Record companies love to ignite new buying trends. For decades, label execs have relied on blustery hype to spur those trends. When a musical fad begins to show signs of having exhausted its profitability, as grungy alternative rock did a year or two ago and as hard rock did when grunge first appeared in 1991, the suits in charge of big-label bottom lines quickly find a new musical style to espouse. Last year they came up with electronica and told us all it was the next big thing.
But so far electronica has not plugged in to the mainstream. With a few exceptions, notably the Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, and Prodigy, the genre has failed to turn on more than a fraction of the U.S. record-buying public. And unfortunately, in the labels' quest for the almighty dollar, some bands were lumped into the category against their will, and quite possibly against better judgment. The members of Prodigy, in particular, crackle with emotion whenever the word electronica is mentioned.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about us," says the group's MC, Maxim Reality, on the phone from Washington, D.C., just before a gig there. "We're not part of any 'electronica.' We weren't created overnight by the media or record companies just so they could market us in America. We've been going for seven and a half years. It's important for us to say, 'This is Prodigy -- not what you read in the papers.' We've got a million more shows to do before people know what we're about."
And just what is Prodigy about? According to Maxim, "We're about closeness to people. We like to play venues where people can feel the dynamics of the sound and understand that that's what it's about. It's about getting a buzz between the four of us and between us and the crowd. It helps you release something. Personally, it helps me release my anxiety. It triggers something in me. Young people need to release, and when you come to a Prodigy show that's what you do."
They don't have a new album this year, but Prodigy is touring America anyway because, as Maxim tells it, performing live is simply What They Do. The four-man dance-music act (Maxim, dancers/MCs Leeroy Thornhill and Keith Flint, and classically trained composer Liam Howlett) from Sussex, England, toured the States extensively last year on the strength of its third album, The Fat of the Land (Maverick), which has now sold seven million copies worldwide (two million in this country alone).
Prodigy came out of England's early-Nineties rave scene, a youth-culture underground comparable in terms of scope, autonomy, and drug consumption to the late-Sixties American rock scene. Early Prodigy singles such as "Charly" and "Everybody in the Place" (both released in 1991 on the XL label, which went on to handle all of Prodigy's subsequent U.K. releases) sold well and charted high with scant mainstream airplay. "Music-industry people expect you to change," says Maxim. "People told us, 'You have to do the radio stations, you have to do TV, you have to do Top of the Pops, and then maybe you'll have a number-one record.' We said, 'We're not doing any of that.' Radio One refused to play our records. But we [eventually] brought people around to our way of thinking."
Prodigy's early U.K. successes earned them a stateside contract with Elektra, who released the group's first album, The Prodigy Experience, in the United States in 1992. That same year, the label brought Prodigy over for its first American tour. Coinciding as it did with the raucous guitar-rock explosion out of Seattle and with the rise of West Coast gangsta rap, the tour was, by all accounts, a resounding failure. "We were a bit naive about the music industry and the way things work," Maxim remembers. "We were also naive about music. We just listened to dance music. Around our third year , we said, 'Hold on, there's a lot of different music out there.' We got into guitar music, into hip-hop, and took on different inspirations. We got a harder edge out of those."
Indeed, 1993 was the year that Prodigy broke away from the dance-music pack. Howlett's arrangements offered a greater depth of field than most house and techno hits, which don't seem designed for attentive listening. In his mature phase, Howlett's mastery of technique -- the subtle interplay between loud and soft, fast and slow, melodic and heavy, and among dozens of repeating rhythms -- made for singles that were less like pop tunes than aural action films.
Unfortunately Prodigy was hitting its stride at the same moment that the ever-fickle English music press was deciding that the group's time had passed. "I don't know if it's because England is so small," says Maxim of British music magazines, "but everybody wants to be the first to break this or that and the first to slag it and put it down. So they can say, 'We said it was rubbish first; now everybody's saying it.' It's schizophrenic." But Prodigy managed to outsmart the doubting scribes -- or rather, the band let them outsmart themselves. "They were saying Prodigy is this and Prodigy is that," recalls Maxim. "So we said, 'Let's do a single and not put our name on it and see how it goes.'"
That single, "One Love," was released on a plain white label in the summer of 1993 under the pseudonym Earthbound and was very warmly received. When Prodigy revealed that they and hot new stars Earthbound were, in fact, one and the same, all talk of their has-been status ceased. "That," says Maxim of the whole affair, "is a prime example of the way the press is over there."
Prodigy's second album, Music for the Jilted Generation, was released in the United States by Mute in 1995 (Elektra had dropped the band, citing poor sales). The album sold a million copies worldwide but did not reach the mainstream American audience. When Prodigy's introduction to that crowd finally came, it was in the context of the major labels' concerted effort to market a number of disparate European dance-music acts under a single banner. As Maxim remembers it, "Certain elements of the music industry wanted to re-create the rave scene and call it electronica." American music fans had good reason to be cynical about this reportedly impending craze. It was clearly less of an actual shift in taste than an attempt to manufacture a record-buying frenzy like the one incited unexpectedly in the early Nineties by Nirvana.
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From Prodigy's point of view, being featured in stories about the making of a pop movement (the group was signed in early 1997 by Madonna's label, Maverick, after a highly publicized bidding war) skewed the American public's perception of their music for the worse. "Some [of the so-called electronica acts] might think it's good for their career to be lumped together in one category," Maxim continues. "For others, you think of your music as being unique and as being the best -- able to stand on its own feet." Obviously, Prodigy falls into this latter camp. Of their situation, Maxim explains, "It would be like if you were a solo songwriter and they put you in the same category as Cliff Richard. You wouldn't like it!"
Given that Prodigy's U.S. debut outside the dance-music realm was the video for their 1997 hit "Firestarter" -- an extremely flashy, garishly costumed affair -- it can be hard to accept their image as pugnacious heroes of the underground. With their interracial mix, outrageous hairdos, and rap/rock/house hybrid, Prodigy appeared prepackaged for an image-hungry audience. But Maxim insists that that's not the case. "It's not a marketing ploy," he says. "The way Keith looks, the way I look, it's just us. We don't have a stylist! I don't have anybody who dresses me. We're not the Spice Girls."
Asked how, then, he cultivated his look (Maxim generally appears in a kilt, with oddly colored contact lenses and a dental make-up scheme that he refers to as "creme teeth"), the MC replies, "Music opened up something inside me that allowed me to go up on-stage and express myself. Our audience has given me the right to do that. They've said, 'Yes, we want you to be yourself and to give me some of that back.'" And no matter how the group comes off on TV or in the press, says Maxim, on-stage they shake off the categorizations and generalizations. "It's Prodigy music and nothing else.... We live this." As for the naysayers, Maxim is confident Prodigy's live show will change their opinion of the band: "It's easy for an outsider to talk, but let them see the show."
Prodigy performs with opening acts Meat Beat Manifesto, Josh Wink, Monk & Confucious, and approximately twenty others at a pre-Zen Festival, Saturday, June 27, at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 305-358-7550. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets cost $30 in advance, $35 the day of the show.