Prodigy's Liam Howlett changes his pitch up on a mix CD Ever since "Firestarter" and "Breathe" transformed Prodigy into rave'n'roll superstars, Liam Howlett, the band's leader and musical brain, has taken pains to distance Prodigy from dance culture. He's scorned the concept of "electronica," claimed he never liked house or techno, and dissed most DJs as overpaid and overpraised. So why has Howlett added his own mix-CD, Prodigy Present: Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One, to dance music's deluge of DJ compilations?
The pugnatiously opinionated Howlett sees no contradiction at all, of course. "When I said I hate DJs getting placed on pedestals, people didn't understand that when I started, it was as part of hip hop culture. There was more turntable skill involved than with today's superstar club DJs, who get paid thousands of pounds for basically playing other people's records," he says by phone from his recently acquired country home in Essex, England. Based on a guest session Howlett recorded for a British radio show, Dirtchamber crams 51 tracks into 55 frenzied minutes in order to show up the blandness of "all those club-oriented DJ albums with a dozen house tracks beat-mixed seamlessly together. " Chiming in with the nostalgia that dominated U.K. dance culture last year, Dirtchamber is a guided tour of Howlett's old skool, taking in '70s funk (Jimmy Castor Bunch, JBs), '80s hip hop (JVC Force, T La Rock, Ultramagnetic MCs), the first sample-collage tracks by British DJs (Coldcut, Renegade Soundwave, Meat Beat Manifesto), and breakbeat house (Frankie Bones).
It's a personal flashback to Howlett's teenage years as a Brit B-boy - winning a London radio station's Mixmaster of the Year award at age 15, buying Streetsounds electro compilations and hunting down rare breakbeats, and spinning in a Brit-hop outfit called Cut to Kill. Dirtchamber is also an opportunity "for Prodigy fans to hear what goes on in my head when I'm writing the music. Ninety percent of the tracks are my inspirations. " One of those formative influences, the Beastie Boys, appears twice, which might seem oddly deferential considering the war of words that blew up last year after the Beasties asked Prodigy not to perform "Smack My Bitch Up" when the two groups shared a stage at England's Reading Festival. Howlett gets the last word, though. In his Dirtchamber mix, he's resurrected some of the pre-p.c. Beasties' puerile humor from Licensed To Ill, specifically "The girlies I like are underage" and "Their father had AIDS so I shot him in the head. " It's a cunning way of simultaneously giving props to the band he once loved and jibing at the self-righteous sanctimony of the "mature" Beasties.
"When Mike D. phoned me," says Howlett, "he talked about how they'd edited their set for the Reading Festival, removed all the bad language and disrespect for women. Basically, what he was saying was" - Howlett adopts a pious American accent - "'We're better people now.' That wound me up sp much. It totally contradicted their last 12 years of work. But I still love the Beasties' music, and I don't feel resentful, just let down. " (At press time, the Beasties hadn't heard the tracks and had no comment.)
As its "Prodigy Present" prefix suggests, The Dirtchamber Sessions is clearly intended as a stopgap release to tide fans over until the next Prodigy album, which won't materialize before the summer of 2000. (There will be a new single before the millennium, however, plus a solo album from Maxim Reality, who co-MCs with Keith Flint.) For Howlett, making Dirtchamber not only recharged him after the grind of touring behind The Fat of the Land in '98, but it served as a reminder of why he got into music in the first place. "It was absolutely inspirational to just scatter the floor with vinyl and listen to all these great tunes. It's not something I get to do very often. " As for the sequel to Fat, Howlett is trying not to feel the pressure. "I'm in that really enjoyable stage of experimenting with sounds and beats; there's a lot of hit and miss. " So far, just one track - "punkish, with quite a bit of guitar" - has been completed. But Howlett doesn't plan to use many guitars on the new album.
"To me, it's the attitude of our records that make them sound like rock, not the instrumentation," he says. "We are an electronic band, and if we do have guitar, we should twist it in a clever way. It's about making future rock'n'roll, rather than re-creating something that already happened in the '70s. But it's got to have that punk aggression - not necessarily screaming vocals, but that energy-sound. That is Prodigy. "