Norman Cook had ridden across 1998 in triumph, building his Fatboy Slim persona into a dependably gonzo pop brand. On “The Rockefeller Skank” he’d pushed his machines hard enough to break them, the track unspooling into a chaos of jammed samples, the sound equivalent of a stuck keyboard keyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Following in that greatest of pop traditions, it sounded brilliant so he kept it in.
Then built on it: under a bouncy – and annoying – brass and vocal sample, “Gangsta Tripping” was a ball pit of joyful splices and rapid cuts. His remix for Wildchild’s “Renegade Master” was harder-edged, pushing cut-up repetition to brutal levels before taking his hand off the brake for moments of delicious dancefloor relief. How far would he push it? “Praise You” starts off slow and intimate – the bassy roll of a piano riff, and a sample of Camille Yarborough’s “Take Yo’ Praise” – and then slips into his longest stuck-sound yet, the word “should” extended second upon ludicrous second. It sounds like the gateway to the biggest, baddest Fatboy beat-drop yet… but instead he does something else. The trapped-fly buzz of the “should” falls back into the track, overcome as the rest of the groove builds up. The song gets gentler.
At the time, I’ll admit, this was something of a disappointment. I’d bought all 1998’s other Fatboy singles, and loved the rumbustious unsubtlety of his beat-making. Sly warmth was not what I’d showed up for. Add to that a mistrust of the gospel-sample route born out of the ubiquity of Moby’s Play album that year – a self-conscious marriage of old and new to largely banal effect – and I thought the Fatboy had lost his touch.
Returning to it now, I think I was hopelessly wrong. A fourth slice of frenzy might have been enjoyable, but he’d mined that seam well enough. “Praise You” is something richer – a journey back into pop’s recent past, a statement at the end of the decade that the 90s had contributed something marvellous to pop – and that something was the kaleidoscopic intermix of dance music with everything else, a movement that had liberated Cook himself from indie bassist drudgery and had, fleetingly, promised to extend that liberation to any musician or fan who wanted it. By the time that “should” ends, “Praise You” has slid into a loping, loose-fit, comfortably familiar groove, marinated in wah-wah, that could have been put together by Andy Weatherall at the decade’s other end and topped with a Rowetta vocal line or an “Easy Rider” sample. And I realise, delightedly, that I’m listening to the last great baggy record.
As such, it has to be a little bittersweet – “Praise You” is joyful, but it’s a weatherbeaten kind of joy. The only indie-dance number one at the front of the 90s was an invitation to the whole world to join England’s party in the sunshine: if even football can get on one, what’s stopping you? The party ended, as they do, and if the 90s can look naively idyllic and lazy from a 21st century perspective, at the time they felt like a long missed opportunity, their idealism front-loaded. From a raver’s perspective, that was particularly true – Cook himself adored playing in front of colossal crowds at festivals or on beaches, a legitimised version of the outlaw outdoor dream that the Criminal Justice Act had killed off.
“Praise You” speaks to me as an act of vindication: the parties, the records, the dreams, even the mistakes – they mattered. Like The Streets’ later “Weak Become Heroes”, it’s a fractal record, its function vis-à-vis one night replicated at era scale: “Praise You” is a goofy, end-of-the-party, closer whose happy, weary tone works as well if you’re looking back at a few years not just a few hours. As the song rolls on, a few more old friends come and join the party – a smattering of dumb la-la backing vox here, the tweaked squelch of a Roland TB-303 there. For a few minutes, the doors of pop’s club are opened up again, and anyone might be welcome. Then the piano loop boils to a single note, the sample is left hanging – “I have to praise you…” – and the track simply ends. Go back if you like, draw strength from what you’ve seen and done. Take yo’ praise – then move on.