The Chemical Brothers’ sophomore album Dig Your Own Hole took their festival-friendly electronic sound across the globe and converted confirmed rockers to the dance music cause almost by accident. 20 years later, Ryan Diduck remembers what set the unassuming duo apart from their helmet-wearing, vividly-dressed peers.
Released on April 7, 1997, Dig Your Own Hole marks a major milestone in The Chemical Brothers’ discography, and a pivotal moment in electronic music history. 20 years ago, dance music of any stripe was a difficult sell to rock audiences. And although it was gaining momentum, “electronica” – a catch-all genre that encompassed everything from Orbital to Autechre – was nevertheless a relatively underground phenomenon, especially in America.
But new media channels, including the burgeoning internet, were making it easier to discover previously unknown artists, and The Chemical Brothers’ raucous marriage of hip-hop, rock and rave aesthetics appealed immensely to listeners across disparate musical scenes. In retrospect, Dig Your Own Hole was an important work that defined the big beat sound, ultimately making it acceptable for Oasis fans to appreciate dance music — and vice versa.
The Chemical Brothers weren’t as ostensibly hallucinogenic as the Orb, who had released Orblivion, their best-selling record to date, in February of 1997; they weren’t as ham-fisted as Fatboy Slim, whose album Better Living Through Chemistry nipped at the heels of The Chemical Brothers’ popular 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust. They were tougher than Underworld, yet less sophisticated than Autechre and the Warp stable.
At least one publication dubbed them the Beavis and Butthead of techno
They didn’t present an outlandish visual identity. Neither Tom Rowlands nor Ed Simons sported twin purple mohawks like the Prodigy’s Keith Flint, or wore space-age helmets like Daft Punk, or had headlamps on their spectacles like Orbital — who simultaneously released their theme for blockbuster action reboot The Saint on April 7. The Chemical Brothers, lurking behind the scenes and their mixing board, looked more like typical schlubs (at least one periodical dubbed them the “Beavis and Butthead of techno”) leaving listeners to wonder: who is this doing this synthetic type of alpha-beta psychedelic fuckin’…?
For faces up front, The Chemical Brothers tapped singer-songwriter Beth Orton, who had performed on Exit Planet Dust, to lend her voice to the morning-after anthem ‘Where Do I Begin?’. And apparently, after admiring their collaboration with Tim Burgess of indie rock band The Charlatans, Noel Gallagher, while bantering casually backstage at Glastonbury, offered to sing on any forthcoming single. The Chemical Brothers’ collaborative work and adroit sampling across the stylistic and chronological spectrum — from Rare Earth and the Rhythm Makers to Schoolly D’s 1989 ‘Gucci Again’ — would garner them the mainstream audience’s elusive attention.
It was the internet that helped propel The Chemical Brothers from Manchester into suburban homes across America
Concurrently, the American press started taking a bigger interest in the duo, with feature-length interviews in magazines like Rolling Stone and SPIN. Music video broadcasters MTV in the US and MuchMusic in Canada, too, were moving away from grunge and alternative rock, and pushing electronica. MTV inaugurated its electronic music-themed AMP show in 1996, and MuchMusic increasingly began featuring electronica acts on its popular news weekly, The New Music (hosted at the time by Avi Lewis, now spouse to Naomi Klein). These innovative audiovisual media outlets introduced artists like The Chemical Brothers to far-flung and geographically diverse audiences. And Dig Your Own Hole produced three extraordinary video singles — dom&nic’s ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ and ‘Setting Sun’, and the Spike Jonze-directed ‘Electrobank’ — a remarkable feat for one album.
But it was the internet, or rather the enthusiasm surrounding it, that helped propel The Chemical Brothers from Manchester into suburban homes across America — when Microsoft licensed ‘Chemical Beats’, a track from their debut album, for an Internet Explorer TV advert. Electronica, with its opaque deployment of state-of-the-art music technologies, seemed like the ideal genre to promote Bill Gates and Silicon Valley’s technotopian, futuristic vision. Little did The Chemical Brothers know that, by buying into this novel worldwide network, they were effectively digging their own hole: it was only a matter of time before tech-savvy computer users realized that, in addition to chatting online, they could share virtually anything digital, including music.
Still, the electronic music communities of 1997 may have been the last to coalesce authentically, in meatspace, before Napster, Myspace and their descendants rerouted cultural circulation. I caught The Chemical Brothers’ performance at the Rage in Vancouver on May 8, 1997. It was one of those gigs where, at a certain point, you turn around from the foot of the stage and witness an entire crowd moving in unison — girls, boys, brown skin, yellow skin, red skin, white skin — a brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind.
It’s 20 years on, and I haven’t so much rediscovered The Chemical Brothers. The truth is, for the past two decades, they’ve never really left regular rotation. Dig Your Own Hole holds up remarkably well in contrast to so many of its contemporaries: the riffs still wail, the fills still flam, the bass still bangs, and the beats are still big enough to rock the block.