Armed with nothing but an Atari, a pair of S950 samplers and his faithful TB303, Fatboy Slim took the charts of the late 1990s by storm.
One Saturday afternoon in the late ’90s, Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim was mooching around Camden market in North London when he chanced upon a stall selling vinyl bootleg albums featuring old soul and funk breakbeats and snatches of a capella vocals. Buying a handful and taking them home to Brighton, he first heard the isolated vocal introduction of American soul singer Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’, from her long-forgotten 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker. Little did he know that by sampling it as the main motif of what became his 1999 single ‘Praise You’, he would create a timeless track destined to echo down the years.
“Basically, any time I heard a bit of a capella,” Cook says today, “I was like, OK, I can use that. Her vocal just had a beautiful quality to it. The sentiment fits so many different occasions. The beauty of the lyrics is that they work at football matches, they work at gigs where we’ve all had a great night, or it’s been raining all day at a festival but we’re here. Just the phrase ‘we’ve come a long long way together through the hard times and the good’... It’s kind of a universal, communal thing. It’s affirmative and uplifting and those things do tend to stand the test of time.”
The magic moment that led to the creation of ‘Praise You’ came when Cook matched the Camille Yarbrough vocal to a loop of a piano riff lifted from a demonstration record for JBL speakers. “It was the rehearsal of the band before they recorded a tune,” he explains. “And that’s why it’s so badly recorded. That’s why there’s scratches all over it, and that’s why if you listen to the loop you can actually hear someone talking. But I just really loved that piano riff, and as soon as I put the vocal over it, the sum total of the parts became a third song.”
By the time ‘Praise You’ became the first Fatboy Slim number one UK hit, Norman Cook was already something of a master of sample collage and a pioneer of the ’90s dance music genre big beat. He looks back on the period as being a cutting-edge time in terms of home studio sampling/recording innovations, matched with an anything goes approach that opened up a world of sonic possibilities. At the same time, Cook was busy working internationally as a club DJ.
“As I started getting DJ gigs abroad,” he remembers, “I was scouring through shops around the world looking for samples and things to use. I was buying up tons of really cheap, crap, sort of car boot sale records and just taking one little drum loop or one little snatch of vocal or one snare drum off them and amassing a huge library of floppy disks, all catalogued into breakbeats at certain speeds, or handclaps, or snares. And realising that I could make tunes completely out of samples, like a collage. On most of the tunes, the [Roland TB]303 and the bass line were the only things that were actually played in a traditional way. The rest of it was gross manipulation of samples.”
In effect, big beat was a form of pop art-styled collage dance music which enhanced or distorted or time-stretched its sample sources into sounds that were often unrecognisable from their original form. “It was snatches of music, which I could just layer up or filter,” says Cook. “Some of my favourite tunes are ones that the person who recorded the sample originally, I could play it to them, and they’d go, ‘No, that’s not me.’ Bits were going backwards or through so many guitar effects pedals.
“There was a lot of experimenting with distorting of samples so you got away with it,” he laughs, referring to the murky world of sample clearance back in the ’90s. “On the whole I would only sample records that weren’t hits in the first place because for me it would be like shooting fish in a barrel just to use a well-known chorus and then do something else with it.
“I love the juxtaposition. I love the idea of musical collage where you’ve taken so many tiny little bits that the vocal is the only thing you have to clear and everything else is fragmented so it’s unrecognisable. If you look at famous collages, they didn’t have to clear every single scrap or chunk they used to make up the colour. For me, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about what you could get away with and how much you could pervert things. And to see how you could just recycle records that sold 15 copies when they came out, but find that one little bit of magic in them and turn it into a hit.”
Norman Cook first started getting involved with music during his school days growing up in Reigate, Surrey. Having learned piano, he joined a band as a drummer, before becoming its singer. “I was a jack of all trades and a master of none,” he jokes. “I was 14 in 1977 when punk rock hit and in those days if you wanted to form a band you didn’t have to be a musician really.”
It was as a bass player that Cook first turned professional, joining the Housemartins, the Hull-based band fronted by his singer friend Paul Heaton. The ascent of the Housemartins was swift, and in 1986, at the age of 22, Cook became a pop star with a run of hits that included ‘Happy Hour’ and the band’s a capella version of Isley-Jasper-Isley’s ‘Caravan Of Love’, which reached number one that year.
“It only took me about a week-ish to learn the bass,” Cook remembers. “But what I was doing all the time before that was DJing. But in those days, DJing was a hobby not a profession, because DJs just didn’t get paid. We just got free beer. And in those days what is now termed as dance music we called black music and the only way really to play that music was to be someone like Level 42 or Simply Red and kind of pretend to be black, which didn’t really sit well with me.
