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Prodigy Invade America: Our September 1997 Cover Story on The Prodigy

Keith from Prodigy dances on stage, UK 1997. (Photo by: PYMCA/UIG via Getty Images)

This story originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Spin. In light of the death of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint on March 4, we’re republishing it here.

There were few surprises amid the parade of familiar faces and navels passing through Prodigy’s after-show party at Spy bar in Manhattan. Helena Christensen? Yes. Cameron Diaz? Affirmative. Bono? Of course. Chris Rock and Sean “Puffy” Combs? Why not? Jerry Seinfeld? Without a dou—um, excuse me? “I mean, Seinfeld?” asks Liam Howlett the next evening. “Why was he there?” Howlett, 26, Prodigy’s leader, is sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta’s Ritz-Carlton, looking so tense that his bleached-blond hair and proudly dark roots might turn gray at any moment. Atlanta is the butt-end of the group’s ten-day, eight-city whirlwind tour of North America, and sound check an hour ago revealed that the club hasn’t arranged anything to specifications. “Basically, they ripped us off,” says Howlett, explaining that the venue has set up the same sound system the band used the last time they were here, when their show required far less voltage. Which is a drag. These four Brits have crossed the Atlantic to prove that a “singer,” an MC, a dancer, and a guy who stands behind a rack of machinery can rock—hard. But their Atlanta hosts, and most of the American press, have mistaken them for the rave band they started out as in 1990.

The whole point of this tour—played almost entirely in small, sold-out rock clubs in major metropolises—was to create some buzz a month before the release of Prodigy’s much-hyped third album, The Fat of the Land. And no one’s pleased that an under-amped show will be their American farewell. Bozo-haired “Firestarter” Keith Flint, 27, is so upset that he’s blown off our interview, and Howlett has decided to blow off steam by grousing about the star-making machinery.

“Did you see what Puffy Combs did?” asks Howlett. “He rolled into the New York show with fucking security, bitches. And I laughed, to be honest. I thought, What the fuck are you doing? That’s not what this is all about.”

Not content with provoking a Bad Boy beatdown, Howlett goes on to slag his own label, the Madonna-owned Maverick, by complaining that the excess number of ”suits” at the show and the party added up to “record-company bullshit.” If rock clubs won’t give him rock-star volume, at least he can flaunt some punk attitude.

“In England, everyone just dances at a party, has a good time. That party in New York seemed to be about how many people we could get in there. I was happy to tear myself away, have a wee chat with Bono—that was cool—and meet some fucking normal people.”

It’s been a confusing 24 hours for Howlett. Soon after landing in New York, his face ballooned up with mysterious, scary-looking lumps. A photo shoot was canceled, a specialist was hurried to the hotel, and Keith Flint—the Firestarter!—served as nurse until the doctor arrived. There were even concerns about the fate of that night’s show, but the swelling disappeared, and the condition was chalked up to bad seafood.

The indignities of life on the road are never ending. Like the night before, in Boston. The smoky, black-lit dressing room at Avalon is a mess: Crushed tortilla chips and spilled cereal go snap, crackle, and pop every time someone walks across the room. And somehow, the most heinous teenage groupie of the five or six who have worked their way backstage has attached herself to Flint. Her leopard-skin dress seems less a fashion statement than a sympton of some bizarre degenerative disease that first attacks the wardrobe, leaving behind a distinctive spotted pattern, then invades the language centers of the brain. “Oh wait, you’re English, right?” she says. “So, you don’t say, ‘z,’ you say, ‘zed,’ right?” “Yes,” replies a slightly baffled Flint. “That’s awful,” says Leopard Girl. “‘Cause that means you can’t rhyme. I mean, ‘zed’ doesn’t rhyme with anything. You know what I mean?”

“No,” says Flint, looking away blankly, “not really.”

Much of Prodigy’s American tour has been a maze of mutual misunderstandings. Techno culture is in love with futurist imagery—third waves, next millenniums, logical progressions—but the tale of Prodigy looks more like one of those paradoxical, time-travel loops that sci-fi writers like so much. Just as America is finally moving into the future and embracing electronic music, Prodigy have arrived on our shores espousing the virtues of good old sweaty rock’n’roll.

