In this Deconstructed we examine how the arrangement of The Prodigy’s ‘Out Of Space’ helped elevate it from warehouse slammer to chart-topper.
In 1992, The Prodigy unleashed Experience, their debut album. It was packed full of anthems like ‘Everybody In The Place’ and ‘Wind It Up’ and more than delivered on the early promise of breakthrough ‘Charly’. Packed with rolling breakbeats and catchy hooks, it was the perfect synthesis of warehouse abandon and radio-friendly melodies, hitting number 12 on the UK album charts and eventually going platinum.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on ‘Out Of Space’, the focus of today’s Deconstructed. With its layered breaks, non-stop and hyped up melodies, and that monumental, reggae-sampling breakdown, ‘Out Of Space’ was the perfect song to bridge the underground clubs and the pop charts, and helped usher rave into a more wider world.
Let’s pull apart the album version of Liam Howlett’s hardcore masterpiece and see just how he did it.
‘Out Of Space’ kicks off in full hands-in-the-air mode with an absolutely gorgeous string chord progression playing in D flat minor. There are actually two string sounds in ‘Out Of Space’, one heavily treated and one that’s more straightforward. This is obviously the former, as it’s just coated in swirly, ensemble-style chorus and reverb. Liam Howlett had two Alesis Quadraverbs in his rack at the time, so he very well may be using those here. It continues for a full eight bars, setting the stage for what’s to come next.
A scratched-in kick drum, sampled from Run-DMC’s ‘Peter Piper’, acts as a drum fill to take us into the turnaround. Remember this sample, as Liam gets a lot of mileage out of it in the song.
As the strings continue, Liam drops a crash sample at the beginning of bar nine. He also introduces an earworm of a melody. It’s pitched up high and runs fast and insistent. We don’t even have any drums yet and already our heartbeats are racing. It’s pure, classic Prodigy and it’s only the first of four melodic lines packed into this track. Liam was apparently a natural on the piano as a kid. His sense of melody is superb.
Just before the next section starts, we hear a pitched-up vocal exclaim, “I’ll take your brain to another dimension”. This is, of course, New York’s Ultramagnetic MC’s. The song, ‘Critical Beatdown’, is from the album of the same name (which also provided Liam with the hook for the controversial ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ on Fat Of The Land).
We’re still building. At bar 17 we finally get some drums, a massive breakbeat taken from ‘Bombscare’ by 2 Bad Mice. The beat is running fast, at a carb-load requiring 148 beats per minute. Although only 1992, tempos were already on the increase, and jungle was just around the corner. Notice that the break has bass built-in – you never hear the bass separate from this loop. These are likely 808 booms, thickened up with Liam’s outboard gear and massive, 32-channel Tascam M-3500 mixing desk.
This section also introduces a stab, the kind that you hear at the beginning of hip-hop breaks (although there’s no drums to go along with it). Liam was a huge hip-hop fan, and started making hip-hop before getting bit by the rave bug in 1990.
To keep excitement up, Liam drops the crash on bars 17 and 21. The ‘Peter Piper’ scratch takes us into the next section.
And still building, now to a boil. For these last eight bars before the big drop, Liam hits us with another breakbeat, this one taken from The Shamen’s ‘Hyperreal Selector’. Notice the snare stutter at the end of every two bars. This was done with some deft sample editing and chopping. The break is also surprisingly loud in the mix. The ‘correct’ thing would be to blend it in carefully with the first break, using it to subtly add to the rhythmic feeling, but that’s not what Liam is after. He uses volume as an energy intensifier. When that second break drops, the power surge is palpable.
At bar 33, we get a kind of pre-drop, a two-bar section to take a breather between the buildup and what comes next. A crash strikes as the strings fade out and then it happens: boing.
There’s a lot to say about this cartoonish (literally) sound. Taken from Drop-Ins Vol. 1, an album of sound effects by cartoon kings William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, ‘Boing’ is an almost perfect encapsulation of the ‘92 rave ethic. With its back-to-childhood feel, it’s the logical successor to the children’s PSA that ‘Charly’ sampled. It also calls to mind a spring and bouncing around with abandon. This not for po-faced musos pulling on their beards. This is for sheer, out and out good times, like kids let loose at a carnival.
After a crash to take us into the next section, we’re given the drop proper and the famous sample from Max Romeo’s ‘Chase The Devil’. Recorded with Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1976, it tells the surreal story of a man getting ready to go to war with the devil. “I’m gonna put on an iron shirt and chase Satan out of earth”, he sings. “I’m gonna send him to outer space, to find another race”. It’s the latter half of the song’s chorus that forms the core of the drop here, and ‘Out Of Space’ orbits around it in terms of the arrangement. It also gives the song its title.
