After the Onslaught

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Except for the occasional roar of jets from the nearby airport, it's so quiet in this Essex countryside that you'd have trouble picking up a reading on a noise meter.

Unless, that is, you happen to be near the house of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint, who likes the rural setting because it enables him to crank up his stereo.

"I go to London regularly, but I couldn't handle living there," says the vocalist and dancer, whose lunatic-chic hairstyle makes him the dance-rock quartet's most recognizable member.

"I wouldn't ever be able to relax. There's too much hubbub. I like a bit of land with nothing around you so that you can sit with the back door open, the sun beating down on you and the sound turned all the way up."

Liam Howlett, the band's musical designer, also finds the countryside appealing.

"I've always lived out here," he says, sitting across from his bandmate in a resort hotel lounge near their homes. "There was a time when I was younger that I couldn't wait to get to London and get a job. But that's a long time ago."

It's odd to see Howlett and Flint in such a low-key situation.

This is the band that hit pop-rock sensibilities like a punch in the face, mixing rock aggression and dance rhythms so explosively in its 1996 single "Firestarter" that the song almost single-handedly convinced the U.S. record industry that techno was the next big thing in pop.

If that industry judgment proved wrong, Prodigy itself has enjoyed tremendous success. "Firestarter"--widely hailed as one of the most influential works since Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--ignited a bidding war among U.S. labels, with Madonna's Maverick Records emerging victorious.

The band's subsequent "The Fat of the Land" album built on the momentum, selling an estimated 7 million copies around the world. Q magazine, Britain's leading pop journal, praised the collection as "a dizzy rush of pure adrenaline derived from the relentless energy of hard-core techno, white-knuckle hip-hop beats and the shock tactics of punk."

The group--which also includes vocalist-dancer Keith "Maxim Reality" Palmer and dancer Leeroy Thornhill--added to its buzz with a series of wonderfully energetic performances on the Lollapalooza tour last summer.

But the quartet made the most headlines last summer when the title of one of its songs, "Smack My Bitch Up," was considered so offensive that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the nation's largest retailer, yanked the group's album from its 2,200 stores. It's an issue that continues to hang over the group's head. The group members deny the song title was meant to be derogatory to women, but detractors insist that the language was inappropriate.

Amid all this attention, Prodigy has been strangely quiet in 1998--at least in the U.S. No new recordings. No tour dates. No videos.

But its low profile changes with a brief, 11-city U.S. tour that includes a stop Saturday at the KROQ-FM Weenie Roast & Fiesta at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

"I think it's good to take a step back for a while," says Howlett. "I don't mind [the controversy]. I always want the band to have a dangerous edge, but I don't want people to think that we are always trying to think of some new way to be outrageous . . . that we have to shock people to be successful.

"When I talk about being dangerous, I mean about taking chances in the music. . . . Experimenting, trying new things. . . . We don't want to fall into formulas, which seems to be the curse of bands. It's that kind of danger that makes a band interesting, not in creating [artificial] controversies."

One of the biggest misconceptions about Prodigy in the U.S., where the group was largely unknown until "Firestarter" became a club and MTV video favorite, is that Flint, 28, is the leader of the group. He's the Mad Max-meets-Johnny Rotten character in the center of the "Firestarter" video, and the one usually front and center in band photos.

Only Prodigy loyalists probably realize that Howlett is the musical heart--and one of the half-dozen most noteworthy musical forces in contemporary rock.

Though blessed with the unassuming air and good looks of an alt-rock star, Howlett, 26, tends to withdraw from the spotlight. He's usually lurking anonymously in the back of photos and at the rear of the stage, surrounded by mounds of synthesizers and other electronic equipment, as Flint, Palmer and Thornhill dance about energetically in front of him.

Even in interviews, Howlett tends to be soft-spoken. He doesn't dominate the conversation the way most band leaders do.

If this low-key approach has caused Howlett to be overlooked by the public, it has, inadvertently, led Prodigy fans and British journalists to view him as a slightly mythical figure. He is frequently painted in the British pop press as so intense and demanding about his studio work that he has been dubbed "The Mad Professor." When the "Fat" album was delayed for months, there were even reports of a nervous breakdown.

Howlett--who fell in love as a youngster with the raw, exotic edges of ska, rock and, especially, hip-hop music--smiles at the image of him as a man obsessed.

"Well, we all have our days," he says. "And, recording can take a lot out of you. But that's bollocks [the breakdown rumor]. It was all part of a misunderstanding regarding when the album was supposed to come out.

"When the press said the album was due out, I had written 'Firestarter,' but hadn't even started on the album. I try to never set a date for myself because that's what puts pressure on you and forces you into compromises. If you don't have a deadline, then you are free to wait until you have an album you are really proud of."

For most of his eight years with Prodigy, Howlett has lived up to that standard.

His normal recording process is experimenting in the studio for weeks or even months until he feels he has a piece of music that inspires him and helps set a direction for the album--such as "Firestarter" for the "Fat" album.

Richard Russell, president of XL Records, the band's British home base, lauds Howlett's continuing artistic determination.

"Most artists tend to think everything they do is wonderful," he says in a separate interview. "They find it hard to view their work objectively. But Liam can step outside of himself and see the situation clearly. He, too, has been able to maintain his artistic focus despite all the success he's had. To him, it really is all about the music. That's why we don't even think about a new Prodigy album until he rings us up and says he's ready."

Because it has taken longer than expected to set up a studio in his new house, Howlett is still a long way from even beginning formal work on the next Prodigy album.

Prodigy expects to introduce new tracks on the U.S. tour, possibly remixes of "Voodoo People," one of its most successful pre-"Firestarter" works, and "Serial Thrilla," a track from the last album.

Chances are that the group will continue to play "Smack My Bitch Up," which proved to be one of its most popular live numbers.

At the time of the controversy, Howlett strongly denied that the song's title was about hitting women. He said he took the title phrase from one of his favorite hip-hop records, a decade-old track by Ultramagnetic MCs titled "Give the Drummer Some," and that "bitch" has a far wider meaning than "women" in hip-hop culture. He thinks of the phrase as simply meaning achieving maximum energy or overcoming a formidable obstacle.

But Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, accused the record at the time of being "a dangerous and offensive message advocating violence against women."

Even some fans of the band agree that the title was offensive and designed to give a funky record a provocative, exploitative edge. Some journalists scoff at the notion that the title isn't meant to jar, noting that the phrase referred to a woman in the original Ultramagnetic MCs recording.

Still, Howlett defends the recording itself.

But what about Prodigy's future work? Will the controversy make the band more cautious?

"I don't think it will have any effect," Howlett insists. "We won't go out of our way to create controversy, but we also wouldn't shy away from something we believe in just because someone might get upset about it."

Madonna backed the band in the "Smack" debate, citing the issue of artistic freedom, but she was a bit peeved over another matter: Prodigy's refusal to produce her new hit "Ray of Light" album, which incorporated techno/electronic touches.

In an interview with The Times just before the album's release in March, she spoke about her search for an album producer. "I went through Tricky, Goldie and Prodigy . . . and they all basically turned their elitist noses at me and said, 'Oh, we can't work with you. You're a big pop star.' "

Says Howlett: "The reason I refused to produce her album was that I think it would send the wrong message to our fans. It might make people think we were selling out, or trying to be big pop stars. The decision had nothing to do with her artistry or her music. It just didn't feel right. We turn down collaborations all the time. Personally, it's enough of a challenge to just do our own music. That's where I want our energy directed."

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. His e-mail address is robert.hilburn@latimes.com

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