“Me and Paul had been mates since school and he wrote brilliant songs, and I just felt it was my calling, or my natural progression coming from white suburban England, to be playing that kind of music rather than black music. This is in the days when our peers were people like the Smiths who were singing ‘hang the DJ’. For somebody in the camp that I was in to be making sort of black-sounding hip-hop records, that was a hangable offence.”
And so it was almost in secret, or at least with no intention of releasing the results, that Cook started conducting his own dance music experiments at home using a TEAC 144 Portastudio and Roland S10 sampling keyboard. Meanwhile, due to their rapid success and heavy work schedule, the Housemartins burned out, breaking up in 1988. “I was increasingly frustrated about playing white English pop when that wasn’t the sound that I dug,” Cook admits. “Now I could make music that I really wanted to make. With my pay-off from the Housemartins, I invested in a proper desk, a little eight-track reel-to-reel, and an Atari [ST computer]. Eventually I got an [Akai] S900 and then an S950. The S900 was fairly rudimentary. The S950 you could and still can do pretty much anything you want.”
Cook learned his trade in dance music doing remixes, many of which charted, his first being with MC Wildski and the Jacksons-sampling ‘Blame It On The Bassline’. At the same time, as a DJ, he formed his sound system collective, Beats International, which quickly morphed into a recording entity. But with their 1990 single, ‘Dub Be Good To Me’, featuring Lindy Layton singing the SOS Band’s ‘Just Be Good To Me’ over a track which sampled the drum and bass hook of the Clash’s ‘Guns Of Brixton’, Cook learned very quickly about the fast-changing rules of sample clearance.
“Nobody really knew what the rules were,” he says. “They evolved over time as lawyers got better. ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ was actually a B-side of the previous record as an instrumental. I went to see Big Audio Dynamite and they actually came on to it, Mick Jones used it as the intro tape. So I figured they didn’t mind and blithely put it out thinking, ‘Well the Clash know all about it.’
“But obviously,” he laughs, “after its fourth week at number one, I got a phone call from them saying, ‘Um, we didn’t mind you sampling us. But you’re probably making quite a lot of money out of this. Can we have some?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, course, sorry.’ There was a little bit of wrangling, particularly between me and Paul Simonon. But we came to a deal and he was happy and I became friends with all of the Clash through that. It was only a question of working out what the rules were and what the etiquette was really.”
From here, Cook formed acid jazz/soul band Freak Power and at the same time began releasing house records under a number of aliases, including Pizzaman and the Mighty Dub Katz. “At this point,” he says, “I’ve now got a studio at home and I don’t have to pay studio time. I’ve got a setup in my bedroom where I can just churn stuff out, literally two or three tunes a week.”
Elsewhere, Cook’s DJ sets were becoming ever more eclectic and experimental. “Good friends of mine in Brighton, they would listen to me DJing,” he says, “and they were going, ‘There’s this style of music you play which isn’t really house and it’s not rap and you’re playing trip hop records at 45 and techno records at 33. It’s this weird amalgam of different things. Make records like that.’”
The result was Norman Cook’s most successful and enduring alias, Fatboy Slim. Cook’s experiences as a DJ directly fed into the records he began making under that name, with his programming/recording sessions typically following a hard weekend’s partying. “By Sunday night I was kind of unable to operate heavy machinery,” he laughs, “so I would just go in the studio and kind of recreate the soundtrack of what had been going through my addled brain over the weekend.”
Cook’s home studio setup when he made the first Fatboy Slim album, 1996’s Better Living Through Chemistry, centred around the Akai S950 and the Atari ST computer running C-Lab Creator software. “I also had a [Studio Electronics] SE1 which was basically a Minimoog that had memories and MIDI, a Roland Sound Canvas just for traditional instruments — cymbals and things like that — and obviously a 303.”
So great was Cook’s love of Roland’s originally-maligned bass partner to the Drumatix, which had been co-opted and reimagined by acid house producers, that he named the first Fatboy Slim single ‘Everybody Needs A 303’. “It only had four knobs to twiddle,” he says of the 303’s appeal for him. “You could learn the permutations of what happened between the four of them. And the great fun was that you did it all live. I had a Kenton Electronics sync box, ‘cause the 303 didn’t have MIDI. Hilariously, the retrofit Kenton box was actually three times the size of the 303.
