“Dance music isn’t at its peak at the moment,” Norman Cook says, rather wistfully, from his Brighton beachfront home on the south of England.
“Five years ago it was breaking rules and turning people on who didn’t like dance music – rock bands wanted to get involved, and people were excited.”
“Since then we’ve kind of lost our momentum a little bit. When big beat came around in the ’90s it gave dance music a kick up the arse, with groups like Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers,” adds the man better known as Fatboy Slim.
“We’re treading water a bit at the moment so I’m trying to do something different.”
How different is still unclear – when asked how his forthcoming album’s coming along, he’s apologetically evasive.
“I’m about two thirds of the way through the new album, but I can’t tell you anything about it, I’m afraid. What I can tell you is that it’s different – very, very different,” he reveals.
“I’m playing a bit coy, but it’s going to be quite surprising,” the superstar DJ continues. “We really want to save the surprise.”
And surprises are something the 44-year-old producer knows all about – arriving as if from nowhere at a time when DJs were the new rock gods. That time was called 1998. With hits like ‘Right Here, Right Now’ and ‘The Rockafeller Skank’, he made phrases like “right about now, funk soul brother” part of the vernacular and helped bring dance music to soccer moms – and politicians.
“Boris Johnson is a very eccentric and enigmatic politician. He was being interviewed and somebody asked him about youth culture. And he said: ‘The only DJ I know is Fatboy Slim’. And somebody sampled his quote and has now made a track out of it.
“I’m sort of half flattered,” Cook laughs. “The track is awful, and he’s a conservative politician rather than a left-wing one.”
There’s not just a downside to fame, though – as a DJ he’s been able to see the world, playing huge parties as far afield as the shores of Loch Ness and Bondi Beach. But it’s the three Brighton Beach events – one of which attracted over 250 000 punters – for which the self-confessed “professional beach bum” is best known.
And although he’s returning to South Africa this week for the second time, he’s yet to play on our white sands.
“We were down to play a gig on a place just up on the Garden Route, on Reconciliation Day but that didn’t work out for timing issues. I’d have to sit around on my own for a week, missing my wife and my son. It would have been great if they could have come out and we could have had a lovely holiday but it’s during school term.
“So maybe next year,” the man appointed official DJ of the 2010 World Cup suggests.
This year, though, he’s playing three shows across the country, pointing out with an easy chuckle: “Actually the one in Joburg is billed as a beach party but it’s at a water park – they’ve built a beach, just so that I feel at home.”
Is there anything he’s looking forward to on his return visit?
“Without being too pretentious, last time I played to a mainly white audience, and that’s why we tried to do the beach party on Reconciliation Day because it would be free and everybody could afford to come. So I would really like to get deep down to the real South Africa because last time I felt I was just supported by an all-white crowd.”
And what can those crowds expect?
Still preferring to play records (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, I’ve been playing vinyl for 25 years so I’m a bit old school like that.”) he’ll come armed with a box of 40 or 50 records – and make it up as he goes along.
“I suss out the audience, gauge what kind of mood they’re in. And I check out the DJ before me – if he’s really banging it, I’ll change it down; if he’s not doing very well then I go in hard. I only ever know the first record, and then I sort of react to the crowd.”
Some choices do go down like lead balloons, but there are tracks (he calls them “get out of jail records”) that are sure to work every time – tunes like ‘Born Slippy’ and his own ‘Star 69’.
“If I played ‘Right Here Right Now’ and that didn’t go down very well, I’d retire,” he grins, self deprecatingly.
But it’s not all about the music. “The main purpose for this trip is I’m a patron for this charity Coaching for Hope which coaches kids to play football and we also do HIV/Aids awareness with them,” he reveals.
“I’m a soccer fan to the point that I’m a director of my local team Brighton & Hove Albion who kind of started Coaching For Hope and because of my involvement at the club and my record company, Skint Records, sponsor them, they just talked me into it,” he says modestly. “It’s a way of doing something good in a positive way,” he adds, bravely confessing that he wouldn’t be able to deal with seeing suffering.
“My wife (Zoe Ball) is a TV presenter over here and she does stories at hospitals where she just literally has to walk out into the carpark because she’s crying too much,” Cook explains.
“So it was a way of me being able to do charity but seeing smiling faces rather than starving people. A bit of a cop out but better than nothing.”
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.