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Classic interview - The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett: “There are too many people just sampling beats. They need to be a bit more clever”

The Prodigy 1992
(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

It's July ‘91 and that helpful black-and-ginger tomcat is back again with his screechy messages. “Mia-ow-aow-ow-oohaw!” he cries, followed by a reminder to not go out without letting your Mum know where it is you are going.

But this time Charly the cat is not on your TV screen; he’s on your radio and down at the local club, and now he’s backed by a fierce techno track.

Now it's January ‘92. We’ve managed to survive the worst that toytown house has thrown at us. Roobarb and Custard, Trumpton, Sesame Street, the Banana Splits; they’ve all been immortalised on rave tracks. But so far, the only group to have proved that there is a life after the initial novelty is The Prodigy, whose Charly started the whole trend.

Liam Howlett, the creative mastermind behind the group, knows why they’ve continued beyond one-hit status. “If we’d have tried to write another Charly,” he says, “it would have been the downfall for us; we’d have been labelled the cartoon samplers, the toytown techno group.”

Three Prodigy singles have gone top ten, Fire/Jericho missing a placing by one position thanks to premature deletion by the record label XL. The album, Experience, went silver (200,000 copies sold) in December.

With the chart successes has come criticism: some say rave and techno music has been lifted from its rightful underground roots and given too much exposure by the likes of The Prodigy.

Liam denies any blame: “We know the music and the scene really well and we try to stay true to that,” he says. “We’re not trying to commercialise the rave scene; the records get in the charts because people buy them. People say ‘Why did you put that into the charts?’ We say ‘You bought it, you put it into the charts, not us.”

Dirty W-30

Liam started making his own music back in the heady days of 1986. “I was into hip-hop music then,” he recalls. “I joined a group called Cut to Kill but down in London we didn't get the respect we deserved, ‘cause basically hip-hop is a black scene. I got fed up with that, and ended up moving to Braintree in ‘89, just as the rave scene was taking off.

“After watching N-Joi, Adamski and Guru Josh on stage, I thought ‘I can write this music myself!’ I’d already bought a [Roland] W-30 with which I was writing hip-hop stuff but I’d had no success, so I moved over to house. I spent 1990 going out raving, looking at the scene and listening to the music, carefully, and in October I took a demo to XL, who then signed me up.”

To record the demo, Liam used the eight separate outputs of the W-30, assigning a different sample to each channel and then mixing down to tape, The results were very rough, but this worked to his advantage.

A lot of people use the Atari ST for sequencing, but I’m so used to using the [Roland] W-30 that I don't want to move away from that; I know it both inside and out.

“I think that’s what probably attracted XL,” he says. “All the others were top-quality demos, done in the studios, and mine was raw and ropey, almost noisy. XL put out some of the tracks as the What Evil Lurks EP; it managed to sell about seven or eight thousand and was a minor underground hit. That’s when the band really started to come together.”

Liam was approached by two dancers, Leeroy and Keith, at his local club, the Braintree Barn. The trio then met a rapper, MC Maxim Reality, after playing their first gig at “the roughest venue in the country,” the Four Aces in Hackney. The Prodigy’s live line-up was complete.

In the studio Liam writes, produces and records everything by himself. He’s been building up his kit for about a year and a half.

“Most of the money I got from Charly was spent on a mixer, the studio, all the bits I needed. I started with the W-30, then I got a [Roland] U-220 and a 909, the old house drum machine.” 

The Roland TR-909 comes with only MIDI In and Out ports fitted. This means it has to sit at the end of a lengthy MIDI daisy-chain beginning at the W-30. Although the setup contradicts all those helpful guidelines about using Thru boxes instead of daisy-chaining and putting the drum machine first in the chain, the recorded evidence proves that it creates no timing delay problems.

All sequencing is performed by the W-30 and recorded directly through an impressive Tascam 32-track desk to DAT.

“A lot of people use the Atari ST for sequencing,” says Liam, “but I’m so used to using the W-30 that I don't want to move away from that; I know it both inside and out. The only downfall is that it’s only got 16 tracks; I get round the problem by MIDIing two together to get 32.”

