Norman Cook

A CONVERSATION


Earlier this year I e-mailed Norman Cook via Skint Records, telling him about the electrofunkroots project and my intention to document the early 80s period more thoroughly. Some weeks later I received a reply from the company, saying they’d passed on my message and asking for my phone number so Norman could call me direct to set a date when he could answer the questions I wanted to put to him. The call came in August, it was the first time I’d spoken to him since 1990.

Back then Norman had just reached the summit of the charts with his Beats International project. Their single “Dub Be Good To Me” was a cover of a track that had been a huge tune for me in the summer of 1983, when I deejayed at Wigan Pier and Manchester clubs, Legend and The Haçienda. This was “Just Be Good To Me” by the S.O.S Band, which would finally enter the UK Top 20 the following year, almost a full 12 months after it had first appeared as a US import. By this point I’d stopped deejaying completely, whilst Norman’s journey had only just started.

I was living in London in 1990, managing and producing the Ruthless Rap Assassins, who had just completed their first album. I was waiting at a tube station on my way to EMI for a meeting about their forthcoming releases, sat at the platform thumbing through a copy of the NME. I was reading an article on Beats International, an interview with the guy behind the project, an ex-Housemartin called Norman Cook, but was stopped in my tracks when I read my own name mentioned in the piece, alongside no less than the great Grandmaster Flash, as an influence on his career! I began racking my brain for who I might know from Hull, the city associated with The Housemartins, but couldn’t think of anybody, let alone someone called Norman.

It wasn’t until I got to EMI and hooked up with Kermit, who was then a Rap Assassin, that it all became clear. Kermit looked at the piece and told me, “that’s Quentin, the guy we met in Brighton, that’s Ox”, and the penny finally dropped!.

In December 1983 I’d been the DJ on a short tour, The Haçienda Review, with gigs in Brighton, Hickstead and London. The previous August, I’d become the first dance specialist at The Haçienda, presenting my own Funk Night on a Friday, and playing for an hour each Saturday in order to introduce their regular crowd (then very much an alternative post-Punk audience) to the type of music I was playing on Wednesday at Legend and Tuesday at the Pier, which were then firmly established as the leading black music nights in the North, with the emphasis on the Electro-Funk style that I’d become increasingly associated with. I was also the manager of Broken Glass, the Manchester breakdance crew, who were making quite a name for themselves at the time.

One of the best-known members of Broken Glass was Kermit, the first British breakdancer to be photographed for a national magazine. Still a teenager, Kermit had been a regular at Legend even before Electro-Funk held sway, originally gaining respect for being one of the finest Jazz Fusion dancers on the scene, as part of a local crew called The Scorpions.

Broken Glass would dance every week on The Haçienda stage during my Saturday spots, becoming, to all intents and purposes, the clubs resident break crew, whilst playing a significant part in raising The Haçienda’s profile with Manchester’s influential black audience (although, sadly, their role in setting the club off on the road towards becoming a legendary dance venue has never been properly acknowledged). Their importance to the club’s image at the time is born out by the decision to include Broken Glass as part of The Haçienda Review, which, in addition to myself, also included Factory Records band Quando Quango (Factory, of course, owned The Haçienda), led by saxophonist / vocalist, Mike Pickering, who would later find fame as a House DJ at the club before going on to form the hugely successful M People. Mike was then The Haçienda’s promotions manager, but when I stopped deejaying he would continue the Friday night dance experiment, his “Nude” night eventually taking off in a big way.

Haçienda Roadshow at The Old Vic, Brighton

After the first show, in Brighton, a young guy came over to us, full of enthusiasm for what he’d seen, and invited us to a party. This was Quentin, who told me he did a bit of deejaying himself, under the name Ox. We took him up on his offer and headed back to his home, sitting up all night smoking spliff and discussing all manner of topics relating to the club scene. The following day, a bit worse for wear, we all piled onto the Broken Glass mini-bus, Quentin included, and headed off to our gig in Hickstead. We parted company the next day, with Quentin making his way back to Brighton as we drove to our final date at Camden Palace in London.

Our paths would cross again just a few months later when The Tube was filmed at The Haçienda (with an unknown, called Madonna, making her first UK TV appearance), but the next time I spoke to Quentin, in 1990, he was very much Norman Cook, one of the hottest names on the dance scene following his success with Beats International.

On the back of the NME piece I’d tracked down his number and given him a call and, as a result, two of the Rap Assassins singles included Norman Cook remixes.

More than thirteen years have now passed, and in the meantime Norman has become the best known DJ in the World via his alto-ego, Fatboy Slim, which has brought him a string of hit singles and albums, plus countless remix credits. Some of the names he works with are as big as they come, on the very day I spoke to him his remix of “Sympathy For The Devil”, the classic Rolling Stones track, was issued, whilst Elton John’s “Are You Ready For Love”, the first number 1 on Norman’s own Southern Fried label, was still enjoying it’s initial 24 hours at the peak of the UK Pop chart.

