Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit the Prodigy’s testosterone-fuelled U.S. invasion with 1997’s The Fat Of the Land.
Before the turn of the millennium, a multiracial trio of British ravers topped the American charts with “Smack My Bitch Up,” a smash that, depending on your point of view, was either revolting or revolutionary. It was one part scatological genius Kool Keith of the legendary Ultramagnetic MCs; one part beloved SP-1200 sampler; one part Rage Against the Machine. The men responsible were the Prodigy, icons in their native England rave scene. The idea of a rave icon hadn’t really worked yet in America, in part because the movement of more or less anonymous producers rejecting the star system while taking drugged-up dancers on days-long trips didn’t easily fit into market capitalism. Clearly, there was potential in this electronic hedonism. But it would take a troll to make it pop.
Born in 1971, Liam Howlett grew up in the naff suburbs of Braintree, a county in Essex, a region still lampooned to this day. He cut his teeth on hip-hop: His first concert was Afrika Bambaataa and Word of Mouth at Wembley stadium. In 1986, he went to London, but after a disastrous run at a rap career, he returned to Braintree and like so many white men of his English generation, necked an E at a rave and found his path.
Howlett DJed parties throughout England’s fabled Second Summer of Love in 1988, when acid house and its culture of carefree hedonism took over the country. He spent the next year or two also learning to make music on a Roland W-30 Sampler Workstation and Moog Prodigy. One night, Howlett was DJing a beach party when a wanderer and rave regular named Keith Flint praised his set and asked for a mixtape; Howlett gave him one, and some demos. Since Flint’s upcoming trip to Thailand was canceled due to a bust for weed possession, he suggested Howlett form a band with him and his friend Leeroy Thornhill. Howlett had written the word “Prodigy” on that tape, as a boast or a tribute to his faithful Moog, or both. The name took.
At the time, a clutch of rave anthems had already sold well in the UK, but they sold better when turned into novelties. In 1991, the Prodigy arrived with their own lark, “Charly,” mixing standard hardcore piano riffs and a few sped-up rap staples with eerie samples from a 1973 PSA in which a treacly young boy is policed by an actual cat named Charly. Techno was getting harder and darker, with brutal offshoots like gabber gathering steam. This kind of cartoon rave was, well, fun, especially when heard in the throes of ecstasy.
But the novelty of “Charly” was tailed by copycats until there could be said to be an entire “toytown techno” scene, breakbeat-powered and helium-voiced. If you’re looking for what the Intelligent DanceMusic dudes categorized themselves against, it was this. The cat was an albatross around Howlett’s neck. Mixmag infamously put him on the cover holding a gun to his head above the words, “Did Charly kill rave?”
Undeterred, Howlett went on building tracks entirely by himself, culminating in a hit debut album, 1992’s Experience and its five hit singles. He followed it with a kaleidoscopic concept album, 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation, which changed the channel from children’s television to the nightly news. Jilted was in part an attack against the UK’s muddled but malevolent Criminal Justice Act, which increased police power nationwide and, in a rave crackdown, sought to outlaw the playing of “repetitive beats.” Liner notes set the agenda—”How can the government stop young people having a good time? Fight this bollocks”—which was seconded by Les Edward’s interior spread, of a bunch of hippies with a giant sound system, flipping off the cops. Howlett spent months touring the album in America with a full-on rave spectacle, Flint and Thornhill and new MC Keith “Maxim Reality” Palmer in tow to hype the crowd.
American critics adored Jilted, but the growing number of domestic dance fans mostly didn’t. “The Prodigy’s full-dress tour (matching tracksuits and choreography) didn’t impress many U.S. rave kids, who wanted things stripped down,” writes Michaelango Matos in his comprehensive The Underground is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. Matos quotes one of them shrugging off Flint, who “runs around, makes weird faces, sticks out his tongue, and basically has an epileptic seizure.” Jilted didn’t even make the Billboard 200. But there was gold in those antics, just waiting to be mined.
The mid-’90s in America was a time of testeria, a masculinized panic at the small steps toward equality made by women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. Men experienced even the threat of a slight slip in status like a slap to the face. In a 1993 essay for Newsweek called “White Male Paranoia,” the writer David Gates made their case: “Generations of white males judged women and minorities not by what they did but by what they were. Turnabout is fair play. White men are now beginning to say: only fair play is fair play.” Talk about a jilted generation.
Fin-de-siècle pop culture played along. Proto-incels mistook Chuck Palahniuk for Charles Atlas, as if Fight Club’s ironic exegesis of the closet were actually macho boosterism. “Friends” and “Seinfeld” lionized developmentally arrested males who chafed at the inconveniences of their white and almost entirely heterosexual world. Perhaps relatedly, there was a feeling that rock’n’roll, like straight white men, was in dire straits. After grunge, what was left for men and their guitars? Hip-hop took over as a force of cultural rebellion, and however brilliant and multi-faceted its examination of capitalism and power and race, women struggled to be heard. A woman wouldn’t top the Billboard Hip-Hop charts as part of a group until the Fugees in 1996; a woman wouldn’t do it herself until Foxy Brown in 1999.
