Keith Flint is, as he mentioned, the twisted firestarter. The danger illustrated. The bitch you hated. He is not the Prodigy’s frontman. (These are the ’90s; the Prodigy are not the sort of group that has a frontman.) But since “Firestarter” — the first song that Flint has ever sung (or shouted or howled, or whatever you care to call it), after six years of dancing and girning, and cheerleading the Prodigy’s rhythm-noise mayhem — his is the face people think of first. It’s a face with a bolt through the nose, which leans onto the left side of his upper lip. His hair — looking from the front and transcribing from left to right — currently goes: green (flat), green (towering spike), black (flat), blond (flat), black (flat), orange (towering spike), blond (flat). This is how KeithFlint looks: onstage, at breakfast, in the supermarket. He is, as he mentioned, the punkin’ instigator.
But today, in an aisle seat of the morning Air UK flight from Munich to London, heading home from a German rock festival, Flint is calm, lightheartedly daft and rather camp. Neither he nor any of the other members of the Prodigy — Liam Howlett (who writes the music and quietly controls the group), Leeroy Thornhill (who is unfeasibly tall and dances) and Maxim (real name Keith “Keeti” Palmer, who MC’s and sings now and then) — are even managing regular pop-group levels of rowdiness.
It makes no difference. The steward has taken exception to Flint. Quiet words, but apparently potent ones, have subsequently been exchanged. I have been sitting one row in front of Flint and have heard nothing, but the steward insists he is justified in his conclusion: Keith Flint is unfit to fly. Other passengers step in on Flint’s behalf. But the steward will not relent. It seems less a lifestyle bust than simply a style bust. “One man’s fear of yellow hair,” as Maxim puts it.
Flint is walked back down the aisle and off the plane by two armed German police. He will not be flying with us today.
In their British homeland, the Prodigy’s success has been building gradually during the last six years: 11 consecutive hit singles, the last two (“Firestarter” and “Breathe”) reaching Number One. For much of that time, the Prodigy and America mutually agreed to ignore each other. (The group’s second album, Music for the Jilted Generation, peaked at No. 198 on the Billboard charts.) Now that has changed. In the Great American Electronica Hype of 1997, the Prodigy were generally given top billing as the group that would sweep in to lead pop music’s new electronic, millennial craze and save the world (or MTV, anyway).
This is not how the Prodigy see it, however, and it’s on their minds as I watch them doing round-table interviews with groups of journalists from around the world in a rural Essex hotel, a few miles from the band’s Braintree base. The Prodigy are here to promote their new album, The Fat of the Land. Upon its release, the album will sell some 3 million copies worldwide in one week and enter the charts at No. 1 in 23 countries, including the United States. (Howlett will celebrate this news by masturbating.) But right now the group is being wary. In one room, Flint and Thornhill hold court.
“There’s a buzz that you could be the future of rock & roll in America — what do you feel about that?” they are asked.
“We could be dead tomorrow,” says Thornhill dismissively. “We’re not the future of nothing — take us for what we are now. America is 10 years behind the dance scene anyway.”
“As soon as we heard electronica, we were gone,” says Flint. “We’re n0t electronica. It’s another package you can buy if you want to buy it and maybe impress your mates for a week — that would come, and that would go. We’re going to come and keep coming. ‘The latest electronic explosion from the U.K.!’ That ain’t us. Just come and check it out. If you like energy, if you like attitude, if you like tough beats with black rhythms with a bit of soul and a bit of realness, come and check out the Prodigy.”
Next door, entertaining their own posse of journalists, Howlett and Maxim echo these sentiments.
“Once you get past all the press, all the shit they’ve built up . . .” — Howlett grins at me and says: “This is for your benefit back there” — “once you get past the hype, I don’t know. America’s a funny place. The industry seems to be hyping the electronic scene up, saying it’s the new thing. I don’t really agree. I don’t think kids in America should be told to forget about rock music, because all this is, is another form of rock music. It’s not like Orbital. They’re friends of mine, and I like what they do, but Orbital haven’t got 1 percent of rock in their music or rock attitude. We don’t want MTV to tell you to forget about rock music. This shouldn’t even be looked at like a new thing. It’s just another angle of rock music.”
Liam Howlett, the Prodigy’s architect, grew up in Essex, the London hinterland that draws the same low-culture slurs as New Jersey does in America. The first group he loved, after his father bought him a British ska compilation, was the Specials. He remembers how hard they looked on the back cover, with the trilbies and the suits and the shades and the missing teeth. They had that attitude and edge. He never really liked anything that was truly mainstream, and he never has.
