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One revolutionised dance music while Britpop – even Britain itself – was taking on the world at the end of the last century; the other is a record-breaking global superstar. They have both come a long, long way, but now Norman ‘Fatboy Slim’ Cook, 59, and Rita Ora, 32, are together, talking to The Big Issue about their collaboration, which reimagines Cook’s 1999 hit Praise You for a new generation, a new world.
In what seems like a divided nation, Rita Ora and Norman Cook want to create something positive to rally around. On his recent UK tour, Norman Cook displayed Gary Lineker’s face, showing solidarity for the broadcaster speaking out about the government’s awful rhetoric towards migrants.
Migrants like Rita Ora and her family. They came to the UK fleeing conflict in Kosovo at the start of the 1990s. Since then, Rita Ora has become one of our brightest stars. Now, she says, she wants to become an advocate for people just like her. Those being demonised by the people who are supposed to lead. Since 2019, Ora has been a UNICEF UK Ambassador, with a particular interest in their work with refugees.
Rita Ora is currently in Australia, a judge on their version of The Voice. Norman Cook is at home, which is, as you’d expect, overlooking the beach in Brighton. Although they’ve worked together on a new single, they’ve not had the chance to really get to know each other until now. In this exclusive conversation for The Big Issue, they talk about joining forces, the meaning they find in the music, as well as a little mutual praising of each other…
Norman Cook: Hi Rita, how you doing darling?
Rita Ora: I’m so good. All right then Norm, should we start?
NC: I suppose we should go back to the beginning.
RO: Well, I’ll try and keep it pretty short. I was about 14 and working in Portobello Market. I would see these people busking and I just really wanted to sing. I had a school choir in my primary school and that singing teacher told me, “Listen, I think you’ve got something”. So I thought, why not? I ended up getting into musical theatre school and then I interned at this recording studio and that’s where it all started. But I didn’t become known until I was about 21, 22 so there was a lot of grafting…
NC: I was thinking more in terms of the story of us two.
RO: Sorry! I don’t know why I went so deep!
NC: We’ll take it as read that most Big Issue readers know exactly who you are.
RO: OK, got it. Well, it started off with me being a huge fan. I felt so honoured that I was able to get your attention to make this a reality.
NC: Is it fair to say that you sought me out?
RO: I did harass you a little bit, didn’t I?
NC: Not harassing. In the press release I said it was a chance meeting at Glastonbury but…
RO: No, I made my way to your set.
NC: Obviously I am very honoured and flattered. But still a little intrigued.
RO: I’d like to think you weren’t surprised because your music was such a movement and still is. I had the idea… I had this mission. And what did I have to lose? You had a set, I knew it was going to be fun. Even if he thinks I’m insane and that I’m just following him around.
NC: Excellent. Well, I admire your spunk.
RO: I like how you put that, thanks.
NC: The thing is, although we’re in the same business we’re at different ends of the industry. And I thought it was delicious that someone from your end and your generation would reach out to me. I was sort of bemused. But when we met at Glastonbury we clicked. To set the tone, we’re in the Gas Tower, which is in the naughty corner of Glastonbury. This isn’t the Glastonbury you see on the BBC. And in the midst of this, backstage when I’m about to go on, I’m sitting chatting and everyone’s going, ‘Is that Rita Ora?’
RO: People were just a bit shocked. But in a good way.
NC: If what we’re doing together gets that reaction it’s been worth doing. Rather than both of us staying in our comfort zones, it’s nice to step outside and try something different. I’m currently enjoying the invitation into bits of your world. Your world is way more fabulous and glamorous than mine.
RO: No, you’d think that but it’s all smoke and mirrors half the time. As a fan, I’d love to know what Praise You means to you.
NC: Originally, I sampled a record called Take Yo’ Praise by Camille Yarbrough, which came out in 1975. It had this a capella singing I could sample. So when I’d made my version, I went to Camille to clear it. Sometimes when you’re talking to a different artist from a different generation they go, ‘What’s this all about?’ She just went, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful’. I’ve seen interviews and she says the most beautiful thing: ‘This is a song I wrote about the Black boys coming home from Vietnam and it was a civil rights song, but then a generation later, this guy from England comes along, takes the lyrics, puts them in a different context and it means different things to different people. But he’s carried on the spirit of the song.’ Those words can be a love song, it can be a celebration of a relationship. At Brighton, my local football team, they play it at the end of every game. It’s bittersweet depending on whether we won or lost, but we have come a long, long way together in the hard times AND the good. Now you’ve taken it on to another generation. This is the third incarnation now, a third different audience and a third slightly different meaning.
