By the mid-'90s, Norman Cook had been involved in three UK No.1 records. First there was the acapella 'Caravan of Love' in 1986 with Hull-based indie band The Housemartins, who Cook had joined on bass as a favour to his old pal from Reigate College — Paul Heaton, the singer. Then there was the dubwise 'Dub Be Good To Me' with the Beats International collective in 1990 that, infamously, sampled the bassline from The Clash's 'Guns of Brixton'; and Freak Power's groovy funkster 'Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out' shot to the top spot in 1995 after being re-released following a Levi's jeans ad campaign.
Having had his acid house epiphany in the early '90s, Cook had started making house music under the names Pizzaman and the Mighty Dub Katz. Pizzaman was signed to Loaded Records in Brighton, and one of the staffers there, Damian Harris, wanted to start a new offshoot — Skint. “The idea was that there was this sound that we’d kind of been hearing in our heads, which didn’t have a name in those days,” Norman tells DJ Mag. “Trypno or Brit-hop and amyl house were early names for it, and basically we used to play trip-hop records at 45, or techno and acid records at 33. It was a bridge between the hip-hop we grew up with, house which was becoming a little bit stereotypical, and the eclectic pop nature of throwing in every reference that you’ve grown up with — from The Beatles to punk rock.”
A whole party crew would end up at Norm's house, dubbed the House of Love due to having loads of acid house Smileys everywhere, every weekend for after-parties in the early '90s. “We spent a couple of years pretty much every weekend at the house, and we’d always be playing records,” recalls Damian Harris. “When I got permission to do Skint, they said to me ‘Find your first three records’, and I knew that Norm would get it. I knew that he’d just started liking acid house, and I knew that he had a very good hip-hop and disco record collection. It was literally saying, ‘Hip-hop machismo and breaks, acid house elation and a rocky attitude’. He got it quite easily. It was just a case of speeding it up a bit, and there we go.”
1995 saw the launch of the Big Beat Boutique at the Concorde club, which was basically an extension of the House of Love, according to Damian. “The first [Fatboy Slim] album was me making records so that I had enough tunes to play a whole set of this new sound,” says Norm, installed as Boutique resident. “At that point I’d bumped into the Chemical Brothers and Jon Carter and Richard Fearless at the Heavenly Social, and it felt like there was this gang of people who liked music that wasn’t quite the same as everybody else’s. It was like a meeting of minds.”
Norm had needed another pseudonym for his new 'big beat' persona, so plucked something out of thin air. “I really like old blues records, and if you’re a fat blues singer you get called ‘Slim’,” he relays. “So it was like the oxymoron of a blues singer.”
By 1996 there were enough Fatboy tracks for an album, 'Better Living Through Chemistry', featuring tracks such as 'Everybody Needs A 303'. “After the first album we kind of worked out that there was a formula that worked, so the idea was to have a pop hook on a hip-hop beat but with a bit of acid house sensibility,” outlines Norm. “Whether it came from Northern soul or soul... it was just the contents of my record collection distilled down. I’ve always been into soul and funk music, and it’s quite difficult for a suburban white kid to make funk music, but with the sampler — with an [Akai] S950 [sampler] — you can get that funk out of it.”
As a dedicated vinyl collector, Norm would frequent thrift stores and second-hand record shops to buy up records to sample. One comp he'd bought for £8.25 from Rhythm Records in Camden, 'Essential Funk', had as its last track a soulful '70s cut by singer/poet Camille Yarbrough, 'Take Yo' Praise', which started with the breathy acapella: “We've come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good...'. The first few acapella lines were ripe for sampling, although it took Norm a little while to speed it up a touch and get it so that you could hear Camille singing over the top of other elements.
The third and fourth lines — 'I want to celebrate you baby, I want to praise you like I should' — weren't so much about God as about praising a man, which Norm says he was glad of. “My worry was the religious nature of the [original] song, whether it was a song about God or about sex, and luckily it was more about sex than God, so I got away with it,” he says. “One of the lovely things about ‘Praise You’ is that it works in so many different situations. It can be about relationships, it can be about me DJing at the Amex… every time I drop it at a gig, there’s some reason why it seems relevant, but it is open-ended about who you’re talking to. In the original song, it’s very definitely about a man. She wants to praise him,” he smirks.
On his antiquated equipment, a 1989 Atari ST running Creator software, Norm started building up 'Praise You' with piano, a drum beat (“probably a chopped-up breakbeat off a funk bootleg”), a bassline that he wrote himself on keyboard, plus guitar and percussion. “There isn’t actually a huge amount to it, apart from the groove, the piano, the vocal and a bit of 303 at the end,” he says as he gives DJ Mag an exclusive run-through of the elements in his Brighton studio. “And there’s some bits to it that I can’t play to you on their own, for fear of the original owners finding it.”
Like many game-changing tracks, it all came together pretty quickly. “There is a bit of, ‘If you can remember the '90s, you weren’t really there’ about it, although as I remember it, it probably took about two evenings,” he says. “It was one of those tunes where the bits fell into my lap, because I'd buy tons of records from thrift stores and put them all on discs in little chunks, i.e. drum beat at this tempo, vocal at this tempo. Then you just sit there — quite laborious in those days — loading up the S950 [floppy] discs until you think, ‘That goes well with that’. This was one where I quickly got three elements.
“I was just looking at [my work] this week on the Creator discs,” he continues, reading his track titles from the floppy. “‘Praise You’, ‘Funk Soul Brother’ which then got called ‘Rockafeller Skank’, ‘Always Read the Label’, 'Build It Up, Tear It Down’ and something called ‘Right Here, Right Now’ — now that was a good week! I think I was on a roll that week.”
