In 1997 the world waited impatiently for what was to become the Nevermind of dance. Did Prodigy’s The Fat Of The Land in fact come close to the next wonder of the world?
In his (pre)teen years Liam Howlett, keyboard player and composer, had taken piano lessons and he stood out for being able to quickly master heavy and difficult piano pieces. He saw his future in music from a very early age. In 1989 he met dancer Keith Flint at a rave (dance party), where Howlett DJ’ed. At Flint’s request Howlett compiled a mix-tape of his owns songs. The cassette contained the name Prodigy, named after the analog Moog Prodigy synthesizer, from that moment on the name Howlett used as a moniker. The tape was loved so much, that in 1990 The Prodigy was formed, with the addition of keyboard player Leeroy Thornhill. Quickly both MC Maxim and the female dancer and vocalist Sharky joined the group (Sharky left in 1991).
The band started performing and quickly signed a deal with the XL Recordings label. In 1991 What Evil Lurks (an EP), Charly (single) and Everybody In The Place (single) were released. Both singles were met with great enthusiasm in the UK. On September 28th, 1992, the debut album Experience was released.
The success was overwhelming, Experience was even certified platinum (in the UK). Not bad for a debut. But, the band wanted to move on and didn’t want to be associated with “kiddie rave” anymore. Howlett started writing new, much heavier, music, resulting in 1993’s One Love single, a prelude to what 1994 was to bring.
On July 4th, 1994, the second album Music For The Jilted Generation was released, which entered the UK album charts at position 1. At the time I wasn’t really into dance (except for The Chemical Brothers), but when I was at my friend Bram’s house by the end of 1994, he made me listen to this album. It was a turnaround moment for me: what a record! A defining moment for me personally in my relationship with dance in my life, which I started to value more and more and started buying frequently. But, Music For The Jilted Generation is a benchmark to this very day. An indescribably brilliant album!
From then on I followed The Prodigy religiously, I welcomed the release of the singles Firestarter and, particularly, Breathe with open arms. Exciting and funky: dance with hip-hop and punk influences? The singles got attention all over the world, in the US as well, the market Prodigy wanted to conquer. The music world longed for new Prodigy product.
The singles carried the name Prodigy (without The) with the ant logo, which the band would use from then on.
The Fat Of The Land
By the time the album arrived on June 30th, 1997, it immediately became the fastest selling record ever in the UK. It also sold over 200,000 copies in its first week in the US. Even more: the album entered the charts in both countries at the first position. This was going to be massive. With over 10 million sales it is Prodigy’s biggest success story and it still is one of the best sold dance albums of all time.
The album contains 10 songs, two of which had been out there for quite some time (the singles Firestarter and Breathe), but Funky Shit was also well known amongst fans, as the band played it live as early as 1994. On top of that, the albums ends with a cover of a L7 song, Fuel My Fire. So, actually, ‘just’ 6 new songs.
What stands out are the vocals, Keith Flint, whose delivery slightly resembles Johnny Rotten’s, can be heard on an album for the first time. At times, The Fat Of The Land is a perfect cross between dance and (punk)rock. The album’s sound in general stands out as well, everything just sounds grand. The influence didn’t limit itself to rock, the album possesses a distinct hip-hop feel as well.
The album title is plucked from a Bible passage (Genesis 45:18), where ‘the fat of the land’ is used as a metaphor for life in abundance.
Alex Jenkins, art director with XL Recordings, was initially tasked with the cover design by designing and photographing a döner kebab, where the album’s name was burned onto. At the eleventh hour Howlett rejected the cover.
A slight panic ensued, for there was little time at hand. By accident, Jenkins stumbled upon a photo of a Gecarcinus Lateralis, a crab, shot by the German photographer Konrad Wothe. The crab’s left claw was enlarged to give the idea the crab was giving an ‘up the establishment’ sign.
In the album booklet a painting of artist JAKe is printed, portraying the four band members.