It’s so much simpler when the group is onstage. Flint prances and preens. one moment the sadistic punkmaster giving the mosh pit the finger, the next a willing catamite cowering before his audience’s desire. Keith “Maxim Reality” Palmer, 30, strides about, bare-chested, in one of his two kilts—there’s a yellow tartan number and a golden velvet thing—flashes his metallic teeth, and waltzes into the crowd. Howlett, rocking back and forth, pounds the shit out of his well-anchored rack of equipment. Impassive Leeroy Thornhill, 27, highlights the music’s flow with some old-school hip-hop soft-shoe. Prodigy’s set is almost exactly the same every night: “Firestarter” gets a rousing reception as the climax, and Flint ends the song by repeatedly slamming his mike against the floor, its amplified “thwack!” cutting out after the third whack or so, which is just as well, since it’s not quite in sync with the beats. When the show’s over, the soundman picks up the dented mike, labels it. and places it in a zippered leather pouch.

It’s easy to smirk at this theater of anger—of course it’s an act. But it’s not just an act. The cartoon of aggression that Prodigy unfurl onstage is simply a jacked-up version of the four personalities that ride in a crowded van from hotel to photo shoot to airport.

“Hey, Keith—I’m the Fi-yer-start-er!” yells Flint one afternoon, doing a wicked imitation of an American promo guy—let’s call him Artie Fufkin—who’s been traveling with the group for most of the tour. “Except he put a cockney accent on the last syllable, so it was, ‘Hey, Keith—I’m the Fi-yer-start-uh!'”

Before Flint became the Fi-yer-start-uh, he and Thornhill were the Prodigy dancers, whose job it was to psych up the crowd. Behind the scenes, they play the same roles, lighting a fire whenever life on the road gets sluggish.

“Anything you want!” shouts Flint, continuing his impersonation, in that unconvincing, but very funny, American accent all Europeans use when they’re imitating Yanks. “I’m not talking big things, I’m not talking small things—I’m talking anything. You want bitches, you want drugs, you… just…let…me…know! Anything!”

“Yeah,” says Thornhill, “I was thinking of ringing Artie up at five in the morning and going, like, ‘Hey Artie, yeah, I need some matches, could you just run to the corner store? Yeah, matches. Oh, you got some? No—I want a fresh pack. Yeah—room 809, just slide ’em under the door. Yeah, thanks.”

Maybe Seinfeld was gathering material for a new routine: What’s with…electronica? But if Jerry’s looking for computer geeks to pick on, he’s chosen the wrong bunch of rock-loving, hip-hop-digging, hardened party vets.

“When I was working as a graphic designer for a magazine,” remembers Howlett about the British dance scene of the late ’80s, “I had the pirate radio on all day, and it was always, ‘Come to this rave. Come to this rave.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds fucking mad.”

At the time, Howlett was spinning hip-hop: He once entered a DJ-tape competition under two different aliases and came in first and third. But he was starting to feel “that there was no room for white people” in the scene, and when his crew, Cut to Kill, used his demos to get a record deal that didn’t include him, he jumped into club culture full-on.

In the summer of 1989 acid house ruled England, and the suburbs of Essex had a lively club scene. The biggest local venue was the Barn, where “Mr. C,” famous as one half of the Shamen, was the regular DJ. One of the more noticeable people on the scene was Keith Flint.

As a child, Flint was known to dance in his mom’s kitchen to Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” Then he got into reggae and ska, falling under the sway of fashion early on. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re onstage, so you’ve got to style your hair’—but at the age of eight, I was going to the barbers with drawings of how I wanted my hair, and they were like, You can’t do this with hair layers, you can’t.'”

Eventually, Flint dropped out of school and hitchhiked to Israel with a friend. He labored on a moshav-a more remunerative, less communal version of a kibbutz—later hanging out on the streets in Jerusalem, selling hair wraps and jewelry. When he returned to England, he immediately got into the rave scene, and met Thornhill.

“Leeroy—you can’t miss him,” says Flint of his 6’6″ bandmate. “He was the best dancer I’d ever seen, and I wanted to dance like him. We used to go to clubs, pick up on the same vibe, and find ourselves dancing together. That bit onstage, when we dance together, that’s the Barn!”

Howlett DJ’d a lot of the parties, and Flint would run up to the booth with song requests. “Liam’d say, ‘This one?’ and I’d dance and he’d pick up on my vibe and put on another record with that vibe. One day, Liam said, ‘Here’s a tape of all those tunes you’ve been asking for, and on the other side is my music.– Impressed, Flint and Thornhill offered to
get up onstage and dance along to Howlett’s tunes.

