The Prodigy: The prodigal sons
The Prodigy have defined a movement, a generation. Their new album is out today
“I think we should be a British institution. Everyone goes on about all of these other people from the '90s like Blur and Oasis, but we’re still doing our shit, we’ve stuck to what we’re about without compromise. We just don’t get the recognition we deserve.”
When Liam Howlett said this to me just over six years ago he was building up for the release of 'Invaders Must Die'. Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, possibly not even to himself, there was a sense of nervousness surrounding the release of that album, following on as it did from the disastrous single ‘This Baby’s Got a Temper’ and the less than well-received 'Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned' album.
Although he might refer to that latter release as his “great lost album” now, at the time 'Always Outnumbered…' cowered under the spectre of the mind-boggling success of their global smash 'Fat of the Land' set. Seven years in the making and not featuring either of the band’s usual vocalists, Keith Flint and Maxim, the album left many a Prodigy fan who’d hoped for 'Fat of the Land Part 2' feeling slightly sold short. At the time Howlett told DJ, “We took the Prodigy formula as far as it could go, I knew something had to change.
So I went back to what I was about in the first place, the beats. You see, the first album was all about where we came from, the raves and that. ‘Jilted Generation’ was inspired by me seeing all these rock bands when we were playing festivals. ‘Fat of the Land’ was all about us as a live band, so it was good for the media to focus on Keith’s personality at that stage. Now it’s all about me taking things back to what it was all about to start with”.
That album, then, was Howlett’s pressure valve and found him getting back to what he believed in. No more ‘Firestarters’, but plenty more dancefloor old school classics… built through layer upon layer of noise. But what exactly was it causing that pressure? Quite simply — huge success. Huge. Success written large in planet spanning letters.
When you think back to major British acts of the '90s you might be excused for thinking of Oasis or Blur as the superstars. You might even think of The Spice Girls as the UK's biggest musical export. Sure, they all acted like it, gave good quote and the right pose but their success paled next to that of The Prodigy’s. As the Brit Pop generation were busy building media profile and pressing flesh with Blair’s government, the jilted generation just got on with what they did best and smashed it all over the planet.
'Fat of the Land' went to No.1 in 27 countries around the world. First week sales in the UK alone were more than all of the sales of the rest of the Top 100 and eight times more than the No.2 album, Radiohead’s 'OK Computer'. To put it mildly, The Prodigy were huge and probably did more than any other act in selling electronic music back to the USA. A British institution? Too right they are.
So what is it that makes The Prodigy so important to the history of electronic music? No, scratch that… what is it that makes them so important to the history of all popular musics from the Beatles to Nirvana, Grandmaster Flash to Kanye West and Kraftwerk to Deadmau5? Well, it’s a combination of three things: honesty, integrity and authenticity.
Very few bands can say they’ve stuck to their guns in the same way as the Prodigy has. At no point have they chased the latest sound just to remain ‘relevant’. They could have cleaned up with a 'Fat of the Land part 2', but didn’t. They could have worked with every rock star known to man and beast, but they didn’t — despite constant requests from the likes of Bowie and other rock royalty. Liam Howlett only remixes artists he has respect for.
Similarly he only collaborates with artists who he recognizes as kindred spirits. Liam’s production has remained experimental without ever becoming self-indulgent. Sure, the extended ambient opus is in him, as is the film score producer, but his Prodigy output always retains those hooks and that humour.
The Prodigy has remained resolute in doing their own thing and letting others follow. Without them so many artists, from Pendulum to Chase & Status, Skrillex, to Enter Shikari would never have found their own sounds.
“It’s fine that people copy us. That’s how artists develop,” says Liam as we sit in his studio chatting about his new album 'The Day is My Enemy'. This attitude goes way beyond the music. Despite such mega-sales The Prodigy have always walked the independent line. Let’s face it, when 'Firestarter' blew up they could have dropped their label XL Recordings and hitched themselves to one of the majors for filthy money. But they didn’t. Even after they left XL they could have gone the majors route, but instead opted to set up their own label Take Me To the Hospital Records in order to keep the vibe underground, to keep it real.
