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Who’s Afraid of The Prodigy?

Remembering Keith Flint and the techno-apocalyptic aesthetic that dominated pop culture at the turn of the millennium.

Jo Hale/Getty Images

In 1997, Keith Flint was very confused. After a long youth dancing in English rural barns (literally—his local club in Essex was called The Barn), the band he sang for was breaking America. With its third album, The Fat of the Land, led by the massive singles “Firestarter” and “Breathe,” The Prodigy became the first of the 1990s British dance acts to cross the Atlantic. In a Spin magazine cover story, Flint, who died this week at the age of 49, described his bafflement at the way British rave culture was being translated for Americans. People seemed to “think it’s about the internet, the future, technology, play stations—and it isn’t!” he said.

The story of how The Prodigy came to symbolize a kind of techno-dystopian darkness says as much about the late 1990s as the band itself. The Prodigy had been famous in Britain since 1991, when their debut song “Charly” flooded dance floors across the nation. The song sampled an informational broadcast instructing listeners to “always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere” over a neat little breakbeat and some noises like lasers gone haywire, in between meows from a cartoon cat. Back then, The Prodigy was sometimes derided as “kiddie-techno,” because of their juvenile samples and because the teens loved them. Britain’s rave scene was an all-ages affair, with day-glo clothes everywhere, smiley faces, and pacifiers for the gurners.

Flint started out as the band’s dancer, à la Bez from the Happy Mondays, but ended up as frontman. With the twin spears of his hairdo thrust forward, his wide boy vocals grated over Liam Howlett’s clean production, a bloody smear against glass. In videos he bared his teeth and banged his head, eyes rolling. He really was a sight.

Flint had met Howlett at a rave in 1989. Flint asked him for a mixtape, which he returned along with a few of his own songs. The pair were also friends with Leeroy Thornhill, a dancer like Flint, adept at a beautifully old-school shuffle. They added MC Maxim and a singer named Sharky, and The Prodigy was born. (Members would leave and join as the years wore on.) The band got popular so quickly that Howlett had to prove he hadn’t sold out by anonymously releasing two stonking records, the delicious “Earthbound 1” and “Earthbound 2.” DJs sniffed when they found out that Howlett of “Charly” fame had cut the records, but they safeguarded his reputation.

The Earthbound records went on to form part of The Prodigy’s second album, Music for the Jilted Generation, but it was only with Fat of the Land that the band truly became huge. By that time Flint had gotten a makeover, shaving off part of his hair and generally acting like a bit of a psychopath. But the real change was the way that The Prodigy was received in America.

The real life “party scene,” as Flint told Spin, was about “breaking into warehouses, setting up a sound system, cars parked across everything, riot police showing up with dogs, armor, surrounding the building, waiting for their warrant.” In late 1990s America, however, The Prodigy was a cultural touchstone for a weird obsession with an Armageddon-type event that had something to do with the internet. You saw it on MTV2 and read about it in Chuck Palahniuk novels. You can read about it in a 1998 New York Times review of a Prodigy show, in which Howlett is described as a leader of “folk devils” and the band’s sound as “the dark side of the machine-fueled utopia embraced by electronic music: its violence, its connections to crime and war.”

Yes, The Prodigy was pretty dark. The lyrics to “Firestarter” go: “I’m the bitch you hated, filth infatuated, yeahhhh.” But the American vision of The Prodigy as DJs of darkness was basically born of a culture that had no idea what darkness was actually coming.

The Times was describing the vibe in the “Firestarter” video—an apocalyptic, sexy griminess. Critics were connecting The Prodigy to the dark vision of the future also apparent in ’90s movies like The Matrix, Hackers, and XistenZ. The common denominator between apocalypse-fears and electronic music is, perhaps, the vague idea of a nerd behind a computer, subverting a helplessly analogue society with his alienated disco tunes. Electronic music seemed to contain seeds of destruction, a sense that once the machines take over for good, the only culture left will be at the blood raves.

Awash with fears about the end of the millennium, 90s American culture cast “edgy” musical acts as harbingers of end times. Like Marilyn Manson and “gangsta rap,” The Prodigy came to symbolize a kind of civilizational threat. With songs like “Smack My Bitch Up,” The Prodigy seemed to be evangelizing for misogynistic violence and heroin at the same time. (The line is a sample from an old Ultramagnetic MCs song.) Was The Prodigy a genuine menace? Or were Flint and Co. just trying to get people’s attention?

It all seems rather sweet now. Movies like Hackers and even Fight Club indulged in a sexy-apocalyptic romanticism because that’s exactly what the 1990s were all about: indulgence. History was supposedly over, and real catastrophe—famine, fire, fascism—had been banished from the world. In that Gap-clad purgatory, The Prodigy must have seemed rather more imposing than it does now.

In 2019, no art form (besides maybe fashion) still romanticizes the apocalypse to that extent. Not even Black Mirror would cast a green-haired rave singer as a villain in the culture wars. Losing that manufactured kind of darkness—the cloying angst of Nine Inch Nails, the black lipstick, the thrilling disturbance of the “Smack My Bitch Up” video—is like losing one’s innocence.

We don’t waste time worrying about dance music now. In terms of civilizational threats we have much larger fish to fry. But the real Prodigy was never about the techno-apocalypse anyway. The true soul of the thing was raves in fields, ecstasy by sunrise, band members whose only job was dancing—and The Prodigy had two. It’s a lost world, the one that made The Prodigy into monsters. I miss it very much.