1994 was the best of times, the worst of times. Where the turn of the decade’s symbolic story had been the fall of the Berlin wall, and with all the sense of possibility that opened up, now the news seemed to be all Bosnian war, Rwandan genocide and Fred West. It was the year the final vestiges of the peace-and-unity rhetoric were shed from the rave scene, and the splintering of underground dance music really began in earnest.
Jungle had gone overground, four-to-the-floor was exploding into hard house, happy house, handbag house and all the rest, the grimmer side of heavy drug use was becoming impossible to ignore, skunk was beginning to oust waftier, more benevolent strains of weed, and the words “dark” and “darkside” were slang terms of choice. Where two years earlier the breakout smokers’ hip hop sound had been the boisterous party funk of Cypress Hill, now it was the Gothic drama of Wu-Tang Clan. My personal illustrative moment was seeing a beat-up old Mini barreling through Brighton; blasting out distorted gabba on a crap soundsystem and in place of the standard “ON A MISSION” rear window sticker, so symbolic of the “go-get-’em” energy of rave, they had “MISSION ABORTED”.
This is the world that Music for the Jilted Generation was precision-tooled to soundtrack. The Prodigy had already come punching and kicking into the dance world, both perfecting and satirising the sound of hardcore, “killing rave” (as an early Mixmag cover story had it), proving that performance and bolshey personality still had their place among the faceless DJs, and delivering an absolutely shit-hot album in The Prodigy Experience. But Music for the Jilted Generation was the perfect divestment of any last fucks given, a willfully uncool thrash-about that didn’t rely on allegiance to any of the micro-scenes now proliferating, but somehow provided some weird sort of negative unity across the whole proverbial generation; perfectly expressing the skunk-paranoia, vodka-swilling, bad-E’s collective “UGGGGHHH” that came after all the “Woo yeah, c’mon, let’s go!” of rave’s peak years.
They weren’t the first act to realise that to expand they’d need to break out of the scenes and habits of the dance world – bands like The Orb, Orbital, Fluke, The Shamen and even Aphex Twin were taking it to the arenas with big son-et-lumiere shows – but The Prodigy were the ones who really went at it like a big, bastard rock band. By bringing Pop Will Eat Itself (one of the few bands who’d really honed rock/dance crossover) on board for ‘Their Law’ they gave themselves a leg-up, but probably Liam Howlett could have set mosh pits churning anyway.
Early tracks like ‘Charley’ and ‘Everybody in the Place’ showed the first glimmers of an instinctive understanding of The Big Riff that was not about the hypnosis of techno, or even the hyper-stimulation of hardcore, but about dragging the music back into the fist-pumping, chant-along experience of rock music. For better or worse, they and their shows preempted everything that is big and brassy in 21st century EDM. Every new superstar DJ with huge LED shows, massive riffs and vertiginous drops, and most of all Skrillex, owes them a very substantial debt.
Just like a lot of new EDM, Music for the Jilted Generation is basically very ugly. The pop-hardcore of The Prodigy Experience is still there: teeth gritted as tightly as ever, rock riffs expressing hard guitar music as full fat cheese, heading back towards the trash of Mötley Crüe and co. that grunge self-righteously decided to save us from, and the electronic elements all reach for the shiniest, most instant rush effects. If you listen now to ‘Start the Dance (No Good)’ you’ll hear how, for all its hardcore tempo and breakbeats, it sits as close to Faithless and Felix ‘Don’t you Want Me’ as anything you could describe as underground. Everything is on the surface. There’s nothing subtle from beginning to end – and that includes the disaffection that it expresses, which for all the pontificating about injustice of ‘Their Law’ is nothing more than that aforementioned “UGGGGGHHH” than any more sophisticated articulation of what it was to be alive in 1994.
All of which is precisely why it works. Nobody wanted political analysis or fine detail from Liam and his gang of dark clowns. We wanted to mosh. We wanted a racket that drowned out our tinnitus and picked us up in the same way that a bag of cheap speed did. And for all its negativity and steam-hammer unsubtelty, Music for the Jilted Generation created good times. The first time I ever saw The Prodigy live at a festival, I was in a bad mood. Darkly stoned and paranoid, I surrounded by a right old mix of people but notably a large contingent of football hooligans, banging back the lager, coke and GHB.
The minute ‘Voodoo People’ struck up though, something overwhelmingly joyful happened. Scowls turned to the kind of deranged grins you’d expect to see at a happy hardcore night, and everyone in the tent started pogoing and moshing like one big, friendly, sweat-soaked blob of undifferentiated tissue. Somehow, amongst all the “UGGGGHHH”, we’d all found just a little bit of the rave spirit that we’d been missing. This spirit of dumb-fuck rock-raving goes nowhere but into the watered-down blokey-ness of big beat and eventually Kasabian, but back then? Good God, it felt like a relief.