The man who DJs under the name Fatboy Slim has a tricky relationship with fame. At the tender age of 8, the English boy who was born Norman Cook discovered his professional destiny.
“The Osmonds came to town,” Cook recounts to New Times during a recent chat. “Donny Osmond had his name written on the back of his leather jacket in studs and had a piano that lit up when he played. I thought to myself, I want a piece of this action†
Peripheral fame as a musician did come relatively quickly. At 22, he was playing with his schoolboy friends in an indie-pop band, the Housemartins, that climbed to the pinnacle of the UK charts with “Caravan of Love” in 1986.
But chart success wasn’t the fulfillment he sought.
“It wasn’t my kind of music,” Cook says. “As a suburban white English kid, it was thought that was what I should play, but I always liked Black music.”
To rekindle his love of music, Cook would DJ on the side.
“In those days, DJ’ing was a hobby, not an occupation. But then other DJs I used to play with, like Tim Simenon from Bomb the Bass, put records out. The big change for me was when they invented the sampler. All of a sudden white kids could make funky music without having to pretend to be Black. That was my lightbulb moment when I realized I was playing music I didn’t really enjoy in a band. While as a DJ, I was playing the music I really loved. And all of a sudden, DJs were being seen more as artists. So that’s why I left Housemartins — because my first love was funk and soul music.”
Eventually, in the mid-’90s, he found his niche and a name for himself in Fatboy Slim, a moniker he chose because “I loved really dirty, really old blues records. If you were a fat blues singer, you’d be called Slim. There was Memphis Slim, Hightop Slim. I just thought Fatboy Slim was an oxymoronic blues singer.”
And in the late ’90s, on the heels of You’ve come a long way baby, Fatboy Slim was inescapable.
“I married my wife, who was a TV and radio presenter, so we became a celebrity couple. You’ve Come a Long Way Baby was number one on the charts, and I won a Brit award the same week. That’s when I said something big is happening here,” he remembers. “I never set out to be in this industry because I wanted to be famous. It was because I loved music and I loved to entertain people. I loved creating music and playing music. I never sought fame. It wasn’t unwanted, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for. It’s not something I was too comfortable with.”
He finagled his way out of being the center of attention when Spike Jonze directed two unforgettable music videos in “Praise You” and “Weapon of Choice.” They were both great bits of comedy in which Fatboy Slim did not have to appear in front of the camera.
“Spike had these ideas on how to break the rules and still make it entertaining. It’s actually more entertaining because you were breaking the rules,” Cook says. “Making pop music, you had to be in the videos, and it was all about how you looked and what clothes you were wearing. While with dance music, a lot of people become DJs because they didn’t want to stand center stage having people staring at them. In those days, DJs were just hidden away in the corner of the club. It was a way of expressing yourself musically without having to be a star. EDM came along and completely ruined that model.”
He still relishes DJ’ing live sets, including at the upcoming Masquerade Miami, which he describes as “a DJ show.”
“After playing bass and guitar in bands, I realized I’m a better DJ than a traditional musician,” Cook says. “I don’t just play my hits. In fact, some nights, I don’t play my hits at all. I’ve been DJ’ing for 35 years now, so I feel very much a part of that fraternity. It’s a DJ show with my very good friend Claptone, who’s hosting that night.I try to help you escape from reality.Escape through the dullness and stress from your normal life.If you’re a pop fan who’s heard a few of my tunes on MTV, you might be a little disappointed, but if you’re into dance music, it’ll be great.”
Claptone, who invited Fatboy Slim to play Masquerade Miami, agrees with that sentiment.
“I grew up with the sound of Fatboy Slim,” Claptone says. “A true club music legend, party DJ par excellence. He knows music, and if he decides to unleash good times, there is no escape for you.
“He’s one of the guys that invented what it means to be a DJ,” he goes on. “When he plays, you can hear the open-mindedness, the unlimited, unrestricted love for music in all its forms, the ability to blend all kinds of genres under the umbrella of a house set. There’s nothing more inspiring to me. He influenced me not only as a DJ but also as a producer. The whole big-beat movement with all its dirty beats and funk influences had and still have a huge impact on Claptone music, per se.”
But even after all of these decades being famous and a musical inspiration as Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook still requires a little bit of work to play a show.
“I have to transform myself from Norman Cook, who is a 58-year-old father of two and a fairly responsible and reasonable kind of bloke, and I have to transform him into Fatboy Slim, who is this ageless irresponsible party animal,” he explains. “That involves taking off my shoes, putting on a Hawaiian shirt, having three cans of Red Bull, and, just before I go on stage, my tour manager slaps me really hard across the face. Though I’m a DJ and I just play other people’s records, I try to put as much performance into the show to be a larger-than-life character, so people don’t just see me pressing buttons on the mixer.”
The Masquerade Miami. With Fatboy Slim, James Hype, Ferreck Dawn, and others. Noon Wednesday, March 23, at Hyde Beach at the SLS South Beach, 1701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $60 to $75 through tixr.com.