The musical force behind the Prodigy sound is Liam Howlett, from Braintree in Essex, England. He was born in 1971 and he grew up together with his father and sister. Liam is educated as a classical piano player, as you can hear in many songs he is very fast on the keyboard. Liam's fascination with music began during primary school, when he fell for Ska and Two Tone. On moving up to secondary school, he was immediately attracted to the hip-hop culture, became fascinated by bands like Grandmaster Flash & the Furiuos Five.
Inevitably, Howlett wanted to perform his own material. A couple of years later, a holiday job on a building site earned him enough cash to buy two cheap turntables. Soon after, a local hip-hop band called Cut 2 Kill took him on board as their second DJ. Cut 2 Kill signed to Tam Tam Records. But the deal excluded Liam, despite the fact that the band used one of his tracks to win the contract. This betrayal coincided with Liam's dwinding interest in hip-hop. Following an incident when a knife was pulled on him at London's Subterania because he "didn't fit in", he began to look for new musical pastures. It was the summer of 1988.
While Liam was immersed in hip-hop, his home country was on an altogether different trip - Acid House. While pure house music tempered it's rhythmic obsession by incorporating more melodies and harmonies, Acid House pursued rhythm to new extremes, using technology to create beats that could never be simulated by human beings. Originating in Chicago and Detroit, the music soon crossed the Atlantic, and took root via massive illegal warehouse parties that formed the foundation for what became known as rave. It was the era of the smart bars, the marathon dancing and a recycled hippy mantra - the second Summer Of Love had arrived.
Liam's first experience of rave culture was a party at the Barn in Rayne (home to the Shamen's Mr. C). He was immediately converted: "I thought it was the bollocks, such a different experience from what I had become used to. Hip-hop was such an exclusivist, pretentious scene, and to a certain extent, it always excluded white bands. Then to experience something like that first night at the Barn was such a stark contrast, I really loved the music and the whole vibe. I had never been into dancing that much, but it didn't matter, because you could enjoy it, you didn't have to dance properly". Within a couple of months, Liam had started DJ-ing at these parties and became a well known face on the Essex scene. However, he was still too shy to play any of the material he had secretly been writing.
Enter Leeroy Thornhill and Keith Flint. Leeroy, all 6'7" of him, was a James Brown fanatic who had only taken to the rave scene after the monotone Acid House had developed into something more sophisticated. With his height and lightning-fast feet, he was the person to dance with at the Barn.
Keith Flint had left school before his exams and taken up various jobs (including one as an investigative driller), before becoming a 'casual' and then a devotee of biker culture, smoking dope and listening to 70's legends like Led Zeppelin and Floyd. When rave arrived in the summer of '88, he was travelling around the Middle East and Africa, but by the spring of 1989 he was back in Britain. On his return, he was immediately thrown out of his house - one night he was sleeping beside the pyramids in Cairo, the next he was kipping next to a river in Braintree. A friend of his, Ange, offered him some digs at her house. She was a keen raver, and when she next went out to an acid house party, Keith tagged along. After meeting each other at the Barn, Keith and Leeroy became great friends, going out almost every night and rapidly becoming popular characters at the circuit.
It was then at an outdoor rave that Keith first met Liam. Keith was so impressed by the tunes Liam was playing that he asked for a tape of his own mixes. Liam obliged and put four of his own songs on the B-side. Keith and Leeroy played the tape late one night and after coming back from a late night party and were stunned by Liam's work. As Leeroy adroitly remembers: "We were buzzing our tits off". The next time they saw Liam they asked him to play his own material for them to dance along to. He agreed, and after roping in a girlfriend, Sharky, the Prodigy was formed. Liam played the keyboards, while Keith, Leeroy and Sharky danced.
