In 1997, the Prodigy hit that sweet spot in the middle of big beat, rave and industrial music, elevating them to the top of the mountain, however fleetingly.
What a difference a freakish frontman can make. As the creative force behind the Prodigy, Liam Howlett’s industrially ravey first two albums met with acclaim in his native UK, but even the 1994 record Music for the Jilted Generation, which topped the charts in his home country, barely cracked the Top 200 stateside. That all changed with a manic black-and-white music video a couple of years later. The wild-eyed Keith Flint had first goaded Howlett into transferring his club DJ skills to a bigger stage and helped co-found the Prodigy, but in previously serving merely as one of the band’s dancers, Flint had mostly only acted as stage dressing up to that point. That all changed when, with a shorn pate flanked by gelled-up devil horns and a furious, British accent-drenched vocal delivery in the video for “Firestarter,” Flint became the snarling face of a new global force that would help usher in the heyday of the big beat genre.
While the Chemical Brothers would prove more dynamic and creatively enduring and Fatboy Slim’s subtler, more eclectic approach may have been easier to swallow, the Prodigy’s 1997 smash hit The Fat of the Land is the most time-capsule-worthy of its late ‘90s big beat contemporaries. With a triad of memorable singles and aggressive music videos, which incited their fair share of pearl-clutching even at the height of Marilyn Manson’s shock-rock antics, the band’s global breakthrough album is truly a relic of its era, sounding dated in long stretches but still whipping up enough infectious kinetic energy on its heavy-hitting tracks to make for more than mere nostalgia some two decades later.
Flint’s propulsive, punkish vocals and provocative appearance may have ultimately provided the catalyst to propel the Prodigy from merely notable ravers to headliners at 1997’s Lollapalooza, but some of the The Fat of the Land’s best moments come outside of his considerable contributions. Third single “Smack My Bitch Up” simply features a looped sample of Kool Keith for its sparse but intensely controversial vocal element, and some of the album’s most compelling moments 20 years later reside on instrumental tracks like the jungle-tinged dancefloor burner “Climbatize.”
Flint’s added vocal presence (and songwriting credits on the tracks in which he sings) doesn’t always translate into strong output either. His vocal on “Serial Thrilla” feels shoehorned into the mix on one of several heavy-handed tracks that simply hasn’t aged well. But his presence far outshines the band’s other vocalist, Maxim Reality, who chimes in as backup on “Breathe” and leads “Mindfields,” which sounds so broadly of its genre that it could’ve as easily been a song by the Crystal Method. Meanwhile, guest rapper Kool Keith’s featured spot on third track “Diesel Power” saps the energy from the one-two opening salvo of “Smack My Bitch Up” and “Breathe,” his old-school rap sounding awkward against an abrasive industrial backing. Elsewhere, world music influences wade into straight-up cultural appropriation, as on Hindu chanting-infused “Narayan.”
The wild success of The Fat of the Land, which would go on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide, also came about thanks to notable songwriting contributions from the likes of the Breeders’ Kim Deal (“Firestarter”) and the Beastie Boys (“Funky Shit”), the latter of whom would get into a dispute with the Prodigy at the 1998 Reading Festival when the Beastie Boys asked them not to play “Smack My Bitch Up” because of lyrics that can obviously be seen as promoting domestic abuse (the band claims the titular phrase simply refers to “doing anything intensely”). That track would stoke such controversy that MTV would only play its explicitly hedonistic music video late at night and both Wal-Mart and Kmart would remove the album from their shelves, after its presence there for the previous 20 weeks helped the band make the 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest-selling British dance album.
The Prodigy has never matched their greatest critical and commercial success, ultimately making them a bit of a one-album wonder. Thanks to their 1997 ascension, however, their subsequent releases in the 2000s, though middling, provided fodder for action movie and video game soundtracks. They can still occasionally be heard blasting through the PA systems of major sports stadiums—in one case leading to the firing of a Wrigley Field employee last year when he played “Smack My Bitch Up” upon the entrance of the Cubs closing pitcher Aroldis Chapman, an alleged domestic abuser. You are far less likely, however, to hear them on the radio. But in 1997, the Prodigy hit that sweet spot in the middle of big beat, rave and industrial music, elevating them to the top of the mountain, however fleetingly.