XL Recordings co-founder Nick Halkes on signing The Prodigy and the road to ‘Experience’
In the annals of rave history, few albums resonated as strongly as The Prodigy‘s debut long player, Experience, which was released on 28 September 1992.
From the opening horn salvo of Jericho to the uncompromising rave marathon of Death Of The Prodigy Dancers, Experience broke the mould for dance culture – which up until then had largely been driven by singles, rather than albums – and has been cited as an influence by countless artists over the years.
Moby, for example, credited Experience with changing his perception about dance albums, noting that The Prodigy, led by young Essex producer Liam Howlett, had “managed to create a full listening experience which encompassed various styles”.
The Prodigy, who recently completed a tour to promote the 25th anniversary of third album The Fat of the Land, are still very much a force to be reckoned with, albeit sadly without longstanding member Keith Flint, who died in 2019. RIP.
An unsung hero in The Prodigy story, however, is Nick Halkes, who signed the group to the then-fledgling XL Recordings in 1990, setting in motion rave history.
As co-founder of XL back in 1989 (alongside Tim Palmer), Halkes helped bolster the careers of a number of techno and rave acts, including SL2, Frankie Bones, Liquid, Ellis D, Flowmasters and others [including his own Kicks Like A Mule venture, alongside Richard Russel] .
As he tells 909originals, before The Prodigy emerged as the label’s lynchpins, “it was probably the Frankie Bones sound and the Belgian sound that was biggest for us. Just As Long As I Got You by Frankie Bones and Lenny Dee [which appeared on The Looney Tunes EP Vol. One] , and then Anasthasia by T99.
“That was a really hard sounding record, but it went top 15, as did Night In Motion by Cubic 22. All bangers!”
As the label’s reputation grew, so did that of future Prodigy producer Liam Howlett, whose rap group, Cut 2 Kill, was signed to Tam Tam Records. While his rave sensibilities were yet to be piqued, tracks like Listen To The Basstone and Jus’ Coolin hinted at the young producer’s dexterity.
“I wasn’t really that aware of them to be honest,” says Halkes. “When Liam first mentioned his involvement in Cut 2 Kill to me, I wasn’t following that area of music so closely. I liked some UK hip hop – Silver Bullet was exciting, and he was label mates with Cut 2 Kill actually. But I was more focused on the whole emerging rave scene.”
When Cut 2 Kill disbanded, the young Howlett was eager to take the next step in his career, which led to a somewhat fortuitous phone call, Halkes recalls.
“He phoned up the label and asked if he could come down and play me some demos. I said ‘cool, ‘come on down!’ I’ve always been thankful that I didn’t say ‘just send me them in the post please, mate’ because who knows – maybe history would have been different and he’d have signed to a label that found the time to meet in person.”
But as to whether there were early indications of The Prodigy’s future greatness on those demos, Halkes isn’t so sure. “I wasn’t hearing anything that I thought was a chart smash during that first meeting, that’s for sure,” he says. “But I knew it was exciting, fresh and uncompromising… and thats what caught my interest.”
The first Prodigy single to be released on XL was What Evil Lurks, which landed on 25 February 1991 [backed by We Gonna Rock, Android and an early version of Everybody in the Place].
Announcing that release, the label issued a press release, ‘The Prodigy is 19-year-old Liam Howlett and XL Recordings are proud to present his first excursion onto vinyl’ – note the use of the term ‘his’ here, with plans to develop the concept into a group still a work in progress.
“I’ll always remember asking Liam if he had any thoughts about how to develop the project in that first meeting and he said he hoped to have a band,” says Halkes.
“He told me he had some mates who were up for it, but they hadn’t had any rehearsals or anything. He said he hoped that would work out. I think we can safely say it worked out pretty well, ha ha. The live side developed hand-in-hand with the recording side.”
Soon, with a few singles under their belt, The Prodigy were making waves, and Halkes got to know the other members of the group – Keith Flint, Maxim Reality and Leeroy Thornhill – a bit better.
“That early phase was good fun,” he recalls. “Everyone was making it up as they went along to some extent. We were all enjoying being out and about and knew we were part of something that had great energy and momentum.”
That momentum was channelled into a debut album, Experience, which was released in September 1992 and soon went stratospheric – arguably the most impactful long player in the history of the then still-nascent dance scene.
“Most music makers don’t get to enjoy having one big single, let alone several in a row,” says Halkes. “There was a commonly floated sentiment from the more established music industry players that ‘proper artists’ didn’t emerge from dance music culture, and that none would sell albums.
“However, after several hits and by witnessing the live growth, I could tell that something was happening that challenged the rather lazy set of assumptions that some were making. Once the album made an impact, I thought, ‘yes we’ve really achieved something here’, and this bodes well for the future. Once again though, the scale of the band’s future success wasn’t obvious.”
Experience reached number 12 in the album charts in the UK, also going top 20 in the Netherlands, and spawned five singles in total – arguably the biggest of the lot, Out Of Space, would follow in November 1992. For Halkes, the challenge was to keep the buzz around the boys going for as long as possible.
“I wanted to keep the momentum rolling with singles and wanted as many people as possible to see the band play live,” he says. “We knew that some of the traditional areas of media wouldn’t be happening – the band, unusually, didn’t want to do Top of the Pops for example – so I knew we had to keep spreading good word of mouth.”
Experience would go on to go platinum in the UK, and influence countless up and coming and bedroom producers – not to mention catapulting Howlett and co into the mainstream (follow ups Music For The Jilted Generation and The Fat Of The Land were both chart toppers).
Writing in NME the week Experience came out, journalist Kris Needs suggested that it the album that would ‘illustrate the rave phenomenon’ better than any ‘than any half-assed “40 Bowel-Erupting Rave Greats” compilation‘. Looking back, three decades on, does Halkes believe those words have rung true?
“The album showed what was possible; that something very special could emerge from very humble origins,” he says. “It’s a great snapshot of the time, and it’s also a reminder that when the establishment say‘ this can’t’, or ‘this will never’ they’re not necessarily correct!“
Alongside the management relationship he maintains with The Prodigy, and his work with developing artists and in music publishing, Nick Halkes has just come off the back of a busy summer for his Reach Up – Disco Wonderland brand, alongside Andy Smith, with appearances at festivals across the UK. More information can be found at www.reachupdiscowonderland.com. Main photo by Martyn Goodacre.
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