Holes director Andrew Davis liked the idea of a prisoner’s song. In the midst of developing the film in the early 2000s, Davis had been listening to a lot of southern Americana music, getting into the spirit of a juvenile correctional boot camp in the Texas desert. As the filmmaking team envisioned the story’s dried-out location and daily hole-digging punishments, Davis couldn’t help but think about instituting a collective melody for his beaten-down characters. “What if we could have something that brought in elements of hip-hop along with the more grounded elements of a chain-gang?” he thought. Perhaps surprisingly, that track turned into a straight-up jam—and is, arguably, the most memorable and enduring part of the movie.
The idea for “Dig It” (as the song was eventually titled) crystallized a few weeks into production, on the back of a bus. Led by Shia Labeouf, the musically-inclined teenage cast had begun freestyle rapping and singing about their orange jumpsuits, calloused hands, and the blistering sun on their way to set. It didn’t take long for producers to hear their creativity and realize they should capitalize on their multi-talented actors. Music supervisor Karyn Rachtman put together a production team of Mickey Petralia and Michael Fitzpatrick to build out a track, reserve a Hollywood studio, and turn the “D-Tent” boys of Camp Green Lake into a legit, hip-hop outfit. “There was really no idea of what it was going to be,” says Max Kasch, who played Zig-Zag. “It came out of nowhere.”
Kasch’s soul-affirming baritone kicks things off against a backdrop of shovels before the hypnotic piano-driven beat drops. Throughout its four-minute runtime, the other members of the D-Tent—LaBeouf (“Caveman”), Byron Cotton (“Armpit”), Brenden Jefferson (“X-Ray”), and Khleo Thomas (“Zero”)—spit verses about their characters (“What’s that you smell? Dog, that’s me”). “It had the actors singing, it had them in character, it was a musical moment,” Rachtman says. “When a song is really created for the film and about the film, it’s a lovely marriage.”
Holes, an adaptation of Louis Sachar’s Newberry prize-winning children’s book, earned strong reviews by melding a faithful adaptation with entertaining camaraderie from its young cast, tripling its budget at the box office. But the earworm status of “Dig It” took on a life of its own. Released 20 years ago, the song remains a nostalgic millennial staple. “These things can just go and get lost, but for some odd reason, for anyone who was a part of it when it arrived, it still hits,” Thomas says. “That’s how you know we made a classic.”
After mostly working on action movies throughout his career, Davis had been eager to try his hand at a family movie. When producer and collaborator Teresa Tucker Davies suggested he adapt Holes, he fell in love with the story, believing he could make a grounded version of Sachar’s 1998 novel. Upon hearing the pair’s pitch, Sachar felt the same way—eventually, Davis asked the author to help with the script andcasting. “I just felt they were his characters and I didnt want him fighting with anybody,” Davis says. “It worked out great.”
In addition to the usual casting calls, the filmmakers combed through Los Angeles high school theater departments, finding the right mix of raw talent and personalities to orbit around LeBeouf, the Even Stevens star who auditioned and immediately became Davis’s choice for Stanley. “They were kids who had a lot of life and had a lot of culture, and everyone was into music or rap of some sort,” Davis remembers. A month after solidifying the cast, the D-Tent crew began training for their long and grueling desert shoots. Led by stunt coordinator Alex Reynolds, the group engaged in team-building activities: long hikes, light weight lifting, rope climbing, and nature walks. “We did some digging just to get a lot of the form and function down,” Kasch says. “He whipped us up for a couple weeks and bonded us together.”
The preparation was vital: During filming, the boys shoveled inside of 120-degree holes and battled raging dust storms swirling around the Cuddeback dry lake bed north of Los Angeles. Upon returning to their Ridgecrest hotel each evening, they played video games, hung poolside, and developed friendships in the blistering heat. “Thomas says they, “found ways to keep the energy alive.”
Specifically, they turned to music. Over the first few weeks of production, during hour-long bus rides to set, Kasch began messing around with his guitar to kill time. Influenced by some Appalachian folk tunes he’d been listening to at the time, he wondered: “What’s a song these people might sing out here while they’re doing this grueling labor?” Soon, his cast members were spitting made-up raps about their characters. “There would be somebody beat boxing, and then Shia would say something and then I would say something,” Thomas says. “We would just roll like that for 10 to 15 minutes until someone would start it up again. ‘Oh you know what you could say? The yellow-spotted lizard, it’s cooler than a blizzard…’”
Eventually, their raps made it to the front of the bus, where Davies quickly realized the D-Tent crew could be the answer that her director was looking for. “They were doing some Holes-related stuff, but they were just doing anything that came into their heads,” Davies says. “I remember meeting with each of them in the trailer with their little notebooks and they would tell me their verse.” Inspired by the multi-talented cast, Rachtman, who had previously helped put together the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction, hired music producer Mickey Petralia in the middle of shooting and began laying out the basics of an end-credits song. “I do remember going to the set with Mickey and pitching Andrew a ‘No Diggity’-type song but called ‘Dig It,’” Rachtman says.
