At the age of 15, a dyslexic Keith Charles Flint found his struggles with education too hard to handle. He dropped out of school and started fixing roofs in Braintree, Essex, instead. His unhappy childhood, marred by his parents’ divorce, could have had a longer run had he not bumped into Liam Howlett, an aspiring DJ, at a local rave. Flint convinced Howlett to start a music group with him and MC Maxim, which they named The Prodigy. Little did they know at the time that they would go on to become one of the biggest acts in the world.
The trio’s passage from sweaty basements in 1990 to sold-out arenas was relatively quick. While their debut album Experience became an instant classic for its quirky sampling, it was not taken seriously by critics who saw them as a novelty act. Music for the Jilted Generation, their second album, which was a response to Britain’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 that criminalised raves and similar public parties, was a unanimous hit, and was the first of the group’s seven UK number one albums.
While all this was going on in Britain, in India in the early 1990s, the musical tastes of young fans were being cultivated through their peers, international magazines and their father’s music collection. This was an India that was suspended in a post-liberalisation but pre-internet world. While there was access to more music than before (thanks to branded music stores increasingly stocking popular international music), it wasn’t the latest or the most cutting-edge. Change arrived in 1996 with the launch of MTV. Suddenly, sitting in your living room, you could zone out to a never-ending loop of music videos playing on your television, which introduced you to new artists from across the globe.
Among the acts MTV introduced young Indians to were The Prodigy. In the midst of an endless supply of classical and alternative rock videos, after the third Aerosmith or Nirvana video, Indians suddenly found Flint – sporting a double Mohawk and several face piercings – staring menacingly into their souls, before pulling back and dancing with unabashed aggression in an abandoned tunnel.
For many Indians, Firestarter was their first introduction to electronic music (the Indian ragas in Smack My Bitch Up and Vedic chants in Narayan would further pique their curiosity). And they were not alone. Millions of young music fans from the world over were mesmerised by the video (BBC stopped airing it after many parents complained it frightened their children), and found a new sound and a new subculture to immerse in.
Thanks to the heavy rotation of Firestarter and Breathe (both voiced by Flint) on MTV, The Fat of the Land would go on to become the fastest-selling album in the UK, and catapulted them into stardom. Unlike the group’s earlier music – a mishmash of breakbeat, jungle, drum and bass, acid house and techno – this album had an industrial, electro-punk jangle, not unlike the sound of several pots and pans being thrown down the staircase.
If Howlett and Maxim were the brains behind the group, producing the music, then Flint was its body, and physically channelled their music’s energy. A live audience requires something to pep them up, and unlike other electronic outfits that used laser shows and trippy visual projections, The Prodigy depended on Flint to hold the moment together. Flint’s swagger, for someone only five feet and seven inches tall, was so vast that it eclipsed everything around him. It didn’t matter how many there were in the crowd, he was always the one having the most fun.
Flint’s death at the age of 49 this week, in an apparent suicide, sent shockwaves around the world. Many from the music industry paid their tributes. They recounted what an approachable and warm person he was in person, which was in contrast to his manic, almost hostile presence on stage. British musician James Blunt revealed that during the Q Music Awards in 2005, when many artists mocked him and his music, Flint gave him a hug and said he was thrilled for Blunt’s success.
Apart from his association with The Prodigy, Flint founded a successful motorcycle racing outfit called Team Traction Control, which won multiple Supersport TT titles. He also ran a pub in Essex called The Leather Bottle. Journalist Steve Anglesey recalled how Flint kept a swear jar above the fire at the pub. “Whenever he put the logs and kindling in and someone piped up with the obvious joke, he’d point to it and charge them a quid [one British pound],” he tweeted.
Perhaps The Prodigy’s biggest contribution to electronic music was how they brought it from the underground to the mainstream. In a 2015 interview with FHM magazine, Flint, when asked about their journey and the current state of music, said, “I f**king hate this nanny state we live in right now. It’s like being back at school. I cannot be told what to do. As soon as I’m told not to, I will. It’s the death of life, the nanny state. And it kills everything. It will turn us all into zombies…as a kid, I was always fighting to be who I was. Then suddenly, I no longer had to fight. I just was.”