Keith Flint remembered by Richard Russell

17 September 1969 – 4 March 2019
The record producer and XL label head on a true gentleman and the era’s most electric and original stage presence

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• Read the Observer’s obituaries of 2019 in full

The passion Keith brought to everything was immense, and so was his kindness. He was the embodiment of countercultural values, but he was unlike many musicians who adopt a stance of rebellion, because it wasn’t a pose. He knew who he was. That allowed him to be relaxed and fun, and kind to people. What James Blunt tweeted about him after he died speaks volumes. Everyone felt included when Keith was around. He knew there was no need for rudeness; he was a gentleman.

I first met Keith around 1990. He’d left Essex in his late teens, and had been travelling across Europe and the Middle East. He had long hair back then as he was a bit of a hippy – a hippy crossed with a punk. He embodied ideals from both of those worlds.

When he came back to Britain, he heard about the rave scene through a friend, so went to one, and that was that – he was in. He became friends with Liam Howlett, really encouraged him to do more of his music, and that’s how the Prodigy began. Keith became one of the Prodigy’s dancers, and that’s what he did for the first five years. He was a joyful, natural dancer.

He understood the freedom music represented to people, and how they yearned and lived for that at the end of the working week. Keith was the embodiment of that feeling of freedom to me. That’s why his passing feels so massive.

Keith’s first vocal for the Prodigy was for Firestarter. I remember seeing him on stage around that time, and being genuinely in awe. He was a very different kind of frontman. He was uncontrived, untethered. He’d go to places on stage no one else could go. He dissolved the barrier between audience and performer, and people connected with him from all kinds of musical backgrounds because of that: not just dance music but hip-hop, punk and metal.

When The Fat of the Land [the Prodigy’s 1997 album, which included Firestarter] got to No 1 in America, Keith was in the frontline, presenting something new, something powerful and completely undiluted. What the Prodigy were doing was so strong the mainstream had to understand it, and had to bend towards it.

After Firestarter, the Prodigy became huge and they’ve kept playing at that level ever since [every Prodigy album except their debut, up to and including 2018’s No Tourists became a UK No 1]. It didn’t faze Keith. He’d hang around backstage and be nice to people, and just pour this different character out on stage. He’d go home between tours and take care of his animals. He lived in the countryside in Essex, and he loved being there. He knew the value of things.

Keith lived life full-on, and he gave himself to everything he did. He got involved in motorcycle racing, which he’d always been a fan of, and became incredible at it [in 2014 he set up his own team, Team Traction Control, which won two races at the Isle of Man TT, two years running]. He kept very fit. But it’s important to recognise that living life to the max then dying the way he did is not really something to celebrate. Keith’s death was awful. It’s impossible to be philosophical about what happened. It shouldn’t have happened. We were all so shocked.

At the start of this year my daughter was looking at a celebrity birthday site, and I noticed that Keith’s birthday was on 17 September, and that he was turning 50. I remember getting my diary out straightaway, making a note, thinking: “I’ve got to do something for Keith for that.” But he never got there. I doubt he’d agree with me, but I think he would have been an amazing old man.

Keith’s funeral will stay with me for ever. Most funerals are buttoned-down, but his was full of the most authentic expressions of love. Lots of people came just to rave outside – Keith would have loved that. It was such a celebration of his life, as it deserved to be. So many people loved him so much.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. The Mind helpline is: 0300 123 3393 and CALM: 0800 58 58 58.

• In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And in Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

Contributor

Richard Russell

The GuardianTramp

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