“Voodoo People,” “Firestarter,” “Smack My Bitch Up”
Who Are They?
One of the most popular electronic acts of the ‘90s (and one of the most controversial). Also, this is Smells Like the ‘90s’ first electronic music entry—so get your rave on, folks.
In the beginning, The Prodigy was just another UK rave band. Liam Howlett recruited Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill to perform with him at clubs. After hearing Liam’s demo mix, Keith and Leeroy were in for the long haul.
The band’s first single, 1991’s “Charly,” became a huge hit in the UK rave scene, and even climbed to number 3 on the UK Singles Chart. Critics didn’t really get it, but do critics really ever get rave music?
(Fun fact: “Charly” is actually a reference to cocaine. The song samples a public information film called “Charly Says,” which resulted in critics identifying The Prodigy as “kiddie rave” or “Toytown Techno.”)
The Prodigy’s first full-length album, 1992’s Experience, made critics do a double take. With this release, the band was already beginning to distance itself from the “kiddie rave” label and move on to more seriously electronic territory. This new territory was later dubbed big beat, which is a style of electronic music characterized by heavy breakbeats and synthesizer-generated loops.
The band’s first foray into big beat was 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation. The album was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, but Liam didn’t let that get to his head. He refused to let his band appear on Top of the Pops in the UK, but as the videos for “Voodoo People” and “No Good (Start the Dance)” began receiving heavy airplay on MTV Europe, our heroes softened up to the idea of mainstream success.
“Firestarter,” the first single from 1997’s The Fat of the Land, helped The Prodigy break into the US and other overseas markets, and even earned the band a headlining spot at Lollapalooza. The Fat of the Land cemented The Prodigy as one of the most internationally successful electronic music acts, but also came with its share of controversy.
The album’s third single, “Smack My Bitch Up,” became the target of women’s rights groups due its lyrical content (the only lyrics in the song are “Change my pitch up, smack my bitch up”). The National Organization for Women claimed the song was a “dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women” (from the 1997 LA Times article "Time Warner Again Faces the Music Over Song Lyrics"). The band, on the other hand, maintained that the repeated phrase in the track simply meant “doing anything intensely, like being on stage.”
If you thought the song was offensive, then boy, are you in for a treat when you watch the music video. Widely considered to be the most controversial video in MTV history, “Smack My Bitch Up” was a first-person chronicle of an intense night out at the clubs, complete with explicit drug use, graphic nudity and abuse of both men and women. Despite the twist ending (which I will not reveal here for those who haven’t seen the video), feminist groups blasted the video for its fierce misogyny and “Smack My Bitch Up” was eventually banned from television.
After massive demand, MTV finally began airing the video again, but only showed it after midnight. You can view the full, unedited version here, but you’ll have to verify your age since it’s age-restricted. (Side note: I don’t find it that offensive, but I definitely wouldn’t let your grandma watch it.)
(Fun fact: During a performance at the 1998 Reading Festival, the Beastie Boys requested that The Prodigy not play “Smack My Bitch Up,” to which vocalist/beatboxer Maxim replied, “They didn’t want us to play this fucking tune. But the way things go, I do what the fuck I want.” The song went on to win Best Dance Video and Best Breakthrough Video at the MTV VMAs the same year.)
Leeroy left the band at its commercial peak in 1999, and The Prodigy went on a brief hiatus.
Where Are They Now?
Still playing huge festivals and recording new material.
The Prodigy reunited in 2002 and released the single “Baby’s Got a Temper” to critical disappointment. Once again, the single was accompanied by a controversial video. This one featured topless women suggestively milking cows. No, I’m not kidding (this video is also age-restricted, by the way). The lyrics also included references to the date rape drug Rohypnol, so The Prodigy was just asking for this to get banned.
The band released two more albums (2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and 2008’s Invaders Must Die) and embarked on a whirlwind tour, which included stops at festivals like Przystanek Woodstock and Download Festival.
(Fun fact: Dave Grohl played drums on the Invaders Must Die track “Run with the Wolves.”)
In May 2012, The Prodigy announced the working title of its next album: How to Steal a Jet Fighter. As of 2013, the album has yet to be released.
But Why The Prodigy?
The band debuted a few new tracks at various festivals last year, so How to Steal a Jet Fighter is a real thing. No idea when it will be released, but it should be soon.
What Does Sam Think?
I don’t mean to sound like a music elitist or anything, but I started listening to The Prodigy at a young age (probably too young, now that I think about it). The Fat of the Land was one of the CDs my mom would play in her car all the time, along with The Crystal Method’s Vegas and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. My mom is apparently a raver in disguise (proved by her trip to a Crystal Method show that turned out to be a rave).
Anyway, I grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of music, so when I got older, I never really understood why a lot of my friends had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned The Prodigy. I just assumed everyone listened to them. I mean, didn’t every kid grow up hearing “Smack My Bitch Up” on the way to the pool in the summer? No? Perhaps this explains a lot.
I can’t say that I’m an expert on electronic music—I just know what I like. After researching the bands I heard in my mom’s car, I realized most of them had one thing in common: they were all big beat electronic bands. So if you like The Prodigy, you will most likely also dig The Crystal Method, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers (I know I mentioned Massive Attack earlier, but that’s considered trip-hop).
The Prodigy just has great beats. If you ignore the controversy for a second, you can definitely see the appeal here. The Fat of the Land in particular is some heavy stuff. It’s not like the electronic music you hear today. Yeah, this band started out as a rave band, but these guys weren’t afraid to experiment later on. Of course electronic music gets a little repetitive, but I could listen to The Prodigy forever.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.