Underground isn’t a word you might normally associate with artists with the cache of Liam, Keith and Maxim. But when you look at their lives outside of The Prodigy they haven’t exactly towed the celebrity line. Unlike many of their peers who play the star for the celebrity press, the Prodigy trio have remained relatively unscathed and definitely unimpressed. Keith has built a sideline career in motorbike racing and in building ecologically friendly houses, hardly headline grabbing rock 'n' roll a la Pete Doherty. Maxim has built a name for himself in the US as a trap DJ and producer (We Are Noise), not exactly the champagne swilling, model-shagging antics of the hip-hop glitterati.
And Liam? He just does his stuff, spending time with the family, going to clubs he’s into and working with producers and musicians like Flux Pavilion, Sleaford Mods and Tim Hutton. Can’t see OK or Hello salivating at this either. In many ways The Prodigy are anti-stars.
Or more to the point, they’re anti the formula or stardom… or any formula but their own. No surprise then that at the end of last year Liam Howlett was reported taking a swipe at EDM, that most formulaic form of dance music being produced by many of The Prodigy’s acolytes.
“Prodigy are proud of our roots but we can not be lumped in with those divs,” he exclaims. “I have no respect for these idiots who just stand there… you know? They’re the fucking jokers. They’re the people who are stopping this music getting taken seriously like old rock stuff is. I want to put a stop to that! It’s fucking wrong and it has to be exposed.
“It’s just like back in the day when the raves were great and then these people heard 'Charlie' and did these fucking parodies and killed it. These EDM kids though, they’re just parodying themselves; do you know what I mean? This EDM shit it’s just about people going out and having a good time. There’s no depth to it at all.
That’s what I love about drum & bass, cos it’s the ultimate underground dance form. Things have come and gone, dubstep, this trap shit, they sounded great when they came out but there’s no longevity.
I mean there are some artists I still respect, but those sounds have come and gone. But drum & bass has stood the test of time as an art-form. Probably because America never really got it… Americans always fuck it up somewhere down the line don’t they? That’s why they gave us EDM. I don’t care, I’m coming out firing on this record man.
And we’ve got the fucking right to say this ‘cos we have been around, we know our shit!”
This is the honesty that people love about the Prodigy. When Liam says this, it's not for effect, it’s not about baiting a few people in a Twitter hate fest, it’s said out of genuine concern for the scene that he is emotionally invested in — dance culture and all that it represents. For him that culture is all about opposition to mainstream choices. Despite his constant denial at being at all political, his is a very political position.
Through his synapse-snapping production he demands people take control and snap out of the humdrum of their existence — especially in what he sees as the increasingly formulaic environment of club culture.
“I’ve gone out of my way not have any of the formulas that people expect in a dance tune… there’s none of that bollocks, we’ve got our own form of dance music and it’s not in me to just do the same as everyone else, so I don’t want to be associated with those divs that do that formula shit.
“It’d be the same if I could play guitar, I wouldn’t be able to just come out with copies of other stuff cos it’s expected. I’m only ever going to make records that I want to make with the sound I want… not some parody shit. That’s why this new album has a lot of parallels with 'Jilted', ‘cos that was a reaction against the dance scene of that time and this time it’s the same. It's a fucking statement against the dance scene today.”
The album that acts as their statement against EDM dance culture is their latest opus 'The Day is My Enemy'. It’s an album that snarls and bites, yelps and howls like a rabid urban fox. It’s the sound of the nighttime in full clandestine action, in defiance of the sanitized cleanliness of daytime existence.
It is everything that EDM isn’t. It’s also an album that arrives under the shadow of the huge success of 2007’s 'Invaders Must Die', which they released through their own label and sold over 1.4 million copies globally, and roughly 700K in the UK. Astonishing sales at a time when people weren’t supposed to be buying their music anymore.
