Recording under the name Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook is an English disc jockey, musician, and record producer who achieved mainstream alternative success in America in the latter half of 1997 with his release Better Living Through Chemistry. The title was a nod to his friends, fellow “big beat” subgenre remixers the Chemical Brothers. Better Living gained ground with American listeners—not an easy market for the Brit techno pack to crack—with the success of its loopy, near-vocal-less track “Going Out of My Head.” Writing in the Village Voice, Simon Reynolds noted the rockmeets-rave feel of Fatboy Slim’s music and likened it to the equivalent of “pub rock—the laddish, unsophisticated but necessary prequel to an imminent (here’s hoping!) punk-style reformulation/intensification of rave’s unruly essence.”
Cook is a Brighton native who came of age during the late 1970s in the midst of the disco era. At the age of 15, he was DJing in local clubs. A career on the turntables and a love of music led him to the Housemartins, a pleasant pop act that hit it big around 1987 with their hit “Caravan of Love.” He spent time as the bass player for the group, riding on the major label gravy train. “It was too nice of an opportunity to turn down, but it was never me,” Cook later told Billboard magazine. He eventually returned to DJing and began some attempts at making music himself. “I was a white bloke who liked dance music—or ‘black music,’ as it was called back then,” he explained to Rolling Stone’ s Matt Hendrickson. “I wanted to make black music without sounding like Simply Red.”
Technology finally caught up with his dreams when affordable synthesizers and samplers began coming on the market, and Cook relaunched himself at the helm of an ensemble called Beats International. Success arrived immediately with the single “Dub Be Good to Me” in 1989. The song, which reached No. 1 on the U.K. charts, was built around a sample from a 1970s disco classic.
The Beats project would be just one of many musical sub-categories and aliases through which Cook found success. Next came his Pizzaman tag, which recorded several singles and a full-length album that Mixmag’s Kim Taylor called “an incendiary concoction of pumping house and heady club beats.” Subsequent projects included Norman Cook Presents Wildski and Fried Funk Food; Cook also remixed dance singles for other artists, including A Certain Ratio, the Bassbin Twins, and the Stereo MCs.
Cook’s second actual “band” experience came when he formed Freakpower with Ashley Slater. Their 1993 single, “Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out,” achieved some notoriety when it was used in a European television ad that featured a transvestite. With Slater, Cook recorded an entire album, Drive-Thru Booty, which didn’t do very well, but they did tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The gigs proved lucrative, but the pressures of being on the road eventually exhausted Cook, and he went back to recording solo efforts under various monikers. Again, he hit upon a winning mix of beats and samples with the Mighty Dub Katz, whose biggest success was the Latinhooked dub-dance hit “Magic Carpet Ride.”
Cook’s Fatboy Slim incarnation grew out of the “Sunday Social” night at a popular London club. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who would go on to huge fame in the U.S. as the Chemical Brothers in late 1996 with their “Setting Sun” single, were the DJs, and Cook loved what they played—huge, heavy beats built around catchy samples, all crafted into a fantastically crescendoladen mix.
Indeed, a whole social set of like-minded studio whizzes arose around the Sunday night gigs, an insiders’ club that included Rowlands and Simons, Richard Fearless from Death in Vegas, and Monkey Mafia’s John Carter. Cook began to DJ there as well: “I had such a laugh that I started playing again, but I didn’t have enough records to play the set that I wanted to play,” he told Justin Hampton in Sonic Soul’s Retina. “I was
Born Norman Cook, c. 1963, in England.
Cook was once the bass player for the British pop band the Housemartins, late 1980s; formed Beats International, c. 1989; later released records as a solo artist under the names Pizzaman, Norman Cook Presents Wildski, Fried Funk Food, and Mighty Dub Katz, among others; formed Freakpower with Ashley Slater, c. 1993; Fatboy Slim incarnated, c. 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Astralwerks, 104 W. 29th St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10001.
playing trip-hop records at 45,” along with early Chemical Brothers tracks. Cook then went into his home studio and made “Santa Cruz”—a winding, acid-guitar brain soaker,” as Taylor described it.
The club success of “Santa Cruz” led to more, and in time, Cook found that “I was actually making all of these records that I wish somebody else had made, but they hadn’t,” as he told Hampton. His talents came to the attention of a Brighton scenester, Damian Harris, who had just started up a label called Skint Records. Harris, as well as Rowlands and Simons—then achieving success in Europe with their Chemical Brothers singles—loved Cook’s work and encouraged him to do more. Most of the Fatboy Slim tracks began around one memorable sample—like the opening guitar riff from The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” that was reformulated into “Going Out of My Head.” The song would eventually become the first single from an entire album, a work that Cook had finished by early 1996. Better Living Through Chemistry was released on Harris’s Skint label and did so well in the U.K. that it was picked up by Astralwerks/Caroline.
