In Memoriam Keith Flint
Celebrity deaths tend to have little effect on me. But when news of Keith Flint’s suicide first popped up on my Twitter feed, it hit me. Hit me hard. It’s been a few days now and I’ve struggled with trying to understand why that is.
There is no dearth of entertainers in the world today. What it lacks, is true artists. It is a rare individual that can be both. Keith Flint was one such individual. And the reason why his death comes as such a shock, lies both in the manner of his passing and what he meant to me personally.
If you are lucky, you will come across an artist that changes your perception of what music is. Of what art is. If you are luckier still, you will run into something like that when you are young, and still forming an idea of what is “possible” in a world that insists that it knows what is right for you. Getting exposed to art, any art, that can change your perceptions of “possibility” can very well change the course of your life. That is exactly what artists like The Prodigy, Rage Against The Machine, Marilyn Manson and hell, even Apache Indian did for many of my generation.
I was 15 when I first got my hands on a bootleg copy of “Music For The Jilted Generation”. I had no idea who or what “The Prodigy” was, but they sounded cool. Fifteen is a confusing age. An impressionable age. A good age. At the time, CDs were not yet accessible to the masses in the still closed Indian economy. Liberalization was yet to take root. And music, real music, outside of the any international chart toppers, was hard to come by. There was a thriving grey market and bootlegs were the best way to get my hands on what I really wanted. Occasionally, if I played my cards right, I could tape something off of 102.6 FM (then known as Times FM) on my Dad’s trusty Panasonic hi-fi. It was 1996. This was small town India. A land without smart-phones. No Youtube. Heck, no Internet. But categories were real. Very real. “Caste” meant something. Authority was to be deferred to. Some questions you didn’t ask. You stayed in your lane. And artistic or not, you learned to color within the lines. Turns out, there were lines everywhere.
“This is rap.” “That is rock.” “This is pop.” “That is metal.” “This is punk.” “That is bhangra.” “This is not music.” “That is obvious.” “This is law.” On to this scene came a group of musicians that looked at that message and responded thusly: “Fuck em.” They said. “Fuck em. And their law.” And the one spitting out those words on stage? This guy:
“Genre” wasn’t something that The Prodigy respected. Even today, it is impossible to pin them down in the narrow confines of category. Break beat. Industrial rave. Techno. Oldskool jungle. None of these do them justice. “Electro Punk” comes closest I suppose. But even that serves as a description of their attitude rather than their art.
By the time “Fat of the land” came out in 1997, “Their Law” had already become my personal anthem. If their earlier work was a way of messing with the idea of genres and pushing back against established musical norms, this was them screaming a globe-spanning “Fuck you.” There was no genre now. Nothing could define this. Nothing explained it. There were no lines anymore. The entire album was a carefully choreographed crash of industrial, punk, techno, rap, rave and metal sounds. One of the tracks “Narayan” actually had a Hindu chant: “Om namah narayana” set to a beat so trippy it probably got my dog high. But if the album was cool, what was cooler was seeing the kind of people it attracted as a whole. Were you a metal head? This spoke to you. A raver? This was familiar. Hated most western sounds? Try hating this. Fuck your categories and your lines.
It was impossible not to respect it. The album would become a high-water mark in music history. Liam was the technical wizard, Maxim, the forceful MC and Keith, the mind-bending reality-distortion-field around whom the group galvanized its image. It was all color. No lines. Just color.
Then there were the videos. They got banned of course. Both “Smack my bitch up” and “Firestarter” got on the wrong side of the law in the UK. “Smack my bitch up” was debated in British parliament. After the video for “Firestarter” was released, the Mail on Sunday ran with the headline “Ban this sick fire record”. The Prodigy’s response to this? Liam Howlett had this to say: “- we decided it was important to push all censorship laws, which is why we made the video really full on. I was always into discovering where the boundaries really are – that’s the way excitement happens. There are a million bands who are happy just to make nice tunes but we’re not one of them. We wanted to push people’s emotions and thoughts.”
And what a push it was too. The bans only went to prove that people often fear what they don’t understand and can’t explain. And “Fat of the land” defied every attempt at explanation. Somehow, and I don’t understand how this happened, the video for “Firestarter” escaped the ban hammer in India. I remember seeing it for the first time and being equal parts unsettled and excited. And it was impossible not to move to it. It was also the first time I could put a face to guy whose voice had been rattling in my head ever since I first hear “Their Law”. (No Internet remember?)
But the kicker was the newly designed cassette cases that had just been introduced. Smooth, sleek and sporting a thin profile, it was perfect for slipping into a jeans pocket without it poking you in the crotch every few minutes. Perfect in other words, for carrying around everywhere. “Fat of the land” spread like a virus in my school and soon throughout my town. “Smack my bitch up” played everywhere. It was impossible not to hear it. Bootleg music stores (small garage operations really) milked the tracks popularity for a long time. These illegal “shops” became lodestones for kids of my generation. We’d spend hours on our bicycles, huddled around them just listening to this alien sound blaring over high-end sound systems. The new tapes also meant that I could finally get my hands on the original studio release of “Music for the jilted generation”. Some of us that were really fortunate, even managed to record the video off the two hours of MTV that aired every weekday on DD Metro.
Imagine being sixteen, in a land where being conservative was a virtue, where the best accolade you could hope for was hearing “He’s such a good boy.” Where asking questions was alright, but only to a point. Where if you didn’t color inside the lines, it reflected poorly not just on you, but your entire social circle. Family included. Imagine what seeing someone like Keith moving (as with everything the man did, it is hard to describe his moves as a “dance”) does to you. How lines like “I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator. I’m the fear addicted, a danger illustrated.”, burrow inside your brain.
Oh sure, I kept my grades up. I smiled. Colored in the lines. I stayed “good”. But in my private moments, when I was hitting the heavy bag, lifting some iron in the gym, writing an essay for the school paper, or taking my bike for a spin around the neighborhood, I’d do away with the lines. The smile disappeared. I scowled. I fumed. Not in a destructive way (well, not usually – testosterone is a thing after all). Kind of like an engine revving up. I questioned more. A lot more. The voice in my head began to change, ever so slightly. “Why?” became an integral part of my vocabulary. It was in my head all the time. “Because we said so.” “It has always been this way.” “Because those are the rules.” “That’s the law”, these ceased being acceptable answers. Now my inner voice rebelled.
As the years went by, The Prodigy’s sound matured and evolved. But Keith remained Keith. They still defied typifying but the group never lost its trade mark sound. I had missed a couple of their tours when I was in the UK by not making it to the ticket counters on time and resigned to the idea of maybe never getting to see them live. Instead, I contented myself with carrying Keith’s voice on my iPod. Across two decades and seven albums. At least now there were no cassette cases digging into my crotch.
And then in 2011 a miracle of sorts transpired. The Prodigy announced its first ever tour to India. By now I’d had the good fortune of seeing a variety of bands live in and outside of the country but as anyone that has been to a Prodigy concert will tell you, seeing them live is a hell of a thing. Suffice to say, the second Keith ran up on stage, 30 year old me gave way to that fuming 16 year old for a couple of hours. I was high off that gig for weeks.
I was lucky to come across an artist that changed my perception of what art meant at the right time. If their earlier work changed the course of music, “Fat of the land” straight up changed lives. And to me and many millions of my generation, Keith was the face of that change. His voice is a part of us now. Buried somewhere deep. In a place where there are no lines. Only color. That voice has colored our loves, our hates, our politics and everything in between. It has colored our very lives.
“Fuck em.” The voice says. “Fuck em. And their law.”