As BMG reissues Fatboy Slim’s 1998 LP You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby as part of its Art Of The Album series, Long Live Vinyl looks back on the history and legacy of a big-beat classic that revolutionised dance music…

 

Fatboy Slim You've Come A Long Way, BabyIt’s hard to believe, but some of the most defining sounds of the 90s started with a beat-up old Atari computer and a tower of floppy disks. This was how You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby was pieced together, the 1998 sophomore effort from one-man dance act Fatboy Slim. Its unique sound of cut-up rap samples and forgotten soul singers was all put together in a home studio in end-of-the-century Brighton, far, far away from the timeless American cool being so effortlessly evoked. 

The wizard behind this feat was Norman Cook, one-time bassist for indie-poppers The Housemartins and a DJ who started off his career playing hip-hop. At the tender age of 35, Cook managed to nail the zeitgeist of the dancefloor with a vision of its future, taking the sampledelic methods of DJ Shadow and making something far more fun and irreverent.

The House of Love

‘Big beat’ was the name given to this new collision of house and breakbeats, and the go-to label for this sound was without a doubt Skint Records, a Brighton label born out of the success of mid-90s club night the Big Beat Boutique. “Big beat was just a change from a house scene that wasn’t particularly inspiring at the time,” Skint boss Damian Harris told CMJ in 2000. “There are lots of breakdowns and builds, and, at its best, it’s filled with funk. But I still had no idea how big it would become.”

Cook raised his already respected DJ profile at the Boutique, riding high from recent successes with groups Beats International and Freak Power, acts whose chart-friendly dance he was already turning away from with his own solo compositions. Ironically, Cook was eventually asked by Harris to make a record that sounded more like the kind of music he played back home for the post-Boutique after-party: “Hip-hop at the wrong speed,” as it was put to him.

Getting down to work in the so-called House Of Love, Cook gathered up his floppies and began to splice together various samples from the hefty record collection that’s proudly displayed on the LP’s inner artwork. Out went the acid-like riffs of his 1996 debut under the Fatboy alias, Better Living Through Chemistry, and in their place came retro stylings set to modern-day beats, and rap sped up to the beat of the dancefloor.

Talking with DJ Mag in 2014, Cook explained how the idea was “to have a pop hook on a hip-hop beat with a bit of acid-house sensibility. Whether it came from Northern Soul or soul, it was just the contents of my record collection getting distilled down.”

The earliest success in this style was the 1997 Old Skool Edit of Wildchild’s Renegade Master, originally a house track with a rap refrain. In Cook’s hands, this decidedly non-old school remix introduced big beat to the world, with its breakbeats and wild vocal modulations popping up even on mainstream Now… compilations.

Fatboy Slim The Rockafeller Skank

The Funk Soul Brother

The tune that put the Fatboy sound on the mainstream map, though, was The Rockafeller Skank. Like Renegade Master, it’s based on a repeating rap hook, but this time with the cool strains of surf guitar replacing the manic needle scratching. The guitar lines sampled came from Northern Soul track Sliced Tomatoes by Just Brothers, one of the many vintage curiosities that make up the DNA of …Baby. Its memorable “Funk soul brother” mantra, meanwhile, was lifted from the vocal intro to an LP of hip-hop instrumentals. In his book The Story of Northern Soul, David Nowell marvels at how this selection of vocal line “added the seal of approval to its soulful roots and turned the single into probably the most memorable pop song of 1998.”

“It seemed to be an instant thing among everyone who heard it,” Cook recounted to Nowell. “We hoped something would happen for it, but I never thought it would be a Top 10 single up there with the likes of George Michael.”

The Rockafeller Skank, then, was where the sound of …Baby truly began, escaping the House Of Love after party and dancing into the streets. Cook became even more in demand as a DJ, something that didn’t escape the attention of GQ’s Mike Shallcross, who told the BBC in 2002 how Cook’s sets were “full of crescendo [and] highly exciting. He drew people to his brand of dance music who’d normally prefer Oasis or Madonna.”

