In Defense of Big Beat, the Annoying 90s Music Genre That Snobs Love to Hate
Embracing the good bits of a widely-dismissed music moment that gave us The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and Fatboy Slim.
Fans at a Prodigy concert (Photo via Vladimir Petkov/Flickr)
Nothing about the late-90s in mainstream American music was particularly very good. Even though we like to remember those years through rose-tinted rave goggles, it was a bleak time. Rock and grunge took an inevitable dive when hucksters like Bush and Live took over alt-rock in 1995. Mickey Mouse Club Pop was on the ascendent via the rise of NSYNC, Britney Spears, et al. Blur vs. Oasis and the whole Britpop slugfest was kicking off. Nu metal was gurgling up as the soundtrack to the new era of suburban ultra-violence. Minimal and progressive house were looming around the corner. If you were listening to music as the millennium drew closer, you might have believed the doomsdayers that this cycle of humanity had run of ideas and was fated to end.
Big beat, another massively popular music genre that helped defined the 90s, is also often remembered with a collective cringe. Both critics and electronic music heads at the time liked to treat it as a punchline, thinking of its arena rock-style grandiosity and love for euphoric drops as garish, predictable, and cheesy—"the boy-band of the electronic subgenre," as one commenter on the Ars Technica open forum put it in 2001. As a pop phenomenon, big beat only lasted a few years as a substantial slice in the American pop music pie. The genre arguably hit its peak between 1995 to 1999—with acts like The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy scooping up Grammy wins and nominations while selling millions of albums worldwide—before its eventual decline. "[Big beat] started as a breath of fresh air, exciting and liberating," Skint label founder Damian Harris told the Guardian in 2008, "and ended up like the loud, annoying drunken bloke you really wish would leave the party."
But even though big beat is sometimes remembered as a nadir in dance music's evolution, or cynical marketing move at least, the genre has a historically significant place in the continuum of American mainstream electronic music. If nothing else, big beat helped pry open the door and prove there was interest in dance music in a commercial context for America. Its mainstream success represented the first successful major label initiative to repackage and export to America a distilled version of the electronic music it had created, solidifying the idea in the 90s that DJ and producers could be highly marketable Stateside outside the context of trance. Stadium acts like The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim also established electronic music as a credible arena rock format for the next generation of kids who would grow up making beats in their basement and play them on festival mainstages worldwide.
So what, pray tell, is big beat? The big beat sound came out of England in the early to mid-90s against the backdrop of the UK rave scene, with artists like The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim throwing everything in a blender—rock, techno, rap, pop, punk, whatever—to make a b-boy bouillabaisse. True to its name, the beats were decidedly fat—it was a veritable arms race to see who could come up with the chunkiest, most bombastic beats, builds, and drops.
Most of the big beat hits like The Chemical Brothers' "Block Rockin' Beats" and Fatboy's "Praise You" were at the mid-tempo range of between 90 and 120 BPM—faster than most hip-hop and trip-hop, but slower than the 120 BPM baseline of house and techno. Big beat also owes a lot to the likes of Coldcut and other early British turntabilism heroes, with breakbeats and sampling at its core. There weren't a ton of original vocals, as it was a very plunderphonics-y type of sound.
Labels like Skint Records, Wall of Sound, and City of Angels were important in defining the scene, as was Fatboy Slim's club night Big Beat Boutique, which he started in Brighton in 1995 with Skint's Damian Harris. What began as a few blokes plonking around soon developed into a cadre of UK artists like Lo Fidelity Allstars, Propellerheads, Death In Vegas, Bentley Rhythm Ace, The Prodigy, and Wiseguys—as well as the Netherlands' Junkie XL and Americans like The Crystal Method.
Big beat was more focused on somewhat brainless fun—a post-modern melange of pleasurable sounds independent of deeper meaning. Though some of the sounds and styles overlapped, big beat was like the poppier antithesis to the intellectualism of the more critically beloved IDM, and a response to the self-importance of purist DJs who were dominating the UK dance scene in the mid-90s. Not trying to do too much besides be silly and functional was a way to "get up the noses of the old guard and piss off the music snobs," Harris told the Guardian in 2008.
In other words, big beat was sample-based party music that appealed to the casual listener. The big beat formula was essentially: 1) Grab a breakbeat and compress it liberally. 2) Cut and paste some bits from funk and soul records. 3) Grab a vocal ("get busy, child") and sprinkle in some samples of old children's records or soundtracks. 4) Fill in some holes with a synth line or two. 5) Add a twist of rocker aggression, psychedelia, or rave influence. 6) Rinse, repeat.
