Dance music is about transcendence, about the moment of epiphany. Historically, you’re supposed to experience that epiphany in a club or at a vast outdoor rave, dancing, when everything peaks at the right time. The Chemical Brothers were one of the defining dance-music groups of their era, and they’re my favorite, by some distance. But I didn’t have my Chemical Brothers epiphany in a club. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even ever heard a Chemical Brothers track in a club. Instead, I had my epiphany while driving my parents’ minivan cross-country, going to see a girl who lived in a different town. I was driving that thing over this one bridge in the northern part of Maryland, near the Delaware border. It was a bright, hot day, and the sun was glinting off the water just right, and “Where Do I Begin” was playing, and everything felt like it was right with the world. It was a perfect moment, a moment I flash back on everytime I hear the song. So maybe that’s the Chemical Brothers’ distinction: They’re the dance-music group whose epiphanies were built for road trips, not for clubs.
In 1997, the idea was that we’d all be having moments like this. The music press was very into the idea of electronica — that was what they called it then — revolutionizing the way we listened to music, turning it into something other than a cult of personality. This music was supposed to move the focus to the people moving in the crowd, and the feelings bouncing around in your own chest, rather than the anonymous dudes pushing buttons in the DJ booth. That did eventually happen; if you go to a music festival today, a big-name DJ is usually a far bigger draw than almost any rock band. It just took time. But at the time, the idea was that there would be gateway drugs — artists who could convince audiences who’d grown up on alt-rock stars that something better was out there.
The Prodigy represented one way of doing that. They were rock stars, and they carried themselves as such, thrashing around onstage rather than letting the spotlight go anywhere else. Their songs weren’t about transcendence; they were four-minute wallows in fury. And they worked; for at least a little while, they were topping charts and headlining alt-rock radio-station festivals in the US. The Chemical Brothers were something else. They were just as anonymous as, say, Orbital, but their music was essentially psychedelic rock transposed into a new era. Their sound wasn’t tick-tock minimalism; it was vast and overwhelming, all these waves of drums and guitars and samples and siren-sounds washing over you. And at least in North America, that was a harder sell.
In their native UK, the Chems pretty much owned their moment. They had, after all, gotten Noel Gallagher, at his world-conquering peak, to sing on “Setting Sun,” the starry-eyed and vaguely Beatlesque single that would turn out to be a generational anthem. Listening to “Setting Sun” today, Gallagher barely even registers; all those galloping drums and seesawing who-knows-what noises handily upstage him. But you can appreciate the symbolism of the moment. At the height of the lad era, these guys got King Lad to growl over their berserk battering-ram noises. And while the Chems might’ve explicitly pitched themselves at the kids trying every new kind of drug — it’s right there in their name, after all — they also made music that sounded fantastic when you were drunk. And “Setting Sun” might be the greatest drunken-singalong anthem of a genre that was supposed to kill off drunken-singalong anthems for good.
But then, the Chemical Brothers were pretty much looking at all of rock history as a buffet to be raided. Their drums sounded sweaty and organic, not meticulously programmed, and it made sense that they brought in veteran session drummer Simon Phillips to play on “Elektrobank.” Their riffs hammered and surged the way actual guitar riffs do, even if they were just using siren noises or whatever. Hearing those songs, big and loud and overwhelming and new, felt the same way I imagine it might’ve felt to go see an acid-rock band in 1967. But you always knew that the Chems were record-collecting nerds, not rock stars. And Dig Your Own Hole is a masterpiece of wading through other people’s records, the same way that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….. had been a few months earlier. The difference, of course, was that Endtroducing….. was a meditative internal odyssey, and the Chems made sure everything exploded outward.
That meant they treated rap music the same way they treated rock. Rap, to the Chems, was a signifier, an element in play. They’d learned from the way old-school hip-hop DJs had chopped up breakbeats; chopped-up breakbeats were, after all, the backbone of their sound. And they’d used DJ Kool Herc’s grainy vocals, recorded at one of their own New York shows, to introduce “Elektrobank.” But Dig Your Own Hole sounded nothing like rap. Rap was merely a disembodied voice saying some cool shit, as with the sample of Keith Murray asking “Who is this doin this emphatic type a disco alpha beta psychedelic fuckin’,” a typically verbose Murray line that sounded a whole lot better when turned into an infinite-repeat refrain. The voice on “Block Rockin’ Beats” famously belonged to Schooly D, the ’80s street-rap innovator, and that track was the first time I ever heard a song with no non-sampled vocals become a high-school anthem, though Fatboy Slim’s “The Rockafeller Skank” would surpass it soon enough. It didn’t matter that the Chemical Brothers never had to rock any actual blocks — at least not the ones Schooly D had been talking about. It sounded cool, and that was what mattered. If the Chems thought something sounded cool, they found room for it in what they did.
But then and now, the album’s best moments were the ones where the Chems stopped worrying about rocking any sort of block, real or imagined. The Chems essentially figured out how to put together a dance music album with their debut, 1995’s Exit Planet Dust. They frontloaded the bangers, and they let the weird, swirling, vaguely introspective jams take over as things ended. That way, the album could follow the arc of a party, or a high. With Dig Your Own Hole, they perfected that approach. With the penultimate track, the aforementioned “Where Do I Begin,” they brought in Beth Orton for a stoned meditation on waking up hungover and not being sure of your own reality. They built that into its own kind of anthem, with waves of sound crashing over each other, but they never lost the sense of wonder and confusion that Orton brought to the song. (I always wished the Chems would team up with Orton for a full album. There’s still time!) And they followed that one up with “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” a sitar-driven nine-minute zone-out, with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue doing free-jazz clarinet tootles, that ranks as one of the finest album closers of my lifetime. For a kid like me, reared on rap and metal and alt-rock and punk, those two tracks didn’t just help me understand dance music. They helped me understand psych-rock, too.
Dig Your Own Hole remains the Chemical Brothers’ masterpiece, and they released it at the exact right time, the moment when this new dance music seemed poised to take over the world. That did not, of course, happen. Rap-metal came along and ate its lunch, and the word “electronica” continues to trigger music-dork snickering two decades after. Still, the Chemical Brothers shot their shot. And even if they did not become global stars as a result, that goodwill still allows them to headline rock festivals. (It says something about their sound that the Chems never get invited to the Electric Zoos of the world but that they can still get booked at Coachella whenever they please.) And they left a trail of blown minds in their wake. I’m guessing that’s what matters the most to them. At least, I hope so. It sure as hell is what matters the most to me.