Keith Flint of The Prodigy Was the Face and Voice of America's '90s Electronic Boom
When a beloved artist dies, our first instinct as music fans is usually to dive back into their discographies, to reconnect with the songs and albums of theirs that we care about so deeply. But with Keith Flint -- quasi-frontman of U.K. electronic stars The Prodigy, whose death at age 49 was confirmed Monday (March 4) -- that doesn't quite fit as an appropriate tribute.
Though Flint was likely the best-known (and certainly the most-recognizable) member of The Prodigy -- particularly on this side of the Atlantic, where the group was a relatively marginal commercial presence through their first two albums -- he was not particularly essential to their creative direction, or most of their musical output. In fact, his role in the group was initially non-musical, as he was invited in the early '90s by band ingénieur Liam Howlett to serve as a dancer for Prodigy live shows, as Mark "Bez" Berry had famously done while functioning as the unofficial mascot for indie-dance outfit Happy Mondays. It wasn't until the recording of the advance singles for the band's third album, 1997's The Fat of the Land, that Flint joined the group on record as a first-time vocalist.
So when Flint died, the first instinct of fans who grew up loving The Prodigy wasn't necessarily to listen to him -- but to watch him, to share stories about him, to remember him. Because like Sid Vicious a couple decades before him, despite his relatively unspectacular resume as a musician, Flint was an absolutely iconic figure for the late '90s, and arguably the defining star of that musical moment.
American radio had simply never heard anything quite like "Firestarter" when it first crept onto U.S. airwaves in late 1996. Roaring out of your car speakers with a riff that sounded like The Stooges being produced by Trent Reznor, it was immediately captivating and dangerously adrenaline-boosting even before the beat kicked in. The drums gave it further muscle and propulsion, the backing guitar wailing (borrowed from The Breeders' "S.O.S.") made it feel like a full-on air raid, and the "Hey hey hey!" hook that ended each section (looped via Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)") made it clear that this was still pop music that we were dealing with, albeit a fully weaponized strain.
But Flint made it unignorable. His rapping was rudimentary at best (sing-screaming, more like) but his presence had a sneering fury to it that made each syllable transfixing. The way he spits out the end of each phrase ("I'm a trouble star-TAH! Punk and instiga-TAH!") and stretches out the song's otherwise insultingly simple chorus ("I'm the firestar-tah, tuh-WISS-ted firestar-TAH!") was the difference between the song becoming a fringe hit on the underground club circuit and it legitimately crashing the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 30 in March of 1997. Over two decades later, it's still impossible not to sing -- scat? holler? -- along with him while listening.
And as big of a presence as he was on the record, it was his appearance in the video that sealed the deal for The Prodigy's stateside fortunes. Dressed like a human cannonball with hair horns, jewelry and eye shadow that turned him into a demonic Björk, Flint spent the duration of the black-and-white "Firestarter" clip spazzing out in an empty tunnel, shadowboxing with the camera, shaking and growling like a rabid dog ready to chew through its own leash. In a decade that prided itself on spawning alternative stars from Kurt Cobain to Aphex Twin, Flint was an absolute natural on MTV, and "Firestarter" was quickly put into heavy rotation.
That was quickly followed by "Breathe," another visceral electro-rock banger that failed to match the chart presence of "Firestarter," but was even bigger on MTV, thanks to its grimy clip featuring the band freaking out in a dilapidated and possibly haunted apartment. This time, Flint had to share a little more screen time with Maxim (the group's previously established on-record vocal presence) as well as various creepy-crawly bugs and reptiles, but he was still the shirtless, multi-hair-colored, obvious leading man. The video won the viewer's choice award at the '97 MTV Video Music Awards (where the group also simulcasted a memorable performance of "Breathe" live from London), and along with "Firestarter" brought excitement for Fat of the Land to feverish heights.
The success of The Prodigy briefly allowed America to wonder if the future of rock -- whose relevance appeared diminished following the mid-'90s fade of grunge, while both pop music and hip-hop were starting to undergo their own commercial booms in '97 -- lied in their brand of rock-edged electronic music, most often referred to in the U.S. as electronica or big beat. The sounds of big beat had been bubbling into the U.K. mainstream over the previous few years through hits by The Prodigy and acts such as The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Daft Punk. But however exciting the music was, and however eye-catching the videos and live shows were, it remained a movement badly lacking in global star power: The leading lights of big beat were mostly studio-dwelling DJs and producers, who didn't sing on their own records, who let their light shows command the focus of their live shows, and who often had proxies stand in for them in their videos.
Despite still primarily being a backup dancer, Keith Flint grew into the one true star of the big beat era. His presence offered old-fashioned listeners and critics a throughline to connect '90s electronica with the rest of rock history, which almost always featured dynamic frontmen and frontwomen at its center. It allowed The Prodigy to become MTV fixtures, to get on the cover of Rolling Stone and SPIN, even to headline the final Lollapalooza of the '90s. And in July of 1997, it also allowed them to score a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart for The Fat of the Land, a watershed moment in the history of electronic dance music that seemed to suggest the band's Next Big Thing status was justified.
Of course, the moment ended nearly as quickly as it began. Though a strong seller initially, The Fat of the Land drew positive but somewhat mixed reviews from critics, and failed to spawn another hit as big as "Firestarter" was on the charts or "Breathe" was on MTV -- though third single "Smack My Bitch Up" certainly drew its fair deal of headlines for its misogynistic hook and explicit, controversial music video. Afterwards, The Prodigy disappeared for a half-decade, finally returning in 2002 with the poorly received and horrifically dated single "Baby's Got a Temper." None of their electronic peers picked up the slack in the mainstream during their absence, and the void of physical aggro-rock they left was instead quickly filled by KoRn, Limp Bizkit and the emergence of nu-metal. Though The Prodigy continued to have chart success in their home country right up until the present -- 2018's No Tourists became their seventh consecutive U.K. No. 1 album last November -- neither the band nor Flint would ever have much of a mainstream stateside presence again.
But it's the fact that Flint is so forever associated with the short-lived big beat era that makes his memory so indelible for music fans who were around for that brief period. Close your eyes and think of 1997, and you think of the Spice Girls, you think of Puff Daddy, you think of Hanson and you think of The Prodigy and Keith Flint. He was both the voice and the image of this anomalous (and ultimately highly influential) moment in music history, and for that, his is a fire that will never be stopped.