By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's easy to make Damian Higgins laugh. Doesn't take much effort at all, really. The key, as it turns out, is to question how much work it actually takes to put together a mix CD or, specifically, doubt the amount of work it takes him to assemble one. He's not even writing the songs, just digging through his record crates to find a dozen or so tracks to string together into one continuous whole, right? Couldn't take more than a couple of hours, especially since he's a professional DJ, spinning records most nights of the week at various nightspots around the country and the world; at worst, compiling one of these mixes must be like batting practice, another trip through the motions. Figure it takes him less time than most people spend recording mix tapes for that girl they saw at that show. Hard to figure out which Smiths song sounds sensitive instead of sinister. Or just sad.
Which is why Higgins is laughing right now, a parent chuckling at a toddler who's crafted a birthday cake out of mud. Sure, he knows all too well why that impression circulates from the cynics and critics, why some would consider the art of the mix CD more or less the DJ equivalent of a mobbed-up no-show job; just take a trip to the nearest record store, he says, and there's more than enough evidence to hang the guilty. He's also confident that no jury would convict him of similar crimes. Better known to those who know him as Dieselboy--or "the reigning champ of American drum 'n' bass," according to Urb Magazine, a sentiment echoed so often by the likes of DJ Times, BPM Culture and others, you'd expect to see it on the spine of his albums--Higgins just released his seventh mix CD since 1996, the ambitious projectHUMAN. And he's about to explain the difference between most mix CDs and the ones he puts together. Listen up:
"You go to the electronica section of Best Buy and grab some mix CDs, and most of these CDs, some schmo DJ fucking picked out 15 tunes that he or she likes, maybe tunes that are big, that are in their box, and OK, they mix them together," Higgins begins. "'OK, this is my mix CD.' And they put it in a package and sell it. When I do a CD, like, for example, projectHUMAN, I come up with a concept. I have to get tracks that aren't out yet--and when you do a mix CD, you have to do it, like four months before release. So I have to get tracks that aren't going to be out four months after I finish it. For this one I went and enlisted all these artists to do special remixes for me. I went in and made a special intro and outro, hired a guy that does voice-overs for movie trailers. Wrote a script for him and had him read from my intro. Went in with a graphic designer and worked hand in hand with this graphic designer to come up with a certain look for the CD.
"I mean, I really put 1,000 percent effort into it," he continues. "Mix CDs, for me, they could be easy, one-shot things, but I make them more challenging than that. I just want to do something different, and I'm in a position to do something different, so why not raise the bar a little bit, push it a little bit farther if you can? For the most part, most mix CDs, you know, stuff that sells a lot, like, say, [LTJ] Bukem's CDs--all it is, is a compilation of, like 10, 12 tracks, maybe with a small intro. That's it. There's nothing to it. To be honest, as far as mix CDs go, I don't know of anyone else that puts as much time and effort and energy into it as I do."
You don't have to take Higgins' word for it: Spread over two discs, projectHUMAN's 24 tracks find Higgins and an assortment of top-notch producers (E-sassin, Hive, Technical Itch, Stratus) breaking beats over a wide variety of electronic music, until everything from house to trance to hip-hop to (of course) drum 'n' bass is showered with the shrapnel. (As for projectHUMAN's concept, it's something about man fighting machine. Or, as the familiar voice of movie-trailer narrator Don LaFontaine puts it in the Terminator-worthy introduction to the disc, "Our own technology has turned against us, leading a race of synthetic lifeforms bent on the annihilation of one species alone...ours." Not that any of it matters, necessarily.) On Higgins' watch, it's all mixed, remixed and mixed again until the originals wouldn't recognize themselves in the mirror, their lungs burning as a 100-yard dash turns into a marathon without missing any beats. Different styles and sounds bang into each other until every electronic music pigeonhole looks like a shotgun blast and they're all dripping sweat onto the same dance floor. As Styles of Beyond say on "Subculture" (cut up by Dieselboy and Kaos), Higgins and the "team of rogue scientists" that turn up on projectHUMAN "don't give a kcuf like the f-word reversed." It's all just music.