Next, Howlett discovered hip-hop. His friend’s brother had the early Grandmaster Flash 12-inches. To a young British boy, this music seemed impossibly exotic, secret and unattainable. “It was the first DIY music after punk, I guess,” he says. “Music I felt I almost could make.” He got his own turntables; he learned how to breakdance (his speciality: the windmill); he began graffiti-ing; he watched Beat Street far too many times. At school you could find Howlett’s crew, the Pure City Breakers, in the gym every lunchtime, acting out the Beat Street club scene where the two crews break-dance.
“It wasn’t just the music,” he says. “It felt real. It felt like it was from the street. I knew that it was a ghetto thing. I knew it was somewhere I could never go, so it was special. It was the fact that no one else liked it. It felt like it was my own thing. Once I got it loud up in my room, nothing else mattered.”
Howlett fell into a hip-hop group called Cut to Kill, but some of the same things that made that scene so attractive from a distance (its otherworldly exoticism, its unattainability) made it less so close up. Here was a world where a keen white boy from Essex was never really going to be accepted. Then he discovered the rave scene: the celebratory communal dance parties that flourished in late-Eighties Britain at the same time that its youth culture discovered the psychedelic drug ecstasy. (Howlett’s first rave experience was, as it happens, not fueled by ecstasy but by his first half-tab of acid.) This was the world for him. He would DJ at raves, and he began writing his own songs, too: instrumentals with occasional samples. The usual story is that Howlett took his name from a Moog Prodigy synthesizer, but he now implies that this story was a smoke screen. It was simply the name an 18-year-old kid gives himself when he wants people to sit up and listen. “It was B-boy largeness, I guess, in a way,” he says. “Like Grandmaster Flash had a grand name, larging himself up with his name. When I first thought of the name, obviously I didn’t consider it could be four people. It was just me, faceless, in my bedroom, writing music: the prodigy.”
Leeroy Thornhill and Keith Flint were part of the same rave crowd, mad dancers who asked Howlett for a tape of his DJ’ing and discovered some of Howlett’s own tunes on Side B. They asked to dance with him if he ever played live. For their first performance, Howlett decided he wanted an MC, and friends recommended Maxim, a would-be reggae MC. Later, Howlett found a record deal and mentioned it to the others only afterward. To this day, only Howlett is signed directly to the record label as the Prodigy.
With their early British hits — catchy samples over a frantic breakbeat — the Prodigy were often dismissed as lightweight popularizers. Howlett was also aware that he was writing to a formula and that the rave scene that had nourished the group was losing its innocence. What had begun as fresh celebration was becoming stale ritual. Flint lists some of the telltale symptoms: “The emergence of the glow stick, silver foil, glittery face paint and ‘the future.’ Then people were talking about the Internet. That hasn’t got any fucking thing to do with the party scene. Fuck the Internet. Fuck Play Stations. We broke into warehouses, right? We parked our cars in main roads, 10 cars wide, a thousand cars thick, with people leaning out of their windows at 1 in the morning, going, ‘You can’t park there.’ ‘Fuck you! I’m going to park here. Take my car away. I don’t want my car. I’m going to get in that building, and I want to party.’ And you used to run to this building, dodging police and stuff, and dive in through the window and lock the windows up. And then the riot police used to turn up with the helmets and the sticks and dogs and shields, and you used to party until you were dragged out of that place. And that has got nothing to do with silver foil and circuit boards and fucking Kraftwerk. It was the rebellion. The rebellion! Knowing that you was a part of something that in many years’ time is going to be as romantic to a young person as the hippie person was in the Sixties.”
The Prodigy’s 1994 album, Music for the Jilted Generation, begins with a synthesizer drone and keys clicking on a manual typewriter. An American voice speaks: “So I’ve decided to take my work back underground – to stop it falling into the wrong hands.” That was the new Prodigy agenda. The music made fewer concessions to wave-your-hands-in-the-air bonhomie. The last track that Howlett wrote for the album, “Poison,” had a twisted, snarling Maxim vocal, the first Prodigy song to be so emphatically fronted by a member of the band. That same year, the group played a Danish rock festival with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Biohazard and Suicidal Tendencies. Howlett lapped it all up and took it all in.
Before “Firestarter,” the only singing that anyone had heard Keith Flint do was the routine he and Thornhill would sometimes perform, bored, in the back of the tour van: crooning U2’s “One” as they waved their lighted-up mobile phones in the dark, pretending they were lighters. But Howlett had this instrumental, and Flint announced one day that he’d like to try doing something over the top. They wrote the lyrics together. Howlett thinks he came up with the “Firestarter” idea and masterminded the structure. The words are simply a picture of Flint. “He’s got not a cent of common sense, but he’s actually really intelligent,” says Howlett. ” ‘I’m the self-inflicted mind detonator’ — that’s him. He’ll build things up in his head until he’s on the edge of going mad. That lyric was spot-on.”