But the fledgling crew needed a frontman, so their soon-to-be-manager, Ziggy, introduced them to Maxim, a hip-hop and reggae MC of Jamaican parentage from Peterborough,
an hour northwest of Essex. “In them days, to be a good MC, you had to write lyrics every day,” Maxim remembers. Prodigy, however, were a different story. “I found the dance scene easy to MC to because there wasn’t any lyrical foundation. Lyrics are just fillers. The last thing people want is to hear you talking about life and politics. In a way, it took a bit away from me; the lyrics I used to write were quite deep—politics, old age, everyday life. My lyric style was not just taking MCs out—it was reality. That’s where the name ‘Maxim Reality’ came from.”

With all four pieces in place, Prodigy had their first hit, “Charly,” which Howlett created by sampling the voice of an animated cat from a children’s public-safety TV ad. Though the band experienced a press backlash after a spate of kiddie-techno imitations like “Sesame’s Treet,” their ’92 debut album, The Prodigy Experience, entered the British charts at No. 12 and sold more than 200,000 copies in the U.K. The follow-up, ’94’s Music for the Jilted Generation, which dropped Experience‘s hyperfast breakbeats and nitrous-oxide vocals in favor of slower, harder beats and sampled guitars, did even better, reaching No. 1. Along with the tougher textures came a more embattled posture: Songs like “Their Law” took a stand against the anti-rave Criminal Justice Act, and Maxim brought more hip-hop aggression to the mix. But in America, “British dance music was a real no-go area,” says Daniel Miller, chairman of Mute, which licensed Jilted. “It’s as if there was a note at Immigration saying, ‘Do Not Let These Bands Into the Country.– So there sat Prodigy, just another successful British dance band who couldn’t get a table on this side of the Atlantic.

Until last year, that is, when Flint jumped up onto a table and howled, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” That show was called “Firestarter,” and it’s been playing to sold-out houses for nearly a year. Dropping the disconcerting, rave-damaged hippie look he’d sported for years, Flint suddenly found a way to impose his over-the-top personality on a mass audience. His Firestarter was a variation on Road Warrior chic—eyeliner, pierced tongue, Union Jack no-hawk, metal bone through the nose, INFLICTED belly tattoo. Then he found a voice to go with the look—a techno update of Johnny Rotten’s caterwaul—and a message to go with it: “I am Keith, hear me roar.” “I am the bitch you hated / Filth infatuated,” Flint sang, creating a divide in British society as wide as the one that runs down the middle of his scalp. Members of the Fourth Estate, fearing an arson epidemic, called for a ban of the video, while a group of London artists mounted an exhibition of paintings inspired by Flint’s persona.

Guy Oseary, the 24-year-old head of A&R at Maverick Records, remembers being in London the summer “Firestarter” broke. “I lost my mind, I went straight home, I was on a mission. I would have done anything to get this band.”

Oseary started the bidding early, but the “Firestarter” video went into heavy rotation on MTV, and everyone jumped in. After Madonna claimed that Prodigy was her favorite workout music. the group signed a reported $5 million contract (though no one involved has been willing to confirm the details of the deal).

Flint’s prominence has meant more money and exposure for the band, but at the cost of a nasty little backlash. Rave culture has its own shibboleths, every bit as inflexible as rock’s strictures against synthesized dance rhythms. And one of them is that there’s not supposed to be a figure at the center distract-ing the dancers from their communal vibe, or channeling their communal energy in dangerous directions.

“A lot of people get into the party scene, the rave scene—the shite rave scene,” mutters Flint disgustedly, as if something slimy has gotten caught on his tongue stud, “and they think it’s about the Internet, the future, technology, play stations—and it isn’t! People just do not realize that eight, nine years ago, the party scene 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. And by the time they get in, they’re so pissed they beat you up. That has nothing to do with the Internet, that has nothing to do with silver fucking foil, silver space suits, anything that glows. It’s embarrassing to get dragged into that. I can’t go out on a stage and have glow sticks waved at me! That’s not representative of anything.”

