[AUTRE PLAYLIST] Mid-90s Proto-Arena Techno

text by Adam Lehrer

Back in the mid-‘90s, when in the wake of Nirvana, major labels would literally sign anything that appeared remotely “alternative,” electronic music had a powerful but brief explosion in the mainstream. This is way before Skrillex ditched his emo band after frying at a Daft Punk show and almost a decade before EDC would congregate to try and avoid teen deaths. 

The summer of ’97 was an important one for me. I was OBSESSED with music. I was glued to MTV and would go with my mom to the grocery store so I could stay in the car and listen to alternative rock video. I was only nine, but I was getting exposed to the music that would shape me as a music fan: Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream, Nirvana Nevermind, Radiohead OK Computer, Wu Tang Enter the 36 Chambers. I’d log into a dial-in modem and wait for 10 minutes to get to the Spin Magazine website. My first issue of Rolling Stone had Marilyn Manson on the cover. Pop music was all I thought about.

One morning while watching MTV I came across what I correctly thought was a terrifying video of what I incorrectly defined as some sort of horrific agro metal band. The video was for The Prodigy’s ‘Breathe,’ the first single from their 1997 breakthrough The Fat of the Land. I didn’t know what to think at first, it was a little intense for me.

Later, Kurt Loder (AKA GOD) delivered an MTV news brief that The Prodigy was in fact an electronic dance music group from the UK and that they were part of a movement of electronic dance groups that were breaking through to the mainstream. Other groups and DJs included in this segment were actually already quite successful in the underground Orbital, the white trash meth tweakers Crystal Method, and the Chemical Brothers who were about to release their landmark record Dig Your Own Hole. I was immediately drawn to the Chemical Brothers’ release ‘Block Rockin Beats,’ it had a similar physical effect on me to the first time that I heard my favorite Wu Tang songs. The grooves just pulsate. I went to the mall with my grandmother who would often let me shop at Hot Topic. She spoiled me with copies of Dig Your Own Hole, Fat of the Land, and a navy blue Chemical Brothers t-shirt (really wish I still had that thing).

Within a year, this electronic music craze died down. The Chemical Brothers followed up with the successful Surrender, but they found themselves relegated to cult success. The Prodigy was never able to top Fat of the Land. Alternative rock radio moved on to nu-metal, and MTV moved on to to Britney and boy bands. But my love of electronic music endured and grew more far out. Soon enough, I was devouring Sonic Youth at the same rate that I was Aphex Twin and Autechre.

Now dance music is a multi-billion dollar business, and much of the music has dumbed down because of it. I don’t hold much resentment towards Skrillex and his ilk, but I do hold a little bit of resentment towards the culture that surrounds his music. At any rate, it took groups like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers, and later Daft Punk of course, to show that electronic music could be amped up to exist within a stadium context. They broke down the barriers.

Today I am going to see The Chemical Brothers headline the first night of EDC. I fear that I will be one of the oldest people there, but also that I might be one of the few Chemical Brothers fans in the audience. There is still so much amazing electronic music being made, but these festivals cater to the lowest common denominator of the genre. I’ll try and not care, fry my face off, and try and tap into that nine-year-old kid who wondered what getting, “lost in a K-Hole meant.”

Adam Lehrer is a writer, journalist, and art and fashion critic based in New York City. On top of being Autre’s fashion and art correspondent, he is also a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine. His unique interests in punk, hip hop, skateboarding and subculture have given him a distinctive, discerning eye and voice in the world of culture, et al. Oh, and he also loves The Sopranos. Follow him on Instagram: @adam102287