The Prodigy's Liam Howlett on Public Enemy and Electronic Music

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The Prodigy will headline Riot Fest on Sunday, August 30. Even before the 1996 hit “Firestarter” broke the band to U.S. audiences through heavy MTV rotation, the Prodigy was one of the biggest electronic acts of the decade. Though associated in the press with the big-beat movement, the group predated — and never really fit in with — what that music was about. Its own breakbeats and extensive use of sampled guitars gave the Prodigy an easy crossover appeal to fans of industrial music even as an aesthetic rooted in the sample-based compositional approach of hip-hop and early electro remained at its core. The band’s confrontational yet danceable music has proven to be an enduring and influential formula. We recently had a chance to talk via e-mail with founder and primary songwriter Liam Howlett about the Prodigy’s evolution, its early influences, and how transgressive music is essentially played out.

Tom Murphy: “Charly” is one of the landmark tracks of rave music. Beyond the synth tracking, it included samples from Meat Beat Manifesto and the animated short series Charly Says. Why did the use of the latter suggest itself to you?

Liam Howlett: Me and my friends were going out to raves all the time, so I wrote that tune and used that sample to do their heads in when we were off it. That sample was from a TV advert when we were kids, so I thought it would be twisted to put it in a tune. That time in music, sampling was a big part of how the tunes were created.

What kind of electronic music or underground music generally did you get to experience early in life that informed what you did with the Prodigy?

It was early electro — tunes like “Clear,” by Cybotron, and “Al Naafiysh,” by Hashim. This led on to hip-hop and Public Enemy times, and then into the rave era. [That] early electro and those Public Enemy and Bomb Squad beats really influenced me and have never left.

Music for the Jilted Generation represented a real shift in the style of music that the Prodigy was making. What was the catalyst for that change?

In 1993, I had lost my buzz for the rave scene; it had changed a lot. The band had been in L.A. when the first Rage Against the Machine album came out, and I heard that, and I guess the energy and anger resonated with me, so I went back to the U.K. and started on the Jilted album. The first tune I wrote was “Their Law.” That second album was the start of what you hear in the band still today.

It’s been said that the Prodigy has the energy, edginess and confrontational aspects of punk rock.

Well, I was too young for punk. I was into the Specials, though — they were always like the best gang I wanted to be in when I was a youth. As for punk, it’s just a label, but it’s the DIY aspect of the music that is the same. You didn’t have to be trained to make this electronic music, so I liked that.

Was the writing of The Day Is My Enemy the first time that Maxim and Keith Flint were involved in the songwriting? What facilitated that development?

It wasn’t. They were both involved in the writing of Invaders Must Die a lot, too. Before that, me and Keith had fallen out for a couple of years, so when we eventually started talking again, we were all in the studio and excited to write again. I think the first tune we wrote was “Take Me to the Hospital.”

The Prodigy has courted controversy over the years with tracks like “Smack My Bitch Up” and the video for “Baby’s Got a Temper.” What do you feel is interesting about what some people might consider transgressive in music, or in art in general?

I don’t feel it’s interesting at all; in fact, it bores me in music. It’s all been done before, and I see through it. I find it more interesting with art, though. I guess for me it’s just another way to assault the senses and freedom of speech, but it has to have a sense of wit and irony about it, too, for it to really work. Otherwise, again, it’s just dull.

Riot Fest and Rodeo
The Prodigy, 8:45 p.m. Sunday, August 30, Rock Stage, National Western Complex, $99 to $289, riotfest.org.

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