Shortly after, they booked their first P.A. at the Labyrinth in Dalston, East London, where the promoter told them: "I've only ever had two P.A.'s here before and they were both bottled off after five minutes". Liam had felt that an MC was need for the performance, and was put in touch with Maxim Reality (aka Keeti Palmer), a reggae MC, originally from Peterborough, who had spent the last three years in Nottingham. Maxim had got into MC-ing when he was 14 , by watching his brother (MC Starkey) MC-ing at various Peterborough sound systems. Once in Nottingham, Maxim had strung up a fruitful musical partnership with a friend called Ian herwood, and the two had christened themselves Maxim Reality and Sheik Yan Groove. Unfortunately, their brand of unorthodox dance music was highly unfashionable, and after three fruitless years they split up. Maxim had enjoyed working with Sherwood, so he went travelling for three months to chill out and ponder his future.
While he was away, he realised music was his first passion, and so on his return to England, he moved to London. Shortly afterwards, a mutual friend put him in touch with the Prodigy. Tapes were sent back and forth but their debut gig in Dalston was at such short notice that the first time Maxim actually met the band was on the night of the show.
Maxim remembers it as an interesting experience: "I just remember being put on this stage in the middle of what was a dance scene with four people I had just met, and I just stood at the back with a mic chatting a couple of times. Meanwhile, the rest if the band were doing their shit and everybody was going wild, it just went off. It all happened so quickly it was weird, but really good. I thought it was really wicked but I didn't think anything more of it than I wanted to do it again. " Maxim did do it again - a few days later he was asked to join the band permanently.
With this line-up, the Prodigy started to do what few dance acts before them had done - they gigged. Their early shows were sometimes ill-attended, like their fifth gig at Hatfield College where there were only nine people in the crowd, including five staff. Conversely, their twelfth gig was at Raindance, a massive rave attended by 12,000 people. What made the Prodigy exceptional was that their show was live, unlike the DAT-reliant P.A.'s of their contemporaries.
First demo tape and a record deal
Liam Howlett created an initial 10-track demo, put together on a Roland W-30 music workstation in Essex, England. Before Christmas 1990 XL Recordings picked up the demo after Howlett played several tracks to XL boss Nick Halkes in a meeting, and an initial 12" pressing of "What Evil Lurks" was released in February 1991. Still he was continuing to work at "Metropolitan" as a graphic designer. At the time, he hadn't been too sure of how the other members of the band would take to their particular roles, so the news had been kept from them. but now, on the evidence of their recent gigs, he was convinced that the Prodigy was the right vehicle to take his music to a wider audience. However, for Sharky, the idea of even more band commitments was too much, and so she left at Christmas.
The Prodigy's name was chosen by Liam as a tribute to his first analogue synthesiser, the Moog Prodigy.
Now trimmed down to a four-piece, the Prodigy continued gigging non-stop to support the "What Evil Lurks" EP. They were rewarded by sales of 7,000 copies and massive underground airplay. It was an impressive start. In an attempt to tighten up their live show, the band met at Liam's house one afternoon to rehearse. However, away from the vibe and atmosphere of the shows, with hundreds or even thousands of people dancing to their music, the band found the situation impossible. After 20 minutes of arguments and uncomfortable shufflings from Leeroy and Keith, they called it a day. The Prodigy have never rehearsed since.
At this time, Liam was in a habit of partying until late, then returning home and writing material while still in the party vibe. It was this method that produced the Prodigy's next single, "Charly". After seeing a 70's children's information film, featuring a strange tortoise-shell cat and his interpreting infant chum, Liam spriced the phrase "Charly says always tell your Mummy before you go off somewhere" onto a tough and innovative back-beat. "I thought it was so hilarious", Liam says. "It was the bollocks. I thought that if I put that to a really hard sound it would result in something totally new. "
The group had been playing various raggae-style mixes of the track since their first gig at the Labyrinth, but it was Liam's hardest version (Alley Cat Mix) which encaptured the public's imagination. By the time it was released in August 1991, pre-orders were huge and the resulting rush of sales propelled "Charly" to number 3 in the UK Singles Chart, catapulting the band into the wider public attention. The video was featured on "Top of the Pops" and "The Chart Show", and the band played to a massive 30,000 punters at the next perception rave. Soon after, Liam gave up his day job.