RO: Wow, I got goosebumps hearing you say that. I hope people understand the evolution of this record. This record for me means probably something different than it does for you. Of course it’s about praising your loved ones and celebrating something that’s really special, including this conversation! It’s such a great example of showing that at the end of the day, a good song is just a fucking good song.
NC: While we’re blowing smoke up each other’s arses, you breathe new life into it. I’ve listened to that tune an awful lot and it is easy to get jaded about it, but you’ve definitely taken it in a different direction for me.
RO: The way I wrote it was being madly in love with someone and having fun with that person. When you love a person you do praise them. You feel like they can do no wrong. So that’s what my version of the record is about. And dancing in your feelings, because it’s the best feeling in the world.
NC: What I love, it’s a one size fits all sentiment. Whoever you want to praise, you can make it about them.
RO: Yeah. Or about yourself as well.
NC: It is like a meme, an idea that’s reinterpreted in different areas. Which is how music always works. I think it was David Bowie saying that everybody’s musical output is the sum total of their input. The Beatles grew up listening to Chuck Berry and Motown, they did their own interpretation and eventually it stops being the sum of the parts and it starts sounding like The Beatles. Everything comes from something you’ve heard.
RO: Inspiration with all my songs was always the community that I was most accepted in. And for me it was the LGBT+ community. For decades, even before I thought I’d have a music career it was, would they accept it, will they listen to it in the clubs? That was always my vision, and that’s why I guess I always had this relationship with rave and dance music because it’s such a vibrant, confident, confidence-boosting genre. That’s always what’s behind my music, making people feel like they can be themselves and come out of their shell.
NC: Can I just interject there? That thing you said about acceptance really triggered me. We do come from slightly different worlds. One of the delicious things for me has been seeing the acceptance by my lot of you. I’ve just done a whole British tour when we played it every night. I’m pleased to report that my lot have totally accepted you into our world.
RO: Thank God, phew!
NC: It’ll be interesting to see how that works the other way around. How your lot welcome me into your world.
RO: It’s a no brainer. The idea of knowing that there’s a story behind songs, nowadays, I think is priceless when people are desperate for connection.
NC: Music is great way to turn, especially younger people, on. Music completely politicised me. I grew up during punk rock and bands like The Clash really shaped my politics. If one person reads this and then they go, ‘Oh, so Praise You was originally a song about the civil rights struggle’, and they go, ‘What civil rights struggle?’ They might look that up or think, ‘I want to get into that’.
RO: Yeah, exactly. Especially with our backgrounds. At this point in my career – I’ve been in the game 10-plus years now – I felt it was important to remind the public, as well as myself, of the journey. And people’s perception of a girl like me coming from a third world country like Kosovo, and yes, being a refugee and coming into the UK and my dreams coming true. If I didn’t have the opportunity to move to London and my parents didn’t make that brave change, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and talk to you, one of my heroes. And on top of that, make music. I say to myself every day, I’m so lucky and so blessed. I know I deserve it because I work really hard. But there’s a lot of kids like me from where I’m from that it doesn’t really happen for. So I never take it for granted.
NC: Do you think given the current political climate, it’s important to remind people of positive refugee stories?
RO: Yeah, it’s incredibly hard to not be swayed when you see things being written every day. It’s almost like because it’s written in the papers it must be the truth. But you have to remember there’s a lot of people that you might be listening to or that you watch on TV that have immigrant roots. I’m not a politician. I don’t want to sit here and say what you can and can’t do. That’s not my role. But I’d like to be an advocate and be an example of an immigrant that has got this opportunity and now can sit here and say: I have the most top 10s in the history of the UK as a female artist. And that is me being a proud UK citizen.
NC: Being a positive role model I think is important. Like I said before, learning about politics from The Clash. If your youngest fans, if their only concept of refugees is all these negative stories about people in small boats ‘coming over here, nicking our jobs’, you redress that balance. There are so many people who come from a migrant background that contribute so much to their lives. That’s how this country was built.
RO: The UK is my home. That’s where I was raised since I was a couple of months old. London’s my home. England, Britain, it’s my home. So there’s a beautiful sentiment to doing the record. You’re an important part of the DNA of UK music. I’m super proud of having this next generation of such an important record.
Praising You by Rita Ora featuring Fatboy Slim is out now, with video directed by Ora’s husband Taika Waititi
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