As much as suicide is always a stupid, pointless tragedy, it’s easy to see how it might have all started to seem like too much for the Prodigy’s Keith Flint.
“Hellish” doesn’t begin to describe the prospect of turning 50 when you’re famous for Bozo-the-Clown-gone-bad hair, Rocky Raccoon guyliner, and dance moves that might have been choreographed by an East Hastings tweaker.
It’s too bad Flint—who was found dead at home Monday morning at the age of 49—couldn’t find a reason to keep going. When you look at his place in pop-music history, he was anything but the one-note cartoon he sometimes seemed.
Strange as this might sound to a generation raised on Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal, there was a time when music consumers didn’t mix and match their genres. For whatever reason, different camps kept to themselves.
Flash back to the late ’90s, and you get a time when postgrunge alternative was officially running on fumes, which didn’t stop every guy with a guitar wanting to be the next Pearl Jam or, entirely more likely, Creed. Enter the rise of what the major labels dubbed “electronica”, a name that, given the hundreds of subgenres at play in the global underground at the time, made about as much sense as suggesting Rancid, Simple Plan, and the Offspring all belonged at the same punk-rock lunch table.
As your grandparents will attest, what stood out was the hostility between various tribes. To those suddenly enamoured with the Chemical Brothers, Underworld, and everyone ever signed to a fledgling-years Ninja Tune, guitar music was as stupidly antiquated as player pianos and 8-track tapes. To those who couldn’t accept the fact that Sub Pop was years away from being cool again, electronica was for glowstick-waving ecstasy gobblers who’d dance to anything—including ringtones and 4 a.m. car alarms—while sporting the future fashion atrocity known as phat pants.
And that’s where the hurricane that was Keith Flint made his name.
Raised by what he once described as a “violent cunt” of a father, the Essex, England–spawned dancer turned vocalist was a product of his upbringing. At a time when rave was a shiny, happy blissed-out escape from reality, Flint never forgot how Siouxsie and the Banshees got him through his by all accounts violent and miserable teen years.
That made him a natural bridge between warring camps when the Prodigy blew up big-time in 1996 with the big-beat monster The Fat of the Land.
The group—headed up by studio whiz kid Liam Howlett and singer Maxim Reality—wasn’t the first to suggest that rock ’n’ roll wasn’t welcome in the chillout room; you might recall the Chemical Brothers teaming up with Oasis’s Noel Gallagher on “Setting Sun”.
But it was the Prodigy, with its breakout electro-bomb “Firestarter”, that suggested maybe, just maybe, the walls separating the club kids and the rockers weren’t really as unscalable as they seemed.
“Firestarter” sounded crazily alien to a generation raised on Gibsons and Marshalls. But to sit captivated by the video, or to howl along as Flint chewed his way through lines like “I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator,” was to recognize that the singer was more hard-core than the boobs in Blink-182 or Amen would ever be.
When the Prodigy was tapped to headline the previously (and stubbornly) rockcentric Lollapalooza in 1997, it was a giant leap in the concept of cross-pollination.
Flint continued to play live with the Prodigy, which blurred the lines between kerrang metal, industrial goth, and postrave EDM with ’00s records like Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned and Invaders Must Die. He also bought and ran a pub, popular legend being that he had a swear jar above the spot’s fireplace—and that anyone who started singing “Firestarter” when he touched a match to the kindling was forced to contribute a pound.
In the years that followed Flint’s pioneering bridge-building, rawk revivalists like the Black Keys began talking reverentially about their indebtedness to hip-hop gods like the Wu-Tang Clan. Impossibly country shitkicker Tim McGraw saw nothing totally bizarre about teaming with Nelly, while Snoop Dogg hit the studio with Willie Nelson. And, um, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers inexcusably formed a supergroup with members of Van Hagar.
No one said it’s all been good. But thanks to Keith Flint, things are better than they once were.