A feature of that album’s success was the way that it drew in an army of new fans. The children of the jilted generation were in abundance at all of their shows, especially their immense 2012 Warriors Dance rave at Milton Keynes Bowl where newbies rocked hard with old time cheesy quavers (as in your mum and dad) to the band’s adrenalized greatest hits set.
“I think people see our honesty and relate to that.
We never said we were anything other than what we are… that last album; it was like us getting back together again and vibing off each other, so it had an uplifting feel. The new album is more… angry-sounding.”
In many ways the great lost album 'Always Outnumbered' provided the blueprint for everything that has followed since. Its mélange of edgy noisescapes, beefed-up old school beats and in-your-face hooks has been developed to the point where no matter how experimental the production, there is a definite Prodigy sound. Ironically it was the tyranny of “everything I do sounding like The Prodigy” that lead Liam to throw away the keys to his old studio, chuck out the tracks to his proposed follow-up to 'Fat of the Land' and to write the initial tracks for 'Outnumbered' on his laptop.
Back then he had yet to find that sound that would typify the Prodigy in a way that he was happy with. Now, however, he knows his sound and he’s buzzing with the possibilities.
'The Night is My Enemy' sounds like The Prodigy, then.
No prizes for spotting that one. It’s got the firing guttural electronic punk cuts like lead single ‘Nasty’ and album closer ‘Wall of Death’, the fucked film scores like ‘‘Beyond the Deathray’ and ‘Invisible Sun’ (“soundtracks to Alien in London”) and the old school Prodigy bangers like ‘Medicine’ and ‘Rhythm Bomb’. Unlike its predecessor, though, the vibe that inspired its creation was the buzz of taking the Prodigy shows on the road. In that sense at least its closest cousin is Fat of the Land… but it’s light years away from that album, which sounds tame now. Anyone who caught the band on their last tour will have noted just how aggressive and dark they had become.
“Originally I wanted this record to be dark, yeah, but once I started to get into the recording I realised it wasn’t the dark that I wanted, ‘cos that felt too negative for me. It’s more uplifting than that. When I first started writing it, it was to answer the last album that in some ways felt a bit too, up… I love it but I wanted this to be more of an attack.”
Surprisingly only one live track, 'Rok-Weiler', has made the final cut. Not even the original title track 'How to Steal a Jet Fighter’ is on there. “It’s just the ways it happened. A few parts from the live tracks are in there. Fans will recognize shit. But I was writing as we were on the road and trying stuff out.
“On this record I’ve tried to keep it analogue and play it live where I can. But I’ve always been like that. I’m not a programmer. The quicker I can get off the computer the better. I always try to play the shit, those riffs are me playing around. This record was mostly made in hotel rooms, where I'd put down sketches, maybe just a few bars.”
He leans forward and cues up a file called ‘breakdown riff’ that was a live favourite but became new tune ‘Wild Frontier’. No beats, just waves of inebriated analogue riffs and dissonant ambience.
“I wrote this in my hotel room after we’d been to this after gig party and I was pissed. I always write when I’m drinking.
I like to be off my tits when I write. I dunno why… I like that edge. I really fuckin' love working that way. I really fuckin' enjoyed doing this record… a lot.”
So there you have it, one of the biggest bands on the planet, although you wouldn’t know it. One of dance music’s true maverick pioneers that have had as much of an impact in rock music as they have on beats culture. A band that have reshaped our expectations of the live performance. A band who have continually pushed at the envelope of sound production while remaining true to their musical vision. A band with honesty, integrity and authenticity in spades.
A few days after listening to the album in Liam’s Kings Cross studio, I text him to ask what the reaction’s been like. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I don’t care about what people think.”
The Prodigy — still a breath of fresh air after all these years.
And a true British institution.
Words by Prof. Martin James, who holds a PhD in The Prodigy (and drum & bass, and French Touch!)...