Many genres of music are inexorably bound up in a specific social movement or event. They provide a running commentary to the thoughts, hopes and dreams of their creators as much as they do something to be entertained by. There are, however, other categories that exist unencumbered by the weight of such significance being attached to them—music for the joy of being music. Big beat is indisputably part of the latter category—but on reflection this might be considered a strength rather than a weakness. This disparate spread of artists defies easy classification because it became a catch all term for material that couldn’t be reliably placed anywhere else. At its heart was a solid 120-140 bpm tempo, heavy synth line—usually courtesy of a Roland TB-303—and samples that came from just about anything. These were combined into sets that could just as easily feature material that wasn’t as specifically big beat but just happened to work well in that place and time.
Like a number of genres and in dance music especially, the meaningful life of big beat was short but unquestionably influential in terms of the places artists who had been active within it went next. It has also proved to be curiously durable in terms of the continued use of big beat tracks in film and television—even if you aren’t familiar with the genre, you’ll have likely heard some of it already. Perhaps more importantly, as well as innumerable 12-inch singles it also left behind a stack of great albums that stand up as a good listen years later.
Norman Cook had already had a busy musical career before he adopted the name of a Louisiana gangster and became perhaps the most recognisable artist from the big beat scene. Many will point to the follow up You’ve Come a Long Way Baby as a better album- certainly the better known one- but his first effort is more in keeping with the big beat aesthetic. Due to Cook’s work as a producer and his generally frantic timetable, some tracks on the album had been recorded as much as three years before the 1996 release date but as a whole it hangs together extremely well. Rather less sample driven than later Fatboy Slim albums, Better Living Through Chemistry concentrated on the basics of the genre—leading with the percussion and bassline and almost “filling in” the rest of the instrumentation. This doesn’t preclude some moments of musical greatness though—the slower and almost chilled out “The Weekend Starts Here” is a pretty sophisticated track given the fairly humble ingredients.
At the time their debut album was released in 1998, the Lo Fidelity Allstars were a quintet of musicians from the north of England operating out of a studio christened the Brain Farm on the south coast of the U.K. and signed to Skint Records—one of the labels most synonymous with the big beat scene. The album they created is indisputably part of the big beat genre but in what was for the most part music that was positive in outlook, the Allstars were a darker, more brooding sound. There are still some hugely danceable numbers on the album though, not least “Battleflag”—a root and branch remix of the track of the same name by Seattle band Pigeonhed that has become considerably better known than its unmixed ancestor. Pulling these tracks together was an almost trip-hop-esque selection of slower numbers all benefitting from the group’s unique lyrical stylings and a deft use of samples.
Birmingham-based Bentley Rhythm Ace, comprised of former Pop Will Eat Itself regular Richard March and Mike Stokes of Bugweed Centipede. Supported periodically by PWEI drummer Fuzz Townshend and Keith Yorke, their eponymously titled debut album is a classic of the big beat genre and different again from many of the artists releasing material at the same time. Key to the sound was an extensive use of samples—a surprising number of which come from British children’s television programs—combined with a cleaner, less bass-led musical style that drew heavily on funk and soul recordings from the late ’60s and ’70s. Tied together, the album doesn’t really sound like anything released before or since and this proved to be something of a challenge for the group as trying to replicate it proved impossible and their second album was rather less acclaimed as a result. As a brief aside, while almost all the artists on this list were accomplished DJs as well as musicians, the duo of March and Stokes were genuinely unmissable performing this way, peppering their sets with car boot sale finds to create sets that were quite ridiculously entertaining.
Damian Harris would have been considered pretty instrumental to big beat even if he had never released any material of his own. The founder of Skint Records, he was responsible for signing many of the artists that form this list and he had achieved considerable acclaim as a DJ at the same time. Having released some singles under the name Midfield General, this was followed up by his debut album in 2000. As a close friend of Norman Cook, it perhaps isn’t too surprising that many aspects of the album are similar to Fatboy Slim material of the same period, but there is an anarchic streak to Generalisation that is different again. This is brilliantly epitomised in the track “Midfielding,” that features a monologue from surrealist comedian Noel Fielding detailing the epic tale of a man taking an army of British mammals to fight their African counterparts using a “Trojan shrew” covered in Kit Kat wrappers. If that sounds insane, then you’re most of the way to getting a handle on it.
