By Daniel Kohn
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By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
The Prodigy keep changing their pitches up, probably not smacking bitches up
When the Prodigy holed up in a London studio last year to create their latest album, Invaders Must Die, the trio brought in journeyman guitarists and took a verse-chorus-verse approach to songwriting—a departure from their layer-cake process of sampling drum breaks and adding punkish outbursts. The sessions lasted all of two months before the three started over.
They found new inspiration in the form of the Gatecrasher festival’s “20 Years of Acid House” celebration, at which the band mates performed material both old and new. The gig changed their perspective and got them thinking about the true-school Prodigy sound—hyper-speed hip-hop, irreverent stage antics and a punk-meets-dance aesthetic for the ages.
“We said, ‘Let’s forget about the album for a little while and write tracks for this festival,’” says Prodigy MC Maxim Reality. “We know what we want to hear. That really cemented what we’re about. This is what we do.”
Some of those tracks, including “Warriors Dance,” ended up on Invaders, which debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. pop chart this spring and officially marked the return of not only rave music’s bad boys, but also rave music itself. In the past few years, the U.K. music press have been touting the band-based nu-rave renaissance in the form of acts such as the Klaxons and Late of the Pier. A liberating, symbiotic zeitgeist in dance music has also been jelling, from Kanye West’s electronic love affair to Justice’s frat-boy nu-electro. It’s all territory that has been covered, if not pioneered, by the prodigal sons from east of London.
“You get Justice and other acts, and they’re bringing a harder edge and a bit more of a cutting-edge style,” Maxim says. “A lot of people tell us, ‘You’ve influenced these bands,’ and that’s a cool thing.”
With Invaders the Prodigy return to the early-’90s spirit of air horns, baby-rattle breakbeats and cartoonish synth music. Tracks such as “Warriors Dance” and “Invaders Must Die” pay homage to their raver-as-cyberpunk DNA. At times, you’d swear Prodigy DJ Liam Howlett dug up an old ASR-10 sampler to soak up some of that Clinton-era cheese and reheat it for a new generation. But the testosterone soul that got Prodigy in hot water with 1997’s “Smack My Bitch Up” remains true to its brute muscle—mostly for the better. Dance music’s Achilles’ heel has always been its shameless, effeminate release. Prodigy now, as then, would rather kick ass than kiss it.
“We haven’t changed our style,” Maxim says. “We’re doing the same thing we always did—the attack, the energy and the beats.”
The Prodigy started as a one-man band by Howlett in 1990, although it quickly evolved into a full-fledged group with Maxim, front man Keith Flint and former member Leeroy Thornhill onboard. Maxim remembers hearing a demo—“I’m not talking about CD; I’m talking TDK,” he says—and jumping in without a plan.
“When we first started, I didn’t think it was going to last,” Maxim says. “I showed up to the first show and thought it was exciting. The guy who ran the club said we could come back and do it again. It’s been going on like that ever since.”
In 1992, the act burst out of the underground with their debut, Experience. The album’s rumbling percussion and dub-reggae flavor foreshadowed the rise of drum and bass. In 1997, the act marked another milestone by releasing the first contemporary electronic-dance-music LP, The Fat of the Land, to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s American album chart. The promise of electronic dance music, with the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method leading the rock-infected charge, was eventually buried by a chorus of teen pop and the cult of Britney.
Today, there’s a keen sense that dance music is back. There’s something electric about the new generation of faux-hawk-sporting neon punks: It pogos with abandon to the chain-saw house of Boys Noize, raves mindlessly to the sweet post-trance of Deadmau5, dances in its headspace to the nu-Madonna, Lady Gaga; and b-boys to a re-electro-fied Common. Even the likes of MSNBC and NPR have noted dance music’s return to pop’s buffet. Why shouldn’t the Prodigy—ever contenders, once champions—be at the head of the line?
“People have been more accepting of dance music in America,” says Maxim. “The kids are bringing dance music back to the forefront.”