Of course, an album is only truly successful if controversies arise around the performers or the album. Preferably both. This album didn’t disappoint.
The black-and-white video for Firestarter was recorded in an abandoned subway tunnel in London Aldwych. After the Firestarter clip had been shown on the English pop show Top Of The Pops for the first time, the BBC was bombarded with complaints, questions were asked at the House Of Commons and media campaigns like “Ban This Sick Fire Record” were initiated. Top Of The Pops requested another video, but the band refused.
The video was deemed highly inappropriate for children, due to Keith Flint’s ‘deranged’ behavior in the video. Flint: “I wasn’t trying to say, ‘look at me, I’m Satan!’ But certainly I’m not nice, We’re everybody’s dark side”.
In the booklet with the album the following text was spread over its pages.
We have no butter,
but I ask you
Would you rather have butter or guns?
Shall we import lard or steel?
Let me tell you
Preparedness makes us powerful.
Butter merely makes us fat.
The booklet doesn’t mention it, but the text is taken from a 1936 speech by Nazi official Hermann Göring. It was the introduction of his 5 year economic plan, resulting in Nazi Germany’s transformation to a huge military force.
An error or an (extra) intended provocation? Liam Howlett had this to say:
Do you know where that came from? This is actually like a Nazi quote. It’s like Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right hand man. This is the quote he made during the war. Now a lot of people have picked up on this in England. You can imagine what the press have been like, “Oh the Prodigy are Nazis…” All this crap, you know. To simply answer that question: yes, the quote is a Nazi quote and no, we’re not Nazis. Obviously we’ve got two black guys in the band. So to even suggest that is totally brainless anyway. To be honest, that quote is like me using a sample. I look upon that quote as like a sample. I take it out of its original context, put it in my own context and it means something completely different. I look at that quote and that’s like a b-boy quote. That’s like someone out of a hip-hop scene could have said that. And that’s the reason I used it ’cause it’s a totally different context. It’s like a completely different thing. And it just works well. It has power and it has the right message for what we want. It has nothing to do with what it’s originally about.
To put it mildly, it’s a rather distasteful action.
Smack My Bitch Up
The song Smack My Bitch Up immediately created controversy, and even more when the band released it as a single. The lyrics contains only two lines: “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up”. For women’s organizations a “dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women”. By the way, the band didn’t even write the lyrics themselves, but sampled it from Ultramagnetic MC’s Give The Drummer Some. Anyway, the term “smack my bitch up” sounds aggressive and Prodigy’s defense sounds rather lame (“Only brainless people get some stupid message out of it”).
On August 29th, 1998, both Prodigy and Beastie Boys played the English Reading Festival. The day before Beastie Boys had requested Prodigy not to play that song, as it could be offensive to victims of domestic violence. Prodigy didn’t fulfill the request, before playing the song Maxim said: “They didn’t want us to play this fucking tune. But the way things go, I do what the fuck I want”.
And, to top it off, the band made a hyper controversial video to go along with the song, which was only aired during night time. It follows the proceedings of a night out of a heroin shooting figure, who’s aggressive, harasses women, pukes and ends up having sex. The very last image shows the main character in the mirror: a woman.
Songs in the US
In the US the album was released on Madonna’s Maverick label. By request of department store chain Wal-Mart the titles to the songs Smack My Bitch Up and Funky Shit on the cover were censored, replacing the words Bitch and Shit with the ant from the Prodigy logo. Of course, Prodigy were pissed…
The Fat Of The Land was one of the biggest albums in 1997 and is a milestone in the history of dance, if only because it played a key role in the acceptance of dance in the world of pop music. But, to be fair, I thought it was a disappointment, especially when compared to the superior Music For The Jilted Generation, an album Howlett apparently didn’t seem to like too much. When compiling this article I re-listened the album and it wasn’t easy. Smack My Bitch Up, Breathe, Firestarter and Climatize are great songs, Diesel Power, with guest rap by Ultramagnetic MC’s Kool Keith is my personal favorite.