Dance music was certainly male enough to make it in America, though it wasn’t exactly macho. Howlett abandoned the “U.S. rave kids” who thought they were poseurs and injected the poison of toxic masculinity. “Firestarter” arrived in March of 1996, announcing the debut of Keith Flint as frontman in a black and white video through which his charisma shown in Technicolor. He mugged and acted the fratboy fool, wearing a stars and stripes sweater, ball-bearing necklace, an inverted Mohawk, and some Alice Cooper eyeliner. If men couldn’t be kings, court jesters still got the mic.
”We’ve always said in interviews we didn’t want to be a techno band,” he told The Face in 1996. “We want to be an alternative dance band with energy….I wanted to make something more anarchic.” The end result was somehow less anarchic than his earlier work, but certainly more accessible. It was also unlike another next-big-thing, the Chemical Brothers, who had slowed back down rave’s hyperspeed breaks into rap tempos decorated with classic rock guitars like scarves across table lamps.
But Flint brought real chaos. “I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter,” he snarled, drunk on the Molotov mocktail of noise. His bad-boy schtick was about as dangerous as Bart Simpson, but then it had only been a few years since the first President Bush had called the “The Simpsons” a threat to the nation. Crucially, Flint invited the audience to join in the chant: “You’re a firestarter, twisted firestarter!” America accepted. England might have clutched their pearls over the dangers of pyromania—when the video aired on “Top of the Pops” the BBC received even more complaints than when the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie cursed their way into legend—but “Firestarter” launched a major-label bidding war won by Madonna. When her Maverick imprint released The Fat of the Land that summer, it debuted at the top of the charts.
Fat is an album of jock jams in JNCO. “Breathe” rides a synth line like a surf guitar, with Maxim squealing and groaning lyrics like “psychosomatic, addict, insane,” over a beat that swings like a Red Hot Chili Pepper’s tube sock. “Climbatize” has the nerve to further inflate the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” adding a thrilling Incredible Bongo Band beat and cinematic atmospherics sourced from Egyptian Empire’s breakbeat classic “The Horn Track.” It’s a fun tribute; for all their rebellious posturing, Prodigy respected their dance music forefathers. And imitated their rock ones: “Narayan,” featuring exoticized rambling by the singer of Kula Shakur, is a slightly soggy take on Rubber Soul’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s not surprising that The Face overheard Noel Gallagher praise Howlett as “the only credible songwriter in dance music.”
The album’s real highlight is “Mindfields,” a Jenga of drums that threatens to topple but instead just gets bigger and stronger and heavier. “Open up your head, feel the shell-shock,” Maxim commands. The kind of wobble that would return as dubstep just tenses and flexes at this moment in time, never quite dropping; the arrangement is a master class in dynamics, ready to explode.
What actually exploded was the album’s third single, “Smack My Bitch Up.” Maverick convinced the boys to take the word off the back cover, but Kmart and Walmart stopped selling the album anyway. Gloria Steinman called its lyrics “hate literature.” The newly woke Beastie Boys asked Prodigy not to play the song during their joint appearance at the Reading Festival. They refused, announcing from the stage with a pout, “We do what the fuck we want.” Jonas Åkerland’s video fanned the flames; a schlock treatment filmed in first-person, its cheap plot twist argued boys might be boys, but women can be, too. Still, MTV banned it and then caved to calls of censorship, airing an edited version late at night.
In his rave history Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds described with admiration their “apolitical update of punk offering post-grunge kids an aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.” But Prodigy were political, and not only because there’s no such thing as apolitical, or because Jilted raised its own flags. Fat was an attempt to make rave butch again, even though it never really had been in the first place. “Everyone really happy and on a good vibe and speaking to each other…I found it boring,” Howlett told SPIN in 1997. “I wanted to go out and be moody again.”
And you didn’t have to take Prodigy literally to take them seriously. “Change my pitch up/Smack my bitch up,” could be moodiness couched in misogyny; it could be castration anxiety; it could be the Ramones singing, “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat/oh yeah, oh yeah, uh-oh.” It wasn’t satire, a la Aphex Twin’s contemporaneous “Come to Daddy,” which inflated chauvinism until it burst. Flint was a troll: He was serious if you said he was joking and vice versa, all just to get under your skin.
Howlett’s response to all the fuss hinged on dubious read of hip-hop and the timeless male privilege of faux idiocy. “Like with Public Enemy,” he told SPIN. “I'm not into what Chuck D was talking about. I liked it on a dumb level—the beats, the way his voice sounded. I wanted to hear Flavor Flav going, ‘Yeah, boyee!’ I wanted to hear the dumb aspects of his music, that's what I was into.”
”I have a philosophy,” Howlett prophesied in that SPIN article, “that our music works on a really dumb level, which is the level that most people understand.” Today, The Fat Of the Land is easy to swallow, even if mix of party-on and patriarchy leaves a strange taste in the mouth. As usual, Kim Deal knows the score. “Firestarter” was, after all, built on women’s work: that charmed and pissed off “Hey!” throughout belonged to Anne Dudley, one of the virtuosos behind Art of Noise; the song’s raucous guitar line belonged to Deal, whose Breeders track “S.O.S.” birthed it. “Since I own, like, a quarter of [”Firestarter”]…I root for them since they used a song of mine,” she told the A.V. Club in 2009. “It’s like I’m in the biology club and they’re in the football team, you know?” With The Fat Of the Land, they packed the stadiums.