Released the following year onto the U.S. alternative market, the album found an audience early and steady radio airplay for “Going Out of My Head.” Stacy Osbaum, reviewing Better Living for Request, wrote that Cook’s wizardry “sculpts bludgeoning behemoths of beats, unleashing gargantuan, head-swelling breaks.” A Raygun review by Kevin Raub compared the overall effort to the Housemartins—” simple formulas riding on the edge of greatness.” Spin put Fatboy Slim on its “Love” list for October of 1997, calling Cook “the drinking man’s DJ.” Though Rolling Stone writer Nathan Brackett felt that its lead single “strays into novelty” and deemed it far from Better Living’s best track, he described the Fatboy Slim debut as “one of the most fun, shamelessly genre-hopping dance albums of the year.”
Reynolds, writing in the Village Voice, echoed the sentiment. “I can’t think of a more entertaining dance album released this year,” he declared. Cook himself told Sonic Soul’s Retina that Better Living Through Chemistry is “a party record…. It’s not one to sit and listen to and tryto digest. It’s all pretty stupid isn’t it? It’s not very intellectual.” His most biting sentiment was probably reserved for the track “Michael Jackson,” the genesis of which he explained to Taylor of Mixmag— “because he’s my least favorite person in the music industry,” Cook said. “He was blessed with one of the greatest soul voices ever yet he chooses to shout all over his records. He could have been a great spokesperson for black culture yet wants to be white.…Oh, and he’s claiming to be Jesus. To me, he personifies everything that’s wrong with the music business.”
Cook’s success as Fatboy Slim brought him additional work. He was asked to produce a record for Bootsy Collins, toe bass player for George Clinton’s stellar PFunk outfit. Collins was so excited by one big-beat track that Cook for played him that he actually stomped a hole through the floor of Cook’s bedroom studio. Such damages bother Cook not; he is known as one of Brighton’s best party-throwers, with a living room decorated with yellow smiley faces and an easy-to-clean carpet. After the clubs let out, a wide network of friends frequently wind up at what many call “the house of love”; one soiree lasted a record 38 hours. He continues to make his own dance singles under a variety of tags, and the market in his native U.K. seems boundless for such records. There, the club scene is far more pervasive than in the United States—even the smallest towns boast a legit rave/techno warehouse with a massive sound system. “Most people spend two nights a week in a nightclub and you’re making the soundtrack to that,” Cook told Hampton.
Still, Cook remains unfazed by his mainstream success and describes himself as “a happy, drunken idiot,” as he told Hendrickson. He and his Sunday-Social set are also thrilled that their sound, the big-beat or chemicalbeat subgenre, has caught on. “Now everyone’s doing really well and we’re all just laughing and saying, ‘Oh my God, everybody else gets it,’” Cook told Taylor.
Better Living Through Chemistry, Astralwerks/Caroline, 1997.
Billboard, August 9, 1997.
Mixmag, October 1997.
Ray Gun, October 1997.
Request, October 1997.
Rolling Stone, September 18, 1997, p. 102; October 2, 1997, p. 26.
Sonic Soul’s Retina, September/October 1997.
Spin, September 1997; October 1997.
Village Voice, October 7, 1997, p. 66.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Astralwerks/Caroline Records publicity materials, 1997.
Born: Norman Cook; Bromley, England, 13 July 1963
Best-selling album since 1990: You've Come a Long Way, Baby (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "The Rockafeller Skank," "Praise You"
Though he began his music career as the bassist in a rock band, Norman Cook achieved worldwide acclaim as the anonymous mastermind behind the electronic dance act Fatboy Slim. Cook's adroitness at picking obscure but instantly hummable samples—snippets of previously released songs—to go with his engagingly repetitive dance tracks such as "The Rockafeller Skank" made him one of the most popular DJs and producers of the mid-1990s.
A child of the disco era, Norman Cook was DJing in local Brighton, England, pubs by the time he was fifteen. Less than a year after joining the Housemartins in 1986 as the group's bassist, Cook began to score dance-chart hits and gain notice under a string of aliases. Among the names Cook employed were Beats International, Freakpower, Fried Funk Food, Mighty Dub Katz, and, with producers JC Reid and Tim Jeffery, Pizzaman. Inspired by the acid-house dance scene in England—a boisterous, drug-fueled underground clique that favored hard, driving dance music—Pizzaman scored a number of Top 40 hits in England in the late 1980s. It was as Fatboy Slim, however, that Cook gained worldwide acclaim with his signature mix of massive, ever-building beats, clever samples, and feel-good slogans.