What I found particularly interesting is that in over an hour of conversation Fatboy Slim wasn’t mentioned by name once, the focus being on Norman’s roots rather than his subsequent fame. As a result, our conversation not only covered the questions I wanted to ask him regarding his Electro-Funk influences, but also provides a rare insight into Norman’s beginnings as a DJ, with a depth that perhaps hasn’t been documented previously. It obviously helps that we were talking the same language, having a perfect understanding of what each other meant in reference to the early 80s period, which had such a profound effect on both of us.

So, in the words of Jimmy Castor, what we’re going to do right here is go back…

BRIGHTON, DECEMBER ’83

GW: Firstly thanks for taking time out to do this and coming on a trip down memory lane really. Can you remember the name of the venue in Brighton where we met back in 1983? It was a bar wasn’t it?

NC: Yeah, I know where it was, but it’s been called so many different things. I really can’t remember.

GW: What’s interesting, with hindsight, is that there were a trio of future chart-topping artists in the room that night: there was Mike Pickering, then a musician with Quando Quango and later, of course, M People, Kermit, who was dancing with Broken Glass, would eventually hook-up with Shaun Ryder to form Black Grape, and there was yourself as well, so that’s quite odd in a sense. What can you remember about that gig?

NC: Just being freaked out, never having actually seen a DJ scratch before, cos I’d seen Grandmaster Flash, but everyone was trying to work out what he was doing cos he was up on stage and you couldn’t really see it, but we were able to see what you were doing. There was me and about five other people just standing there going aah right, that’s how you do it. Then, of course, the fact that Broken Glass sort of stole the show because no one had seen proper breakdancing in Brighton either. So it was a bit of a cultural mission cos that kind of Hip Hop culture hadn’t really got as far as Brighton at that point. We hadn’t really seen it in action and didn’t realise it was going on in the UK at that time.

GW: I’ve just written a piece about what I see as the dawn of Hip Hop culture in the UK, which I think has been totally overlooked in the history – that’s the “Buffalo Gals” video, Malcolm McLaren. I mean, the amount of kids that got into breakdancing on the back of that. You mention Grandmaster Flash. When “Wheels Of Steel” first came out in 81, a bit like you said there about seeing it live, we just didn’t have a clue what it was!

NC: And also there was this disinformation that the journalists who had seen him in action in America said that the way he did scratching was to pick the needle up and put it back down to repeat phrases, and I tried it for hours and it didn’t work! (both laugh).

GW: I know. It was so naive that whole period!

NC: It was just bad journalism; they couldn’t really work out what he was doing so they decided he was picking the needle up and putting it back down! They thought that was how you made that noise, so for ages we just couldn’t work out how to do it. I think that put back English deejaying culture by a year or two, until people started coming over here a bit more, cos I mean Grandmaster Flash came over supporting The Clash, I think it was the first time he came to England, and that was around the time of “Wheels Of Steel”, but it was another two years before anyone in England really worked out how to scratch.

GW: Did you kind of stumble across him because you were obviously a fan of The Clash?

NC: Yeah, I got the record, cos it came out after “Rappers Delight” and I kind of knew that I liked this new sound and somebody had said ‘you gotta hear this record, it’s nuts!’. It was one of my favourite records for about the next 2 years, but, like I said, I couldn’t work out how it was done. They said he did it all live, which I still don’t believe; it’s got to be edited! That was such a groundbreaking record, but the unfortunate thing was that because of all the lawsuits, and cos Sugarhill weren’t very good at handling their business and whatever, no other records like that really ever came out, I mean apart from the Steinski things. No other cut-up records came out after that, so there was two years with just this one record and this one legend of Grandmaster Flash, which, like I said, the journalists had got a bit wrong as to what he was doing.

GW: It’s like you say, going back to those times there were just little snippets of what this was, I mean even with the “Buffalo Gals“ video, the World’s Famous Supreme Team were scratching a 7″ single and I actually thought at the time does it have to be a 7″ single! (laughter).

NC: Right yeah, that’s the thing cos there was just no information; it was all word of mouth. The whole British Hip Hop scene basically happened through word of mouth and through people like you sort of spreading the word in different cities. The whole b boy scene in Brighton started that night when you lot came down.

GW: Wow, fantastic! Afterwards you invited us all back to a party at your place and I remember we just sat up all night getting wrecked and chatting away about all and everything, and the following day you piled onto Broken Glass’s mini-bus with us and we headed to our next gig in Hickstead.

