How to Start a Fire
At the risk of dating myself, I heard a song when I was fifteen that rocked my face in a way that very little other music had up to that point. The reason for this was (at least) twofold: 1) it was an anti-establishment, borderline nihilist tirade from start to finish, tapping into the sensibilities of British gutter punk and utilizing an approachable form of aggression that seemed very, almost uniquely, "American"; 2) it was essentially constructed without the use of any live instruments, and at that moment in my life with my limited knowledge of how music was made it seemed to not only open a new door but to be a wormhole into a whole other universe full of musical possibilities that could be exploited. Hearing it was both a breath of fresh air and a steel-toed boot in the ass. The year was 1996. The song was "Firestarter" by The Prodigy.
As it turned out I would need to wait over a year for The Fat Of The Land, which dropped in the summer of 1997. Fourteen months really isn't that long, but for a teenager it felt like an eternity. I fostered a slavish devotion to waiting for the album and my anticipation for it superseded that of all other new music coming out. I used the time constructively, delving into the group's back catalog, which at that time was a manageable feat considering their discography was limited to only two LP's: Experience from 1992 and 1994's Music for the Jilted Generation. And investigating similar and corollary acts allowed me to become the local expert on electronic music, which in a small midwestern town wasn't exactly a high bar. I found myself latching on, by proxy and from a distance, to an independent and underground rave culture that was very nearly at its end, a scene that had peaked just a few years before and was about to be co-opted by both the mainstream, in the form of club-going electrotourists, and the greasy hands of big business who were about to pharmaceuticalize its drugs, sponsor its new DJs from boardrooms, and write it into milquetoast Hollywood films so that they could shape its narrative for newer generations.
To understand The Prodigy, the thing to keep in mind is this: they are not a band. Yes, they have members, and those members over the years have had such comically rockstar names as Gizz Butt, “The Rev”, and Sharky. But they aren’t "bandmates" in the usual sense, and this is not a new thing. From inception, they have followed basically the same structural formula when it comes to personnel. Liam Howlett is the composer of the group, the guy who essentially makes all the music. He is the brain behind the beat, in almost all ways. Then there is Keith Flint, the once famously finhawked frontman who has a talent for yelling that, along with his heavy accent, makes him seem really pissed off at all times - but he began with The Prodigy as a dancer and hype-man, so his contribution is visual as well. And then there is the formal MC, Maxim (née Maxim Reality), the gruff-voiced north-of-Londoner who lent the outfit some street cred in their formative years from having been a part of the storied reggae scene around London. On many songs, these two trade lyrics so that their styles contrast off one another, as they famously did on Fat's second single, "Breathe" : Keith: "Come play my game!" / Maxim: "Inhale, inhale, you are the victim!"
With a make-up like this, they couldn't possibly be a "band" in any way that would be recognized or accepted by most. What this composition resembles most is that of a rap crew: one member who makes the beats and/or spins the records, and two that hype up the crowd and spit verses. But there is a simple problem with that - they don't make hip-hop. On 1999's The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One, Howlett showed just how much he wears his hip-hop love on his sleeve, with chopped and spliced homages therein to such titans of East Coast rap as Ultramagnetic MC's, Beastie Boys, Treacherous Three, Grandmaster Flash and many, many more. But as much as they sample hip-hop and occasionally feature guests who are predominantly rappers, they aren't that.
What The Prodigy has been since day one is likeminded group of performers in search of the perfect rave. Like a troupe of b-boys looking for the perfect piece of sidewalk to have the perfect dance-off, The Prodigy has been making music for over a quarter of a century in hopes of using it to propel the perfect party. While the electronic scene has shifted seismically over that same timespan, The Prodigy haven't really changed at all.
The mid-90s saw a rise in IDM (intelligent dance music) out of Europe especially with acts like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. The late 90s saw waves of trance, chillout, Chicago and Detroit house, and various types of drum'n'bass all come and go. The early 2000's brought us superstar DJs and producers like Diplo and Skrillex and the rise of electroclash. The late 2000's went in hard on dubstep and more aggressive forms of electronica, while also providing the diametric opposite in the short-lived chillwave genre. And as of this moment in 2019, I am not really sure what the prevailing trend is, or if there even is one. In some ways the result of the past twenty-five years might simply be that it is all out there now and everyone can simply gravitate toward whatever niche suits them.
But through all this change in the techno world at large, The Prodigy remain unflinchingly themselves. I was reminded of this while listening to their newest record No Tourists. Near its middle comes "Timebomb Zone", a track built around a pitched-up vocal sample and quick-and-dirty synth riffs. It is a song that knows what it is, one that has looked at current trends and said, "No, thanks, I'll do my own thing over here." Elsewhere, leadoff track "Need Some1" is a spiritual sequel to the pedal-on-the-floor madness of the iconic "Funky Shit" from The Fat of the Land - it replaces the Beastie Boys hot-take braggadocio with a soulful vocal sample, but the overall effect is eerily similar. Later, the album's title track pulls off the nifty trick of invoking NIN's "Closer" without truly aping it, another fond memory of the 90s among many that are sprinkled through the LP like life lessons throughout an after-school special.
Appreciating The Prodigy in this day and age isn't a given. For someone to commit to it fully, they would have to be aware of, and OK with, the fact that the group is still trying to perfect music for a lifestyle that all but died circa 1994. One would have to also reconcile the idea that their music has been problematic in the past, specifically "Smack My B**** Up" from The Fat of the Land which became infamous for its heavy use of misogynistic imagery, but then doubled down on that with a video that, well, didn't help its case. Appreciation of this act seems to be, at least somewhat, an act of defiance against a world that has moved on from this tone, this style, this whole aesthetic.
Mind you, I am not making a case against that appreciation, but it's easy for someone like me. All I need to do to conjure up warm feelings is to remember my anticipation for that U.S.-breakthrough album, the love affair with electronic music that it inspired and that helped me pass the time until it arrived, and then the ultimate gratification when I finally bought it and played it for the first time (at very high volume, obviously). But beyond all that, there comes a point in the lifespan of a musical act - be it a solo artist, band, crew, whatever - where refusal to change with the times becomes an act of rebellion in itself. The same quality can be said to be a reflection of creative staleness or an overall lack of care for the craft, but perhaps after a certain point it becomes a mark of supreme integrity in one's own vision.
Love it or hate it, they are in it for the long haul and there are No Tourists allowed on The Prodigy's bus.