Saturday, July 29, 2006

Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy

You join me at the SVC confessional as I profess my undying love for the much-maligned musical genre Big Beat. Brace yourselves for a monstrously indulgent post. If you can't be arsed to read it, skip to the end where there's five songs to download...

Clockwise from top left: The Chemical Brothers; Dub Pistols' Barry Ashworth; Slab; Hardknox; and Fatboy Slim

I love Big Beat; always have, always will. I even cap up the B’s when I type it, to emphasise its greatness. I must stress though, that I will only endorse it through a very specific period, namely 1994 until the autumn of 1998. These were the golden years and most of what happened after this is, in the main, not worth bothering with. But those four years are packed with fond memories for me, and musically it is worth far more than sound bedding kids’ telly and ads for Cheeze Stringz, or as a footnote for Paul Morley to say something witheringly oblique about when discussing Fatboy Slim's contribution to 90s music during one of those unbearable list programmes.

It’s hard to say when Big Beat was actually born. Respect is definitely due to J. Saul Kane, recording under the Depth Charge alias, as he was pioneering fresh styles in the early 90s, combining cut-up hip hop breaks with fat basslines and samples of movie dialogue. Check his album ‘Nine Deadly Venoms’ on DC Recordings. However, it was probably the Dust Brothers' (eventually forced to change their name to the Chemical Brothers by US production outfit from whom they took their name) ‘Fourteenth Century Sky EP’ and the track ‘Chemical Beats’ that represented Big Beat’s earliest official incarnation. In fact, chemical beats was a name often given to the genre before Big Beat took hold. There’s no doubt ‘Chemical Beats’ laid down the law, marrying massive hip hop beats with techno tweakin’ and an acid house sensibility. How could this combination of sounds do anything other than rock my world upside down? All three of my favourite musical genres were present and incorrect, in a low-bpm, yet mentally frenetic stew, ideal for staggering about to with a pint of lager in your hand. This is something I did an awful lot of during this period, though I would hasten to add I was a poor excuse for a lager lout. A Lager-Lout Light perhaps?

The scene had three pivotal labels; Skint, Concrete and Wall of Sound, all of whom had breakthrough artists alongside the less well known though often, far more interesting acts. Skint had the scene’s defining star in the Fatboy, plus Midlands mentalists Bentley Rhythm Ace (featuring former members of Pop Will Eat Itself and EMF), as well as Environmental Science, Req, Lo-Fidelity Allstars, Cut La Roc and Hardknox. Concrete boasted Death in Vegas, Dub Pistols and Lionrock while Wall of Sound had Propellerheads, future Madonna collaborator Les Rhythmes Digitales, Mekon and the Wiseguys. Other key players were the aforementioned scene pioneers the Chemical Brothers, Jon Carter’s Monkey Mafia and, somewhat tenuously, the Prodigy.

Despite the artist-lead nature of the scene, one of the reasons why I believe it is less than favourably viewed is due to the dearth of quality long players. The scene produced plenty of corking singles, but you can probably count the number of truly quality albums on one hand. Fatboy Slim’s ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’, Death in Vegas’ ‘Dead Elvis’, Chemical Brothers’ ‘Exit Planet Dust’, Monkey Mafia’s ‘Shoot the Boss’ and, at a push, Propellerhead’s ‘Decksanddrumsandrockandroll’. You could add the Prodigy albums ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’ and ‘Fat of the Land’ to this list, though strictly speaking they weren’t really Big Beat. A few of the underground acts made interesting albums – like the Brighton graffiti artist Req, whose lo-fi production skills resulted in the minimal and haunting album ‘One’.

As a genre dominated by tracks rather than albums might suggest, there were a plethora of great compilation and mix albums, the cream of which was probably Concrete’s genre-defining mix album ‘Brit Hop and Amyl House’, released in January 1996 and featuring tracks from all the key players. It was rumoured at the time that the Chemical Brothers mixed the album, and this was eventually confirmed. Everybody should own a copy of this album. The Chems also released a mix on Heavenly – ‘Live at the Social Volume 1’ - recorded live at the infamously hedonistic club night of the same name, showcasing their anything goes approach to DJing and featuring hip hop, house, techno, Big Beat and ragga. Other great compilations included the ‘Brassic Beats’ series on Skint, Concrete’s ‘Structurally Sound’, and the ‘First XI’ and ‘Second XI’ albums on Wall of Sound. My brother and me compiled our own comp for the label he worked for at the time – it was called ‘Big Beat Conspiracy Vol. 1’ (BBC1 – geddit!?) and was put together for the American market. You can track it down on eBay if you want; it’s packed with classic tracks.

Another reason for loving Big Beat is because it is the perfect party music; completely unpretentious and without a moody bone in its body. Of course, there's a dark side (check the Slab track I’ve posted below) but the scene on the whole was hedonistic and full of fun, reminiscent of the early acid and rave movements. God knows what the parties would have been like if the Criminal Justice Bill hadn’t just kicked in. I can remember returning to my hometown in the summer of 1996 with a promo copy of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ and playing it in a friend’s kitchen – the result being everybody present completely wigging out, including two people dancing on an ironing board. It had that effect on people, like an instant party in a box. I also have fond memories of Skint’s Big Beat Boutique nights at The Hub (RIP) in Bath, which were mental, generally ending in a chaotic booze-fuelled lock-in (the club was supposed to shut at 2am) and an inability to remember anything that had happened come the following morning.

