Fat Boy Slim: The Story of Dance Music’s Smiley Clad Legend
“We’ve come a long long way together, through the hard times and the good. I have to celebrate you, baby. I have to praise you like I should.”
Cue what is arguably the most recognizable piano riff in modern music history. If the timeless melody of “Praise You,” just rang through your head, thank none other than Norman Cook, known by millions worldwide as the one and only Fatboy Slim.
Cook’s four-decade career has seen him evolve from bassist of the Housemartins to a venerated dance music figure through twenty-four different aliases and nine different collaborative projects. He even holds the World Record for most Top 40 hits under different artist names.
Born and raised in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, Norman spent his formative years in one of the hottest times and places in music history. By the age of fifteen, he started DJing local clubs while continuing to grow his expansive music taste. Eight years later, his ear for rhythm and reputation for groove landed him the role of bassist for the pop group, The Housemartins. While the gig proved fruitful, Cook knew it wasn’t the right fit and returned to his home behind the decks.
Cook’s ear for a hit became evident in no time. Soon after leaving The Housemartins, Norman formed the group, Beats International, and their 1989 debut single, “Dub Be Good To Me,” reached number one on the UK charts and became an international club hit. The breakout track, which sampled SOS Band’s “Just Be Good To Me,” and The Clash’s “The Guns Of Brixton,” would be merely a taste of what Cook had to offer to the world.
Fat Boy Slim @ Creamfields South
Over the next five years, Norman would release chart-topping hits with various outfits, including Pizzaman and Freak Power, while continuing to remix dance singles for other artists, including A Certain Ratio, Bassbin Twins, and Stereo MCs. Cook’s ear for a winning sample, a sturdy beat, and a gripping hook remained steadfast through each iteration and bout of experimentation, culminating in 1994 with the birth of Fatboy Slim.
The ironic party persona came to life when Cook started attending the Heavenly Sunday Social nights curated by Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, aka The Chemical Brothers (then the Dust Brothers), in London’s West End. The clever sampling and massive beats of the night quickly drew Norman behind the decks, where he soon shared time with Rowlands, Simons, Richard Fearless from Death in Vegas, and Monkey Mafia’s John Carter. A wiz behind the decks, Cook fit right in, but he soon realized his ideal set could not be played with the records available.
He returned to the studio and soon returned with Fatboy Slim’s inaugural single, “Santa Cruz,” a swirling hypnosis of grinding guitars and acidic synths that launched to high praise from club-goers and DJ cohorts alike.
Soon, Fatboy Slim was pioneering the big beat movement alongside The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy, and in 1996 he released his debut album, Better Living Through Chemistry. The album dropped in the United States, one year later to critical acclaim, with Rolling Stone Magazine calling it “One of the most fun, shamelessly genre-hopping dance albums of the year.”
Success found a new definition in 1998 when Cook’s sophomore album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, elevated Fatboy Slim from “the drinking man’s DJ” to a global phenom. The project achieved cross-over success thrusting big beat into the mainstream. Certified platinum, it landed Cook his first two Grammy nominations for Best Dance Track and Best Alternative Music Album.
Tracks like “The Rockafeller Skank,” “Praise You,” “Right Here, Right Now,” and others off the historic album have immortalized Cook’s “big beat” sound as pieces of countless soundtracks and commercials to this day.
The turn of the millennia saw Cook continue to push sonic boundaries and shatter genre lines. His album, Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars, delivered what many consider his single most diverse collection of sounds and another Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. Elements of dance and rock are bound by his classic big beat style while sharing space with elements of breakbeat, acid house, and even a taste of Hindi Ragas.
Fatboy Slim’s final solo album, Palookaville, would arrive in 2004 in the wake of a brief split with then-wife Zoe Ball. He scored two more Grammy nominations for Best Dance Recording and Best Electronic/Dance Album.
Norman Cook announced in 2008 that he would be retiring the Fatboy Slim name, but much to the delight of millions of fans around the globe has intermittently reprised the role for a collaborative project here, like Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat in 2014 with Beardyman, or a one-off show there.
While past years saw a recession of appearances, 2022, the 28th year of Fatboy Slim, sees the lunatic alter-ego take the stage over 25 times in a strong post-Covid resurgence. His appearance in Chicago at ARC Music Festival is partocularly noteworthy as, even in the UK, his festival apperances are rare. However, the lineup also includes collaborators like Eats Everything and longtime friends like Carl Cox. While he has a mountain of hits dating back three decades, his DJ sets stay fresh, relevant, and fabulously fun.
Will Fatboy Slim ever truly retire? Maybe. Maybe not. Norman Cook’s love for performance may seem boundless, but in recent years he has migrated more towards the role of father while also pursuing art and film projects. Indeed, one would say he has certainly earned some time for himself if he ever decides to take off the headphones. His contributions not just to dance music but to music as an institution will have waves of impact long from now. Whether it be 100 performances in a year, or one, we will always be ready for our smiley-clad hero to take the stage.
Rob EngleEvent SpotlightARC Music Festival