The act with the first arena-sized sound in the electronica movement, the Chemical Brothers united such varying influences as Public Enemy, Cabaret Voltaire, and My Bloody Valentine to create a dance-rock-rap fusion that rivaled the best old-school DJs on their own terms — keeping a crowd of people on the floor by working through any number of groove-oriented styles featuring unmissable samples, from familiar guitar riffs to vocal tags to various sound effects. And when the duo (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) decided to supplement their DJ careers by turning their bedrooms into recording studios, they pioneered a style of music (later termed big beat) remarkable for its lack of energy loss from the dancefloor to the radio. Chemical Brothers albums were less collections of songs and more hourlong journeys, chock-full of deep bomb-studded beats, percussive breakdowns, and effects borrowed from a host of sources. All in all, the duo proved one of the few exceptions to the rule that intelligent dance music could never be bombastic nor truly satisfying to the seasoned rock fan; it’s hardly surprising that they were one of the few dance acts to enjoy simultaneous success in the British/American mainstream and in critical quarters.
While growing up, both Rowlands and Simons grooved to an eccentric musical diet, ranging from the Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain to Kraftwerk and Public Enemy. They met while taking the same history course at Manchester University, though neither was a native Mancunian — Rowlands enrolled because of the legendary Haçienda nightclub nearby, while Simons acknowledged the city as birthplace to the Smiths and New Order. The pair began sampling Madchester’s vibrant nightclub scene together during 1989 and 1990, just at the peak of Britain’s fascination with a DJ’ing style named Balearic. Pioneered at the island hot spot of Ibiza during the mid-’80s, Balearic relied on a blend of early house music, Italian disco, rare-groove jazz and funk, Northern soul, hip-hop, and alternative dance. Original Balearic DJs like Trevor Fung, Paul Oakenfold, and Mike Pickering brought the sound back to indie clubs in London and Manchester, and the style proved very attractive to musical eclectics like Rowlands and Simons.