Producers Will White and Alex Gifford—the latter also a sometime saxophonist with the Stranglers—formed the Propellerheads in 1995, taking their name from a ’50s American term for nerd. Their sole album was like a number of others in this list in that it incorporated material that had been around for some years before the album broke cover. When the material was as good as this though, it doesn’t really matter. Key to the band’s signature sound was a more refined percussion than was typical for big beat mated to hooks that were a cut above most of their contemporaries. This is most visible in their superb rework of the theme to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (that also includes an interlude from “You Only Live Twice”) and fabulously funky “History Repeating” that, relatively unusually for a big beat track, features vocals written specifically for it and sung by Shirley Bassey. Ill health put a stop to further work as a duo, but tracks from this album still crop up in film and TV to this day, giving them an impressive legacy.
DJ and producer Justin Robertson had been active in U.K. dance music since the late ’80s and had a string of remix and production successes to his credit before he founded Lionrock with M.C Buzz B and synthesist Roger Lyons. Given that Robertson had played with pretty much every genre of dance music (and turned things that had never set out to be into dance music), it isn’t too surprising to find that An Instinct for Detection hammers through musical styles with enthusiasm and scant regard for convention. At its heart, though, this is an album hovering on the meeting point of big beat and trip-hop that stands out for its unusually high production values and impressive vocal turns from Buzz B on tracks like “Straight At Yer Head” and “Depth.” These provide a darker and slightly more serious tone to an album perfectly capable of having a laugh as tracks like “Fire Up The Shoesaw” demonstrate. Robertson is still active as a DJ and one is his regular haunts is the Spiritland venue featured on the blog recently.
As a genre, big beat was largely the preserve of white artists but one of the more interesting additions to its musical width came from Brighton-native Sanj Sen. As Indian Ropeman—a name borrowed from a ’60s record from Julie Driscoll—he took the basics of big beat and mixed in a unique set of influences from the Indian sub-continent. On his only album, Elephant Sound, these influences are used sparingly but effectively—giving the album a unique sound but avoiding making it something else entirely. This is most elegantly demonstrated in the track “66 Meters” that blends the classic TB-303 bassline and canned percussion with a neat sitar piece supported by suitable vocal cut from Shahin Badar who also recorded vocals for the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” Of course, Sen is perfectly capable of giving us a more classical big beat sound and this is perfectly showcased in the cheerfully demented “Dog in the Piano” which features some seismic bass played on suitable speakers.
In some ways, Cut La Roc—real name Lee Potter—will always be better known as a DJ. Performing sets on up to nine decks at a time, he remains one of the most effortlessly accomplished proponents of the art. As Cut La Roc, though, he added another dimension to the big beat sound that is easily discerned in La Roc Rocs. With a background in acid house and jungle, this is an album that straddles a different edge of the big beat sound where layered sounds and more complex drum and bass-style drumlines collide with an almost hip-hop flavour at times. Obligatory big beat silliness can be had in the form of Hip Hop Bibbedy Bop Bop which frequently found its way into live sets as a sort of “firebreak” between totally different genres. This is an album that gets an awful lot of ground covered in 11 tracks and just under an hour. It also includes a fantastic guest vocal from Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol who was almost entirely unknown in 1999 when the album was recorded.
By the time that the second album from Mint Royale was released in 2002, it was perfectly possible to argue that the glory days of big beat were behind it, but this doesn’t stop Dancehall Places taking the basics of what made it so much fun and gently evolving them. Mancunian duo Neil Claxton and Chris Baker had produced a string of well-regarded singles and had become a particular favourite of Norman Cook when performing his DJ sets. With this album, the tempo and arrangement of the bulk of the tracks is recognisably big beat in origin—the well-known single “Sexiest Man in Jamaica,” which samples singer-songwriter Prince Buster, couldn’t really be seen as anything but big beat. But there are tracks that move on as well, notably the opening “Blue Song” and the title track. The disparate nature of what exactly constituted big beat meant that very few artists active in the genre were left high and dry by its demise, but few of them recorded an album that so elegantly demonstrated what it was evolving into.
It is perfectly possible to argue that by the time You Can be Special Too arrived in 2004, big beat was dead and that it belongs to a completely different genre. Equally, the duo that comprise Evil Nine, Tom Beaufoy and Patrick Pardy, had been active throughout the peak years of big beat, and You Can be Special Too harnesses some of the key attractions of the genre to complete a different and darker sound. This is still an album of big basslines, carefully selected samples and structural percussion, but one that uses these ingredients in a way that resulted in a different sound to what had gone before. Key to this is the use of superb guest vocal turns from Aesop Rock and Toastie Taylor. When the album was released, financial difficulties on the part of the Marine Parade label—evidence in part of the focus of dance music moving away from Brighton and the south coast—meant it was in short supply and became very highly sought after. Regrettably, this is still the case with the vinyl release, which is rare to this day.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.
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