SCRATCHING – WHAT IS IT?

GW: You reminded me when I spoke to you recently that I taught you how to scratch!

NC: Yeah, that was at the soundcheck in Hickstead.

GW: Right, right, right! Cos, you know, I never saw myself as much of a cut and scratch guy at all, I was just like busking it!

NC: No, it was the mechanics of it, this is like before there was cross-faders or anything, it was just like you put the fader up slightly before you move it forward and then you pull the fader down and you move it back so you don’t hear back-cueing, and that’s how you repeat phrases, and then if you leave the fader up and rock it, then that gets the wikka wikka noise. Obviously it’s not that easy and it takes a little bit of mastering, but it’s a lot easier than trying to reproduce what Grandmaster Flash was doing by picking the needle up! (both laugh).

GW: So I rationalised it for you then.

NC: Yeah, when you taught me to scratch it was like a 5 minute look… that’s how you do it and I did a few cack-handed attempts. Then I went home and spent about the next month just working out how to do it.

GW: I actually did have a cross-fader on that mixer, but I very rarely used it because I was just so used to just using normal faders.

NC: It’s weird, in those days, when it was first invented they never had cross-faders so Flash always used a vertical fader, and it was a whole different ball game when people started using cross-faders. I still can’t scratch with a cross-fader because I learnt the other way, you can’t teach a dog new tricks. Obviously the techniques and that that people have come up with since would piss all over what we were doing in those days, but in those days people would go mad if you could just repeat one word.

GW: Well that’s it, cos when I listen back to old radio mixes that I’ve put a bit of scratching on, I’m going no, stop it. please. please stop it now! (laughing). But back then, as you say, it was new, it was different and, you know, it was right on the cusp of things.

THE TUBE, FEBRUARY ’84

GW: We met up again the following February at The Haçienda when The Tube were there filming an outside-broadcast special, a pretty famous event with hindsight, because it was Madonna’s UK debut.

NC: Then again you get three people in the room, not knowing where their careers would end up, me, Kermit and Madonna chatting!

GW: I knew about Madonna already cos I’d been playing the Dub version of one of her tracks, “Everybody”, which fitted into my nights, but she was just a newcomer.

NC: Yeah, it was her first time in England. She was just a sort of club artist in those days, I don’t think she knew just how big she’d become, well, maybe she had an idea how big she wanted to be. She probably wouldn’t have dreamed how big she would get.

GW: I can remember being in the dressing room with everyone and she was just one of the people in there, and people were chatting away and stuff.

NC: It was all just one big shared dressing room, wasn’t it?

GW: That’s right yeah, and I can remember that a lot of the people from the Haçienda side were fussing, they were a bit kind of worried about it, and later on she pulled out of the night show. She was supposed to be doing an actual performance at The Haçienda, but ended up just doing The Tube, I don’t know what happened there. Broken Glass also appeared, dancing with the late Marcel King, who’d been the lead singer with Sweet Sensation way back, he was with Factory at the time.

ALSO KNOWN AS…

GW: You became friendly with Kermit, didn’t you?

NC: Later on I did. I mean we must have kept in touch because he invited me up when The Tube thing was on, but then I didn’t see him until years later when I was watching Black Grape and thought ‘hold on, I know him!’, and then obviously during the Black Grape days our paths crossed quite a lot.

GW: And, of course, you obviously did a couple of remixes for the Rap Assassins.

NC: Oh yeah, yeah.

GW: That was the whole thing about me picking up a copy of the NME and reading about Beats International, and thinking that you were from Hull because of the Housemartins connection, and not being able to work out why you were listing me as an influence.

NC: A crafty name change. I’d moved to the other side of the country and you were off the scent.

GW: Well that was it, and it was Kermit who kind of clarified things. He said who it was and, of course, at the time I met you, you called yourself Ox, I think DJ Ox is a great name! How did that come about?

NC: Paul Heaton who went on to become the singer with The Housemartins called me Ox cos of the Quantocks mountains, cos my name was Quentin at that time and he used to call me Quentox, which soon got shortened to Ox, so everyone called me Ox. So when I deejayed, ‘The Ox that rocks’ had a good ring to it, and that was my tag.

GW: So I was probably introduced to you as Quentin, and I’m Ox as a DJ.

NC: Yeah.

GW: So later on I got in touch with you, once Kermit had clarified who it was, and you ended up doing remixes for a couple of the Ruthless Rap Assassins’ singles, “Just Mellow” and “And it Wasn’t A Dream”.

UK ELECTRO

GW: Going back to ’84, were you aware of the “UK Electro” album on Street Sounds?

NC: Yeah, yeah.

GW: And were you aware of my involvement in that project?

NC: I seem to remember that you produced about two thirds of it.