Liam does a nifty bit of sample editing to make sure it fits in the space allotted. Nowadays we’d just grab a warp marker and pull it until it worked, but in these pre-DAW days you had to be a little more clever. Liam has set the sample to loop back and forth across the end, stretching it out to fit. While Liam was known for using the Roland W-30 sample workstation, he usually left sampling duties up to an Akai S1100. However, as the S1100 couldn’t do U-turn loops like this, he most likely did it with his W-30.
Keeping the rhythm under the sample is the boing, now played like a beat. A looped bit of resonance from what sounds like the tail portion of a struck bell fills in the space between vocals.
Note that this whole section starts one beat later than expected, on bar 35 position 1. This is to accommodate the Max Romeo sample.
The reggae sample continues for another eight bars. Liam adds the second string to up tension, plus a third melody (the sample was number two) to bring up the energy. The Run-DMC scratch takes us into the change.
Liam drops both breakbeat loops at bar 51 position 1 (remember, we’re one beat off now) and lets them run for eight bars while the other sounds from before keep doing their thing. Notice how he’s now got the scratch sample on loop, adding an extra layer of drums to the mix.
Now on bar 60 position 1 we’ve got higher strings doubled up and adding tension.
Because of the sample arrangement, we’re now two beats ahead of where we ‘should’ be. That is if we’re adhering to a strict grid. Of course, there’s no reason to do this other than it makes it easy for DJs to count. Looking at an arrangement on a computer screen may encourage this as well. As Liam worked with a tiny LCD screen, he wasn’t worrying about those things.
Here the drums drop out and we lose Max Romeo but the Ultramagnetic MCs are back to get us hyped up. Notice how Liam uses the drums baked into the rap sample to add rhythmic intensity to the song.
At bar 71 position 2 we get the fourth melody, a high-pitched line panned hard left. The sound was sampled from ‘Homicide’ by rave pioneers Shades Of Rhythm, although Liam plays a new melody with it and makes it his own.
Liam drops both breaks back in simultaneously, accompanied by the crash sample. He lets them run for eight bars. These, combined with the chipmunk rap sample and wacky boing, create insane amounts of energy. There’s a short break at the end of the section where the beat drops out and the scratch comes back.
It’s nuts that there’s no real bassline but then again the song doesn’t really need one. There’s enough going on already.
The next section continues as before, bringing back the high melody from the first part of the song. The looped scratch sample adds even more rhythmic power to the section. Again, a short pause in the drums happens at the end.
Let’s zoom out and see where we are. We’re just about halfway through the song so it’s time for a short breakdown. Unlike modern productions, which usually have two lengthy breakdowns, older tracks – particularly hardcore rave anthems – had lots of short breaks between periods of intense energy. That’s where we’re at now.
Bar 91 position 2 acts like the opening section, a kind of extended pre-chorus for the Max Romeo drop, or what is effectively the chorus of the song. Back are the ensemble strings, accompanied by the high-pitched melody. Rather than let the energy totally die, though, Liam punctuates the start of each two-bar section with a crash, scratch, and punch in of the main break loop. Extra scratches act as a fill as we go into the next section.
Next, he lets the break play and adds the stab from earlier. The energy is really moving. After four bars, he drops the second break and lets it run for four bars. Crashes punctuate the beginning of each four bar section.
From bar 107 position 2 he repeats roughly the same thing as the last section but adds more scratches to the first part of the eight-bar section, throwing in a few extra crashes for good measure.
Next, Liam repeats the Max Romeo section, boing sample, bell loop, strings, melody and all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
After another scratch, Liam hits us with the twin breaks as before. However, he doesn’t run the scratch loop under it this time.
Let’s come up for air and see where we are. We’ve managed to get back onto starting on whole bars, which makes things a little easier. At bar 142, Liam adds the Shades of Rhythm melody to the mix, again panned to the left. Things are really moving again.
At bar 150 we lose Max Romeo and the strings but get back the Ultramagnetic MCs. Notice that the lower melody is playing fewer notes. Although there’s still plenty of rhythm, including scratching in the second half, things are slightly less insistent now.
Liam is also dropping elements out more at the end of sections. There’s a half-bar pause for the first four bars and a full-bar one at the end.
From bar 158 to 166, we get a number of stop-starts, punctuated with scratches and crashes. Kool Keith is still on about taking our brains to another dimension while the melody plays sporadically.
The strings come back while the half-time melody puffs back out to its full size. The beat punches in at the beginning of each two bars accompanied by crashes. Kool Keith really wants us to “pay close attention”.
At bar 174 the Bombscare beat drops back in full on while Keith takes a break to refill his helium balloon. He gets back on the mic at bar 177 and the Shamen beat jumps back in for the final four bars.
We’re now at the end of the song. Instead of creating a nice, easy outro for the DJs (or God forbid a fadeout), Liam keeps up the energy with beat punch-ins, scratching, the ever-energetic Kool Keith (somebody get this guy a sports drink), and one final boing to take the hardcore massive home.