Big Beat or Bust

Skint Records owner Damian Harris tries to justify selling out with the forward-looking Brassic Beats compilation.

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Brassic Beats: A glimpse of Skint's future.
Brassic Beats: A glimpse of Skint's future.
There would be no Fatboy Slim (the guy responsible for crossover hits such as "Rockefeller Skank," "Praise You," and "Going Out of My Head") or, for that matter, any decent dance music today without a chubby man from England named Damian Harris. For it was Harris's brainchild, the Brighton-based record label Skint, that saw the genius in a simple but infectious track called "Everybody Needs a 303," put together by a has-been pop flash turned DJ named Norman Cook. The rest is history -- Fatboy Slim has become the first DJ to truly cross over, and Harris the guy who gave dance music over to the corporate powers-that-be.

At least that's what many an "underground" or "clued-in" DJ or clubber believes. In late '97, Harris began negotiations with any number of major labels in the hopes of taking his busting-at-the-seams big beat boy's club into world domination mode, eventually inking a deal with Sony that, surprisingly, left him in primary control of Skint. Thanks to Sony's unfathomable press and market power, Skint artists such as Fatboy Slim and Lo-Fidelity Allstars immediately had the wherewithal to push the big beat scene they helped generate, with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, into the pop culture spotlight. But what is good for the bean counters isn't always good for the ones holding the beans. Amid the glory of uniting with Sony, many of Harris's supporters called him and Skint sellouts. Harris maintains he's come to grips with the fallout from his decision to align himself with a major label.

"We wanted to build it up ourselves, so we needed [Sony]," remarks the press-ordained "Nicest Man in Dance Music." "We needed to do something, so we had to get some sort of financial backup. And that was why we could sign the Lo-Fi's properly and not have that sort of, you know, anxiety that someone was going to come along with a big check and steal everyone away."

In other words, sell your soul to the corporate devil, and you get the big beat blowup. While England's had the scene for years, thanks in part to Skint's famous Big Beat Boutique nights in Brighton, the U.S. is just now starting to hit the stride of hearing dance music on the radio almost as much as any other style. Nonetheless, Harris even admits his deal with Sony is starting to wear thin on him, and he's ready for big beat, as a one-dimensional label ascribed to Skint, to fall by the wayside.

"Yeah, I've been waiting for that for ages and feel really really good that it's finally happening," Harris laughs, having brought the topic up himself in the hopes of clearing the air around Skint, so that his other artists can breathe in the wake of Fatboy Slim's blazing ride to the top of the charts.

"Really, to be honest, we've kinda stepped away briefly," he continues. "One of your artists becoming that successful is always going to affect you. But there's this . . . I would always get really worried and really paranoid and thinking, "Oh, everyone's going to hate us,' and what is really nice is that there's still a lot of goodwill toward us. You know, most people do know that we're not just Norman [Cook]. I'd hate just to be judged on Norman . . . ah, because it's not the whole of our sound."

On this point, Harris is dead on target. Instead of rereleasing any one of three famous Brassic Beats compilations that brought in scads of cash when big beat was just getting started, Skint's decided to go forward this year with the recent Brassic Beats USA, a collection of primarily new material that sees the label in transition.

Of course there's a Fatboy Slim cut on there you've heard before (Skint's gotta produce for Sony, remember?), as well as a few dead ringers from last year's top 10 club charts, such as Super Collider's massive blob of uptempo, four-to-the-floor beats with a Motown twist, "Darn (Cold Way O' Lovin')." But you'll also hear a new track by Harris, under the name Midfield General -- "Devil in Sports Casual" -- that's just a little too dark to be big beat, a little too slow to be house, a little too fast and Anglo to be hip-hop, and a little too funny to be taken without a grain of salt. While completely unlike Fatboy Slim's "Praise You," with a similarly stupid video "Devil in Sports Casual" could be the next big hit for Skint.

Harris shies from such compliments.

"I just wanted to do [the compilation] as the label now, and it's kind of a snapshot of how we are at the moment, I think," he says. "I wanted people to see that, yeah, we've had great success with Norman and the Lo-Fi's. [But I also] wanted to show people where it came from and get an idea of what we're like as a label now."

You'll also hear Electrelane, an all-female group whose members play guitars, organs, and drums, and are altogether undanceable. Unless, of course, you choose to dance like a Deadhead dervish, spinning about to the unrelenting sound of four Hammond chords floating through your brain like good old-fashioned brimstone gospel music. It's rather melancholy and more in line with pissy-boy Brit rock than anything else.

"Well, no, that's why we like it," chuckles Harris, as though he doesn't really expect anyone to believe it. But he's adamant about Skint moving forward. "You know, we always sort of, we try -- that's something that appeals to me; sort of doing things that people don't expect us to do or, um . . . shifting the goalposts, if you know what I mean. So, it's good. [Electrelane is] just a band I saw in Brighton, thought they were interesting, saw they had a keyboard sound, and I thought it was really good, really fascinating. We've always gotta diversify, sort of keep things moving along. We never wanted to sort of rest on any laurels."

Harris spouts off a bevy of new material the world can expect from Skint over the next 12 months: new albums by hip-hop twister Req, deck master Cut La Roc, and his own Midfield General. Lo-Fidelity Allstars and Fatboy Slim have just begun recording new material. Things are definitely hopping at Skint, much to Harris's delight. "Ah, we've signed Freq Nasty as well, which is great. I wish I could have something I wasn't enthusing about, but I am. No, I'm ludicrously excited."

Sellout or not, Harris's enthusiasm for the music suggests Skint has a definite future beyond its first wave of success.

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