Along with the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim stood at the vanguard of the British "Big Beat/Electronica" dance music movement. Willfully anonymous, the bald-headed, average-looking Cook let his music do the talking for him on Fatboy's debut, Better Living Through Chemistry (1996), recorded in one week in Cook's attic. The album's signature track, "Going Out of My Head," samples the iconic guitar intro to the Who's "Can't Explain," while relying on a vocal cover of the track by 1970s disco diva Yvonne Elliman. By combining these three elements—his own computer-programmed dance track, a vocal line from a disco song, and a segment of the original Who track—Fatboy Slim was able to create a fresh, modern track built on classical elements. The song twists the rock classic into a driving dance anthem, complete with spacey sound effects, insistently programmed drumbeats, and an upwardly cascading drum pattern that became Fatboy Slim's signature effect.
With its mix of obscure and obvious samples, disco beats, thick funk grooves, and mindless repetition, the music became the soundtrack for the Big Beat invasion. Cook continued to remix other artists as well, gaining acclaim for his remix of Jean-Jacques Perrey's song "Eva" (1960s) and Cornershop's 1998 single, "Brimful of Asha."
His second Fatboy Slim album, You've Come a Long Way, Baby (1998), catapulted the shy, perpetually grinning DJ into the stratosphere. With a humorous video directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Spike Jonze, the surfy, twangy "The Rockafeller Skank" mushroomed into a worldwide hit, buoyed by the same combination of a clever sample (rapper Lord Finesse) and endlessly repeated beats that built to a peak before starting all over again. In a nod to 1970s soul, "Praise You" sampled an obscure 1975 gospel soul album by the singer Camille Yarborough, another example of the kinds of thrift-store finds Cook was able to spin into gold.
Along with a pair of MTV Video Music Awards and two Grammy nominations, "The Rockafeller Skank" helped elevate Cook to the status of superstar DJ. He performed before tens of thousands at European festivals and at Woodstock '99; his music was featured on a number of television commercials and electronica compilations and even spawned a 2001 album, A Break from the Norm, which consisted solely of songs sampled on Fatboy Slim tracks.
While Cook had been happy to remix everyone from the Beastie Boys to James Brown to the African singer Angelique Kidjo in the past, his success and sudden ubiquity caused him to turn down high-profile requests from Madonna and U2, among others. After time off following his marriage to British DJ Zoe Ball in 1998, Cook returned in 2000 with Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, a more reflective album that relies on the same obscure, dustbin samples but mostly shows a preference for 1970s soul and funk over disco and techno. "Talking About My Baby" samples a bluesy rant from 1970s Southern rockers Wet Willie, while the album's first single, "Sunset (Bird of Prey)," uses a vocal snippet of the late Doors singer Jim Morrison over a shuffling, mid-tempo dance groove.
In addition to sampling, Cook invited guest vocalists to join him on a series of original tracks on which he supplied the music while collaborating with the singers on the lyrics. Among the guest vocalists were the funk legend Bootsy Collins ("Weapon of Choice")—which spawned a widely lauded video featuring actor Willem Dafoe showing off his dancing skills—and the soul singer Macy Gray on two funk-inspired songs ("Love Live," "Demons").
One man's trash was Norman Cook's treasure. The internationally known DJ found gold in the kinds of forgotten records most people would flip by in their local record store, turning them into unforgettable dance hits and creating a star in his Fatboy Slim alter ego.
Better Living Through Chemistry (Skint/Astralwerks, 1996); You've Come a Long Way, Baby (Skint/Astralwerks, 1998); Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Skint/Astralwerks, 2000); Fatboy Slim/Norman Cook Collection (Hip-O, 2000); On the Floor at the Boutique (Skint/Astralwerks, 2000); Live on Brighton Beach (Ministry of Sound/MCA, 2002); Big Beach Boutique II (Southern Fried Records, 2002). With Beats International: Let Them Eat Bingo (Go! Discs, 1990); With Freakpower: Drive Through Booty (4th and Broadway, 1995); More of Everything for Everybody (4th and Broadway, 1996); With Pizzaman: Pizzamania (Cowboy Rodeo, 1995). With Housemartins: London 0 Hull 4 (Go! Discs, 1986).