Flint’s a rock star now, who, by his own admission, doesn’t go out to the clubs that much anymore. But he still clings to memories of the underground, when he was there, hoping that if he can hold onto what was right about that moment, he won’t drown in the sea of hype. Even though Prodigy have profited from the dance scene’s commercialization, the group was quick to shift gears when the scene grew stale. “When it happens, it happens,” explains Flint. When enough people have an undying passion for something—’Yeah, we’re gonna do this’—more people get into it, and you stay with it until it gets to the stage where everyone thinks they should be into it. And then you’ve got to get out.”

Prodigy are trying to get out alive, trying to meld what they still love about dance music with what they’re drawn to in rock, trying to reconcile their underground posture of yore—the band has famously refused to appear on Britain’s Top of the Pops TV show—with the fact that their Ameri-can breakthrough was largely dependent on Flint’s haircut.

When I ask Flint what supervillain he’d like to play in the next Batman movie, he replies, “Captain America.” When I explain that Captain America is a superhero, he pauses for a moment. “Captain America gone bad,” he says.

“We’re not Oasis,” says Howlett about Prodigy’s American blitzkrieg. “We don’t want everyone to like us.”

He seems to have gotten his wish. The results are in, and four out of six rock critics agree: Prodigy suck. The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times ran middling-to-favorable notices. But the rest of the reviews were scathing. “Little variety,” sniffed Toronto’s NOW magazine. “Lacked texture and variety,” sniffed the Chicago Tribune. “Short on variety,” sniffed The Washington Post.

The sad thing, sniff, is that none of these folks are entirely wrong. On tracks like “Firestarter” and “Breathe,” The Fat of the Land hits a bracing synthesis of techno and rock. At other times, though, the rock part of that equation is of the worst sort—the kind of blustery, lumbering radio fodder that punk and grunge hoped to overthrow. Which is odd, because if you ask Howlett what sort of music he admires, he cites “the ones who produce the rawest and realest sounds—Rage Against the Machine, Wu-Tang, people like that.” But there’s a catch. The political side of their music I’m not into,” says Howlett. “Like with Public Enemy. I’m not into what Chuck D was talking about. I liked it on a dumb level—the beats, the way his voice sounded. I wanted to hear Flavor Flay going, ‘Yeah, boyee!’ I wanted to hear the dumb aspects of his music, that’s what I was into. I have a philosophy that our music works on a really dumb level, which is the level that most people understand—they don’t sit around wondering, ‘What is that about?’ It’s just direct. We’re not trying to think of a deep message for what we’re doing.”

What’s missing in Howlett’s description, though, is that most of the groups he cites aren’t trying to “think” of a deep message—it’s just there, waiting to jump out. Most rock bands that work on that “dumb” level for any length of time have something—be it politics, paranoia, a shitty childhood—fueling their intense, transcendent dumbness. Howlett all but acknowledges this distinction. “A lot of the stuff we do isn’t as deep as what they do, because in the dance scene there’s no room to be too deep. For us it’s just hard sounds, simple song structures that work in our environment.”

Nothing illustrates the band’s problematic relationship with meaning more blatantly than the album’s opening track. “Smack My Bitch Up.” This apparent kiss-off to the feel-good vibes of rave culture has already spurred a disagreement with Maverick, which persuaded the band to obscure the word bitch on the back cover so the record could be sold at Wal-Mart. Asked about the song, Howlett laughs. “The music has a humorous element. People won’t actually believe that we beat women up. It wasn’t put in there to fuck people off. It’s just for the rawness, the B-boy link. When I was a party DJ, I’d play Schoolly D and he’d be talking about laying some ‘bitch’ while he’s drunk. It’s just attitude.”

Which is odd, since that sort of raw hostility chased Howlett out of hip-hop in the first place. “Exactly,” he agrees. “At a rave, it was a different end of the scale to see everyone really happy and on a good vibe and speaking to each other. But after a while, I found it boring. I wanted to go out and be moody again and stand in a dark corner and listen to some jungle.”

The lyrics to “Smack My Bitch Up”—in their entirety: “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up”—are a sample of a rap by Kool Keith, a.k.a. Dr. Octagon. But where Kool Keith’s own records construct an entire persona around misogyny, one rich enough to suggest a critique, stranding a phrase like “smack my bitch up” out in the cold just seems dumb—not dumb in the inspirational way, not even naughty, just obtuse. The song works as a dance track because Howlett is a genuinely talented programmer. But when lyrical or conceptual inspiration flags—the nagging “Serial Thrilla”—all the sampledelia in the world won’t prevent the very rock fan Prodigy are aiming for from scratching her head and wondering if this isn’t just a computer-literate update of Foghat.