When the formula worked, it soared (see: basically any song from the first three Chemical Brothers releases). When it didn't, it was dizzyingly bad. I'll be the first to admit that big beat is responsible for several pieces of music I think the world would be better without, and due to its "anything goes" attitude towards sampling and reference points is at least partially responsible for the abomination known as electro swing.
Take Fatboy Slim's 1998 hit "Rockafeller Skank" as one of big beat's most garish offenders. Maybe it's the goofy guitar sample. Maybe it's the misplaced sample of Lord Finesse saying "Right about now, funk soul brother" that just feels empty and too arbitrary. But this song crawls under my skin the way few things can. Needless to say, somehow this novelty record was a huge hit.
"Big beat started as a breath of fresh air and ended up like the loud, annoying drunken bloke you really wish would leave the party."—Damian Harris, co-founder of Big Beat Boutique
In fact, big beat also represented the first successful major label initiative to repackage and export to America a distilled version of the electronic music it had created—house, techno, and a twist of hip-hop— through a post-rave British lens. Others, like Rick Rubin and his WHT LBLS imprint, had come before to try to make mainstream techno happen and failed. Big beat, however, reloaded the gun a few years later. The fact that it coincided with the Brit-Pop invasion of the second half of the 90s is no coincidence either, as they are both examples of the English taking American roots music, whitewashing it, and selling it back to American teens for twenty bucks a pop. There's no way around around the fact that this was music by upper-middle class Brits targeted at upper-middle class American youth—and that many of the top big beat acts were glaringly white, straight, and male.
I was a teenager in the Deep South when big beat hit. I caught wind of it around '96 through watching The Chemical Brothers' playfully conceptual music videos on MTV. Folk, jazz, brass, blues, rock, and rap were the dominant sounds of my childhood where I grew up, and options were limited if you were trying find under-the-radar techno and house music. At the time, I was still too young for raves, but was drawn to the exoticism of bleep-blop techno, which sounded like it came from worlds away from my provincial area. Later, I became obsessed with The Prodigy, going back and pilfering through their rave records. At their peak, The Prodigy were a credible and important part of the big beat scene, able to juggle disparate sounds like Ultramagnetic MC samples, chunky guitar riffs, and catchy synth lines. While The Prodigy stopped making music that connected with me in recent years, it was 1999's commercial mixtape The Dirtchamber Sessions Vol. 1 (there never was a Vol. 2, sadly) that I think is the best both gateway into and summation of the big beat style. It's a megamix of hip-hop and rock records from Celluloid classics, "King Kut", new school, Sex Pistols, Babe Ruth, and some other big beat artists—and it's fast, loose, and fun.
Big beat's moment in the mainstream spotlight came to an end by 2000, although like other micro-scenes, it bled into other sub-genres like brostep and trap later in the 2000s. In his interview with the Guardian, Harris said the scene OD'ed on itself. "Cocaine became much more prevalent—never healthy for a scene," He said. "Success meant that we moved from small sweaty clubs to huge arenas and DJ sets got too predictable. So people went off in their different directions [and] big beat became a dirty term." According to Harris, the big beat sound also lost any sense of its edge after it got licensed to death in action movie trailers, advertisements, video games and sporting events. With this overexposure, the music got repetitive and less inspired, and hits were harder to come by. Even The Chemical Brothers saw diminishing returns creatively for a stretch in the 00s, and they were among the more adventurous and better songwriters. No one could figure out where to take this style next, so they moved on to something else.
Still, during its lifetime, big beat produced several major charting artists and records; acts like Crystal Method, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, and Fatboy Slim have toured America steadily ever since. Even though if "Skank" was never my cup of tea, Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" probably marked the pinnacle of big beat's American crossover, and the genre's zenith before its swift decline.
Big beat also established The Chemical Brothers as the original arena rock band of mainstream dance music. A lot of the stuff Daft Punk gets credit for—bombastic live light show, high concept thematics, treating a dance LP like a rock LP—The Chemical Brothers did first and, in many ways, better. You could even argue that Daft Punk's first record is essentially a big beat album spliced with some rave histrionics. Look at "Da Funk", for example—that big, hulking mid-tempo beat wouldn't be out of place on a Chemical Brothers album. Their Frenchness has precluded the duo from being tagged as big beat, but if Homework isn't big beat, I'm not sure what is.
Ultimately, big beat primed the path for genres like blog house and, later, brostep and trap. Those big build and drops, the "sample anything" style, the idea that this was main stage material, and even their perceived superficiality were all laid out by the big beat DJs and producers. Big beat helped clear the path for everyone from Justice to Diplo, the trap gods to Jamie xx—and like it or not, its specter still hangs over electronic music in 2016.