Prodigy and Time Warner Inc., the company that owns half of the label that released the group's groundbreaking 1997 techno-rock album, The Fat Of The Land, came under fire Thursday from the National Organization for Women. NOW alleges that Prodigy's latest single,
"Smack My Bitch Up," (RealAudio excerpt) encourages domestic violence. Friday morning, the 2,337-store Wal-Mart chain pulled the album from its stores.
"The song is totally offensive, it's degrading to women, it's trash," said Janice Rocco, president of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW. "It condones violence against women and we don't need to see that portrayed as entertainment.
"It's a dangerous message to children when anyone construes violation of women as entertainment," added Rocco, who said she'd only recently heard the song, the third single from the album released in July of this year.
The entire lyrics to "Smack My Bitch Up" are "Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up." The multi-million selling album, The Fat Of The Land, entered the U.S. charts earlier this year at #1, and has since been certified double-platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (R. I. A. A.).
The lyrics are sampled from a hip-hop track, "Give the Drummer Some," by the Ultramagnetic MCs, whose former member, Kool Keith (a.k.a. Dr. Octagon), appears on another song on The Fat Of The Land album, "Diesel Power."
"That song is probably the most pointless song I've ever written," Prodigy leader Liam Howlett told Addicted To Noise this past summer. "But live, it
works. It works well. Sometimes things can be so fucking simple and you don't need an explanation of the lyrics. Why explain the lyrics? It either works or it doesn't. And for us, it works well live. It's a really exciting track and it's just a good, hard track."
Friday morning, Wal-Mart, the massive discount chain, pulled Prodigy's album from its shelves. In a statement, Wal-Mart said it would not sell the album because "of objectionable lyrics that clearly would offend our customers." In 1996, Wal-Mart refused to sell Sheryl Crow's self-titled second album because of the lyrics to a song on it called "Love Is a Good Thing," which suggests that Wal-Mart sells guns to children. A Wal-Mart spokesperson said, at the time, that the chain has strict policies prohibiting the sale of guns to minors.
The position of Warner Bros. records, which distributes Madonna's Maverick label, which Prodigy are signed to in the U.S., is that the song in no way condones violence of any kind. Company spokesperson Bob Merlis told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that "the notion that this song lyric would create an atmosphere for anyone to commit an act of violence is far-fetched."
On Friday afternoon, a Maverick spokesperson offered a statement of "no comment" regarding the controversy.
NOW's Rocco said the organization was concerned that there is no parental advisory sticker on the single, that promotional posters featuring the lyrics to the song are up in record stores all over the country and that radio stations are airing the "offensive" song. "As a woman, I won't listen to any radio station that will play it," Rocco said. "In L.A., only one station is playing it [KROQ-FM]. Their initial claim was that the song was popular and they played it because the public wanted to hear it. They're trying to put the onus on the public because they say they're clamoring for it."
The song was released to radio as a single in America last week. It currently is getting airplay on a dozen or so modern rock stations in the U.S., including the influential KROQ-FM in Los Angeles, WXRK-FM in New York and KITS-FM in San Francisco.
A racy video for the song also has been created, but Time Warner apparently didn't finance it. The video
(28K and 56K real video excerpts; QuickTime), which MTV plans to air in an edited version Friday night during the electronica show, "AMP," as well as several times Sunday night between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., depicts an out-of-control English hooligan doing drugs, puking, grabbing women, getting into fights and having sex with a stripper. Rocco, who said she had just recently seen "snippets" of the video, was surprised to hear that the music video channel was planning to air the video.
Representatives for MTV and KROQ could not be reached for comment by press time.
Howlett has denied that the song is about beating women. He said that he had used a sample from the Ultramagnetic MCs' "Give the Drummer Some" as a kind of hip-hop tribute. "I was into hip-hop and I was into the fact that MCs could rap about anything, they could rap about smacking women up and it'd just be more comical than anything else," he said. "You wouldn't actually take it serious. You wouldn't think the Prodigy are about beating their girlfriends up and shit like that. It has a certain amount of b-boy style in the actual song. It's just basically bringing that through.
"It's obvious that 'Firestarter' [the group's first international hit] is not about starting fires. It's about [singer/dancer] Keith's [Flint] personality. I thought, 'Well, if people are going to kick-up a fuss about this, then they're really gonna kick-up a fuss about "Smack My Bitch Up." "
Howlett also said that the song was a joke on the English press in a way. "There's lots of different angles. The main angle is it works and it's a simple track and it's got a hard vibe," he said. "That's why I use that lyric. The other vibe is what I was saying about the press."
Time Warner weathered a similar firestorm of criticism in 1992 when rapper Ice-T released his hardcore Body Count, which featured the song "Cop Killer," a graphic account of murdering police officers from a killer's perspective. Ice-T eventually caved-in to protest and agreed to remove the song from the album; he was later released from his Warner Bros. contract.
Howlett said he expected that the song would be taken the wrong way. "To be honest, we're ready for whatever is thrown [at] us," he said. "You can't not be ready and use a lyric like that. To be honest, people, if they think that song is about smacking girlfriends up, then they're pretty brainless." [Fri., Dec. 5, 1997, 6 p.m. PST]