Norm is too modest to admit that he thought he'd come up with a bit of a classic when he'd finished 'Praise You', but says he remembers thinking, “'That is good, it sounds like a single'. With the rise of big beat, there was this thing going on — like EDM is at the moment — where you can just feel the momentum of it, especially with me and the Chemical Brothers and people, we were all trying to outdo each other. This was like, ‘Ah, this takes it onto a pop level where it’s never really been before’.”
“When I first heard it, I thought it was amazing,” says Damian Harris, who's also DJ/producer Midfield General. “That was the thing with Norman at the time, he’d give me these demo tapes and that’s his brilliance, that very simple combination of melodies and samples and little hooks, and you just knew straight away that it was a great record.”
After the first album, a 'Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim remix' became the hottest revamp to obtain, propelling Cornershop's 'Brimful of Asha' to No.1 in 1997 and also Wildchild's 'Renegade Master' to No.3 in 1998. “I suppose we could be a bit confident, cos we knew ‘Praise You’ was an amazing record and we could save it for the third single — and hopefully everything would carry on,” says Harris. “So ‘Rockafeller Skank’ went to No.6, ‘Gangster Trippin’’ went to No.3 and then we thought, hopefully, that ‘Praise You’ would get to No.1.”
In advance of release, Skint made sure that they paid Camille Yarbrough for the 'Praise You' vocal sample in return for her permission to use it. “We were quite worried when we were coming to clear it, but she was very nice about it and liked the way Norman had treated it respectfully,” says Damian.
When Norman was in America filming the official video for 'Rockafeller Skank', he received a video from film director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, etc) of a weird-looking guy dancing to 'Rockafeller Skank'. “He didn’t tell me it was him dancing!” remembers Norm. “He said, ‘I saw this guy dancing to your tune and thought he looked cool’. I was like, ‘That’s the video! Scrap the filming tomorrow, this is going to be the video!’, and the record company said no. So I phoned Spike up and said, ‘Would you do the next single?’ which just happened to be ‘Praise You’, and I think it fits the song so much better.”
The quirky 'Praise You' video, with Jonze's fictional, under-rehearsed Torrance Community Dance Group dancing a routine in a cinema foyer, was filmed guerrilla style in LA. Like a freaky flashmob, Jonze's troupe flounced around to the track somewhat shambolically until the theatre manager stepped forward to turn off the beatbox. Jonze immediately jumped on him to give him a weird hug.
Norman, who was present during the filming (and makes a little cameo near the end), takes up the story. “The theatre manager really didn’t like it, but some money changed hands and we explained exactly what we were doing, and within a couple of minutes we restarted and did the rest of it,” he says. “We had to do it in one take to get people’s reactions, we’d already done it somewhere else and everybody just walked past and ignored us. So yeah, we paid him off — and I think he’ll take that as a wise decision in his life, to let us carry on.”
The video helped break 'Praise You' worldwide, including in America, but MTV famously turned it down at first. “They said it was of inferior quality to be broadcast and looked like it was filmed on hand-held cameras, which of course it was,” Norman says. “And then VH1 started playing it and everyone started liking it, and it went on to win six MTV Awards. But originally MTV turned it down, and the American record company wanted to make another video. ‘That’s just stupid, and you’re not taking it seriously’, they said.”
'Praise You' was released in the first week of January 1999, and did indeed shoot straight to No.1 in the UK. “You take any No.1 as a big moment in your life,” says Norm, “a feeling that you’ve lived down your last No.1. They were crazy times. I remember there was a week when I won a Brit, the album ['You've Come A Long Way, Baby'] knocked Robbie Williams off No.1, and I got engaged to Zoe and became tabloid fodder — they were the kind of weeks we had in those days!”
'Praise You’ was big beat’s zenith, but it was also the beginning of the end when a backlash suddenly kicked in. “The backlash to big beat was probably because it got very dull, very quickly,” reckons Norm. “The idea was to break the rules and break the formula of house music being house music, rap music being rap music, and rock music being rock music. And it just became a new set of rules. The style was very easily copied by other people, and all of a sudden everybody was doing it and it became formulaic, which was bizarre as the idea was to break the formula. It crashed and burned very quickly.”
Norm reckons that the fact he was mates with Jon Carter and the Chemicals helped him successfully swerve the backlash. “We were all like, ‘Shall we kill this thing and move on?’ And there was a race…” he says. “We’d check in with each other, ‘What’s your next album going to be like?’ ‘Anything but big beat’. So there was a rush to jump the good ship big beat before it went down, so we lived to fight another day.”
Norm tells DJ Mag that 'Praise You' being in a scene of Friends was quite a bizarre moment in the song's lifetime. “There was a thing where somebody was supposed to meet someone outside a Fatboy Slim gig, and this whole scene with ‘Praise You’ playing in the background,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This has kinda got out of hand’.”
'Praise You' was the tune that sent him supernova in the US, and he still plays it every set in some form or other — mashed up with 'Sympathy For the Devil' by the Rolling Stones is his current fave. A 30-piece choir singing it at his headline Bestival show last year, with Rob Da Bank on keys, was a magical moment, he says, and “it’s one of those tunes that I’ll always have affection for. I’ll never really think, ‘Oh no, not that one again’, or ‘How do I live that one down?’
“There’s certain tunes — mentioning no ‘Caravan of Loves’… sorry, names, where if people sing it to you in the street you think, ‘Oh God, here we go again’. But 'Praise You', if people sing it to me in the street, I’ll always smile. If it crops up in weird places in films, it’ll always have some kind of meaning. The fact that the lyrics are so timeless — one lyric fits all.” CARL LOBEN
Watch the 'Praise You' Game Changer film on DJMag.tv — now (below)!
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.