To mark the Prodigy’s 2015 UK tour, Rock’s Backpages brings you this Melody Maker interview with the band’s frontman. It’s 1994, and the police are killing rave culture …
“So I’ve decided to take my work back underground … to stop it falling into the wrong hands.” So begins Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy’s fab second LP. See, seven consecutive hits and a gold debut album aren’t enough for 23-year-old whiz-kid Liam Howlett. He’s sick and tired of his public image: peerless purveyor of hyper-hyper bubblegum nuttercore for E’d up popkids. Liam wants to be taken seriously; more to the point, he wants to be taken seriously by you, the alternative rock fan. So that’s why he’s used rock guitar in a couple of tracks on the album, and that’s why Jilted is a sort of semi-concept album, with a “heavy” political statement.
“The Jilted Generation, it’s all the kids who’ve grown up on this supposedly corrupt dance music,” says Liam, in between hacking his lungs out (he’s run down by endless remixing and a recent tour of Australia). “The government are trying to make out the whole scene is bad, and they want to stop everyone going out and having a good time.”
On the album’s inner sleeve, a painting depicts an allegory of this confrontation, as a police force and a ragged army of ravers glare at each other across a ravine, with the rave-tribe’s chieftain about to slash the ropes of the bridge. The chorus of Their Law – a surprisingly effective metal-riff propelled collaboration with Pop Will Shite Itself – articulates this defiance: “Fuck ’em and their law.” What’s riled Liam isn’t just the Criminal Justice bill, but the unofficial clampdown on legal raves.
“The police can control the sound levels at raves. Basically, there aren’t going to be big outdoors raves any more. They’re not giving them licences in the first place now ’cos of the alleged disturbance and noise pollution, and all the drugs. And ’cos of that, the punters have lost faith a bit. A year ago, you’d get 20,000 at a big event, no worries. Now you’d be lucky to get 10,000. Events happen up until the last minute and then they get cancelled, and so people stop bothering. The Obsession rave, a big three-dayer on the beach, was cancelled, and that was going to be the only major event this year. The Prodigy haven’t suffered from it at all, we’re still packing out shows and selling records. But it does annoy me, the government telling young kids what they can do.”
Because of the clampdown, rave culture’s gone into the clubs and it’s fragmented into factions: scenes like techno, jungle, progressive house, garage, et al. Liam admits to being nostalgic for the golden days of rave’s bygone unity.
“I think a lot of people are. That’s why the housey progressive scene is so popular, ’cos even though it’s not as mental and sweaty, it’s still got the love vibe. On the hardcore scene, the DJs won’t mix up different styles of music, they just wanna play the brand new dubplates that no one can get hold of, cos they only printed 10 copies.”
The Prodigy emerged from the early hardcore scene (what’s now evolved into jungle). Along with Altern-8, they were the principal ambassadors for ’ardkore in the top 10. The Prodigy’s top three hits Charly and Everybody in the Place were classic breakbeat tracks, and the debut LP Experience was ruff jungle bizness, albeit with a commerical sheen and Liam’s poptastic choonfulness well to the fore. But ever since a dance mag accused the Prodigy’s Charly of instigating “the death of rave” (because it inspired a rash of lame bubblecore tracks with kids’ TV samples, like Sesame’s Treet), an embarrassed Liam has struggled to distance himself from hardcore.
“It’s the 180bpm breakbeats I’ve moved away from. The new album is as hardcore as anything I’ve written, but hard in a different way, a German techno way. But I still use breakbeats, ’cos I’ve always been into hip-hop and that side of me will always be there.”
It’s all a bit ironic, given jungle’s creative renaissance in 93 and its long overdue return to hipness in 94. (The dance mag in question just leapt on the bandwagon along with every other rag in town.)
Admits Liam, “There’s loads of quality jungle tracks around. The problem was that a lot of people thought it was so easy to make hardcore that they just knocked out white labels and flooded the market with crap. But this year there’s been a lot of intelligent jungle. Moving Shadow are the leading label.”
But Liam still doesn’t like the attitude and moody atmosphere that so often surrounds jungle ’94, and which is so different from the nutty, luv’d up vibe of ’ardkore ’92.
“The reason I got into rave was that hip-hop had gotten too much into attitude. To me, the jungle scene now is really confused. One minute they’ll play something really uplifting and the next it’s dark and gloomy. Also, that music’s lost a bit of energy. Because it’s so fast, people don’t dance to the 160bpm drums, they lock into the reggae baseline, which is half speed. So you dance really slow. With techno, you dance to the full-on beat. The stuff I really rate is European, like CJ Bolland and a lot of the German artists.”
When I suggest that the Prodigy are the last representatives in the charts for the old rave spirit, Liam frowns. What he really wants is to get back his underground credibility – something as difficult and arguably futile as attempting to recover your virginity.
“We actually do everything we can to stay off the telly and out of Smash Hits and the pop media,” he stresses. “We only do interviews that I feel are credible. It is a battle, a constant battle to get the correct press.”
Hence his flirtation with alternative music and deployment of rock guitar on Jilted. He’s been listening to Led Zep and Pearl Jam, and he might be producing Skinny Puppy’s debut for Rick Rubin’s American label. He tells me how much he likes Senser’s “energy” (they were actually first choice before Pop Will Eat Itself, but were too busy). As well as Their Law, grunge guitar features on the killer next single, Voodoo People.
But Howlett doesn’t need to latch misguidedly onto that dodo “alternative rock” for cred; his own roots – in electro and early hip-hop – are solid enough. I always thought his thang was like a hyperkinetic version of Mantronix’s breakbeats-and-samples collage aesthetic, and sho’nuff, it turns out he was a big fan. His old-school hip-hop background comes through in the funky, fusiony 3 Kilos, which is part of the LP’s Narcotic Suite – songs meant to evoke different drug atmospheres.
Back to the present, to Generation J, the kids who live for dance and drugs … Are they going to fight back against repression, or are they just going to languish at home, get despondent, get wasted?
“At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s anything anyone can do. But as long as people can still go to clubs, it’ll survive. They’ll never kill the whole thing off completely. Why are the government so threatened? I don’t know. We live in Essex and there’s a massive farmers’ festival every year at the showground. They block up the whole fucking road and it’s totally disruptive. But they won’t have a rave there. It’s the same with football matches – there’s loads of drugs at football now, people taking Es. So it’s one rule for us, one rule for them.”