Like every other techno artist, Liam has a big interest in analogue equipment. “I’ve got a Jupiter-8. I had a JD-800 but I didn't like it - I swapped it for the Jupiter-8, which has now broken down. It’s all MIDI’d up, but I’ve not had the chance to use it! I get stuff from John Young Music Control up north - he looks out for the old synths.”

Pride of place in Liam’s analogue collection goes to a Minimoog, complete with a MIDI retrofit. Liam’s not entirely happy with the results of surgery. “When you retrofit a keyboard, it seems to take something away from it. On the Moog, the retrofit has somehow changed the sounds slightly - it doesn't give you the true, true sound of the keyboard.”

Also in the “collector’s corner” of the studio is a TB-303 BassLine, sire of a thousand squelchy acid tracks. 

“I like the 303, but so many people used it in the acid house days. When I use it, I really overload the mixer so I get a distorted bassline instead.”

The TB-303 sits on an unsightly box bigger than the instrument; this turns out to be the MIDI upgrade unit. Again, this is a necessary, but rather unsatisfactory, sign of the times. 

“Usually when you program the 303 you’ve for things like Slide and Accent. Well, you don't get that with the MIDI, you just get the basic sound,” complains Liam. “Sometimes I’d prefer to get an old sequencer box instead of using MIDI so I could get the true synth sound.”

Inspiration for songwriting comes from everywhere, with one surprising exception; “I never get inspiration from the rave scene,” Liam says emphatically. “The rave atmosphere is inspiring, it gives me a buzz, but lately there seems to have been something in the songs that I don't like - halfway through they bring in a riff that’s been used loads of times before on other tracks. Occasionally there’s something: Tim Taylor’s horn track and The Aphex Twin’s Didgeridoo are both very good.”

He also listens to a lot of reggae tracks, not necessarily for his hooks and samples, but listening out simply for how tracks are put together. Then songs are “hand-built” with the W-30.

“I never use the copy function,” explains Liam, “I play beats and basslines all the way through the track. That’s why people like the ST - because it makes that sort of thing easy.”

The rhythm track is often the starting point for a song. “I don't like using the loops everybody else uses,” he goes on, “so I try to take snippets from different loops, say just a snare and a bass drum, string them together and put extra drums on to build the beat up. You still get the live feel of the drumming - it’s not a drum-machine feel.

“There are too many people just sampling beats. They need to be a bit more clever - they need to find beats that have never been touched before and mess around with them”

Liam has a large collection of hip-hop records, which form the primary resource for breakbeats, plus a couple of sample CDs for added vim.

“Unless the breaks are live drums I won't touch them, ‘cause it’s not worth sampling something you could do on a drum machine.”

On Experience it’s difficult to tell which are samples and which are 909 drum sounds, which is exactly the intended effect.

“There’s a lot of 909 but I’ve changed the sound so it's difficult to recognise,” Liam reveals. “The 909 bass drum is really nice, really fat, but I've kept it low in the mix so you can't distinguish the sounds. There are a lot of breakbeats, but not straight four-beat samples looped over and over again.”

How is that really heavy, warehouse feel to drums produced? “It’s all part of the style. I put a lot of reverb on the drums to make them more thrashy and give them a lot of depth. I add a booming bass drum over the top of the breakbeat to make the track kick more.”

Synthesised sounds do play a very important role in the majority of The Prodigy’s work. “I have to spend a helluva lot of time creating my own synth sounds,” says Liam. “I get a lot of ideas from these, not just from the samples. I won’t start a track until I’ve messed around on the keyboard to find some original sounds.

“I like the [Roland Juno] 106 because it’s so easy to use. I program it for basslines, but it’s better for string sounds.”

He even has a few words of praise for the late JD-800: “It's good for bass sounds. It’s got all these enhancers for making the bass sit well in a piece of music. I used it on the album version of Fire.”

The subject of Charly is something that Liam is undoubtedly tired of talking about, but since we are talking sounds and not tabby samples, there is one question that has to be asked. That smooth, bending, synth sound, a bit like a vacuum cleaner having a bit of a turn and the second trademark of Charly, has cropped up on numerous hardcore dance tracks (most notably Human Resource’s Dominator.)