GW: Well, in fact, I worked on all but one track (both laugh).

NC: That was the extent of the UK Electro scene.

GW: Yeah, well this was a Morgan Khan scam, making out that there was a big UK Electro scene, getting us to come up with all these different names and everything, which is mad cos looking back now, because of that, there’s a lot of little history things that people have missed out on, because they think there were all sorts of different people around UK Electro! I mean a weird thing I only found out recently was that when we did the remixes to UK Electro we had an engineer come over from New York to work with us called Craig Bevan, who worked with the B Boys, “Two, Three, Break”, “Cuttin’ Herbie” and all that. What I’ve only just realised is that he later hooked up with Steinski and worked with him on “The Motorcade Sped On!”

NC: Oh right.

GW: Which was a couple of years later, so like these little kind of connections pop up later down the line.

PLANET ROCK

GW: Just to go back again to your own background with regards to deejaying, you started off as a teenager deejaying with Punk and Two Tone and like Futurist / New Romantic type stuff, and I’ve read that it was on a New Romantic night at a club called Sherry’s that you first heard “Planet Rock”.

Planet Rock – The Soul Sonic Force

NC: I think that was the first time I went to a nightclub.

GW: Right, right. (laughs).

NC: My sister was at University down in Brighton and I came down to stay with her and someone said “oh, there’s this New Romantic night”. I didn’t know what New Romantic really was; I’d only read about it in magazines. So I went down there and the first record they played was “Planet Rock”! I think it was like the week it came out, and that was such a seminal record, I mean it was played in amongst all the Depeche Mode, Human League etc. Basically I went out and bought “Planet Rock” the next day, and it was good because I kind of side-skipped New Romantic deejaying (laughs). I remember they also played “Sex Machine” and I’d never heard that before either.

GW: Right, I mean cos the whole kind of Futurist / New Romantic thing was quite interesting. I had friends (Paul Rae and Ralph Randell) who were big DJ’s in Manchester on that side and they really kind of mixed it up in what they played.

NC: Well yeah, and also we then found out that Hip Hop had kind of come out of Kraftwerk and some of the European records that influenced Bambaataa and Arthur Baker and people. They always cited, you know, sort of European electronic records as their influence and then they did their spin on it and then we came back and did our spin on it.

GW: For me it’s like that’s the atom being split, Bambaataa having the open-mindedness to play Kraftwerk to a black audience in the Bronx, you know, that was a pivotal moment.

GENRE-BENDING

GW: Also, from my own side, at that point in time with “Planet Rock”, I was receiving the most incredible abuse for playing this stuff on what was still called a Jazz-Funk night. So the Soul scene, or the Jazz-Funk scene, just ignored the Electro thing completely and saw it as the worst kind of thing.

NC: Yeah, cos you see I sort of came from the alty side, you know, there wasn’t really a Jazz-Funk scene down in Brighton.

GW: There was a DJ called Paul Clark.

NC: Yeah, there still is (laughs), still going, he runs a record shop now. When I grew up you were either a Punk or a Soul boy, and I was a Punk. We thought Disco was crap and the only ones I liked were the electronic ones like “I Feel Love” and stuff like that. I think “I Feel Love” was the first Disco record I allowed myself to like, and obviously that was a sort of pivotal thing because it was almost the first prototype House record. Apart from a few odd electronicy records, I wasn’t really into Disco, I was into like The Clash, but The Clash were making “Rock The Casbah”, “The Magnificent Seven” and stuff.

GW: Yeah, that’s the way it was back then. I’ve just written a piece for Grand Slam magazine on the No Wave revival, the kind of Punk Funk thing, and how that developed. I’m talking about similar things to what you’re saying there about The Clash doing things like “The Magnificent Seven” and bridging those gaps, because we’re going back to a period, like you say, when you were either one thing or the other and never the twain shall meet, and you might have been into certain tracks but you didn’t really broadcast it too loudly.

NC: It was just a completely different scene, especially the Jazz-Funk scene. It was quite a small scene in Brighton obviously because there’s not a big black population down here, and it was always like, it was always on Sunday nights.

GW: Right, tucked out of the way kind of thing.

NC: Yeah, down South it kept itself in the same bag as Northern Soul, it sort of quite liked being completely aside from all other scenes. It didn’t try to cross-over at all.

GW: The good thing about Futurist scene I remember from that time was that they were open-minded enough to play these records, like “Planet Rock”. I know I was the only person on the Jazz-Funk scene, we’d soon start to call it Electro-Funk, playing that track, you know, literally out on my own with that, but I know that within the Futurist side they were starting to pick up on it.

