Keith Flint dies: The Prodigy frontman was the punk face of UK rave culture

On stage with his Prodigy bandmates he was a twisted Firestarter, but remarkably polite and unexpectedly quiet off it, Chris Newbould writes

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Keith Flint of The Prodigy passed away at his Essex home on Monday, and with him a little piece of UK music history died too.

Flint was a founder member of the band, and met fellow founder and main producer/DJ Liam Howlett at a rave in Essex where Howlett was DJing. Howlett gave Flint a mix tape with some of his own tracks on the other side, and at Flint’s suggestion The Prodigy was born, with fellow dancer Leeroy Thornhill, MC Maxim Reality and vocalist Sharky making up the original line up.

The band’s early gigs consisted of Howlett working the samplers and decks, while Flint and co would gyrate merrily in the fields and warehouses of Southern England, as was the way in the DIY days of the rave scene.

The band initially had something of a "throwaway rave" reputation thanks to early semi-comical hits like the public service announcement-sampling Charly and the hyperspeed stabs of Everybody in the Place. Their 1992 debut album, Experience, however, suggested there was more to the band than novelty singles, with tracks like Outer Space and Fire/Jericho hinting at a harder, darker edge.

That edge was confirmed with follow up Music for the Jilted Generation (1994) which saw elements of rock, industrial and thumping hard breakbeats coming into the mix, as well as the addition of a guitarist taking the sound to a new level.

With 1997's The Fat of the Land, Flint's time really came. The formerly scrawny, hoodie-wearing raver was reborn as a mohicanned, multi-pierced, snarling punk icon, and when he burst onto screens spitting the lyrics to the lead single Firestarter, it was immediately clear that something had changed in dance music. Or was it metal music? Or punk?

Firestarter hit number 1 in many global charts, including the UK, and even took dance music into the US Billboard top 40. Follow up Breathe followed suit. The Prodigy were taking dance music, or at least a form of it, and alongside fellow trailblazers The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, putting in stadiums, on festival headline tickets, and on day time radio. They would give birth to the big beat movement, perhaps more closely influenced by Fatboy Slim, and then the harder-edged nu-skool breaks scene that followed, the harder edge of which was very much a direct continuation of The Prodigy's sound.

For follow up, 2004's Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, Howlett decided to side-line Flint's vocals in an attempt not to become stereotyped, bringing in a number of guest vocalists including Juliette Lewis and Princess Superstar. It's worth noting that the album was the group's lowest selling yet, and the first to fail to go platinum in the UK.

Flint was back centre stage for 2007's Invaders Must Die, and the album went double-platinum in the UK and delivered two top 10 singles in the form of Omen and Warrior's Dance – both songs a return to the rasping punk-breakbeat that had made up the bulk of The Fat of the Land.

The band's success, at least in terms of record sales, has faded in recent years, but Flint's snarling features and chameleon hairstyle have remained a feature of festivals and stadiums across the globe to this day, and the band have continued recording throughout, with 2018's No Tourists their most recent release.

Flint will surely be best remembered as the snarling face of the Firestarter video, and he's been known to say that his anarchic, angry, onstage persona is very much the real him, not a character. That may be true of the boundless energy, but certainly not the aggression. I crossed paths with Flint on a few occasions, first as the singer in a band that would occasionally support Prodigy collaborators Pop Will Eat Itself – members of The Prodigy would periodically drop in at gigs if they were in town, and sometimes even join the band onstage to perform the collaboration Their Law.

Later as a DJ and record label chief in the UK’s burgeoning nu-skool breaks scene of the late 90s and early 2000s, where I shared festival stages, club DJ boxes or dressing rooms with Flint and other members of the Prodigy and the various side projects that were on the go by this stage on several occasions.

FILE - In this photo dated June 8, 1997,  Keith Flint, lead singer of 'The Prodigy' during a concert in Offenbach, Germany.  The Prodigy front man, 49-year old Flint is reported to have died at his home in London, according to a statement released by the band Monday March 4, 2019.  (AP Photo/Axel Seidemann, File)
Keith Flint during a concert in Offenbach, Germany in 1997. AP Photo

I couldn't really call him a friend – The Prodigy were by far the biggest thing to come out of that scene, so exchanging pleasantries backstage a few times with the head of a tiny, 2,000-unit-shifting indie label while you unloaded your four millionth album to Finland probably wouldn't even register for longer than five minutes. But in contrast to the angry, screaming lunatic you saw on stage, the singer was a remarkably polite, unexpectedly quiet chap that always had time to exchange small talk and share a giggle. It seems ridiculous the BBC banned the Firestarter video from Top of the Pops lest Flint "scare children" – as far as I could tell he was a big softie.

Probably my favourite story about Flint from those days was from a producer friend who visited Flint at his Essex home with a view to working together. He arrived to discover not the metal-faced, screaming freak of the videos, but a flat haired Flint in gardening gloves with pruners in hand, delicately tending to his roses.

It’s traditional to say Rest In Peace on these occasions, but the Flint we saw on stage doesn’t seem like a man that would enjoy peace too much, so rest in a big, booming set of bass bins, perhaps?