Since Keith Flint, lead vocalist for The Prodigy, was born on this day in history – September 17, 1969 – I have decided to revisit the album that landed this UK electronic, hardcore rave band on the radar of college students across the U.S. – The Fat of the Land – which was released on June 30, 1997. The Fat of the Land is included in the book “1,001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die,” so let’s find out why I agree with that listing.
The first time I ever heard The Prodigy, I was sitting in my North Carolina apartment during the summer of 1997 watching MTV (back when the channel played actual music videos). The electronic synth loop of “Firestarter” started off in a way that really caught my attention, and then you saw Flint – with an inverted mohawk, wearing a US flag sweater and heavy eyeliner – standing in what appeared to be an abandoned subway underground tunnel. It was something that I had never heard nor seen before, and then the beat dropped. I was forever hooked.
The Prodigy’s hardcore punk/rave sound – which uses heavy breakbeats and synthesizer-generated loops – really stood out on the music scene. To put the time period into perspective, here are some things going on musically in 1997:
- The Black Crowes played their last show on August 3.
- Missy Elliott, The Backstreet Boys, The Spice Girls, and Hanson were burning up the airwaves.
- Babyface, Celine Dion, and Eric Clapton swept up all the Grammys.
- Michael Jackson and Elton John were busily touring the world.
As you can see, the raw, underground, electronic dance music sound of founding member Liam Howlett really grabbed people’s attention (because it was so different and catchy) as well as critical praise as The Fat of the Land rocketed up the US charts. The Prodigy really put the big beat genre on the map – using heavy breakbeats that even DJ Kool Herc would proud of. They almost singlehandedly introduced a version of electronica to the masses.
“As soon as we heard electronica, we were gone,” Flint told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1997. “We’re not electronica. It’s another package you can buy if you want to buy it and maybe impress your mates for a week — that would come, and that would go. We’re going to come and keep coming. ‘The latest electronic explosion from the U.K.!’ That ain’t us. Just come and check it out. If you like energy, if you like attitude, if you like tough beats with black rhythms with a bit of soul and a bit of realness, come and check out the Prodigy.”
I’m a Firestarter; Twisted Firestarter…
The Fat of the Land is one of the greatest punk/rave/rock albums ever created, and The Prodigy’s unusual electronic/hip-hop/dub-step mashup sound took the United States by storm. While “Firestarter” is the most well-known track, my favorite is “Breathe.” Written by Howlett, Flint, and Maxim (the third part of the trio), “Breathe” starts off with an edgy synth loop, then the drums break in and crescendo up to the “…breathe with me…” beat drop. Maxim delivers one of The Prodigy’s most quoted lyrics in this song – “psychosomatic, addict, insane!” Flint’s punk rock, bad boy, mosh pit delivery also really helped sell these two hit singles, even though he seemed about as scary as a cartoon character. I couldn’t really take him seriously as a fear-inducing vocalist though; seeing his inverted Mohawk just headbanging to the beat just made me want to dance.
Open Up Your Head; Feel the Shellshock…
“Mindfields” and “Diesel Power” are two of the album’s hidden gems, in my opinion. “Mindfields” is a perfect example of dubstep production, mixing, and rising action beats. It also showcased Howlett’s rave scene background, giving us a heavy dance club feel. “Diesel Power” starts off with an eerie metallic groove, then the beat drops and just challenges you to remain still. Both songs are the kind you can just put on repeat and play non-stop. “Fuel My Fire,” “Serial Thrilla,” and “Narayan” twist and turn and wind their way through a melodic minefield of synth drops, tight loops, and classic mix/mastering. It’s almost as if you hear something new every time you listen. However, I’m not a big fan of “Climbatize” because of the bagpipe-esque loops that come in about two-thirds of the way through. It just comes across as noise with a somewhat catchy beat overlay, and I just couldn’t get past the cacophony created by the layered production.
Not Even MTV Would Play It…
One song off this album created a lot of buzz, more negative than positive, and many critics demanded it not to be played on the radio…or ever…even though it received a ton of commercial success. “Smack My B*tch Up” was the third single released off of the album, and when the band played a joint gig with the Beastie Boys in Reading, PA, they were asked not to play the song on stage – which of course they refused and played it anyway. Stores stopped selling the album completely, and MTV refused to play it for a short time. Once the channel saw how popular the song was, they caved and played a VERY edited version late at night only.
As a whole album, The Fat of the Land is an amazing electro-synth dance journey through the minds of Howlett, Flint, and Maxim. It actually holds the Guinness World Record for being the fastest-selling UK album in history. It’s a must-listen, iconic album that is just as good today as it was then. A sound way ahead of its time. We, unfortunately, lost Flint to suicide on March 4, 2019 – another musical visionary gone way too soon. After Flint’s death, social media tried to get “Firestarter” back on the radio again, using the hashtag “Firestarter4Number1.” It worked for a short time, placing the song back on the US dance charts.
The Prodigy will be featured heavily on the September 17 episode of Alternative Flashback starting at 10 pm CST, in honor of Flint’s birthday. Rest in power, Firestarter.
Recommended If You Like: The Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Fatboy Slim, Propellerheads, Basement Jaxx
Recommended Tracks: 8 (Firestarter), 2 (Breathe), 6 (Mindfields), 3 (Diesel Power)
Do Not Play: 9 (Climbatize)
Written by John V. Wood on 09/17/2020