NC: Well I basically got into Funk through the Futurist clubs, because they played records like “Big Blow” by Manu Dibango, “The Bottle” by Gil-Scott Heron, “Sex Machine”, and “Shoot The Pump” by J Walter Negro. Tunes like that were acceptable because they were sort of dirty enough for us, we didn’t go for Lonnie Liston Smith, but “Big Blow” was an enormous record at Sherry’s.

GW: It’s mad isn’t it, the way that works out, because “Big Blow” was a huge track on the Jazz-Funk scene, and “The Bottle” that you mentioned was first played on the Northern Soul scene, it was Ian Levine who first played it at Blackpool Mecca during the time when the oldies / newies debate was raging, and he was playing things like “The Bottle” and “Dreaming A Dream” by the Crown Heights Affair, that people at Wigan Casino saw as total sacrilege. It’s odd the way that certain tracks were kind of OK to play. It’s like looking back now with hindsight trying to explain why certain things weren’t played, it’s hard sometimes because it’s a different set of rules now, but it was pretty straightforward then, yeah that works in this, but this doesn’t work”.

DJ ROOTS – THE OX THAT ROCKS

GW: You said that Sherry’s was your first night out in a club, but you were deejaying before that weren’t you?

NC: Yeah, but I was just deejaying in youth clubs. I started deejaying when I was fourteen / fifteen. Where I lived there was no clubs, the nearest club you had to get the trains, and there weren’t any trains after half eleven, so you’d have to stay the night there. You couldn’t sneak out the house because you wouldn’t be back until the next morning. Like I said, it’s only because my sister lived down there that I could stay with her.

GW: Of course, you didn’t live in Brighton at that time?

NC: No, I grew up in Redhill, which was about 35 miles away. None of us had cars, so there was no way we could go to a club really, I mean there was a Busby’s in Redhill, but it was like rivers of blood, it was far more about fighting than the music!

GW: So, obviously like many clubbers of that generation your roots with regards to dance are with Electro.

NC: Yeah, just because I happened to arrive the week “Planet Rock” was released. If you think Brighton’s bad, in Redhill there was absolutely no serious music scene apart from Punk. It’s where The Cure came from, that kind of area, so there was no culture of black music, cos in those days it wasn’t called dance music it was called black music. So I just hadn’t been exposed to it, my own brothers and sisters weren’t into Motown or anything like that, so I literally hadn’t, apart from whatever had crossed-over onto the radio. I remember Peter Powell, bless him, used to have this thing called (impersonating Peter Powell) “big in the clubs right now”. On his afternoon show he played one record that was “big in the clubs right now” (laughs), you know, “She’s A Bad Mama Jama” (Carl Carlton) or something like that, and I was hearing these records for the first time cos I’d never been to clubs. Especially for someone who was too young to go to nightclubs, for that’s the only place you’d hear club music cos it was hardly ever played on the radio. So I didn’t go to clubs and I didn’t hang out with black people so it was a kind of cultural backwater, I mean that’s one of the reasons I got out of there and moved to Brighton as soon as I could.

GW: [I was fortunate to have an older brother and sister who were both big into Tamla Motown, Stax and Atlantic stuff]. I also grew up in an area where there was no black population (New Brighton) but later ended up in Manchester working to a black audience, and it was like a revelation, it was a great audience to work with because they really, really knew their stuff. This is where I met people like Kermit, but, you know, it was like that then, it was kind of like you’re saying, it was very difficult to access these areas.

NC: Yeah, none of the shops stocked it, you didn’t hear it on the radio, the only place you’d hear it was in a club and if you were too young to go to a nightclub then that was it, you’d just never hear this music. Like I said, I went to Sherry’s about 2 or 3 times and realised “I really like this one”, and then we’d try to find out what it was. I remember tracking down “Big Blow” and “Shakit” by Brass Construction, and we were always going “what’s the one that goes” (hums “Big Blow” and laughs). It was a whole new world, and when I moved down to Brighton I found out that a lot of these records could be found in the bargain bins, cos no-one knew what they were. I spent the next few years scouring Brighton’s second-hand record shops, of which there are quite a few, and picking up all these things, you know, “Shack Up” (Banbarra), and Klien & MBO “Dirty Talk”, which we were talking about last time, you know, records like that, that absolutely no-one knew. There used to be one DJ who used to get sent promos, and they’d always end up in the second hand record shop down the road from me. The stuff he would bin! I don’t know what he was into, but any record that was electronic or funky or whatever, he just took to the second-hand record shop and I just bought it the next day.

GW: So that’s what you started deejaying with?

NC: Yeah, then I stopped playing Siouxie & The Banshees and Bauhaus, I carried on playing “The Magnificent Seven” and “Radio Clash” and stuff like that, but the Futurist thing split into two sides, basically one playing Funk and Hip Hop and the other just turned into the Goth scene.