And live, if the sound isn’t great (and it wasn’t in Chicago or New York) you lose the detail and are left with even less. But when the sound and the energy jell—in Boston, at Washington, D.C.’s 50,000-plus HFStival in RFK Stadium, even (surprising everyone) in Atlanta—you can hear a great new FM beast pecking away at its shell. At the HFStival, Prodigy headlined, astonishingly, over Beck, and everyone was knocked out by the sight of 50,000 American teens undulating like a big wave to the band’s grooves. Flint and Maxim’s macho posturings actually worked better in this arena setting than in a club. Because they’re less interested in intimacy than spectacle, Prodigy seemed right at home in a football stadium.

What makes a man start fires?

We’re in a Chicago hotel room, and Keith Flint is more interested in a cable screening of The Twilight Zone than in any of my questions. After a half hour, he just gets up and leaves without a word. Later, his bad mood is explained: The road manager lost the luggage that carried all of his stage costumes.

On the last morning of the tour, the luggage long since recovered, we sit down to talk. Flint curls up on the couch, sipping from twin banana milk shakes delivered by a room-service waiter, who exclaims. gawking at Flint’s hair, You and Dennis Rodman got something in common!”

According to Flint, his transformation from dancing fool to MTV icon was something of a lark. “Liam wanted me to try some lyrics on the new album. He’d seen me singing along to whatever song in the dressing room, doing impressions, singing about the tour manager’s girlfriend. And when I heard the tracks for ‘Firestarter,’ I was like, ‘This is the fucking one.’

As for Flint’s altered appearance, he thinks all the fuss is oversold. “I looked scarier when I had long black hair pasted on my face, and got me eyes painted. I don’t think I’m scary; I think unacceptable is the right word. My generation doesn’t think I’m unacceptable, but I’m sure their parents think, If that was my son, I’d take him, cut his hair off, take that shit out of his nose, rub his stomach until it’s clean, put him in a rehabilitation center, and have him beaten until he’s as straight as straight could be.'”

And Flint’s folks? “My folks love what I do. I think my old man has had a new lease on life since I’ve been in the band. You know. I had a Mohican when I was 13 or 14, and he had my head under his arm, in a headlock, with his razor, going, ‘Get rid of this shit!’ beating me up, saying, ‘You’re a tosser!’ Now he thinks, ‘Fucking hell, I nearly bleached that out of him, and if I had, what would he be doing? He’d be another fucking architect like me.–

Flint, who’s gotten himself worked up by this point, wanders over to the window, where he launches into a starkly fatalistic reverie about how com-promised life can be. Though Flint makes his living playing a mass-media boogeyman, this is the first time he’s genuinely creeped me out. It’s easy to look at his psycho-clown getup and figure it’s all an act created to titillate MTV young ‘uns. But when Flint tells me an incomprehensible story about Israel, in which he threatens a bunch of Palestinian kids with a whip, he utters a small aside I haven’t forgotten: “I’m not that nice a guy, you know.”

Underneath the makeup, there’s something brewing in Flint—a rage, who knows if it edges into genuine meanness—that ties him more closely to punk than do all the piercings and hair wax in the world. You hear it full-blast in “Firestarter,” and you hear it turned into something tinny and unconvincing in “Serial Thrilla.” Contrary to what techno purists think, what the band needs is more of Flint’s personality, not less.

Maxim plays his cards closer to the vest, but he, too, gives hints of something more ambitious than the “weird black guy” act he says he likes confronting white raveheads with. Maxim loves Prodigy but he also misses being a socially conscious MC, and he hopes the solo album he’s working on will be as innovative as Tricky’s latest. Maxim figures none of that belongs in Prodigy, that the dance audience can’t bear the weight of all his words.

The Prodigy aren’t, pace Guy Oseary’s claim, “the best band on the planet.” But it’s possible that, between Howlett’s talent, Flint’s energy, Maxim’s ambitions, and Thornhill’s joyful footwork, they could come close. In that context, a threat Flint threw down to Prodigy’s audience might stand as a challenge to the group itself.

“I’ve been screaming at people with my body—my body was always meant to be hugely vocal,” he tells me. “My body was shouting at people when I was onstage, and now it’s actually coming out of my mouth. It’s almost like I can’t hold it back any longer. Like it or lump it, you’re going to hear it. You’re going to hear my voice.”