Keith Flint, vocalist with the Prodigy, died at the age of 49, leaving behind a legacy few can match.
The Prodigy released a statement following the news, saying: “It is with deepest shock and sadness that we can confirm the death of our brother and best friend Keith Flint. A true pioneer, innovator and legend. He will be forever missed. We thank you for respecting the privacy of all concerned at this time.”
Liam Howlett, who formed the group in 1990, confirmed his death was a suicide. “The news is true, I can’t believe I’m saying this but our brother Keith took his own life over the weekend,” he wrote on Instagram. “I’m shell shocked, [expletive] angry, confused and heart broken ..... r.i.p brother Liam”.
Like virtually every 90s dance act that unexpectedly ascended from releasing underground club tracks to selling a lot of albums, the Prodigy were faced with a problem: their mastermind was a producer, not a pop star.
Liam Howlett was prodigiously gifted, visionary enough to have turned the Prodigy from a joke into rock stars. Their 1991 single ‘Charly’ might be the ground zero of novelty rave, its sample from a 70s public information film spawning umpteen tacky imitations that sourced their hooks from old kids’ TV shows or adverts. By 1994, they were an original, eclectic musical force that drew on everything from the hard-core scene that had originally spawned them to hip-hop and punk. Their second album, ‘Music for the Jilted Generation’, went to No 1 in the UK that year, long after most of their imitators had enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame and been forgotten. But, like most dance producers, he wasn’t a natural frontman, the skills required to make fantastic records being different from the skills required to captivate an audience.
The standard answer to this problem — used by the Chemical Brothers, Orbital and others — was to retreat behind a vast, overwhelming light show: to so dazzle the audience with visuals that they forgot that no one on stage was really a performer. The Prodigy came up with a more radical solution.
It was de rigueur for rave acts who performed PAs in nightclubs to have a few dancers on hand: something for the crowd to look at so they weren’t confronted with the sight of an anonymous man playing a synthesiser. The Prodigy had three — in contrast to the usual lycra-clad girls, they were all men, raving mates of Howlett’s from back home in Essex, who added to the Prodigy’s blokey appeal. One of them, Keith Flint, was unexpectedly promoted to the role of frontman in 1996, adding vocals to a series of tracks on their third album, ‘The Fat of the Land’. Once long-haired, he accordingly changed his look to something more striking, lining his eyes with kohl and shaving the centre of his head, leaving two patches of hair either side which he dyed and spiked.
What seemed like a remarkable leap of faith on Howlett’s part turned out to be inspired: whatever qualities Howlett lacked as a performer, Flint had in abundance. He became a manic presence on stage, projecting an image that lay somewhere between threatening and cartoonish. He memorably described his revised dancing style as “using my body to shout”.
He fitted perfectly with the music that Howlett was now making: increasingly dark and noisy, displaying a sense of dynamics that had as much to do with rock music as the dance floor. Critics started dubbing it “electronic punk”, a perception amplified by Flint’s raw-throated, untutored vocal style, which occasionally bore a faint resemblance to Johnny Rotten’s sneer. Certainly, the impact of Flint’s elevation to front and centre on the Prodigy’s commercial success can’t be overestimated.
Their first single with him on vocals, ‘Firestarter’, went straight to No 1 in the UK. More surprisingly, it went gold in the US, where the plethora of dance acts that Britain had spawned since the acid house explosion of 1988 had struggled to make any commercial headway. Its success was partly down to the fact that it was a brilliant single — a fizzing, broiling racket that sampled both the Art of Noise and alt-rock band the Breeders — and partly down to the video, in which Flint relentlessly played up to the camera. Not for the last time, the sight of him on national television provoked complaints from the audience.
His persona fitted the moment perfectly: thanks to the Criminal Justice Act and a spate of high-profile ecstasy-related deaths — most notably that of Leah Betts, an 18-year-old Essex school pupil — the British dance scene was enduring an unpleasant moment in the media. Here was a performer who seemed happy to own the moral panic, to look and behave — on camera at least — like middle England’s nightmares come true.
He helped catapult the Prodigy to a position as the biggest dance act in the world. ‘The Fat of the Land’ went on to sell 10 million copies, boosted by subsequent singles Breathe and the controversy-generating Smack.
In its wake, the Prodigy had another huge hit with ‘Baby’s Got a Temper’ — more controversy thanks to Flint’s lyrics — and became a huge live draw. Perhaps tellingly, the Prodigy’s next album ‘Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned’, which didn’t feature Flint at all, was noticeably less successful. You could understand Howlett’s desire not to repeat himself musically, but clearly to a considerable proportion of the people who had bought ‘The Fat of the Land’, Flint was the Prodigy.
He returned to a more central role on ‘Invaders Must Die’ (2009). If the Prodigy never scaled the same commercial peaks as they had in 1996-97, they never ceased being a vastly successful live band, a state of affairs that had a great deal to do with Flint’s stage presence.
In the interim, Flint had made attempts to establish himself as an artist outside of the band, releasing a more straightforward punk single as Flint — the release of a subsequent album was cancelled — forming a band called Clever Brains Fryin’ and collaborating with Marilyn Manson and dubstep producer Caspa. But it’s for the Prodigy’s commercial zenith that he’ll be remembered — a moment that proved that star quality lurks in the most unexpected places.