GW: That’s quite interesting because the Electro-Funk scene split into two sides as well, the Hip Hop with the breakdancers, and the non-breakdancers, so to speak, I mean before House came along they took a kind of retrospective step and started getting into what I thought was quite washy Soul / dance stuff. The thing being was that the breakdancers were taking all the floor space, with the crowds gathering round them, and that’s what I see as the first schism of this whole dance thing, cos before that, it’s like you say, it was black music, everything was played within the context of one night, you know. I talk to people about this now, how this was one of the things that really changed later down the line.

NC: There was the Blues & Soul crowd and there was the Hip Hop crowd. Because once Blues & Soul would not discuss Hip Hop or Electro.

GW: We had a journalist in the North called Frank Elson who wouldn’t even write the word Electro, he asterisked it like a swearword (Norman laughs). I mean he was into his thing Frank, and at least he was open and honest about it, but he just couldn’t stand it, he thought it was the worst possible thing that could happen. When it did split off and go in two directions, and the crowd that took the step back to a more soulful type thing, they were the original House crowd, certainly in Manchester because the original House crowd in Manchester was again a black crowd, but there was also, at the same time, the whole Hip Hop thing developing, with people like Kermit and Gerald, A Guy Called Gerald, was from that side of things and everything. Gerald’s always seen with House, yet he was a DJ and MC Tunes was his rapper, you know, so you had all that kind of thing going on in Manchester at the time.

FINDING THE FORMULA

GW: With this whole Electro thing and the big influence it had, not only on yourself, but on so many people, why do you think it was that the relevance of this period just became so obscured and in many ways forgotten once the Rave scene kicked-in later in the decade?

NC: I don’t know, I think because, you know, yes there was some good breakdance crews, there were a couple of good English Hip Hop records, but on the whole, the English impact on the scene compared to, you know, I remember when English people started making House records, and it was like can English people ever make decent black records or dance records and whatever. Even during House times, if you like, it was English people can’t make House, it was only really Acid House the first time British people were making dance music that could be played in clubs. Until then the amount of acts who made records that could be played in clubs you could count on one hand. It was good that English people were doing it, but until House came along I don’t think the English made very good dance records, you know, there were very few really good English Rap records, whereas once House came along all of a sudden we started and now I think we probably lead the world, and have overtaken America in dance music. I think it’s because it was very much we were a market rather than a driving force, all we were doing was looking to America and kind of either copying it badly or just grooving to it, and all that came out of it were a handful of good UK records and the legacy of some good breakers.

GW: But the influence of the period in terms of what I was saying about the “Buffalo Gals” video, the impact that had at the time, the impact I witnessed first-hand with people. It was culture shock what happened then.

NC: I think that one of the reasons it’s been forgotten is that a), like I said, not too much was actually produced out of it, apart from what you did. I mean how many decent English Electro records can you name? So there isn’t much came out of it, but also most people didn’t know it was going on. When I was in The Housemartins they did this documentary on us and one segment of it was ‘what are your hobbies?’, and basically as soon as I got home all I did was just had a room with my decks and a bed, that’s how I lived, and there was me cutting up with Run-DMC and The Clash, I think, and it’s really funny because tons of people said “Oh God, I didn’t realise anybody else was doing that”. There was all these people like Coldcut, Streets Ahead, Tim Simenon and Ashley Beadle, people like that, subsequently came up to me going “God, I was doing that in my bedroom too and I thought me and my two mates were the only people doing it!”. Because there was no communication, there was no magazines or anything, everyone thought they were the only person doing that, and there probably was only about 40 or 50 people at that time doing it in England, so you couldn’t even really call it a scene, it was just some people who’d stumbled upon it by whatever, seeing “Wild Style” or seeing “Buffalo Gals” video, and got hooked. That’s the thing, you know, when you came down from Manchester we were like “oh, there’s people doing it in Manchester too – and much better than us!” (both laugh).

GW: You know it was like that, cos I remember we had Newtrament come and play at The Haçienda when I was working there, and they brought a couple of breakdancers up with them and I think that these guys misread the whole situation and they thought that in the North none of this had happened, what they didn’t realise was that the whole Broken Glass crew were in the crowd at the time. It just turned into a kind of battle, and it was a big moment for Broken Glass, and I think it was the time that the white audience in Manchester, the Factory side of things, really woke up to what they were about and what they were doing.

NC: I think English people were a lot better at breakdancing than they were at making records.

GW: But even there, you know, I look at video footage of when they started off to 18 months later, and the difference is just colossal. What they learnt in that short period of time, it was just like phenomenal. Where it went to from them just kind of basically going out there and giving it a go to getting to a level that we were seeing from the States. The shame of it is that it was just overkilled.