Flint highlights both the “self-inflicted” line and “I’m the bitch you hated.” They’re both ways that he thinks of himself. “It’s quite deep,” he mutters. “I don’t know if I want to say.” He eyes the tape recorder. “I could explain it to you, but I wouldn’t for the magazine.”
Listening to you spit out those words, I say, you get the feeling of energy and joy mixed up with self-hate.
“That’s absolutely spot-on. That’s absolutely spot-on.”
I’m the bitch you hated. That’s a very weird thing to say about yourself.
“Yeah. I don’t know that I’d want to describe it,” he says. “That is a very deep thing to me personally, and I can deliver that with far more power than the other lyrics.”
Why, suddenly, did you decide to write lyrics?
“That’s unexplainable,” he says. “Why does a river turn into an oxbow lake? I’ve spent six years expressing myself with my body, shouting with my body. It’s like a conductor of the music. From the party scene, when a tune came on and it was your tune, I wanted everyone to know it was my tune. Yes! Fuckin’ hell! Rockin’! Just yelling at each other, dancing away. This is just an extension of that. If I could get a mike and just go, ‘Fuckin’ hell! Fuckin’ hell!’ I would do it. That is the punk-attitude, DIY aspect of the Prodigy.” And this was an age of change for Flint. The nose bolt. The pierced tongue. The new hair. “Fuck it,” he reasons. “I’m in a band. I’ll do what I want.” He worries that it’s becoming too much. An image. He might dye his hair all black. (He wants to get his penis pierced, partly because that one will be just for him. That’s one that will not be on display.) He also got inflicted tattooed onto his stomach. He got Howlett to design the letters. Inflicted. It was saying what people were thinking when they looked at him.
The night that Flint and Howlett wrote “Firestarter,” they played it about 30 times in the car. “I don’t think either of us could quite believe it was me,” says Flint. “I’m not a singer. I love the fact that there’s people out there that have been trying since the age of 9 to sing and get the voice right — do, re, mi and all that — and I can roar in, not ever written anything or performed lyrically anything, and write a tune that’s so successful. I think that’s a brilliant piss take on a lot of people, and that gives me a buzz.”
It was the video that best communicated the hyperactive psychosis of “Firestarter”: Flint leaping and leering around in a disused London subway tunnel. It is said that when it aired on Top of the Pops, Britain’s most-watched music TV show got a record number of complaints, simply because Flint was so scary.
“If anything annoys people,” says Maxim, “then it is good. You’re not killing anybody on TV or shooting somebody or harming anybody in any way. He’s just being himself, and if that can frighten people, well, the world needs to sit down.”
Rather more serious was the British tabloid headline — ban this sick fire record — that cast the record’s lyrics as a straightforward incitement to pyromania, following the first death in action of a British female firefighter, killed in a fire started by a bored shop employee. “I just couldn’t believe it,” says Howlett. “I was more shocked than how well the record did, to be honest. I just couldn’t believe how people could be so stupid. It was then that I realized that the Prodigy works on two levels: a dumb level and the intelligent level.”
When the Smashing Pumpkins toured England last year, they covered “Firestarter.” “I got more of a buzz out of that,” says Howlett, “than going to Number One.” Howlett’s talents have turned other ears. When David Bowie was putting together his most recent album, he tried to rope in Howlett. “I kind of avoided him, to be honest,” Howlett says. “I’ve got no interest in working with anyone who’s sort of been-there kind of thing.” The Prodigy recently turned down a request to mix U2’s “Discotheque” and an offer to support the band on tour. Then there is the record-company boss. In the U.S., the Prodigy are signed to Madonna’s label, Maverick. (“They haven’t got any cool acts, have they?” Howlett reflects.) Madonna recently asked, via intermediaries, if Howlett would produce her next album. No, he won’t: “I was, well, I’m quite flattered, to be honest, but I’m not going to do it. That’s possibly the worst move we could do right now — give Madonna my sound. I don’t want to be spreading my sound around. I’m just not prepared to take that risk.”
This is how Howlett describes the creative process he wants to protect: “As far as the music goes, when I’m writing, I’m almost trying to write the same song over and over again, just with different sounds, just for that maximum impact, building the energy right.”
So what is the emotion?
