Keith Flint, the frontman for the British electronica group The Prodigy, was found dead at his home in Essex earlier on Monday after what bandmates confirm as suicide. He was 49.
The Prodigy released a statement confirming the news on social media: “It is with deepest shock and sadness that we can confirm the death of our brother and best friend Keith Flint. A true pioneer, innovator and legend. He will be forever missed.”
A unique, charismatic performer, Flint was, in so many ways, the key to The Prodigy’s massive success.
This legacy dates back nearly to the group’s inception. The group was founded by visionary producer Liam Howlett in 1990. It first achieved fame with the song “Charly,” a 1991 hit that spawned endless imitators. But with no obvious frontman, Howlett brought in a couple of friends from his hometown of Essex to, essentially, dance around and act menacing during live performances. Of that group, however, it was Flint, with a spiky, half-shaved haircut and ghoulish makeup who quickly became synonymous with the name The Prodigy.
Howlett was no frontman — like producer Brian Eno, a man with a plan but ultimately no stage presence — but Flint surely was. His manic, threatening, almost cartoonish public persona brought all the charisma Howlett lacked to The Prodigy’s raucous live shows. As Flint once memorably put it, he used his body "to shout.”
Like Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the 1950s, the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, and even KISS in the 1970s, Flint terrified middle-class parents with his personification of the controversial rave and ecstasy-soaked culture of the 1990s. Flint himself reveled in the attention, prowling the stage like a caged animal and giving controversial interviews to the then-all important British music press. His lyrics also vented his outsider rage, which, coupled with Howlett’s groundbreaking music, soundtracked the late-90s dance culture in a far different manner than contemporaries like Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
While The Prodigy’s “Music For The Jilted Generation” had, in the midst of the Britpop boom, surprised everyone when it hit number one in the U.K. in 1994, fusing hardcore, hip-hop and punk, it was 1996's “The Fat Of The Land,” The Prodigy’s electronic punk album that featured Flint on vocals on three of its songs, that truly pushed them into the mainstream.
“Firestarter” — The Prodigy’s first single with Flint’s Johnny Rotten-like sneering vocals — became a worldwide smash. Most significantly, it cracked the U.S. charts, going gold in a market that had previously been impenetrable to similar British electronic acts. This success was due in no small part to Flint’s starring turn in the song’s music video.
With Flint — and co-frontman Maxim — The Prodigy became a massive worldwide live draw, playing some of the biggest stages around the world. They notably joined Oasis for theirmassive shows at Knebworth in 1996 and headlined the prestigious Lollapalooza festival. It was also the first electronica group ever to headline Glastonbury, in 1997.
In the midst of a worldwide panic over deaths and overdoses at raves, the singles “Breathe” and the not surprisingly controversial “Smack My Bitch Up” made Flint the poster child for a previously underground culture. The lyrics he wrote for follow-up “Baby’s Got A Temper,” about the drug Rohypnol, upped the ante. But the ensuing controversy only made The Prodigy even more in demand.
On the group’s next album, “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned,” Howlett chose to change artistic direction, and he sidelined Flint. The album flopped. To the group's vast audience, Keith Flint was The Prodigy.
Meanwhile, Flint released a punk single under his surname, formed the band Clever Brains Fryin’ and collaborated with Marilyn Manson, but he returned to The Prodigy in the late-2000s. Though the group never scaled the charts again, they remained a huge live draw with a worldwide legion of fans, due in no small part to Flint’s demonic stage presence.
Flint also never lost his taste for the provocative, expressing his dismay with the state of modern music in a 2015 interview. “We were dangerous and exciting,” he told the Guardian. “But now no one’s there who wants to be dangerous. And that’s why people are getting force-fed commercial, generic records that are just safe, safe, safe.”
Sadly, while Flint was a unique character, and an unlikely star, he also fought demons throughout his life. He was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and dropped out of school at 15, working odd jobs before joining The Prodigy. He weathered an addiction to prescription painkillers but got sober and was vocal about his battle with pills.
For all his gifts and vision as a producer, Liam Howlett found his muse and ticket to widespread appeal in Keith Flint. That we’ve lost him at the all-too-young age of 49 is an unspeakable tragedy.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this but our brother Keith took his own life over the weekend,” Howlett wrote on Instagram, echoing the sentiments of music fans all over the world. “I’m shell shocked, f------ angry, confused and heart broken.”
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found at The New Yorker, Esquire, Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone, among others
This article was first published on NBC News' Think.