NC: Yeah, it kind of crossed-over to Weetabix adverts.

GW: Cos that was the thing with someone like Kermit. Kermit was the first breakdancer photographed for a national publication, you know, he was right there at the start of it, and yet he was one of the first guys to stop doing it, because he could see it was all-of-a-sudden becoming very un-credible. Like you say, it was the old man on the Weetabix advert and all this kind of thing that was happening. It come out in a blaze of glory and then just went right back underground. There was a period of time, which you’re probably referring to there with people in their bedrooms making mixes, when it all went back underground and then it all came back out again, in a sense, when the House thing kicked-in.

NC: Yeah, yeah.

ELECTROCLASH

GW: What do you think now of this current early-80s Proto-House revival, and just the renewed interest in the records that were released during this period and what was happening.

NC: Well a lot of those records still have the same charm, they still stand the test of time whereas a lot of dance music doesn’t, it’s very much there for six months and off. I’m more worried about Electroclash recycling all the worst bits of the 80s.

GW: I find it interesting from the fact that at least it’s a kind of hybrid that’s developing there and there’s all sorts of ideas being thrown into the melting pot.

NC: I think the Electroclash thing is definitely listening too much to “A Flock Of Seagulls” and not enough to “Egypt Egypt” (Egytptian Lover).

GW: But do you think it will evolve that way, that the people will eventually, again a bit like the way it was back then, like with yourself, you walked into a New Romantic / Futurist night hearing one side of things, but all of a sudden you were hearing something completely different that was taking you off in another direction. Do you think that the potential is there for that as well, in a retrospective sense?

NC: Hopefully, once it gets taken out of the hands of people who just (laughs) were Duran Duran fans. That side of it seems to be eclipsing everything else, you know, the whole point was supposed to be sort of, you know, Dave Clarke started it and he’s so into his Electro and he’s still searching out really obscure Electro records.

GW: I mean there is a massive Nu School Electro underground.

NC: He kind of started it, basically his thing was mixing Electro ideas with modern sounds, but, like I said, it’s kind of been hijacked by the Futurist side of the market rather than the Electro end.

GW: I briefly mentioned to you when I spoke to you that I took onboard this project to draw attention back to this early 80s period, because it’s been left so much out of the history.

NC: Dave Clarke is someone you should definitely talk to, he’s so passionate about it, he’s got a sort of Northern Soul fanaticism.

GW: Well I’m seeing this, there’s a site on the net called Electro Empire and the knowledge of the people on this site, I mean it way surpasses anything that I know, they’re just so into it. These are the kids that were like 11/12/13 when it all started, and came into it through the Street Sounds Electro albums, they weren’t in the clubs, they were probably out in the suburbs listening to these mad albums!

NC: We used to do jams for kids, 10 year-olds wearing ski-goggles doing really crap body popping (laughs). It was great cos I had two careers, one was deejaying in clubs and one was deejaying under-18’s Hip Hop jams.

GW: I keep hooking up with people who were going to an under-18’s thing at Rock City in Nottingham back in the day, Have you heard of Chicken Lips?

NC: Yeah, I’ve worked with them; I used to produce them when they were PsychedeliaSmith.

GW: Right, right. Dean (Meredith) was one of the guys who went to Rock City, it turns out that the Chicken Lips project is inspired by a radio mix of mine from over 20 years ago, he’s been listening to this tape since he was a kid! One of the tracks from this mix, “Feels Good” by Electra, is included on a mix compilation called “Body Music”, which Chicken Lips recently put together. It looks like what they’ve done is made their move ahead of the game, Dean has gone back to this period of time because he loves it on a personal level, but now there’s an actual movement back to it. You know what people are like, they’re looking for their samples all the time, they’re going to raid this period, this is the next step I think, this kind of early-80s era. I’m hearing everything about Italo-Disco, you know, I can’t not hear about it at the minute! Yet we never called it that back then. Klien & MBO was first played on the Electro-Funk scene and that was an Italian track, Electra was Italian, but we didn’t see it as a separate thing, it was all in together. So there’s this kind of movement back towards this early period just before we knew what House was, I suppose the factors that influenced House, that New York period with all the different remixers like Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, Jellybean, Larry Levan and all these people who were really pushing at the boundaries. It’s like there’s definitely a kind of resurgence in interest back to then. So I’m a lot more optimistic in a sense, on one level with the Electroclash thing you will get a lot of the arse end of what was going on, just like you would when they had all the 70’s revival, it was all the Bee Gees and Abba and I was pulling my hair out saying some of the best black music ever made came from this decade.

NC: Yeah, right.

