Knight Ridder Newspapers
When last we left Prodigy, this deviant British group was leading the electronic big-beat movement of the late '90s along with the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. Prodigy's album The Fat of the Land -- and particularly the unforgettable and groundbreaking hit Firestarter and its video starring maniacal frontman Keith Flint -- led a musical revolution that threatened to thrust dance music to the forefront of the pop scene.
This sound was fresh. Exciting. Equal parts danger and
So what dominates MTV and radio airwaves today?
Not that dance music hasn't made great strides -- it's the genre of choice for TV commercials and action movie soundtracks all jostling for the unofficial title of Most Cutting-Edge.
And there was no band more cutting-edge than Prodigy a few years ago. As jarring and incendiary as the stark video for Firestarter was, it was nothing compared to the group's R-rated video for Smack My B---- Up, which caused great shock when it was briefly shown in late-night rotation on MTV.
That video -- which showcased seedy sex, drug abuse and violence like no other before it -- epitomized what Prodigy brought to dance music: a punk-rock ethic.
"It was a full-out grotesque attempt to do everything that shouldn't be done in a video," says Liam Howlett, songwriter, producer and leader of Prodigy. "It was basically us taking a p---. This is the clean version you saw. The other one was much worse. "
For those who ask why they felt the need to offend, Howlett has a quick answer.
"We were basically testing censorship and seeing how far we can go. It's insane, but it's everyone's favorite video. That's interesting to me.
"And it's still talked about," he continues, with a bit of pride. "It was on TV the other day -- they were talking about the most offending video. "
Today, people are talking about Prodigy's new album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, the band's first full-length effort in ... has it really been eight years?
The album is full of snarling attitude and more eardrum-pummeling big beats, bolstered by collaborations with disparate talents from actress-turned-punk-rock-girl Juliette Lewis to rappers like Twista and Kool Keith, and even a vocal by Oasis hooligan Liam Gallagher. Perhaps most freeing of all, though -- no Firestarter.
Howlett sounds relieved to finally move on.
"We've gone for so long we feel like a new band again," he says. "We're really excited. The whole thing with Firestarter -- we love the record, but maybe onstage we'll do a different version. Like Nirvana got fed up with Smells Like Teen Spirit, Red Hot Chili Peppers got tired of their hits. "
It might alarm fans that Keith Flint -- basically the image of Prodigy with his piercings, Mohawk and wild eyes matched only by his even wilder flailings onstage -- is nowhere to be heard on Always Outnumbered. But he hasn't really gone anywhere.
"Keith is fully in this band," Howlett assures. "The whole idea isn't about getting rid of band members -- everybody will be onstage when we perform. Firestarter was the last time Keith was at the forefront. But this record is about bringing the music to the forefront again. It's not about bringing particular people to the front. The only way forward is to do a left turn. I mean, we could write a thousand Firestarters, but that's not exciting to us.
"We want to re-educate people to the original idea of what we were. Beat thievery. Sample culture, Clash culture, punk-rock, cut-and-paste DIY. People who know only Firestarter need to be re-educated. "
Howlett had an epiphany while writing music for the new album.
"The last album was heavily influenced by others," he says. "This time, I purposely didn't buy any new music. I wanted to look inside my head. It's more of a personal album. In London, I got really inspired by my surroundings, just walking out and soaking up the street. I got excited just going out for a few hours, picking up bits and pieces from the street and going back to the studio.
"Basically, I challenged the whole idea of what Prodigy are. "