20 Albums 20 Years Later

The Prodigy Brought EDM To A Mainstream Audience, But Not Without Controversy

The Prodigy’s “The Fat of the Land” turns 20 this year.

20 Albums 20 Years Later remembers and explores the music that touched us back then and still resonates today. Join A Plus as we take another listen to albums released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions not only to the charts but to our lives.

In 1997, the SpiceGirls released SpiceworldBe Here Now by Britpop darlings Oasis became the U.K.'s fastest-selling album, and The Prodigy's controversial Fat of the Land debuted at No. 1 in 20 countries, including in the U.S. Produced by Liam Howlett (who co-founded the group with frontman Keith Flint), Fat of the Land was the band's third album, following Music for a Jilted Generation. It refined their mix of break beat, industrial, rave, drum-n-bass, hip-hop, and punk into a combustible hybrid that was as loud, noisy, confrontational, and hedonistic as the sum of its parts, and appealed to wide audiences. As Liam told NME magazine in 1996, "We're a dance band with a rock attitude. That what sets us apart. We absorb hip-hop and dance beats, and rock attitude, plus the same energy and hard impact. That's The Prodigy sound." 

That sound helped the band sell more than 300,000 units in its first week in the U.K., and enter 1999's Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest selling dance album at that time in the country. Given the fervor with which rock fans in previous generations scorned dance music, 1997's The Prodigy-inspired meeting of the tribes represented a deep paradigm shift. Suddenly, it seemed, it was cool for serious rock fans to get down alongside disco's decadent progeny. All, however, did not embrace the renegade band and its mission statement. Several activists, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), protested the band's lyrics and questioned its intent. The group was already popular in the U.K. and in underground circles for classics like 1992's "Charly Says." Fat of the Land's maverick sound and the outrage it generated made them worldwide stars and brought rave culture to the masses. Controversy and all, Fat of the Land earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance, the first of two in its history. 

The album wasn't just a turning point for The Prodigy, it also stimulated the industry at large. Revenue from Fat of the Land helped turn indie label XL Recordings into a powerhouse, now home to superstars like Adele, Beck, Tyler the Creator, and the White Stripes. The electronica wave it pushed also drove sales of CDs and concert tickets, just as the download revolution was creeping up on record labels. Underground DJ culture crossed over to the mainstream charts via The Prodigy's peers Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, the Crystal Method, and Groove Armada, as well as French acts Daft Punk and Air. Superstars Madonna (influenced by dance clubs), and Britney Spears (influenced by Madonna), sought out remixes from electronica artists and producers. Despite the hype and attention, The Prodigy — by now attracting celebrity fans such as Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Bono to their after-parties — famously refused collaboration requests from legends David Bowie, Madonna, and U2. The pressure ultimately caused dancer and keyboardist Leeroy Thornhill to quit, leaving Liam, Keith Flint, and Maxim as the band's core members.

“Firestarter”

"Firestarter," released in March 1996, was Prodigy's first No. 1 hit in the UK. Featuring samples from "S.O.S." by indie rock band the Breeders, "Devotion" by house icons Ten City, and "Close (To the Edit)"  by Trevor Horn's Art of Noise, "Firestarter" captures Liam and the band's ability to synthesize disparate style into a mind-blowing and body-rocking new sound. Several artists, including Gene Simmons of Kiss, have covered "Firestarter." The video, filmed at an abandoned London metro tunnel, gave audiences their first look at front man Keith Flint's new persona as a modern primitive cousin to Batman's Joker.

“Breathe” (video below) and “Smack My B**** Up”

Much of the controversy surrounding Fat of the Land centered on "Smack My Bitch Up," the album's third single released in November 1997 after U.K. chart-topper "Breathe." Its titular hook and singular lyric samples Kool Keith on "Give the Drummer Some" by his former group, Ultramagnetic MC's. Critics accused the band of glamorizing domestic violence and drug abuse. The Prodigy responded that the song and hook refer to the struggle of overcoming personal demons. The video, which chronicles a night of debauchery, reveals its protagonist is a woman in the end, but the twist was not enough to quell complaints. In addition to women's and family organizations denouncing it, author Will Self called it "a bizarre mix of disgust and arousal." Even hardcore party advocates the Beastie Boys, who were playing before The Prodigy at 1998's Reading Festival, asked them to exclude the song from their set. The Prodigy, predictably, refused. Proving they weren't heartless, the band did change the original cover art for the single, which featured a Volkswagen Beetle wrapped around a lamp post out of respect for the death of Princess Diana in a car crash three months earlier. The release of the single was also delayed to allow the public time to mourn.

“Diesel Power”

"Diesel Power," a break beat slow-roller, was written by and features Kool Keith, the source of the infamous sample for "Smack My Bitch Up." Keith was asked to contribute by Flint, who was a big fan of the shapeshifting and enigmatic MC. Released in January 1997, there are allegedly only five copies of this promo on 12-inch acetate (used for pressing vinyl).

“Funky S***”

Before Beastie Boys were asking The Prodigy to tone things down, they were fine with the band sampling the opening of "Root Down" for "Funky Shit," which adds rave effects and punk energy to the original funky jam.

Prior to 1997, the music press had hyped — and fans had anticipated — an electronica takeover of pop culture. While the prediction was premature by over a decade, The Prodigy made the possibility a tangible reality, paving the way for electronic dance music (EDM) to conquer pop culture in 2012, when acts such as Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, and Calvin Harris started selling out festivals and landing at the top of Forbes' money-maker charts. The Prodigy, who helped bring EDM dreams to fruition, continue recording and touring, and their appeal hasn't waned. They released several albums in the 2000s, some of which topped U.K. charts. As recently as 2005, they received their second Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance Album for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. In 2015, they released their sixth studio album, The Day is My Enemy, and toured Europe and the U.K. with (cheekily enough) Public Enemy.

Time is supposed to heal wounds. When Fat of the Landdropped in 1997, sensibilities were hurt. Twenty years later, The Prodigy's block-rocking beats still pack a punch, but we're not as sore. As Kool Keith raps on "Diesel Power," Prodigy's Fat of the Land — beyond the hits – still "blows your mind drastically, fantastically."

Fat of the Land is available on AmazonGoogle PlayiTunes, and Spotify.

Cover image: Instagram / XL Recordings / Maverick Records

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