GW: But eventually you do get people digging deeper and getting more into it. Even Larry Tee, the New York DJ who coined the term Electroclash, is now looking into the Electro-Funk period himself. So I think that as they dig deeper into it there is going to be more people looking for what it was back in that period of time from the black music side, as opposed to what you’re saying from the Flock Of Seagulls big haircut kind of thing, which is probably the most visual aspect of that scene at the moment. There is definitely something in the air, you know, and certainly a lot of like-mindedness going on, there’s a lot of people who are thinking in a similar direction.

KNOW THE PAST TO KNOW THE FUTURE

NC: I think that what happens every time dance music’s going through a bit of a trough is that people sort of look back for inspiration. We need another Daft Punk to come and kick it, and in the meantime while people are trying to work out what the next thing is that’ll drive it, I think most people, when they start thinking of other places to look, back is obviously the first place, you know, you think why did I get into this, what was it I liked about this in the first place, then you go back and listen to the old tracks that got you into it, and that can inspire you.

GW: Yeah, it’s a bit of a go back to move forward type thing, which I don’t think is a bad thing at the minute because, with the House thing, fifteen years is an incredible span for it to hold sway really, but now it’s changing.

NC: Yeah, but it’s had its peaks and troughs before. I mean when the whole Big Beat Chemical Brothers and me thing came out of us, we were people who were into Hip Hop who then got into House. Hip Hop got all gangstery so we went over to House, then when House was going through a bit of a trough we thought well what if you mix House with Hip Hop, some of the sounds of Hip Hop with the fever and relentlessness of House, and that was how Big Beat came about.

GW: Well what you guys did was revitalise the whole scene. I don’t know the Chemical Brothers guys although they’ve got Manchester connections; they were at Uni there or something.

NC: Yeah, that’s where they met; they started at Justin Robertson’s club, Most Excellent.

GW: Surely they’ve got to be influenced by Electro.

NC: Oh yeah.

GW: You can hear it in their sound, but I haven’t read anything with them talking about that period of time. But I mean it’s like A Guy Called Gerald, “Voodoo Ray”, which is seen as the pivotal early British House record when, in effect, he’s come in totally from an Electro background, he was one of the regulars at my club, Legend in Manchester. When he made that record he wasn’t thinking of making a House record, he was just making something with the same spirit as those tracks he was listening to in the clubs, and it just so happens that he kind of came into that. I think at that time the early House scene, or the Acid House scene or whatever, I thought was great, I loved all those kind of cut-up type things, the MARRS and the S Express, and I think it was really wide-open at the time, it was only later there was this kind of sub-division and it just became narrow areas.

NC: Yeah, I think what happens is as more and more people jump on the bandwagon the people making it get more and more purist and try to make it less accessible, and eventually it becomes inaccessible or just bland, and then it needs somebody to come and add a different element to kick it up the arse.

GW: Definitely, yes.

NC: Like the S Express and that kind of cut-up style, and then Big Beat, and then Daft Punk came at it from a completely different angle. We’re just waiting for who’s going to make the next move. Well a lot of people are making moves, but I don’t think they’ve cracked it yet, you know, to get that excitement back. People are drifting back to listen to the White Stripes; kids are beginning to sell their decks and wanting to buy electric guitars again.

GW: It’s also that generational thing, if we were like seventeen / eighteen now, all that we’d have known is this kind of House era and we’d probably be kicking back against that and wanting something different, something that our parents weren’t into.

NC: Yeah, right.

GW: So I just see it as a certain timespan. As I said, I think 15 years is just a colossal amount of time for one style of music to be so dominant.

NC: And I don’t think it’s finished yet, we’re just resting and preparing our next move.

GW: But would you see it under the umbrella of House?

NC: I think the four-on-the-floor beat is here to stay for a lot of people, but it’s what you do with it. There was a lot of House in Big Beat even though one of the early rules was let’s not have four-on-the-floor all night, you know, but I think it will be based around what people now understand as dance music, which predominantly is House, but like I said, I don’t know what it is.

OUTRO

On that note, I thanked Norman for his time and we said our goodbyes. He’d broken off from working on the next Fatboy Slim album to talk to me, an eagerly anticipated fourth LP that, as I read in an NME interview the following month, promises a return to his roots. In it he says: I’m just experimenting with different sounds and trying not to sound like classic Fatboy…The last album had a lot of House on it and this is getting back to my Hip Hop roots more. Basically, I’m just not turned on by House music much at the moment. It’s going through a fallow period and I think we need another Daft Punk.

It goes without saying that Norman has a very special talent as an artist / producer / remixer, but what’s equally impressive about him is ability to retain a level of normality within what must be the eye of a hurricane, given his fame and celebrity. He might have come a long long way since those early 80s Brighton days, but he’s never lost touch with them and remains remarkably grounded.


© Greg Wilson, September 2004

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