But 5 out of 10 is a bit thin. The rest of the songs aren’t necessarily bad, but vary from a C to a B-. Both Funky Shit and Serial Thrilla are essentially okay, but outstay their welcome after 2 minutes in, as nothing new happens to those songs. Luckily, Mindfields and Narayan are better, but are no match for the songs that really make this album stand out. Fuel My Fire is a pointless addition. Quite remarkable for an album as successful as this, that just half of the songs match the level I was expecting. The Fat Of The Land was supposed to be dance’s Nevermind. It hasn’t earned that status, not by a long shot.
Three singles were culled from the album.
(released on March 18, 1996)
(Released on November 11, 1996)
- Smack My Bitch Up
(released on November 17, 1997)
- Smack My Bitch Up (featuring Shahin Badar)
- Diesel Power (featuring Kool Keith)
- Funky Shit
- Serial Thrilla
- Narayan (featuring Crispian Mills)
- Fuel My Fire (featuring Saffron)
1: Liam Howlett, Cedric Miller, Trevor Randolph, Maurice Smith, Keith Thornton / 2: Liam Howlett, Keith Flint, Keith Palmer / 3: Liam Howlett, Keith Thornton / 4: Liam Howlett, Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch / 5: Liam Howlett, Keith Flint, Leonard Arran, Deborah Dyer / 6: Liam Howlett, Keith Palmer / 7: Liam Howlett, Crispian Mills / 8: Liam Howlett, Keith Flint, Kim Deal, Anne Dudley, Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Jonathan Jeczalik, Paul Morley / 9: Liam Howlett, Timothy Taylor / 10: Donita Sparks, Peter Jones, Ross Knight, Bill Walsh (L7 cover)
- Liam Howlett – keyboards, synthesizers, sampling, programming
- Keith Flint – vocals on Breathe, Serial Thrilla, Firestarter, Fuel My Fire and dance
- Maxim Reality – vocals on Breathe, Mindfields and dance
- Leeroy Thornhill – dance
- Matt Cameron – drums
- Jim Davies – guitar on Breathe, Firestarter
- Shahin Badar – vocals on Smack My Bitch Up
- Kool Keith – rap on Diesel Power
- Crispian Mills – vocals on Narayan
- Saffron – vocals on Fuel My Fire
- Gizz Butt – guitar on Fuel My Fire
After The Fat Of The Land
Following The Fat Of The Land‘s release everybody and the world wanted to cooperate with Howlett, who was deemed the next wunderkind of pop. Among them was Madonna, but Howlett not only turned her down, but everybody else as well. After a lengthy tour (I saw the band perform in May 1998), Prodigy released a DJ mix album by Howlett, 1999’s The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One. That same year Thornhill left the band and sometime later the band’s website turned to black, only to reveal the band logo and the words “We will be back…”. Was Prodigy’s reign over already?
2002 saw the release of the ill-received single Baby’s Got A Temper. On August 23, 2004, the fourth Prodigy album Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was released, which did pretty well in the UK. In 2005 the compilation album Their Law: The Singles 1990–2005 was released, followed by re-releases of Experience and Music For The Jilted Generation in 2008. On February 21, 2009, the fifth studio album, Invaders Must Die, was released, which was a success all over Europe. The album was followed by the first Prodigy live album World’s On Fire on May 11, 2011. Following the re-release of The Fat Of The Land, the album The Day Is My Enemy was released on March 30, 2015. Over 3 years later the seventh Prodigy studio album, No Tourists was released.
On March 4, 2019, Keith Flint was found dead at his home in Essex. In August 2020 Howlett said that Prodigy would continue on. On March 7, 2022, Prodigy announced their return to the stage, a 10 day tour of the UK dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the release of The Fat Of The Land.
The Fat Of The Land may be Prodigy’s most successful album, Music For The Jilted Generation is their best. What’s your take on Prodigy and The Fat Of The Land in particular?
This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: Prodigy conquered the world in 1997: The Fat Of The Land. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.