December 16th 1998
LIAM’S NEW ALBUM began life as a late-night mix on Radio 1 ’s Mary Anne Hobbs’ show. As a showcase of musical roots, from punk to ska, classic hip-hop to early rave, it is a storming panorama of big beats and B-Boy attitude. It also show cases the unique pop-culture mix which spawned the Prodigy, the molten hybrid of black and white, British, American, hardcore and soul. For a band often portrayed as professional outsiders, it is a strikingly inclusive and diverse record featuring everyone from Chemical Brothers to the Ultramagnetic MC’s, Renegade Soundwave to Digital Underground, Ghostface Killah to Primal Scream. Assembled on his home studio in just five days, the album is a throwback to Liam’s pre-Prodigy days as a teenage turntable wizard. For Howlett himself, it was also a useful way of finally flushing ’The Fat Of The Land’ out of his system and getting back to basics. But before we hail Liam’s return to a dance scene he has dissed for five years, he is keen to trash the current vogue for mix albums.
”I didn’t want to do, like, ’Ministry Of Sound Volume 98’. DJs are overrated, all they do is play other people’s music. But hip-hop DJs, people like Skratch Piklz, they’re people I respect. I’m not saying there’s not skill in building up crowds in clubs, but I don’t agree with this whole thing of DJs being stars.”
And yet this is much more of a DJ album than ’The Fat Of The Land’?
”I guess it is, yeah, but it’s more of a hip-hop album as well. I’d say 70 or 80 per cent of it is old-skool hip-hop. I never totally disliked dance culture, I just disliked parts of it. I disliked the mentality that said there wasn’t room for people to come out and be successful and be a fucking big band. It’s not really an album for the dancefloor, or for clubbers. It’s more for B-boys.”
But the dance scene has changed dramatically since ’Firestarter’. Does Liam feel any allegiance to the big-beat boom?
”Yeah, I always did. This isn’t me saying I wish I was accepted in the big-beat scene because I don’t give a fuck, but I respect the scene. I’ve always stood by the beats because that’s what I love. But I look at it and think they’ve repackaged stuff that’s not really that different to a lot of the hardcore stuff I was listening to in ’91 and ’92, it’s the same beats and the same acid sounds. It’s basically the same stuff, but I won’t slag off anyone in that scene because I respect everyone doing that music.”
”Bands like the Chemicals, they didn’t have that rave baggage so they were perceived as something new and cool, and that sometimes annoys me. Not that I want to dump my rave roots, but people have to realise I’m really doing the same stuff I did back then. It’s a heavier sound, but the basic elements and the inspiration are the same. It still comes from me listening to Public Enemy when I was 14.”
Even the revival in old-skool hip-hop makes Liam suspicious.
”It was all about respect orginally, you were a B-boy and you were part of the London street hip-hop culture,” he argues. ”Even down to thick laces – to me, you had to EARN RESPECT to wear thick laces in your shoes. It sounds stupid, but kids are walking around with shoes like that just as a fashion statement. That annoys me, they just pick up on little parts of what they like. Fair enough, I’ve got fucking bondage trousers on, so I can’t really talk. But that’s the way I think.”
Hang on. You can hardly blame 90’s hip-hop fans for being too young to pick up on Rakim or Schooly D first time around.
”No but a lot of them are my age, aren’t they? If they’re into the music, that’s great, but I’m talking about people who are into it on a surface level. People who are into Run DMC, you know what I mean? Run DMC were NEVER fucking cool! I’m sorry, they were shite. They couldn’t rap. I can pick off five tunes that were cool, some of the real old stuff, but people forget about ’Walk This Way’ which is a shit tune.”
But Run DMC mixed metal with rap, crossed over from hardcore to pop and had huge hits. Is there any really difference between them and the Prodge?
”Erm...I dunno. I think we’re cooler, to be honest. Hahaha! And we’re English, so we’ve got two bonuses straight away.”
LIAM’S ENDURING obsession with ”respect from the street” might seem unduly earnest, but it remains crucial to the Prodigy’s make-up. After all, credibility questions have dogged their progress since their novelty rave smash ’Charly’, a tune they never play these days. Which is absurd, because it’s a monster track, isn’t it Liam?
”Yeah, haha! When you hear it on the radio, it still sounds fucking cool!”
So will you be sticking ’Charly’ on the stereo at the Prodigy Christmas party?
”No. I don’t listen to any of my records. When I’m making them I listen to them so many times, and when we play live I listen to them every fucking week. That’s why we try to make different versions when we play our set. But no, once I’ve made a song, it’s out of my mind and I’m on the next thing.”
Sometimes Liam Howlett gets so concerned about credibility he commits insanely self-destructive acts, like releasing an unplayable single with a banned video. Like turning down a U2 tour and a collaboration with Madonna. One day, the Prodigy will implode under the weight of their own contradictions. And it might be sooner then they think.
”That’s what I’ve always said about this band, thought,” grins the kamikaze kommandant of suicidal cyberfunk. ”We will one day release a record that fucks us up for like. That’s just the way we are.”
FIVE RECORDS THAT SHAPED THE PRODIGY – AND LIAM’S NEW ALBUM
Coldcut: Beats And Pieces
”That was where my head was when I was doing this mix. I remember this from when I was 15. It was a buzz, a London thing. Double D & Steinski were doing it in America but it was also happening in London. It was raw and it had a good feel, like an American import. Some people would argue that it’s ’Stars On 45’, but no way, it’s street.”
The KLF: 3am Eternal
”It’s the original trance mix, which is probably one of the first tracks I heard when I was going out in 88 and 89. I remember this awesome record coming in and thinking ’What the fuck is this?’. It was almost like the UFOs were landing or something. It felt like I was in Close Encounters..., I expected to see spaceships coming down. It was such an amazing sound.”
Primal Scream: Kowalski
”I’m not really a long-term fan. ’Vanishing Point’ was one of my favourite albums of last year and ’Screamadelica’ is good, although I didn’t really like the album in between. But this latest album’s really great, particularly ’Kowalski’. I’ve met Bobby a few times, and Mani on bass is pure class.”
Ultramagnetic MC’s: Various
”Some people said they were a poor version of Public Enemy, but they always seemed more street than that. Ultramagnetics were the sound of the Bronx. Kool Keith has turned into the fifth member of the Prodigy. I just love his off-the wall lyrics. He’s the only MC that can rap about gerbils and shit like that, then drop in a cool B-boy lyric. I think it’s his flow more than his lyrics, no-one flows like him. I will work with him again, absolutely.”
Beastie Boys: Various
”No-one touches them as far as three guys on mics goes. When all three of them are together blowing on a track, there’s no finer sound. They’ve always produced bomb records, even though ’Licensed To Ill’ had a slight novelty feel about it and it took me a while to get into ’Paul’s Boutique’. I’d like to work with them, but I think that would be too obvious. But of course, anyone who writes beats would love to get Ad-Rock on a track.”