Looking back, it’s not surprising that electronic dance music made such a splash in the U.S. during the mid-1990s. The alternative rock revolution launched by Nirvana’s Nevermind had curdled into mediocrity, with bland and soulless copycat bands polluting both the charts and airwaves. Music fans were restless; they wanted something new.
Some latched on to the burgeoning alt-country movement, while others turned to the more ironic brand of indie rock offered by groups like Pavement. Then there were those who simply bided their time, waiting for that Next Big Thing.
Enter the Prodigy.
The Prodigy, already a success overseas, crashed into the American consciousness with 1997’s The Fat of the Land, part of a wave of electronic music from the UK that briefly captivated American listeners during the final years of the Clinton era. This music filled the country’s dance clubs, yes, but it didn’t stop there. You heard it at fraternity parties and on movie soundtracks. You saw the videos on MTV. It even got its own cute marketing name: “Electronica”.
Mainstream interest in electronic dance music died down pretty quickly, and it wouldn’t catch fire again until the latter half of the 2000s. But the initial burst allowed acts like the Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers to sell a ton of records.
The Fat of the Land was one of the bigger hits, selling 2.8 million copies in the U.S., and many current American EDM artists cite it as their own Rubber Soul. The album — a frenzy of hip-hop swagger, buzz-saw synths and a few snarling vocal turns by Keith Flint, who sounds a bit like Johnny Rotten might if possessed by the devil — has just been reissued in a 15th anniversary package that features the original tracks and a slew of remixes by today’s EDM stars.
So how do the songs hold up a decade and a half later? Pretty well, for the most part. The Prodigy’s attack was always visceral rather than cerebral, and most of the tracks still land like a karate chop to the neck. None more so than the controversial opener “Smack My Bitch Up”, which was accused by some of being misogynistic back in the day because of the oft-repeated title phrase. The lyric, which was sampled from a rap song by the Ultramagnetic MCs, is juvenile and stupid, an unfortunate blot on what otherwise remains a galvanizing piece of dance music.
The record’s other singles, “Breathe” and “Firestarter”, still seethe with menacing power. And the adventurous “Climbatize” weaves everything from animal-like chirps to Eastern horn sounds into a hypnotic groove. Here was a tune that showed how the Prodigy could deliver more than muscular dance beats.
A few of the songs creak a bit with age. “Diesel Power”, which includes a vocal by Kool Keith, sounds generic and outdated. “Fuel My Fire”, the Prodigy’s reworking of an L7 song, makes you long for the unadorned punk fury of the original. Overall, though, this key document of late 1990s pop culture holds its own in the 21st century.
Of course, longtime fans of the Prodigy probably know all that already. For them, the interest will lie in the six remixes included with this reissue. The remixes come from current EDM heroes, which seems like an effort to give this “old” music a contemporary sheen. Honestly, they needn’t have bothered. There’s some interesting stuff in the remixes, but they’re hardly essential listening, and they don’t surpass the originals.
Both Noisia and Major Lazer take swings at “Smack My Bitch Up”. Noisia adds a lurching, booming break to the middle of the song, while Major Lazer delivers a slightly more playful take. Zeds Dead, meanwhile, provides a jarring overhaul of “Breathe” that includes a faster techno-style drumbeat and periodic explosions of bass-heavy synths — for my money, it’s the most memorable remix here. The other remixes come from Baauer (“Mindfields”), the Glitch Mob (“Breathe”) and Alvin Risk (“Firestarter”).
The reissue of The Fat of the Land is available on CD and vinyl, though the vinyl version doesn’t contain the remixes. (Those songs are available on vinyl separately as The Added Fat EP.) It’s a decent package, particularly for younger EDM fans, who can now find out just how the geezers used to do it.