fatboy Slim singles, and an album as part of the Brighton Ports Authority super group. He’s been averaging about 80 DJ gigs a year as Fatboy Slim over the past seven years. His next one is in Dubai this weekend, and he’s clearly enjoying the time out of the studio.
“I feel after the years sitting in dingy studios and playing dive bars and being ignored, it’s like I’m kind of owed the life of an international DJ for a bit,” Cook says. “And now I’m not DJing to promote my record; it’s so much fun. I’m just totally enjoying it and helping promote other people to lose it, too.”
That’s exactly what the veteran DJ will be doing with the crowd in Dubai, and he notes that, on past experience, Dubai gigs have their own distinct atmosphere. “Every crowd is different, every room, the weather, it’s always unique, but certain cities have their own vibe and Dubai is one of them,” he says. “There’s a kind of wild abandon like ‘we don’t get to do this very often’. That’s actually one of my favourite kind of crowds – they’re like the older Camp Bestival crowd of ageing ravers with kids who don’t get out so much any more, so they really go for it.”
Cook, along with fellow big beat pioneers the Chemical Brothers, was at the forefront of a generation of performers who changed the face of dance music in the 1990s.
His mash-up of rollocking breakbeats, rock guitars, electronic squeaks and bleeps and funky vocal samples brought dance music to the attention of rock, indie and pop fans like never before. The UK music journal New Musical Express once described big beat as “dance music for indie fans who are too ashamed to like dance music”, so it’s perhaps appropriate that Cook first came to prominence as the bass player for Hull indie band The Housemartins.
The DJ says that dance music was his first love, however. “I fell into the band simply because when I was younger I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because I was white,” he says. “All the music I liked was black, but as a white person I shouldn’t be making that, so I fell in with what my cultural position dictated, which was suburban indie pop, but I kept on with DJing as a hobby. Then, when they invented the drum machine and sampler it was the first time us white guys could make dance music without having to pretend to be black.”
It was a seminal moment. Cook released tracks under a variety of pseudonyms including The Mighty Dub Katz, Pizzaman and Beats International. When Better Living Through Chemistry, his debut album as Fatboy Slim, was issued in 1996, heads started to really turn, and by the time the follow-up, You’ve Come a Long Way Baby landed in 1998, big beat, and Cook in particular, was the sound, not just of the summer, but of the year.
The album hit number one in the UK and New Zealand, and charted globally, and singles like Gangster Trippin’ and Right Here, Right Now could be heard everywhere from rock festivals to hip nightclubs to student discos and football stadiums (Manchester City still use Right Here, Right Now to enter the field of play each home game).
There seemed a distinctly punk ethic to the new scene, too. Bursting from nowhere, and eschewing the major labels in favour of smaller ones, this movement really did look like a bunch of buddies having a good time, with the rostas of labels like Skint or Freskanova serving as their version of the punk era’s Bromley Contingent. Cook agrees with the comparison: “We were breaking musical rules and social rules as well, and it was incredible fun. There were a lot of parallels to punk in terms of breaking rules and bypassing the big labels to just do your thing.”
Much like the early punk bands, who often picked up a guitar for the first time days, or even hours, before they first set foot on a stage, Cook says he wasn’t exactly a master of his tools in those days either. “I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I just followed my nose and it felt like fun. It was a hobby,” he says. “I never saw it as the launch of a career. It was just a hobby of putting out these strange little records that no one else was doing other than The Chemical Brothers. But we really didn’t know what we were doing at all, just making it up as we went along.”
Cook adds that if it had been left up to his own gameplan, his multiplatinum-selling albums may never have seen the light of day. “Before that, dance music had never really been about albums, so when some record company bloke said ‘you should put an album out’, we were like ‘don’t be silly’.”
Eight platinum discs later, the record company bloke may have had a point, although Cook admits not everyone was in on the fun. “Some people were a bit sniffy: ‘You make dance music for people who don’t like dance music’. We were like ‘yeah – we’ll take anyone. We want your soul’,” he says with a laugh. “It’s amazing the number of people I meet who say ‘you’re the reason I started DJing or you’re the reason I started listening to dance music and I’m ‘yes – I claimed another soul’.”
Sadly, the digital production era doesn’t seem to hold such allure for Cook, and although he doesn’t rule out another Fatboy Slim album, he advises us not to hold our breath. “A lot of the fun was breaking rules and not knowing how to use the equipment and stuff, and in the digital age that’s not the same. I’ve not worked out where I fit in terms of recording in the digital age, and it might be that I don’t fit at all, so in the meantime I’m having fun with the DJing.”
Cook is also realising his ambition of working on a film, a musical consultant to legendary director Julien Temple (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners). In typical Temple style, his in-production documentary about the party island of Ibiza doesn’t quite fit the mould – for a start, it’s a silent movie. “So many Ibiza documentaries are always based on talking heads,” Cook says. “Ageing people reminisce. It would be so easy to get Paul Oakenfold and me wheeled out and tell the same old stories, so he’s decided to do it without any talking, just using music and images. I’m so attached to Ibiza too, so I guess I was the man for the job.”
Cook clearly has plenty to keep him busy, but what would drag him back to the studio? After a career where he collaborated with stars such as Iggy Pop, Dizzee Rascal and Martha Wainwright, is there one musician that would lure him back behind the mixing desk at the drop of a hat?
“Al Green,” Cook replies without even pausing for thought. “I’ve been dropping hints, but he’s not responding. For me, he has the sweetest living soul voice and I would give my right arm to work with him. I’d be back in the studio like a shot if he’d just reply.”
Fatboy Slim plays Zero Gravity Beach Festival, Dubai Beach, Friday, April 27
Updated: April 25, 2018 08:19 PM