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[whitespace] DJ Fatboy Slim He's Come a Long Way: Ex-Housemartins member Norman Cook is now DJ Fatboy Slim.

Beat Privilege

Fatboy Slim creates the kind of memorably funky dance music that people actually want to groove to in the privacy of their own home

By Gina Arnold

AS WITH PEOPLE, there are two types of dance music in this world: the type that you genuinely like to listen to in your home and the type you can only enjoy on the dance floor, when you're high on drugs. The world's nightclubs abound with the latter, which is often highly praised for its obscure samples, mad rhythms and sheer thumpity unlistenablity.

The first type, however, is so rare that those who make it--Madonna comes to mind--are bona fide superstars. English DJ Fatboy Slim is one of the very few new artists who are capable of creating the kind of memorably funky dance music that people actually want to--well, not sing along to, but groove to, in the privacy of their own home.

A former member of the English pop-rock band the Housemartins, Slim--a.k.a. Norman Cook--has a real knack for creating super-upbeat dance music out of a bizarre melding of sources. On his last smash LP, You've Come a Long Way, Baby (1998), he bumped up the beat of numerous unusual sources, thus generating the hit singles "Praise You" and "The Rockafella Skank."

His follow-up, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks), samples such diverse artists as the Doors, Bill Withers and Wet Willie to similarly good effect. Gutter may not contain anything quite as unstoppable as "Skank" (though "Yamama" comes close), but it is a groovy, beat-heavy record that's a lot of fun to listen to and, of course, dance to.

As is true with many "house" records, it's hard to say what Fatboy Slim does on it exactly, as the vocals are mostly done by others--Roland Clark, of the group Urban Soul, Ashley Slater and, in two of the best tracks ("Lovelife" and "Demons"), Macy Gray--and the music is sampled from a number of diverse sources (many of them, unlike Cook, black, so the record sounds funky and bluesy.)

Of course, as is the case with most dance music, none of the tracks is really about anything. They use phrases repeated over and over, tunes that loop and swoop over heavy beats and snippets of sound. One track--the almost balladic "Sunset (Bird of Prey)"--loops a piece of Jim Morrison's voice reading poetry from the American Prayer LP over a moody dance track. Another, "Weapon of Choice," borrows a thick Bootsy Collins bass line.

THESE SINGLE PHRASES will become the basis for the whole number, leaving a rock writer like me in a bit of a quandary. Indeed, there's a long-held theory that the reason rock critics champion so much obscure and doomed-to-fail music (while music they loathe, such as that of Britney Spears, vaults up the charts without so much as a by-your-leave) is because the type of person who likes to write doesn't like the type of music you can dance to.

It's a pretty good theory, because it works both ways: people who like to dance don't necessarily like to read about music, nor do they feel a need to expound on the reasons why a track is good or bad. It's a real dilemma for both writers and the retail world that relies on them to advocate albums, because "the Beat" really is the core of all rock music, the one thing that sets it apart from all musics previous to it, like pop and big band and jazz.

Remember the old saw from American Bandstand: "It's got a good beat, and you can dance to it, so I give it an 85"? As that statement indicates, most people who like rock music really do care more if you can dance to it than if you can sing along to it. (This explains the popularity of artists like Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys and many others.)

Rock critics, on the other hand, are fixated on narratives, either via the lyrics or the more wide-reaching drama that the celebrity/singer/songwriter has created around him or herself as a personality.

Dance music is often wordless, and its makers tend toward anonymity. This makes it hard to write about, but that doesn't mean it can't be done, as long as one thinks of dance music as being more like a painting by a modern artist like Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian--in other words, as an abstract comment on an emotion or a feeling or even just a moment in time. Cook's emotions are not necessarily very deep, but they are enjoyable, and that's one thing to go by.

Another clue to his oeuvre might be the title of his album, which in this case is a reference to a quote by Oscar Wilde: "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." (Chrissie Hynde used the same epigram in her song "Message of Love.") I'm not sure what he means by using the quote, but it does show that, like many of the leading proponents of dance music--Moby, DJ Shadow--Cook is slightly more erudite than others, and this gives him an edge.

So does the fact that his music references albums that go way back in time. He doesn't just sample the usual suspects--Rick James, P-Funk and the Breeders' "Cannonball"--but also chooses '70s prog rock and Southern boogie: Wet Willie, Colosseum. The result sounds just as fresh and modern as the Prodigy or Propellerheads but with the added bonus of a bit more depth of character: a contextuality that refers to Cook's (middle) agedness and the resulting extreme breadth of knowledge about rock.

It's interesting, also, to note that bands like Wet Willie (best known for "Keep on Smilin'") and the extremely undanceable Doors can provide samples that are just as useful as a Bootsy Collins track. It kind of calls into question the whole concept of this kind of non-band-oriented, DJ music: what it is, and how it's made. As dance tracks, it is of course perfectly valid, but is it art? Is it technology? Or is it just production skill?

I really don't know the answer to those questions, but it doesn't take away from the enjoyment of the album--whether you're high or not. In addition to being a good record to party to, "Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars" makes good background music--and in the weird world of dance, that's considered a compliment.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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