The birth of our underground brand Factory 93 not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crate series, we’ll be breaking out both seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
“I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator…”
From the opening line, the Prodigy’s 1996 single “Firestarter” was an openly hostile provocation.
With Keith Flint’s snarling vocals set over producer Liam Howlett’s menacing grind of breakbeats and finely crafted samples, the track signaled the Prodigy’s bold salvo beyond the rave scene and onto the music world at large.
It was also a sterling example of timing being everything.
The wild and fertile rush of early ‘90s rock and hip-hop had settled into mainstream major label commodities. The authentic danger of acts like Nirvana and NWA was all but gone, replaced by glossy, diluted approximations that better fit radio and MTV playlists. Youth around the world (primarily in America) were hungry for something new and genuinely threatening, and the Prodigy provided it in abundance.
The band represented the darker, more hardcore side of rave culture that was rarely celebrated or even chronicled. The menacing rush of the scene’s seedy underbelly was a far cry from the smiley-faced euphoria emphasized in the media. It was a scene the Prodigy eagerly embraced.
“They were insane. Just drug-fuelled, ecstasy-fuelled, a real laugh,” Howlett recalled of the band’s early shows to The Guardian back in 2004. “We used to do nine or 10 songs with Keith and (band member) Leeroy (Thornhill) dancing. You turned up at the rave, it was run by gangsters, you didn’t know whether or not you were going to get paid. They were full of characters, people who were completely twatted. It was an adventure.”
“The band represented the darker, more hardcore side of rave culture that was rarely celebrated or even chronicled.”
So, when the Prodigy matched their hardcore rave-honed sound with the catchy, arena-rock hooks and crushing guitars of “Firestarter,” it wasn’t long before it raced to the top of the British singles chart. It also generated something of a cultural divide, infiltrating the national conversation, due to the song’s unbridled intensity.
“I’m glad to have been part of that if it is the case, because I can’t actually remember another record that has come out of nowhere to get like that,” Howlett remembered while talking to Clash. “Not even Radio 1 would play it—they were like, ‘No way, no fucking way.’ It actually got there on the buzz of the band and street level, which doesn’t happen now.”
While the mainstream was fast to jump on the Prodigy bandwagon, the rave act’s new rush of success was not something the dance scene was at all happy to accept. It’s a status Howlett could care less about, always ready to fire back at a scene that never truly considered the band as one of its own.
“I sound like my dad, but it’s fucking music by numbers,” he seethed in the Guardian inteview about mainstream dance music. “The lack of imagination does my brain in. Like, if I’m in a petrol station and the dude pulls in with his fucking shades and his nice shirt and his car stereo playing his Ibiza music, it just fucking irritates me. They’re so fucking annoying.”
“Firestarter” incorporated bits and pieces from Art of Noise (“Close [to the Edit]”), Ten City (“Devotion”), and the Breeders (“S.O.S.”).
“I became friends with Kim Deal, and she allowed me to use a part of her record, which was great,” he told Spin about his connection with the Breeders’ singer. “She’s a great girl; I love that Kim does what she’s always done, she’s a real rock and roll spirit, she’s the real deal.”
While the track’s crash collision of sound fueled the angsty energy, it was the stark, black-and-white video that really sold the song—particularly in America. Set in a dank underground tunnel, Flint leered at the camera in a shirt that recalled the American flag, as Howlett looked on stoically in the background.
The band had retooled their sound and image into a reflection of what was missing in mainstream music culture: larger than life, passionate, angry, and simultaneously grotesque and beautiful—all the makings of a genuine sensation.
A showing on England’s Top of the Pops generated more outrage, even leading to the clip being temporarily banned.
The Prodigy takeover hit its peak in 1997 with the release of the full-length Fat of the Land, which contained “Firestarter” and other provocative hits, including “Breathe” and “Smack My Bitch Up.” It would be the first electronic album to hit #1 on the US Billboard 200 album chart.
Nominated for the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album in 1998, Fat of the Land would eventually lose the award to Radiohead’s OK Computer.
“It’s a bit of a bold statement, but the Prodigy should be seen as an important cultural band, as important as Oasis or Blur or any of that shit,” Howlett stated defiantly in 2015. “Britpop was not a culture, as such. I dunno what I’m after… it’s not like I’m after more respect, and I don’t wanna pop up on a few more TV programmes, saying ‘The Prodigy did this!’ I’m just telling people now that, yeah, I think we are important. When you trace the lines back to the Sex Pistols, the Clash, we are in that line.”
One that Howlett is not so fond of, however, comes courtesy of notorious KISS bassist, Gene Simmons, found on his 2004 solo album, Asshole.
“It was fucking awful. They carbon copied the music beat by beat,” Howlett told Dazed and Confused in 2014. “It was a joke. My missus is a huge KISS fan, and I was more excited about telling her than him actually doing it. She was like, ‘You’re joking, he’s the original firestarter.’ I said ‘Don’t be ridiculous, there’s no way he can kick that up a notch’. When we watched it, she said, ‘Oh, that’s fucking shit.’ It’s so bad.”