“All it would give would be note and volume information, so you couldn’t write in any of the sweeps or the tweaks. And the other thing is, ‘cause the knobs on the 303 are really small and really quite critical, it was quite an art. But I got very good at manipulating the 303, and when you’ve had a few drinks, you get even better. When I was really flying I actually used to make the same faces that a lead guitarist makes when he’s doing a solo...”
Cook recorded his live-manipulated 303 parts to ADAT. “Everything else would always run live, which was quite interesting when years later people came to do remixes and it was like, ‘Well can we have the parts?’ And I’m like [laughs] ‘Well, you can have the 303 part and a whole of load of samples and an Atari ST program, but that’s it.”
At this time, Cook was using a Soundcraft desk and monitoring through a pair of Auratones during the writing phase and Yamaha NS10s when it came to mixing. “I had four flatmates,” he remembers, “and you can’t work at any volume. So I worked on Auratones, the same pair of which I still use now, and you could feel when the bottom end was there, but it didn’t go through to other people’s bedrooms. Then when it came to mixdown, I would go onto NS10s. I would say to everyone, ‘Look, sorry, I’m mixing tonight, so I’ve got to actually play this at volume just to check the bottom end.’”
When Cook came to making the second Fatboy Slim album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, the only change to his set-up was that he now had two S950s. But due to his ever-growing DJ experience, and the fact that in 1998 he enjoyed a number three hit with his remix of Wildchild’s ‘Renegade Master’ and a number one with his reworking of Cornershop’s ‘Brimful Of Asha’, Cook was on a creative roll.
“I was just seven days a week, either partying or making tunes,” he says. “I’d done ‘Renegade Master’ and ‘Brimful Of Asha’, and that’s when I was like, I’ve nailed it now, I’ve got the formula. I remember I did ‘The Rockafeller Skank’ and ‘Praise You’ and ‘Right Here, Right Now’ in the same week. I only know that ‘cause they’re all on the same disk for the Atari. That was a good week.”
‘The Rockafeller Skank’ was unusual in that it was much faster than most dance records around at the time. “I had this vocal,” Cook remembers, “the ‘right about now, the funk soul brother’ bit. But it was at 160 bpm, and it was like, What happens at 160 bpm? And then that week I happened to play the Just Brothers’ ‘Sliced Tomatoes’, which was a northern soul tune, at [Brighton club] the Big Beat Boutique and everyone was really grooving to it. I’m like, Ooh we’re onto something here.”
Cook began experimenting further with how he could manipulate samples when his long-time engineer Simon Thornton brought to his attention Hyperprism Pitch Changer, a program he’d downloaded from the Internet, which could time-stretch samples to ludicrous degrees. It was to be used to striking effect in the incredibly elongated mangling of the sample of rapper Lord Finesse which featured on ‘The Rockafeller Skank’.
“‘Rockafeller Skank’ was my ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’,” Cook quips. “I’ve read about how Queen recorded all the different sections and spliced the multi-track together to get the choral section and whatever. This was the one and only tune where we mixed the beginning and the end bit at my house, then we had to go to Simon’s house to record the slowy down bit, put that on a DAT, bring that back to my house and then edit it onto what we’d already done.
“For us, that was like, We’re getting really kind of involved here! That’s the closest I get to a proper studio story I’m afraid. Most studio stories are like, ‘Oh well, we worked out if we went out in the corridor and hit this in a certain way, we’d get a certain noise.’ There was no romanticism about what we did. I would sit there with a bottle of vodka and a sampler and just try things out until they sounded right.”
For ‘Praise You’, Cook remembers that there was quite a lot of work involved getting the Camille Yarbrough vocal part to fit over the piano loop from the JBL demonstration record. “I was playing the Camille Yarborough record at about plus seven on my Technics to get it in tune. But that meant it wasn’t in time, so I then had to chop it into little bits and put it into the S950 and time-stretch each line. I think it goes up about a tone, maybe three semitones. But it goes up about 20bpm as well.”
With the drum parts on ‘Praise You’, as with most of his other tracks from the period, Cook would program patterns comprising individual drum sounds sliced out of vinyl breakbeats. “It was a number of chopped up breakbeats,” he says. “One of my eureka moments was working out to always have two drummers. Basically you could have one drum kit that had a lot of character but not a lot of bite, and then have another one playing exactly the same thing that had a lot of attack but was quite dull-sounding.
“Everyone used to say, ‘How do you get your beats so big?’ ‘Cause a lot of the breakbeats you used to use were quite badly recorded but they had tons of character. Basically I would chop the breakbeat for the kick and the snare and chop the other drum kit the same way, and then play them off the same trigger. Sometimes I’d then chop the hi-hats up as well and make a drum kit out of a drum beat. Then I’d play them both at the same time, but not pan them.