So where is it from? Liam spills the beans: “I heard it first on Joey Beltram’s Mentasm and I asked Joey. He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone but it’s from a Juno-2 - I put it through a sampler and messed it up’.”

Work hard, sample hard

The Experience album is littered with samples; let’s face it, a catchy sample can often make or break a techno track. Liam is very philosophical about the technique. “I do love sampling, but you’ve got to be creative with samplers - you can’t afford to let samplers make you lazy, you’ve got to make them work for you.

“I say that, and you look at the new album and there’s a big chunk off that Max Romeo reggae record I’ve been listening to, but I think I’ve used that to sample quite musically. I’ve enhanced the sound by putting a lot more stuff on top of it and building it into the song. If you take the sample away, you're still left with quite a good piece of music.”

This suggests why the chart single version of Charly was omitted from the album. It may not be the version you prefer, but it does make a point.

“With Out of Space I kinda let myself down a bit ‘cause there’s such a big hook,” Liam admits. “I came across the Max Romeo track and I really liked it. I’d already written a version of Out of Space, but that sample fitted really well with it. I was getting to the end of the album and I felt I wanted a reggae type track, so that was it.”

Liam’s Akai S1100 has taken the major role in sampling and playback; the W-30, which does give you the 14.4 seconds of sampling at 30kHz, is now used more in its capacity as sequencer and master keyboard, never as a tone source - Liam describes the factory sounds as “absolutely shit.”

Timestretching (speeding up or slowing down a sample while keeping its pitch constant) is often essential in techno music and it can be performed by the S1100. “It's just brilliant for doing vocals, and you need to use it for doing beats,” Liam raves. “If you’ve got a hip-hop record with a really low bass and booming bass drum, if you speed it up you get this sound” - Liam makes a noise like a disco synth tom, and laughs. “With timestretching you still get that real thumping sound.”

Prodigy samples can come from some unlikely places. “One of my common tricks,” Liam reveals, “is to buy Superman albums - you know, big theme tunes to films. You get a horn section playing a chord for a long period of time; I just sample a small part of that. If I hear a chord I like and it’s not the right sound, I’ll copy it with my own string sound and then sample it so I can mess around with it.”

When rave dies there are always going to be people who still want to dance, so as long as we keep coming out with original songs I’m sure we’ll still be around.

In the beginning, The Prodigy sampled without regard to copyright; now XL clears everything - the vocal intro to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown track, used on Fire, cost them £3,000. So is Liam ever tempted to recreate and re-record samples to avoid legal problems?

“Sampling is such a time-consuming thing. It can take months and months to clear a sample, and it can be very expensive. I’d prefer to get session artists in to record vocals so I could build up my own library. But in a way samples add a feel to a track so much. You might have a vocal sample with some drums in the background, and those drums might add that extra shuffle you need. Sometimes recreating the sample can ruin the whole track.

“It's more of a psychological thing. You’ve written the track with the sample in - say like the Max Romeo sample - and if he says ‘No, you can't use it’ then you have to recreate it. But because you were happy with the original version you’re no longer happy with the re-recorded one. If I got into a situation where I couldn't clear a sample, I’d just scrap the song.”

Keep on dancing

Much like the disco and acid house scenes that went before them, rave and techno will undoubtedly have finite lives. But The Prodigy are prepared for when the rave scene goes down.

“Now we’ve got more into the serious side of the dance thing,” says Liam. “I wouldn't say it was techno exactly; I look at techno as people like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, the real Detroit techno side of things. I don't think they like people like us because we’re so far from the original techno sound. I’d like to say The Prodigy are a hard dance band, as much as a band in the dance scene sense can be.

“We’re doing as much as we can live, so we hope we'll have a longer life than the rave scene; we’re now established as an act. When rave dies there are always going to be people who still want to dance, so as long as we keep coming out with original songs I’m sure we’ll still be around.”

This interview originally appeared in issue 4 of Future Music.

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