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Narcotics, noise and nonconformism: remembering the ragged futurism of The Chemical Brothers on Dig Your Own Hole

In the mid-90s the British beat makers known as The Chemical Brothers exploded onto the international scene with the success of debut album Exit Planet Dust. Developed in the laboratory that was the Manchester acid house scene of the 80s, the duo made up of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were applauded for their huge, boundary pushing sound.

This success ensured high anticipation and expectations for the follow up. Having garnered a reputation as adventurous breakers of tradition, The Chemical Brothers did not disappoint with Dig Your Own Hole, released 20 years ago to the day.

dig your own hole the chemical brothers 20 years old

It’s been 20 years since The Chemical Brothers shattered musical comprehension with Dig Your Own Hole, a sprawling electro fuckfest that still stands tall.

Where do I Begin? was released as the first single from the album in early 1997. The simple soundscape created in this track meshes beautifully with a light tweaking of the voice of guest vocalist Beth Orton, creating a ringing, echoing atmosphere that hints at things to come in Dig Your Own Hole.

However, it wasn’t until Block Rockin’ Beats dropped on March 24th of the same year that the hype reached its frenzied peak. The vocal sample from Schooly D’s 1989 track, Gucci Again, has echoed through the years, so much so that dance floors two decades on are still shifted when they hear the line “Back with another one of those block rockin’ beats”.

This track really epitomises the record as a whole, Rowlands and Simons having taking every energetic musical element they could find and throwing it in a blender. There is no thought of “oh no, we can’t have those two things in the same song”, no fear whatsoever, just heavy, glorious noise.

The Chemical Brothers form a bridge between the acid house craze of the late 80s and the dance music of today, alongside their contemporaries like The Prodigy and Daft Punk. The cacophony present in those old acid rhythms is certainly rearing it’s head in the musical construction of tracks like Elektrobank, but the heavy beats and intermingled hip-hop sampling were a glimpse into the future of electronic music.

Dig Your Own Hole incorporated elements of hip-hop, drum and bass, electronic and modern rock, just to name a few, the combination of which culminated in a record ahead of its time. The Chemical Brothers had no fear of genre, and seemed ultimately to be concerned with simply making music for people to lose their minds dancing to.

The fact that the opening track, Block Rockin’ Beats and the album as a whole, were nominated for Grammys in different genre categories, rock and alternative respectively, points to the album’s (to borrow the modern phrase) genre fluidity. This vicious mashing together of styles was both praised and criticised at the time of the album’s release, but it has certainly been a factor in the continued relevance of the record over the past 20 years.

The modern manifestations of the influence Dig Your Own Hole sustains are too numerous and varied to count. Its hand can be seen at work in sub-genres like dubstep, dwindling though it is, and grime, which is enjoying a resurgence in the British musical landscape.

The album didn’t hesitate to cross genre boundaries and it was this willingness to combine contrary musical elements that gave birth to these sub-genres. That’s not to say that Dig Your Own Hole is solely responsible for the existence of grime, dub or breakbeat, but rather that it was a significant part of the movement that led to their inception.

Listening to Dig Your Own Hole today conjures up simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic sensations. Each track on the album seems to look simultaneously forward and backwards through the musical timeline. Setting Sun retains the tumult of an old-school acid house track through the warbling sitar and heavy guitar riffs, which collides in the most wonderful and chaotic way with Noel Gallagher’s vocal performance.

Similarly, final track The Private Psychadelic Reel refuses to conform to any particular era. The nine and a half minute epic contains too many guitars and has too unconventional a beat to be considered techno, but is also too electronically focused to be rock n roll. Put simply, this is music for dancing without being ‘dance music’.

Or put even more simply, it’s the music of The Chemical Brothers.

At a time when the rock versus electronic debate raged furiously, Rhe Chemical Brothers made a record that basically said “fuck all the posturing, just dance to this”.

And 20 years later, people are still dancing.

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April 7, 2017

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