Fat Chance

Check your head: U.K. "big beat" pioneer Fatboy Slim

Fatboy Slim
You've Come A Long Way, Baby

Fatboy Slim
On the Floor at the Boutique
Skint import

In 1988 the Jungle Brothers released "Because I Got It Like That," a revelatory rap track that swung so loose, it almost loped as it made its way to forging a new kind of hip-hop icon. Ducats in their pockets and vines in their hands, the JBs traded the standard b-boy bristle for laid-back sex-politics ("It comes to me natural/It comes to me easy") and slacker signifying ("I never worked a day in my life/I'd just sit back and let the big beat lead me"). Badgering the Sambo stereotype and bludgeoning it into elasticity, "Because I Got It Like That" sent Muhammad Ali through the lens of J.J. Evans and plunked him down on Prince Paul's turntable. De La Soul's Day-Glo ethos was born.

Ten years later, the track and its tagline ("I'd just sit back and let the big beat lead me") has been drained of its racial significance and appropriated as a salvo for the mindlessly fun British dance strain known as "big beat." You can hear the line looped chantlike at the start of On the Floor at the Boutique, a genre-primer by scene kingpin (and former Housemartin) Fatboy Slim. Recorded "live" during a DJ set at Brighton's Big Beat Boutique, On the Floor blathers with the foppish hedonism typified by Slim (a.k.a. Norman Cook), Psychadeliasmith, Bentley Rhythm Ace, and Cook's pals, the Chemical Brothers.

British people have always had a knack for butchering the funk, but here they hack with an ingenious frivolity--an artful disregard for reverent authenticity or Tricky irony. Opening with the Incredible Bongo Band's '70s funk break "Apache," On the Floor spirals forward through hip hop, house, and techno history, winding up at Slim's own "The Rockefeller Skank," a feverish rocktronica cut looped around a surf-guitar sample. "Skank," with its insistent "Right a-bout now" refrain, is probably the biggest stateside techno track since Prodigy's "Firestarter." It's also the centerpiece of Cook's great new studio album You've Come a Long Way, Baby, a gratuitous, exhilarating record that's part acid-tweaked space jam, part Harlem warehouse party. Like Robert Plant squeezing Robert Johnson's lemon till the juice runs down his leg, or Bono reborn as McLeadbelly, Fatboy Slim is wanking Yank-style like few rave artists before him. And he's dead-set on being the first technoid ever to go platinum in America without sucking Prodigiously in the process.

Encouraged by Loveline's widely syndicated (though uncredited) use of Slim's 1997 track "Going Out of My Head," and MTV's spotlight placement of "Rockefeller Skank" on Amp: 2, Cook's American label, Astralwerks, is banking on a stateside breakthrough. In the U.K., where Brighton scenesters devote a Web site to his daily activities, Cook is destined to lengthen a string of hits dating back to his reportedly unhappy days playing bass in the Housemartins.

Light-years from the 'Martins' love-your-brother-Christianity-meets-shoot-your-Other Marxism, You've Come a Long Way takes its title from an old Virginia Slims ad and its spirit from the cynical, Levi's-co-opted 1994 hit "Turn On Tune In Cop Out" that Cook had with his funk band Freakpower. The title, then, is autobiographical, signifying the end of a journey. The Fatboy has taken the baggage he's accumulated under various aliases while traveling the techno diaspora since the early '90s, arriving wide-eyed in Manhattan. Many of Baby's songs reflect this sense of travel. The joyous title track is reminiscent of Sly Stone's party-political "You Can Make It If You Try" after its energy had been filtered through the media maze of the '70s--via Fat Albert, Superfly and Good Times. The hard, hokey "Gangsta Trippin'" gives an image of the Brit bloke hip-hop shopping in Brooklyn, racing from used record store to used record store looking for old-school wax.

This is a record about records--buying, loving, and living records (definitely in that order). It wants you to love along with it. And it wants to be huge. The Wagnerian choir suspended above the accelerating lockstep of "Right Here, Right Now" leads into a radio segment in which some suburban skeeziks calls in to request "Rockefeller Skank," informing the station's witless rock-jock: "Fatboy Slim kicks ass!" And so he does. Groovy acid-tweaked drones give way to overdriven guitar pyrotechnics and hip-hop shout-alongs. "Gangsta Trippin'" and the feverishly loopy "Build It Up" practically yank us through our speakers and administer beatdowns, and if Cook could supply consumers with surf, board, and 50-foot breaker to go with his great white "Skank," they'd be in there--free of charge.

But what's most obviously there for the converts he craves is distance--an ocean's worth. The Fatboy's bridge between his market dreams and their musical by-product could never bear the weight of the Korn-fed minions he prays he might shepherd across it. For them, his Silicon Alley is inaccessible, his virtual New York two-dimensional. Sure, we of that media elite the late boxing writer Jimmy Cannon called "the style making cult of the bored young" can keep on trying to sell our private revolutions until we run out of terms that end in "-onica." But right now there are five stations in town playing "Closing Time." And no one is dancing.

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