After the release of the successful single "Charly", the charts included various "hardcore" rave tracks that contained cartoon samples, to which speed and ecstasy-fuelled clubbers would dance, but which did not appeal to reviewers from publications at the time. Examples were tracks such as Urban Hype's "A Trip to Trumpton" and Smart E's (as in Ecstasy) "Sesame's Treet", instigating death-by-publicity to the underground "hardcore rave" scene, according to a number of critics associated with the scene. As a result, "Charly", amid being titled after a contemporary reference to cocaine, with its memorable sample of the "Charley Says" children's public information films, saw the Prodigy briefly identified by critics as "kiddie rave" or "toytown techno". Critical reception to the single was generally mixed.
With the huge success of "Charly", the Prodigy rollercoaster really began to accelerate. Having already established themselves as the premier name to emerge from the rave scene, they were now in demand for live shows. Their third single, "Everybody in the Place", issued in December 1991, was accompanied by European and American dates, which were followed by the signing of the American label Elektra. At the same time, Liam's musical prowess was acknowledged by being asked to remix Art of Noise, Dream Frequency and Take That (he turned down Gary and chums).
All seemed to be going remarkably well - until, that is, the negative impact of a scurrilous press hatchet job knocked them back for a while. One dance magazine had claimed that "Charly" had opened the floodgates for so-called "kiddie rave", which they argued, reduced this important sub-culture to a laughing stock. Despite this irritating setback, the Prodigy continued to progress. After their fourth single, "Fire", maintained their unbroken chart run, they released their debut double album - "The Prodigy Experience". This was comfortably the finest LP to come from the rave scene.
With a 23-date tour to support the record, the group continued to gig relentlessly, and the combination of unique music and hard work rewarded them with a number 12 album, which stayed in the top 40 for six months (it soon went platinum). This period should have heralded their most productive spell yet, but by the time they had toured the album around Europe, America, Australia and Japan, they'd become deep in debt and were on the verge of splitting up.
Kicking off with dates in Australia, the band's schedule allowed them only two days off in a month-and-a-half. To make matters worse, many shows were poorly promoted and the majority of American promoters failed to pay up. Added to the poor touring conditions and unsuitable billings, the whole experience turned out to be a nightmare.
The final singles from the debut album were "Out of Space" and "Wind it Up" which, despite the band's mediocrity, continued the Prodigy's fine tradition of Top 20 hits. However, by the time that had started to recover from their American nightmare, Liam was wary that the band were in danger of being dragged down with the dying rave scene. Things had to change.
The problem was that, with the group's massive commercial success, many underground critics were writing them off as "sell-outs", and they experienced increasing difficulty getting their records played on the DJ circuit. So, in the summer of 1993, they released their new single as a white label under the pseudonym "Earthbound" (the name of Liam's home studio at that time). The lysergic, anthemic minimalism of the track was a stark change, as Liam recalls "One Love was quite a big jump. It was more of a housey tune, less breakbeats, and that could have lost us all the previously followed us for the breakbeat element. In a way, the whole scene at that point was confused and unsure, and it was splitting up into various categories, with one set of DJ's going one way and others going elsewhere."
"I didn't want to get involved in all the internal politics", he goes on. "That would have restricted me creatively, I would have been too limited. So "One Love" came from that. The B-Side incorporated the Jonny L mix, which was more German techno with a touch of breakbeat, so it was still a hard record. The whole EP was a strong sign that we wanted to do things differently. I realised that the band had to progress and evolve, that I had to get back to the music and evolve. "
It was the pivotal turning point in the Prodigy's career. Vitally, it gave Liam a free licence to experiment on the second album, on which he started work in late 1993. While working with Liam on this record, Neil McLellan noticed his unique writing approach. "I sense that Liam was straining at the leash, that he wanted to go deeper and heavier. Once he came into the studio I realised very quickly that I was dealing with a unique writer. His approach is really bizarre, and I have never seen anyone write music in the same way that Liam does. He plays everything in manually, rather than looping sections all the time. It's amazing to watch, and can be so fast. There is nothing traditional about his work. The point to remember is this: it is really easy to write bad electronic music, because anyone can sit in front of a computer, but to write good electronic music is very, very difficult. Liam does that. "
The release was preceded by the band's finest track so far, the hard 150bpm techno of "No Good (Start the Dance)", which was accompanied by a superb video of a seedy underground party which earned the group extensive MTV exposure. Despite the continued singles success and ground swell of live support, no one could have imagined the response that greeted the Prodigy's second album, "Music for the Jilted Generation". It went straight in at Number 1 in the album charts, and went on to be a Mercury award nominee and sell over 1 million copies worldwide.
