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What Keith Flint Taught Me About Being An Essex Boy, By Manu Ekanayake
Manu Ekanayake , March 5th, 2019 19:04

As a young Asian man growing up in Essex, Manu Ekanayake looked to Keith Flint as a figurehead who helped him explore his identity. He pays tribute to the Prodigy mainman, who died yesterday

I've always felt that music is like love in that you never forget your first. The Prodigy were the first band I, a brown teenager in Essex in the 90s who'd grown up on Snoop and Dre and who was increasingly taking an interest in house music, set out to see live, at my first music festival, V97. The fact The Prodigy were headlining made it feel necessary in a way that music never had before. They were local boys after all and this was a hometown affair - never had a field in Chelmsford been more alluring.

When Maxim came on flashing his Manson lamp eyes as Keith Flint matched him beat for beat and they shouted the lyrics for ‘Breathe', the crowd screamed right back at them and I felt music as a unifying force for the first time. I was 17 and the world felt wide open, in the way it can at that age. It's been striking that Flint's kindness and sense of humour has come across in the myriad tributes that have poured forth since his death was announced yesterday. It's perhaps why he had such an impact on so many, from such different backgrounds and musical tribes. Anyone who saw The Prodigy's 1994 ramshackle rave video Electronic Punks wouldn't have been surprised to see Keith was the heart and soul of the band, years before he took lead vocals for ‘Firestarter' and ‘Breathe'. Yesterday the DJ Rushmore posted about watching that video and dancing around his front room, honing his 12-year-old moves until he was old enough to rave, and I can't overstate how much that resonates with me. It was the blueprint for a world we 90s kids weren't quite old enough for: one we could hear about and read about, but not quite touch for ourselves. To hear of Flint's untimely death felt like a huge shock.

Like me, Keith Flint was an Essex boy. And like me, neither of us fitted the profile of what that's usually seen to be. The Essex male is an identity in itself, and a much maligned one at that. Essex Man speaks loudly and doesn't think too much first. He's a grafter, not shy of working and not shy of spending his earnings either. He's scared of nothing and no one – he's flash, brash and dangerous, or so he'd like you to think. Flint was about 11 years older than me but we both grew up in that Essex world (he from Braintree, where his parents moved in the mid-70s after he was born in Redbridge, myself from Brentwood). He was small at 5'7" and dyslexic; I was Asian, not at all sporty and had parents so overprotective Brinks-Mat should have employed them to safeguard their gold. While we both must have known we were never going to be what everyone else expected, nay demanded of us (Essex wasn't a place that asks nicely), the standards you grow up with shape the kind of person you'll become. Not always in obvious ways, but in things like how much you trust your mates, how much you smile (or don't) at people you don't know. Essex was always place where you had to watch your back – probably double for me as a Brown kid, but I doubt Flint had it easy either. Pack in unhappy relationships with his folks, especially his dad and there's not a lot of room to maneuverer, no matter how well you end up doing in life.

I would always describe London, where I ended up, as “not far away but a lifetime away". Flint always lived in Essex and your ‘manor' never leaves you. He even bought his local pub in 2014, a storied choice for a working-class boy made good. But while it didn't last, he was apparently happy there for a few years, chatting to the locals and reassuring everyone that he wanted The Leather Bottle to remain a haven for real ale, not a shrine to The Prodigy. Even the hardest Essex geezer would crack a smile at that.

Thinking of Essex' violence, or at least the threat of it, takes me back to something else from the 90s I've not thought of since. Back in late 1996, UK dance music threatened to have give hip-hop a run for its money when it came to beef, as Goldie and Keith had issues when it came to something Flint had said in the press about Goldie and his then fiancée, Bjork. He made the mistake of saying to the NME that they had been “corrupted by TV" and were swanning around “like arseholes", behaving like “Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley" at The Brits. This prompted a war of words that ended up with Goldie wearing a t-shirt bearing Keith's image and the legend ‘Cunt Face' at the Brighton Festival.

Now as ridiculous and frankly pathetic as this sounds now, there were murmurings from the D&B camp that this could turn nasty, so none other than Muzik magazine set up a summit meeting between the two in their January 1997 issue. You have to remember that Goldie hadn't done a load of reality telly yet, so he wasn't the loveable personality your mum knows, but a street guy from a tough scene and he wasn't having any of it. Keith was a suburban raver who'd run his mouth with a ‘friendly' journalist and got misquoted. Goldie would probably laugh about it now, but at the time that famous grill wasn't shining too much. While the beef was all happily squashed, this serves as good reminder of just how toxic masculinity works. In the article Flint said he in no way turned up “to defend his manhood or anything", but the fact remains that two famously successful men almost came to blows over a misquote in a music paper. Now the standard Essex Man response would be to defend your own honour at all costs (and that of your missus, for that matter), but this is clearly stupid, by any reasonable definition. These things rarely end with anything so amicable as one party presenting the other an MTV Award, as Goldie did to Flint here. The posturing can instead lead to actual violence in a way we cannot ignore in 2019, as we are mired in an epidemic of teenage knife crime that shows repeatedly how fatal conflicts over masculine pride can be.

Of course, nobody is saying that masculinity in and of itself is a bad thing. You can't take the lead of an internationally famous band without some serious swagger, which Flint certainly had. ‘Firestarter', in which Flint sang lead for the first time, gets most of the attention, but it's worth looking at the video for ‘Breathe' to see what was going really on. Here we see Flint as a commanding presence along with Maxim again, but as he exhorts you to "play my game" he's the edgier, moodier presence too. Maxim might have less screen time but he's the alpha here, with Flint seeming as freaked out as straight-up freaky. The masculine vision Flint presented was always compromised, always unsure. Did these posturing performances hint at a man who couldn't say what he really felt, which led him to terrible loneliness? Or was he worried about ill-health, as he told FHM in 2015, “the moment I start shitting the bed, that's when you'll see me in front of a bus"? Was that merely a bit of lad mag bravado (which the whole interview reeks of) or was he referring to the side of his personality he'd forever been trying to exorcise, the demons that drink and drugs weren't ‘helping' with anymore.
Yet in the end he died by his own hand. While the latest figures show the UK's suicide rates are falling it's still men who are making up three quarters of the total. According to the latest Samaritans statistics, it's men between 45 and 49 who commit suicide at the highest rate.

If a man who'd achieved so much in life can feel so low as to feel there's no way out, then we clearly have a long way to go as a society if we're going to address the problems that men still feel they have to bear alone. Keith Flint managed, like all the great front men, to be larger than life. That's why the reaction to his passing is still reverberating and will continue to do so. He showed that being from Essex could be a launching pad for creativity, for flamboyance and artistry. He was part of showing that the rave scene's finest could take on the world and he showed that a lead singer didn't have to be 6ft tall and have film star looks to top the charts. Indeed he did it all on his own terms, flanked by people he still called his best mates decades after they met. He was at ease with his background (why move when you don't really want to?) and took it with him to every international tour with the band or outing with Team Traction Control, the motorbike team he owned for the sport he adored, then come back home happily to rural Essex. As a teenager he showed me that guys from where we were from could be involved in music and that a group of mates from down our way could take over the world. He was British rave culture's greatest showman and while the show will go on without him, it will never be quite the same again.