Fatboy Slim Gangster Tripping

Another single came, the wrong-speed and just plain wrong hip-hop of Gangster Tripping, before the album was released by Skint in October 1998, going straight in at No. 2 on the UK charts. Reviews were as good as sales, with NME suggesting it was the “…Morning Glory of big beat.”

It was the first single following the album’s release that would ultimately push …Baby to the top of the charts, one very different to the others before it.

Fatboy Slim Praise You

take yo’ praise

While other Fatboy tracks ring out with the dislocated rhymes of B-boys, the single Praise You is a far more seductive affair. Starting out with the intimate tones of 70s soul singer Camille Yarbrough as she near enough sings the name of the album, the song is another example of the record’s wicked way with obscure sounds of yore. A bar-room piano gets paired with the vocals, as baggy beats help to create a sound described by Vibe Magazine as “Manchester shambledelia”. Arguably, it’s the British influence which made the Fatboy Slim sound unique, a fact that often gets lost amidst all the very American vocal samples used on the record. The sound of the UK can be heard all over …Baby, from the horn-led climax to Praise You, which sounds like a marching Lonely Hearts Club band parading its way down Brighton Pier, to the updated glam-rock stomp of Build It Up – Tear It Down, making its way even onto unclassifiable B-sides such as Sho Nuff, which is built entirely around the soft-rock prance of a British telly jingle, no less.

Perhaps because of its dual-audio heritage, or the song’s ‘big beat with a big heart’ appeal, Praise You ended up a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, helping the album to go platinum in the US.

“It’s one of those tunes I’ll always have an affection for,” Cook admitted in the DJ Mag interview. “It’s the fact that the lyrics are so timeless, and one lyric fits all.”

Music site Thump recently suggested that Praise You “marked the pinnacle of big beat’s American crossover, and the genre’s zenith before its swift decline.” But that would be forgetting the majesty of next single Right Here, Right Now, a tune which sounds as epic today as it did 20 years ago. Like Praise You, the album opener is an anomaly of sorts on the LP, riding as it does on a swell of melodramatic strings. Its closest counterpart is the instrumental Love Island, which swoons near the end of the album with easy-listening strings beamed in straight from the 1950s.

The magic of Right Here, Right Now lies in the chant of its title. Once again, Cook reduces the human voice to another cog in the mix, with one voice turned into an indecipherable breakbeat section, and the other sloganeering somewhere in that grey area between pop and propaganda. Things reach an epic crescendo, before ending with a real-life phone-in as a Fatboy fanboy begs a US radio station for some “Rockafeller Skank”. From reverence to more British irreverence, all in under seven minutes.

Fatboy Slim

So Why Try Harder?

Reverence, though, should be paid to the album, no matter how tongue-in-cheek things get. Consider its influence over the years, inspiring the likes of The Chemical Brothers to add more whimsy to their beats, and Basement Jaxx more unusual and in-your-face samples (as on 2001 single Where’s Your Head At). Newbies such as Mylo soon debuted with the cheeky house subversion of Destroy Rock & Roll, whose hit title track sampled an American preacher denouncing the 80s pop scene. Norman Cook no doubt approved.

Sample culture really did get a major boost from You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby, with fans taking as much delight in tracking down samples as from hearing them in the first place. Acts such as The Avalanches hit fame through such fervour, with their classic debut in 2000 not being a million miles away from the Fatboy sound. More recent counterparts, meanwhile, include acts such as Major Lazer, Duck Sauce and Skrillex, who raised similarly boisterous flags high on the 2010s dancefloor.

The time is right, then, for a reappraisal of the LP, and its March reissue as part of BMG’s Art Of The Album series is a fitting tribute. This new 180g gatefold edition of the album comes with sleeve notes from Ralph Moore, a timeline from Damian Harris, plus a 12″ roll-fold booklet with display-art card. There’s no answer, though, to the great mystery of who the actual fat boy on the front cover is. Snapped at Virginia’s 1983 Fat Peoples Festival, the very happy chappie has never been identified. Perhaps in another 20 years, baby?

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