Like most good things, it had a sell-by date and by the time Fatboy Slim released his second album ‘You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby’, in October 1998, I felt like it had probably gone as far as it could. The music became clich├ęd, with less skilful practitioners following a rather stale blueprint. Plus, it was becoming de rigueur for piss poor indie bands to get Big Beat remixes of their tracks, thus devaluing the genre further. This seems to be its legacy, with too much emphasis on where it ended up rather than the heady days of its origins.

I’ve selected five songs to accompany this post, one from each of my self-defined golden years. Though if I could actually find the time to convert my vinyl into mp3s, there would be more obscure tracks, as the bulk of my Big Beat collection is on vinyl.

Bomb the Bass - Bug Powder Dust (Dust Brothers Remix)

Kicking things off from 1994, the year it all began, is the Dust Brothers seminal mix of Bomb the Bass' ‘Bug Powder Dust’, featuring the rapper Justin Warfield . This track featured on the ‘Brit Hop and Amyl House’ mix and cemented in place the blueprint for the genre. Vast hip hop beats and an undulating bassline combine with a cacophony of synth lines and acid effects to provide a warped backing for Warfield’s William Burroughs-inspired altered states rap. The multiple breakdown/build-up-to-crescendos utilised here would also become a feature of Big Beat, and a surefire way of inducing full-on dancefloor hysteria.
Apologies for the slight glitches early on in the song. Not sure what's up with that.

Slab - Rampant Prankster

1995 was the year the Fatboy was born, and when Skint started operations, but I was compelled to post ‘Rampant Prankster’ by Slab. Slab was Nina Walsh and the Drum Club’s Lol Hammond and ‘Rampant Prankster’ is an absolute monster, taken from their debut album ‘Freeky Speed’ and released on Hydrogen Dukebox . Featuring a guitar sampled from the Rolling Stones’ ‘Undercover of the Night’ and a mighty rolling break, along with a reverbed acid line that bounces around your skull like a rubber bullet. Check the twisted vocal samples (“Tummy ache”) and the bit when everything drops out apart from a heartbeat bassline. Truly sick.

Fatboy Slim - Give the Po' Man a Break

1996 was all about Fatboy Slim and the release of his debut album ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’. ‘Give the Po’ Man a Break’ was the tune that inspired the ironing board dancing I mentioned above. It’s stupidly funky, with demented acid lines and if you’re having a party and no fuckers dancing, just drop this beauty. If people remain static, check their pulses, they may well be dead. I love the way the vocal mutates until you’re not sure what’s being said. Sounds like “...GAYPORNMETAL, GAYPORNMETAL, GAYPORNMETAL…” to me.

Hardknox - Coz I Can

Hardknox was DJ Steve P and the former Beats International singer Lindy Layton. ‘Coz I Can’ was Single of the Week in the NME on its release through Skint in 1997. The reviewer descibed them as, “Furious, brutal and heavier than Metallica in a bad mood”. ‘Coz I Can’ feels like a definite attempt to produce something that was bigger, louder and more raucously obnoxious than anything that had gone before. Having witnessed this tune turn a dancefloor into a scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’, with flying glasses replacing the Napalm, I can testify that they succeeded.

Dub Pistols - Unique Freak (Dub)

The Dub Pistols finally dropped their debut album ‘Point Blank’ in 1998 after a series of well-received singles on Concrete. As their name suggests, Barry Ashworth’s west London based outfit added a stark dub twist to the Big Beat sound. ‘Unique Freak’ was originally a fairly straightforward rap track, but the 'Dub Mix’ I’m posting is one for the floor, with rabble rousing shouts and elements of the vocal wrapped up in funky breaks and a killer organ riff.

Follow the links in the piece for official websites, full label and artist discographies, plus a few My Space pages.

Search eBay and Amazon for loads of music from all the labels and artists mentioned.



Mark said...

Great blog dude, it's amazing how the vast majority of these acts have disappeared off the face of the earth now. Rumour has it there's a new Propellerheads album in the works, although that's been floating around for years now.

Anonymous said...

My education is now complete, many many thanks

Anonymous said...

My education is now complete, many many thanks

BeatRobber said...

Thanks for this well rounded post. It is amazing that here in the states acts like Fatboy and The Chemicals have had (comparitively) massive crossover success, and yet save for a handfull of cogniscenti the genre is almost entirely unknown.

And I God wish that Proppellerheads story was true...

Anonymous said...

Despite numerous downloads and hearty chuckles in the past, this post made me post my "first...comment...ever" on any music blog. I'm so with you on this one. Classic material for sure. Possibly the most genre-spanning of genres, and this in the end is likely the reason for its untimely demise. Its easy to unfairly judge a scene by a handful of records that milked the market, but to those who lived that period the love can't be taken away. As a music-lover and not a musician, Big Beat taught me to sidestep the labelling quagmire of the time and think differently about the music I enjoy. The blogging network represents the new force of that freedom and I applaud you for being part of it. Great post.

Anonymous said...

join it! lets bring it back people

Anonymous said...

Coincedently read this whilst ripping my copy of "Brit Hop and Amyl House" to play on the way to work tomorrow! One hugely underrated BAND that always deserve a mention but rarely get it...Bedlam a Go Go...they were the PROPER dark side of Big Beat I reckon. Fantastic live too, I had the privilege of seeeing em (along with Monkey Mafia) on the Radio 1 Breezeblock tour in Edinburgh and they blew my fucking socks off!!!!!