With the highly contemporary context of fighting the Criminal Justice Bill, this was a propulsive modern dance record, and other-worldly opus of with layer-upon-layer of fractious patterns, supremely organised hooks, neat arrangements, bridges and breakdowns all building into an immense pitch of tension and emotion. It was far more dynamic and dark than the linear tunes of the first album.
There were many heavy breakbeats, jazz-funk grooves, manical guitars, a return to hip-hop (Poison) and a straight hard dance track (No Good Start the Dance). Throughout the record, the sampled dialogue and twisted snatches of voices helped evoke a range of moods and ideas, spliced with subtle, anti-social polemic, and a deceptive delicacy of production and writing. It was an expression of aural hedonism which informed one of the most notable dance records ever written.
The critics' response was as frenzied as the record-buying public's. NME called Liam a "modern-day Beethoven", and there was barely a bad review in sight. The album's success was bolstered by the fact that, on average, the Prodigy played a gig every three days in 1994, all over the world. They even played to a huge crowd in Iceland, and won "Best Dance Act" at the MTV awards.
They also started playing at the major festivals, including the Feile festival in Ireland (attended by 35,000 people), and have since established themselves as one of the top festival bands in the country. With all four singles from the album going Top 15 ("Voodoo People" hit No.11 and "Poison" got No.8), it was a period of universal success for the band, and with Maxim's vocals being used for the first time on "Poison", the musical possibilities for the band increased even more.
1995 was spent consolidating their reputation as "The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll band in the world" by playing numerous festivals and yet more gigs. (Their performance at Glastonbury 1995 was hailed as "The Greatest Show on Earth"). The first taste of new material from their third album came in March 1996 with the release of "Firestarter", a hardcore, industrial-strength techno white-out, on which dancer Keith Flint took the limelight with his sneering, manic vocals. Despite it's extreme nature, the radio play it received was enormous, and the track smashed in at Number 1 in the singles charts. When the video for the track was shown on "Top of the Pops", the BBC received sackfuls of complaints from angry parents saying that Keith was too scary for early evening viewing, despite the fact that no drugs, guns, violence, or swearing were featured in the video. One letter raged "This young man is clearly in need of urgent medical attention. " Despite, or more likely because of this, the record sold over 750,000 copies in less than six weeks, and was Number 1 in seven European countries.
With the band signing a huge deal with Geffen in America, the Prodigy are proof that the "no compromise" punk ethic lives on in their attitudes to business and their often-extreme music. Despite their achievements, the band continue to shun publicity, and avoid any trappings of the fame game.
1999 saw the release of the Prodigy's The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One, a DJ mix album by Howlett, produced as an official record of a successful guest appearance on the British Radio 1. In June of the same year, when the band had arguably reached their commercial peak, they parted company with guitarist Gizz Butt.
Following 1999, Thornhill departed from the group after splitting up with Sara Cox due to the risk of nervous breakdown, resulting in the band's website being replaced with their logo and the words "We will be back..." set against a black background, which would remain until 2002.
They still control their own merchandise, and have absolute authority over record releases, tours, videos and virtually all aspects of their operation. With Liam having the capacity to write, engineer, produce and master an album in his own studio, the Prodigy have demystified and streamlined the process of making records. They are true electronic punks.