“Just a 10-ton weight dropping,” he says. “Just that, really. Having that same picture in my head of delivering energy and punch. Just simple forms. Just the impact of the music. It’s just delivering, I guess, in the way punk rock was so dumb and brainless. The main object is to stir people up — the pleasure of being able to do something extreme in our field and get away with it on a big level.”
I join the Prodigy in Munich, where they are to appear at the Go Bang Festival as the night’s final act after David Bowie. They’re tired. Being the hot new dance-punk music saviors of the universe demands a punishing schedule. “Try not to think about it,” mutters Thornhill. “It’s like sacks of coal on your back.”
We are in a van in the Munich traffic.
“It’s not as glamorous as people make out,” Flint says.
It’s not all cocktails and helicopters, I sympathize.
“Exactly,” says Flint. “It’s no cocktails and no helicopters.”
The Prodigy sit in their backstage port-a-cabin. Quietly. “Promoters get a bit paranoid when they see us in here like this,” says Flint. “They expect to see us slapping each other round the face, injecting drugs. They get a bit paranoid when we don’t ask them for drugs. They think, ‘How is it going to be a good show?'”
Maxim sighs: “I better put my fucking skirt on.” He slips out and returns in something green, feminine and velvety. (“I wear it,” he will explain, “because it’s comfortable. And I like the way it swooshes.”) He has a gold brace over his front teeth. He has thought about having some of them filed right down and capped, or having his incisors filed into points and capped with white gold. His girlfriend is not keen.
For the first few songs of the Prodigy’s set, I watch from the side of the stage. Howlett stands in the center, surrounded by keyboards and sequencers; the action happens in front of him. Next to me, whichever dancer is not onstage jogs and dances and leaps in the wings. It’s a good view from here, because there is something inspiringly selfish about the Prodigy’s performance in that much of it — particularly Flint’s most-animated facial expressions — are directed back to Howlett. Their principal camaraderie seems not with the audience but with each other, and, paradoxically, it is that camaraderie rather than anything specific they do that incites the audience.
I am wandering the mud and the crowd when the sound cuts out toward the end of the sixth song, “Their Law.” Silence. Jeering. A few minutes later, the Prodigy launch into “Serial Thrilla.” Midway through, that stops, too. I reach backstage in time to join them as they stride, furious and disconsolate, back to their port-a-cabin. “Fucking unbelievable!” fumes Howlett. “Faulty lead or something. Cunt. Just disappointment. We didn’t even get to ‘Firestarter.’ ” An announcement informs the crowd that the Prodigy will not be returning. From where we stand, we can hear the jeers and see the occasional missile loop toward the stage.
Maxim drinks red wine from a bottle, spilling it all over his face. “Fuck it,” he says.
When we finally arrive back at the Munich hotel, there are a couple of teenage girls in reception. The two are there again in the morning, waiting for autographs, chatting among themselves. I don’t understand their German, but one of them replies to the other’s question, in careful English, “A tendency to start a fire in a bush.” I like that.
The Prodigy eventually dribble down.
“Take your glasses off,” one of the German girls requests to Maxim.
“Take your jeans off,” says Howlett, but very quietly, in the background, as is his preferred way. He has the ideas, but other people present them.
“Take your jeans off!” says Maxim to the girls. They giggle and remain fully dressed.
The Prodigy’s determination to trust their own instincts above others’ and their tendency to treat criticism or condemnation as a triumph (it shows that they’re getting under people’s skins), guarantee plenty of fusses and fury on the path ahead. One potential storm sits proudly as the first song on the new album. It is called “Smack My Bitch Up” and, aside from some vague Eastern wailing, consists of two reiterated sentences, shouted by Maxim over a hard, sparse punk/hip-hop backing: “Change my pitch up/Smack my bitch up.”
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to write a record to really get you thinking now,’ ” explains Howlett. “We’ll see how far this can be taken.” He says the song is, in attitude, a tribute to B-boy culture. (And not just in attitude: The two lines in question are taken from “Give the Drummer Some,” by Howlett’s favorite hip-hop group, the Ultramagnetic MCs.) And if it tweaks a few sensitivities, too, so be it.
“Yeah,” says Maxim. “When you listen to ‘Smack My Bitch Up,’ you don’t go out and beat your wife up, do you?”
“At the end of the day,” says Flint, “the girls who come to our shows are hardcore girls, and they don’t look at it as that. If some girl in an A-line flowery dress decides there’s some band somewhere singing about smashing bitches up, let’s get a bit militant. They don’t know us. They never know us. They never will.”
“It’s so offensive,” Howlett argues, “that it can’t actually mean that. That’s where the irony is.”
