When the Prodigy’s third album, “The Fat of the Land,” arrived on American shores in 1997 and topped the charts, it represented a new genre that gleefully terrified the country.
The Prodigy — fronted by the dual-mohawked, whirling dervish of dancer-singer Keith Flint, with founder-producer Liam Howlett and co-singer Maxim (Keith Palmer) — came out of the seething U.K. rave underground. They exported an outlaw subculture of illegal parties in distant forests and abandoned tunnels, greased by wild new designer drugs and music that saw New York hip-hop, Detroit techno, German noise and British punk all on a radical continuum.
Flint, who died at 49 on Monday in the band’s home county of Essex, was the defining face of that band and that scene. With his candy-colored blades of hair, smeared eye makeup and the onstage energy of a bottle rocket firing off in all directions, he physically embodied the anarchic spirit of the rave, with the charisma of a natural frontman that, turns out, could sell a ton of records abroad and ignite a revolution in pop music.
It was a vision that would spark the nightmares of a thousand TV news producers warning about the dangers of teens raving and would eventually evolve into the multibillion-dollar EDM industry in America.
The band confirmed Flint’s death in an Instagram post Monday, with Howlett writing, “The news is true, I can’t believe I’m saying this but our brother Keith took his own life over the weekend, I’m shell shocked.”
It’s hard to overstate exactly how important the Prodigy were — not necessarily to the genesis of electronic and dance music, which had influenced pop culture for decades, but to the idea that this music could be completely uncompromising and undiluted.
For the U.K. rave scene, the Prodigy was its Nirvana: a respected underground act that, on the strength of ferocious and memorable songwriting, a raw and compelling personality and the tailwinds of some perfect timing, became one of the biggest acts in the world for a moment.
Much of that was born from the wild eyes of Flint. Raving was a DJ-driven culture, where the action was on the dance floor and not onstage. Flint brought something incendiary to look at in the midst of all those sampled breaks and chainsaw synth sounds. He made the Prodigy a real band.
“I’ve spent six years expressing myself with my body, shouting with my body. It’s like a conductor of the music,” Flint said, describing his unusual role in the band to Rolling Stone. “From the party scene, when a tune came on and it was your tune, I wanted everyone to know it was my tune.”
The Prodigy had released some well-regarded singles and albums on esteemed U.K. labels since the early ’90s. Its 1994 album, “Music For The Jilted Generation,” paired live guitar-rock swagger with overtly political themes — “Their Law” was a direct shot at the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which sought to stomp out rave culture in the U.K. by regulating gatherings with music that, famously,was driven by “repetitive beats.”
With “The Fat of the Land,” the Prodigy brought their underground to the whole world while keeping every ounce of what made them feral and irresistible.
“The Prodigy put a face to a faceless genre and led the genre’s arena pull in the ’90s in America, long before the emergence of EDM in recent years,” said Ben Turner, an artist manager and co-founder of the International Music Summit (a global dance-music conference) and Arete, a dance music health initiative. He added that, “Keith’s personality and performance took those sounds to the masses” and that “it is tragic that electronic music culture has lost another true icon, almost one year to the passing of Avicii.
“We have to act because we’re losing too many stars to suicide, mental health, depression and loneliness,” Turner continued.
America had seen plenty of synth-driven dance music on the charts, from disco to Depeche Mode. While techno was invented in Detroit and house music birthed in Chicago, the scene was always in dialogue with the U.K.
But the Prodigy was the fulfillment of a long U.K. musical tradition of taking an American idea and serving it back to us bigger, brasher and more commercially dominant. Singles like “Firestarter” and “Breathe” are, to older millennials and younger Gen Xers, as era-defining as anything from grunge.
Their sound was wildly new to U.S. ears: the industrial grind of Nine Inch Nails, shot into double-time breakbeats and sneering vocal chants that made the Sex Pistols seem long-winded. But even at the top of the charts, they represented a scene that was fundamentally subversive and untamable.
“Smack My Bitch Up,” one of their breakthrough singles on U.S. rock radio, drew political attention and protest from both sides of the aisle for its alleged casual violence towards women. Retailers including Walmart yanked “The Fat of The Land” from shelves. The song’s video, banned on MTV at all but the latest hours, still became a hit for its now-famous gender-flipped reveal at the end (and the band always claimed they were just being sarcastically provocative).
Flint hit the cover of Rolling Stone, and record labels swooped in to capitalize on the electronica wave. Acts like Moby would take softer versions of the big-beat scene to similar commercial heights, but Flint was the face that would define the movement.
Even after the “electronica” boom faded, the Prodigy soldiered on, touring and releasing mixes and singles studio albums up through 2018’s “No Tourists,” the band’s seventh. Like many acts that became the face of a cultural movement, some of their success waxed and waned with rave’s fashionability. But without them, there would probably be no Electric Daisy Carnival in its current form as the largest musical festival in America.
Flint was a rock star in a scene all about being a face in the crowd. That he combined both to become the most recognizable frontman of his scene for a generation was formidable achievement. And everyone pulling “Breathe” up on streaming after all these years today will be pleasantly reminded of just how scary and thrilling the band’s music still feels today.