Joe Muggs explains how Mr Oizo's offbeat hit set dance music on a new path.
We didn't know how powerful the track would prove to be. Somehow, "Flat Beat" escaped novelty status, becoming not only a staple for house, breakbeat and UK garage DJs of the time, but an influence on almost every major club sound that followed. Dubstep, grime, electroclash, electro house, EDM and other modern hybrids all have a little bit of "Flat Beat" in them. Somehow, in its basicness and no-frills foolishness, it boiled down some essential dance floor energy into a form that would remain relevant through the decades that followed.
Dupieux had no idea of the monster he'd created, but he did have an inkling of the track's perfect functionality. "'Flat Beat' was recorded to make Flat Eric dance in the Levi's spot," he says. "I had no idea it was going to be a classic, of course, but I knew it was the perfect tune to make Eric dance. As easy as that." At the time he wasn't even a clubber in any serious sense. "I only knew the big names like Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Aphex Twin," he says. "I wasn't connected to any scene, the track wasn't a reaction to anything, it was just an attempt to make 'dance music'."
Maybe, I suggest to him, that explains its universality? "Yes," he says, "'Flat Beat' was not 'house' or 'techno' or 'trance' or whatever. It's just... something. That's why it was OK for many different DJs to play it."
That's an understatement. "Flat Beat" got everywhere. Tommie Sunshine remembers it as "a Chicago staple.... Derrick Carter bumped that record for a solid year." It was played in the techno scene, too. One of the quirkier side stories of the track's life is that the Chilean-German-British producer Cristian Vogel would get asked for it constantly. People assumed he'd made it because "Vogel" in German translates to "bird," or "Oiseau" in French.
"Flat Beat" also became a staple among the hip-hop, ska and other sounds that made up the big beat scene in the UK. Big Beat Boutique and Skint Records founder Damien Harris (AKA Midfield General) remembers both himself and Fatboy Slim rinsing it endlessly. "It was almost the perfect Big Beat Boutique record," he says. That connection went stateside, too. "Every breakbeat DJ in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest played that track," says Brian "Gunjack" Gibbs, at the time a techno artist in California, now a conceptual artist in Chile. And it was huge on the UK garage scene: Mark Hill, then of Artful Dodger, remembers: "It kind of bridged that two-step and speed garage vibe. The nice thing about garage raves at that time was the fact that you could get away with playing any records that had a big bass sound."
All of this was only the beginning. Tommie Sunshine says Carter's support of the tune "helped give it a sense of permanence," but it was Sunshine himself who carried it forward. He saw its no-nonsense, no-genre punkiness as fitting perfectly with the European electro he'd already been spinning through 1998—"Gigolo Records, Adult., DMX Krew, Anthony Rother"—and so it became an integral part of what emerged as electroclash a couple of years later. When electroclash peaked in 2003, he was still battering it. "It's arguably among the best electroclash anthems," he says. As such, it would be a keystone in electroclash's influence on nu rave, electro house and all the other sounds that followed through the noughts.
"Flat Beat" reverberated onwards from the breakbeat scene as well. "That song in particular was sort of the missing link between Dust Brothers, later Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method type stuff and that newer sort of post block rocking banging universal techno house thing," says Gunjack. "Which then in turn got fed by Ed Banger, Justice, Daft Punk and eventually became EDM."
But it was garage where "Flat Beat" arguably had its most drastic effect. "Flat Eric was a real game changer," says Noodles, then producing as Groove Chronicles with El-B. "After that advert, it was, 'Need to get that yellow puppet tune!' It just worked in a club with that grinding melodic bassline." Groove Chronicles' own wobble-bass "Black Puppet" was a nod to "the yellow puppet tune," and multiple garage bootlegs of "Flat Beat" emerged.
This was exactly the time that other big bassline tunes were causing a schism in garage. DJ Deekline's "I Don't Smoke" and DJ Zinc's "138 Trek" were both released the following year. It got the younger generation hyped as hell, but royally pissed off the older crowd who thought garage should stick to its soulful roots, hence the "garage committee," set up by Jason Kaye, Norris "Da Boss" Windross and friends, which tried to ban the big bassline tunes from garage sets. But those younger kids took the bass and ran with it. Groove Chronicles and Zed Bias are often cited as making the first proto-dubstep tunes, but "Flat Beat" itself deserves its place in the story.
"I loved that tune," says Skream. "I was a huge fan actually." When I interviewed Coki, the original king of wobble bass, and asked him what kind of rave music he liked as a kid, the very first track he mentioned was: "What was that guy, Mr Wunzo... Mr Oinzo?" Mr Oizo? "Yeah! [sings] 'wum-wum-wum-wuwum wum-wum-wum-wuwum' hahaha! The kind of sound it was, the mid-range in it, I thought yeah, this is crazy shit, this is the kind of thing I like. People would ask: 'How can you be into this kind of stuff?' But I'd just go, 'Listen to it! Listen to the sound, you can dance to this! This fuckin' groove, it's, like, party time!'"