“Y’know, it was a bit of trial and error to find two drum kits that would blend. But pretty much every Fatboy Slim record, there’s two drum kits on it. One a lot more modern and crisp and clean-sounding, and one much older and dirtier that didn’t have the punch.”
The distinctive rolling bass line on ‘Praise You’ meanwhile was written and played by Cook. “The bass line was the SE1 played on a keyboard with me actually finally using my bass-playing chops to write a slightly derivative of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ kind of bass line. On ‘Praise You’, I believe that’s the only live thing that I actually played the notes into a keyboard. And had tons of fun. I don’t think I could ever play that bass line actually on a bass. Or I could given a week of practice... I think that was also the first tune where I worked out how sexy it is to put a high-pass filter on a piano.”
One of the other standout features on ‘Praise You’ is how Yarbrough’s vocal sample features a time-stretch stutter on the line “praise you like I should-d-d-d-d-d” “People would actually come up to me and go, ‘How on earth did you get someone to sing for that long?’” Cook laughs. “One of the reasons I stuck with the 950 rather than moving onto an S1000 was it had reverse loop and it was much easier to get a smooth loop because it becomes like a vibrato warble rather than a click click click. You could just move the loop point fractionally by millionths of a second until it sounded right.”
Once all of the elements of ‘Praise You’ came together, Cook was aware that he had created something special, even if he now puts a lot of it down to chance. “It was a coming together of everything,” he says. “I had the blueprint in my head of what I wanted to do, I’d amassed all these samples and it was just pot luck that I found the samples that fitted together.”
Ultimately, Norman Cook admits he’s surprised that ‘Praise You’ has stood the test of time. “It’s quite amazing,” he marvels. “I remember doing a lot of interviews around the time and getting caned by the Chemical Brothers for saying, ‘Look, what we’re doing, we don’t expect anyone to be listening to it in 10 years. Dance music is disposable.’ They had a real go at me, like, ‘I don’t know about you, but we take things a little bit more seriously and we do expect our music to be listened to in 10 years’ time.’ But I didn’t.”
These days, every year, Cook still gets a Christmas card from Camille Yarbrough. “Because of the royalties she’s got out of it,” he laughs. “But she still also loves it. She said something really beautiful. It was actually written about war veterans. But she said to me, ‘You took it and you put it in a different place and it means different things to different people.’”
These days, while in the main concentrating on his life as a DJ, others have forced Norman Cook to move away from his Atari/S950 setup and update his equipment. “There were a lot of moments where my engineer would just be pulling his hair out saying, ‘Why are you still using the Atari?’ But the thing is by that point I had amassed such a sample collection on the three-inch floppys that it would take me two months to put that into another medium which then might get surpassed. And I just couldn’t be bothered. It was like, it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“I think the final straw was when I produced Rizzle Kicks’ ‘Mama Do The Hump’ [in 2011]. They have not stopped telling people about just how archaic my equipment was. The only thing that really has stopped me using it now is how long it takes to audition the samples. Because obviously the most creative bit of it is matching the samples. You have to sit and wait for 30 seconds for each disk to load, just for you to flick through the nine samples on it and realise it’s not any of those you’re looking for. Then you have to sit there for another 30 seconds while the next one loads.”
Cook now has a MacBook/Ableton setup, but admits that for him, using it means that some of the thrill of creating music has gone. “In Ableton you can just have the samples all running,” he says, “and you can have them all running at the same speed, you can change the pitch of them. But to be honest, to me that’s lost a lot of the appeal and the excitement of the record-making process. Which is one of the reasons why as a producer I’ve become increasingly less prolific because I just don’t get excited about pushing a mouse about and looking at Ableton and thinking, ‘You can do anything, you’ve got everything right there in front of you.’
“When I was limited to the record collection and samples that I had, and the three synthesizers that I had that I knew inside out, that directed a certain course of where I could go with it. And it would be exciting to be bending the rules. But now everything’s laid on a plate for you and there’s too much choice. Before it was like, ‘What can I get out of a 909? What can I get out of a 303?’ Now it’s like you’ve got every single synth under the sun you can call up. I kind of don’t know where to start.”
Maybe, Sound On Sound suggests, he should just fire up the Atari and S950 again and get cracking?
“D’you know what?” he says. “I’m often tempted to do that. It’s all still there and it all still works. I mean that’s the great thing about Ataris. They do go on forever. And I do have about five spares because people have been giving them away to me. I’ve now got, like, four 950s as well. People will just give them to me going, ‘You’re the only person I know who might still use this...’”