Along with Petralia, producer Michael Fitzpatrick began building a beat for the boys to rhyme over. “I think we really wanted to capture the sense that these young boys were working their butts off, trying to include percussion elements using these unusual elements like a pickaxe or shovel sound, and then manipulating them and layering them with drums,” Fitzpatrick says. As Blank oversaw its development, he wasn’t sure if the boys’ bus freestyles would translate inside a recording studio, so he scheduled a Saturday creative session in Hollywood, bringing in veteran rapper Doug E. Fresh to help with each actor’s verse. “It all came together really quickly,” Kasch says. “A couple weeks later they said, ‘We’ve got the track made, just bring your part in and we’ll produce it.’”
Each cast member recorded their individual verse, getting help with syllable counts and rhyme schemes. But it was Kasch who blew everyone away when he broke out with the song’s introductory vocal. “Youuuuu’ve got to go and dig those holes,” he soulfully croons with a deep baritone that shocked Blank and Rachtman (“I remember hearing Max’s voice and going, ‘Oh shit,’” she says), and gave the song an unexpected gravitas. “That’s not really my natural singing register, but I had been listening to a tremendous amount of that music,” Kasch says. “It was really just an affectation.”
Throughout the tracking day, Fitzpatrick remembers the energy being “hilarious” and “chaotic.” After all, these were young teenagers in a major studio being treated like rap stars. “If anything, it was just trying to calm them all down and wrangle them so they could actually get the track done,” Fitzpatrick says. But after spending several weeks bonding on set together, the musical chemistry shined through. As Davis notes, “they had been at war together by the time we did the song,” so when they stepped up to the mics, Rachtman says, “they were already those characters, already wearing their orange jumpsuits, and already had their group dynamic worked out.”
Blank walked away from the session extremely pleased; a couple weeks after production wrapped, he brought everyone back to the studio to mix an official version for a Disney Channel music video. “In the soundtrack business we’d make a video and it was an incredible promotion for the movie and it would sell your song,” Rachtman says. “We don’t have those opportunities any more.”
Throughout its theatrical run, Holes earned $71 million at the global box office, a modest hit against a $20 million budget. But the song and music video made heavy rounds on Disney Channel and Radio Disney over the summer, fueling promotional campaigns that helped it land on Radio Disney Jams, Volume 6, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Kid Album charts. “If you called in every time they would play ‘Dig It,’ you would have a chance to meet me, come to California and ‘Dig for a prize,’” Thomas says. “They ended up getting well over eight million phone calls—something wild. The Disney branding behind it pushed it into the stratosphere.”
In the two decades since it debuted, it’s become a nostalgic reminder of the movie’s dedication to its source material and the ebullient chemistry of its cast. It’s also still just a damn good song. Last February, Thomas performed “Dig it” in Los Angeles for a “Be Our Guest” event, in which a DJ plays Disney-themed music. Inside the crowded venue, Thomas wore a Zero varsity jacket and rapped out his cast members’ parts, which were drowned out by the audience singing over him. “That was the perfect atmosphere to perform the song for the first time,” he says. “We put together this cool video of Madame Zeroni, it glitched out, my name dropped, and people lost it. It was a great, great moment.”
The song isn’t available to stream, but the afterlife of “Dig it” remains tethered to the movie and book’s popularity. “Because the book is required reading, there’s a whole new generation of school kids that are reading the book and then seeing the film. It’s constantly renewed,” Kasch says. The movie has also become the subject of numerous memes and TikTok videos, continuing its reach over social media. “It was The Goonies for that generation,” Fitzpatrick says. “It was a movie that came out for all these young adults that really resonated for them. It had a lot of connection to kids’ own sense of independence. That made it so magical.”
Though Blank had no idea “Dig it” would transcend the movie, he felt strongly about Davis’s original inspiration and its synergistic potential. The fact that he and Rachtman treated the cast members like real artists and hired legitimate producers only helped set it up for lasting success.
“You’ve got to make movies with soul, you know?” Davis says. “The book and material had a lot of soul. A lot of relevant shit. I just felt very lucky to have a team that could put together and create that song—and the kids who were able to contribute to it.”