Electronica was all the rage (all the rave?) in 1997. The Orb, Chemical Brothers, Orbital and more were hitting new highs. U2 was hot for electronica, and rock bands began incorporating new beats into their songs. Nobody crossed the boundaries between rock and dance better than Prodigy (formerly, The Prodigy) on their 1997 commercial breakthrough Fat of the Land. Leader Liam Howlett and his gang of backing miscreants struck gold with their genre-bending third record. Dancer Keith Flint had risen to to a frontman position, sneering his way through tracks like “Firestarter” all the way up the charts. His green bi-hawk and facial piercings made him an unforgettable music video mainstay. The group’s MC Maxim Reality had two lead vocals on the album including smash hit “Breathe”. Dancer Leeroy Thornhill, well, he just kept on dancing!
Commencing with the controversial third single “Smack My Bitch Up”, this album opens with a bang. Based on a sample from “Give the Drummer Some” by Ultramagnetic MCs, the group were forced to defend the vocal hook: “Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up.” Insisting they were not misogynists, Howlett said it means to do “anything intensely”. The music certainly is that, with rapid beats and sound assaulting the sense from the get-go. Then it goes raga at the halfway point, intertwining genres beyond recognition. MTV pulled the video, only for it to win two awards in ’98.
“Breathe” featuring Flint and Maxim on vocals was selected as the second single. This pounder boasts a Brian Downey drum fill from Thin Lizzy’s “Johnny the Fox Meets Jimmy the Weed” (immediately obvious, but only after you’ve been told it’s there). Coupled with rapid bass, swishing swords, record scratches n’ clanging hooks, there’s also a cool wacka-jawacka guitar sample on the verses. Despite the awkward hook of “psycho-somatic addict-insane,” the song is beyond catchy.
Kool Keith handles lead vocals on the slower, forceful “Diesel Power”. It’s just an ode to the love of making music. “Build with skill, with technique, computer A-DAT, My lyrical form is clouds on your brainstorm.” Clever internal rhymes and relentless rapping form the main hooks while Liam Howlett lays back with the music. Had there been a fourth single, “Diesel Power” would have been perfect, bringing in rap fans to hang with the rock.
“Funky Shit” is what it says, bearing the main hook of “Oh my God it’s the funky shit!” Beats and samples form a cool track that sounds like something from a 90s action movie or video game. Moving on to a pounding “Serial Thrilla”, this one creates a heavy tune with nothing but beats, samples and sneers. Try bangin’ your head to it for some genre-bending action. Keith Flint does the lead vocal: “Damage destructor, crowd disruptor, you corruptor, every timer.” Nothing fancy, but still sticks to your brain like supersonic electronic peanut butter.
Side two: the sound of a jammed computer leads into the exotic “Mindfields”, with Maxim back on lead vocals. The main keyboard hook is backed by beats and samples designed to enhance. Then we’re into the centerpiece of the album, a nine minute dance epic called “Narayan” with Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker singing and co-writing. Sounding a lot like a Kula Shaker remix, this track is as close to standard song structures as they get on the album. Mills’ smooth voice and knack for an exotic melody works as the perfect foil for Prodigy’s layers of beats and samples. “OM, Namah, Narayana” goes the Indian-sounding chorus, a sound that Mills also frequently brings into Kula Shaker.
For some, the centerpiece will not be the epic, but will be the smash 1996 hit: “Firestarter”. Infamously covered by Gene Simmons, this breakout hit became what it is because of Flint’s snotty vocals, pounding bass, and catchy samples. What is understood need not be discussed: this hit was destined to be. But after all that smashing and grabbing, “Climbatize” enters the scene with stuttery Van Halen-like distortion and a soft keyboard hook. Jungle beats and ominous keyboards distinguish this track from the others.
The closing track is the heaviest. “Fuel My Fire”, an L7 cover with Flint on lead vocals and “Gizz Butt” (Graham Butt) on guitar. There’s a cool keyboard hook to go along with the incessant, noisy rocking. This second shortest track on the album is overcharged with electronic buzz and standard rock-like drums. A brilliant closer to an album that is more of a journey than you’d expect at first glance.
Indeed, Fat of the Land cannot be distilled down to the sum of its parts. While not overly challenging, it does layer beats and samples in such as way as there is always some form of hookiness at work. There are a variety of tracks, both instrumental and vocal. By the end of it, you’ll feel like you’ve been on an adrenaline-fueld, surrealistic excursion. A weird jungle-y acid trip through the transistors of the past.