The Prodigy seemed like just more hood rats in the 1990s at a time when white Brits took so many drugs that they believed they could dance. But Experience (1992) was stronger than its hit Charly suggested and touring turned the underground club collective from Braintree in deepest Essex into a true band of the people.
Along the way, however, main man and boy genius Liam Howlett became disenchanted with dance and rediscovered hip hop.
Basically a band of like-minded mates, The Prodigy also included Maxim Reality (MC) and two dancers – the elastic Leeroy Thornhill and the electric Keith Flint.
Music For The Jilted Generation (1994) retains rave’s electronica but mixes brick-heavy beats into a synthesized symphony. Rock rears its head as well: Pop Will Eat Itself add grunge to Their Law, and Voodoo People features a riff from Nirvana‘s Very Ape.
Jilted Generation was regarded at the time as a protest against governmental attempts to clamp down on raves, but Howlett later derided the “stupid” title and denied any political intent. Nonetheless, the album paved the way for Leftfield, Underworld and Goldie to make album-length statements.
The single Firestarter (1996) ignited an inevitable backdraft of complaints that helped to fuel massive sales in both the UK and in the US where they went on to storm past contemporary rivals Oasis. The provocative lyric and unsettling video kickstarted The Fat Of The Land (1997), sending the album to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Causing controversy from the outset – “the fat of the land” is a quote from Nazi leader Hermann Goering – Prodigy upped the outrage when they released as a single the vicious Smack My Bitch Up (whose samples ranged from Andy Williams to Kool and The Gang).
The National Organisation for Women protested that it glorified violence against women, as did fellow artists Chumbawamba and Moby. A sex, drugs and vomit-spattered video (with a neat twist) added to the furore.
These shock tactics proved short term – Smack My Bitch Up even sneaked onto the soundtrack of the Charlie’s Angels remake.