I tell them that it reminds me, in spirit, of the first Beastie Boys album, of those songs presented with the same bravado but that also hinted: If we dare say it, obviously we can’t possibly mean it. The trouble is, I remember seeing the Beastie Boys on their Licensed to Ill tour in Dallas. Most of the audience was joining in, in the same bratty, mocking spirit as the Beastie Boys. But there were others — maybe 20 percent, almost exclusively male — who were simply shouting along with the new dumb, sexist anthems of their era.
“I suppose there will be people who take it literally,” reflects Maxim. “Guys who are really into abusing women — ‘Women are inferior,’ that kind of thing. . . . It’s not directed to them.”
“There’s something in saying something wrong,” says Flint. “Fluttering the pulse rate. It’s almost like when I was little, I used to push the plugs in and then touch the terminals on the plug, and see how far I’d dare myself to push them in and touch them. It’s almost the same as that.”
He never got a shock. Not back then.
Anyway, the Prodigy have agreed to allow the title to be changed for Wal-Mart — to “Smack My ***** Up.” (Likewise, “Funky Shit” will become “Funky ****.”) I’m sure that will calm the waters.
Something else: The CD booklet of The Fat of the Land is principally taken up by graphics and by a quote: “We have no butter, but I ask you, ‘Would you rather have butter or guns? Shall we import lard or steel?’ Let me tell you, preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat.” Howlett read it in a book of quotations he was given by his record company for Christmas a couple of years back and liked it.
Of course, this being the don’t-care-won’t-care Prodigy, nothing is so simple. The quote is lifted (slightly adapted) from a speech that Hermann Goering, the Nazi who founded the Gestapo, gave in 1936.
“It just fitted in well with the whole vibe of the album,” Howlett explains. “Not obviously from the Nazi point of view, but B-boy culture. It scared me when I read it. It’s such a powerful quote, but it’s really scary: butter or guns. It stuck in my head. I thought it was perfect for what we wanted.”
I presume that the Prodigy favor guns, as Goering did.
“Yeah. It’s just kind of a dumb attitude. Thinking that that can be the answer. I haven’t thought about it that deeply. It just seemed to fit.”
I put this to Flint: There’s not many groups who’d dare to use a quote from a Nazi on their album sleeve.
“Yeah,” he says, laughing. “I know. That’s all part of it. That’s all part of being the Prodigy. It’s just the way we take the piss: Make not everyone like us.”
Later, after Flint is marched off the plane, the rest of the group fumes at how pathetic and unjust it all is. We glare at the steward.
“That geezer better not come near me,” says Thornhill quietly. “I don’t want that cunt serving me.” But we don’t do or say anything, except that Maxim politely asks for the steward’s name. Consequently we are a little surprised to be told, on landing in England, that while the rest of the passengers may leave the plane, we may not. And we are a little more surprised when two policemen with machine guns come on board and insist that we sit down. We are lectured like school kids — “They don’t tell me to sit down,” Thornhill fumes — then released.
Two days later, I drive round Flint’s house, which is cozy and colorful. (In Howlett’s house, there is a 6-foot sword on the wall; nearby, a full-size tilted coffin with metal roots around its base rises out of the floor — “You know Poltergeist at the end,” Howlett will ask me, “where the coffins come out the ground?” — and opens up to reveal the Howlett drinks cabinet. It’s always the quiet ones.)
Flint is not at home when I arrive, but his mother, who has come over to do his housework, makes me coffee and talks like mothers do. (Keith, she confides, is really “soft as pudding.”) When Flint comes in, he makes some tea and talks about his nature. “I am quite schizophrenic as a person,” he says. “I can be sweet as anything and lovely, and then I can just go into a scene that people are quite shocked with. There’s an awful bit there. Fucking hell, there’s an awful bit, for sure. Do you have sugar?”
We talk about the incident with the plane steward. This is how Flint recalls it: “He touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you OK, sir? It’s just, you seem a little hyperactive, and I’m not sure you’re fit to fly.’ ” The next time the steward passed, Flint glared at him and then said back to him, “You all right, are you?” in the same sarcastic tone Flint had received. The steward bent down: “You’re definitely too hyperactive.”
“You’re upset with me because I’m happy?” asked Flint. “Because I’ve got a bit of life in me?”
“No,” said the steward. “I think that really what you should do is calm down.”
“Well,” said Flint calmly, “what I think you should do is fuck off.”
“Right!” said the steward and was off down the aisle, to get the police. The police took Flint away to a room, where they listened to him, checked his name and asked for signed photos.