“Chemical Beats”, “Dust Up Beats”, “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”… “Block Rockin’ Beats” is the latest (and joint last) in a Chemical Brothers naming convention that plays up functionality – a beat is something designed to be used, after all. But used for what? What was “big beat”, anyway?
One thing it wasn’t was hip-hop – where the idea of “a beat” as a hand-tooled studio creation, rather than something a rhythm section puts down in real-time, comes from. Hip-hop beats typically exist to be given to others: a genre that is so often about coping with and beating material circumstances dramatizes that in the most direct way possible, with a rapper proving their mastery over someone’s production choices.
Of course, that isn’t all hip-hop beats do. The Chemical Brothers came to prominence at a time when instrumental hip-hop was getting more attention than it had since the Grandmaster Flash era – most publications had found plenty of room for DJ Shadow in their 1996 round-ups, a man presenting his moody, head-nodding productions as a purifying moral force in hip-hop. But when the Chemical Brothers do moody, they tend to draft in singers – and the smoky, austere loops of trip-hop have nothing to do with “Block Rockin’ Beats”.
So what is it? Club music, music for dancing – but not music built around a particular groove. “Block Rockin’ Beats” is an itchy-footed track – it’s constantly darting this way and that, clattering to halts, throwing hoots and screeches at its listener. The snatch of Schooly D that gives us the title is a false promise – “Block Rockin’ Beats” hardly settles down to being a beat. It’s working by a different set of rules.
Those rules being, roughly, indie disco rules. To make a very broad and obvious generalisation – people dancing to, say, house music are responding to the groove; people dancing to indie music are responding to their familiarity with the song. A rhythmic instrumental track designed to be played to an indie crowd is cut off from the obvious verse-chorus structure that encourages familiarity, but it can fill the gap by packing itself brimful of incident and riding on a big riff. This is what “Block Rockin’ Beats” does, and why it’s such a good time. Every funny noise or breakdown is a big, obvious cue to a crowd used to big, obvious, chorus-shaped cues. You can take the approach too far and end up with a clown car of a track, but it’s a good approach: I’m an indie dancer myself, and can testify that it works.
We’ve been here before, long ago. This same conclusion – sell a rhythmic instrumental track by keeping people distracted – is the same one Jet Harris and Tony Meehan reached back in 1961. “Block Rockin’ Beats” comes out of a different and more raucous world (with a different version of “Apache”, for starters) but obeys the same principles as “Diamonds”. Maybe it is all ‘dance music’, after all.