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.
Planet of the Drums with Dieselboy, Dara, AK1200 and Messinian
"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.
Actually, Higgins does give a "kcuf": projectHUMAN is no accident, a big bang occurring by happenstance. He's spent the past few years honing his ideas and sharpening his considerable skills, beginning with his 1999 mix, A Soldier's Story. His first two efforts, 1996's Drum and Bass Selection USA and 1997's 97 Octane (both for U.K. label Suburban Base), were pretty much for-hire projects; Suburban Base, for the most part, came up with the track listing, and Higgins didn't have much control. The follow-up, 1998's Six Eleven DJ Mix Series, Volume One, compiled for his then-roommate Nigel Richards' 611 Records, gave Higgins more control, but it was mostly a practice run for what would come next.
His next three mixes, A Soldier's Story, System Upgrade and The 6ixth Session (both released in 2000), were prototypes for projectHUMAN, each set tied together as much by ideas as they are Higgins' needle-dropping, whether it's Story's militaristic menace or Upgrade's big-beat body-and-soul reboot or even 6ixth Session's no-concept focus. And like projectHUMAN, 6ixth Session displays Dieselboy's developing skills as a producer; 6ixth Session was packaged with a disc of his own material, including "Invid," a track that hit Billboard's dance chart. The Billboard appearance was appropriate--and rare for a drum 'n' bass DJ--since the chart was responsible for Higgins' current career. Sort of.
Higgins grew up in the sticks of Pennsylvania; his graduating class was 38 people until he entered high school, he says, where it jumped to about 250 students. When he was in junior high, one of his cousins used to frequent dance clubs, and he'd bring Higgins mix tapes and 12-inch singles, remixes of Madonna and whoever else was popular at the time. In high school, he devoured his sister's tape collection, listening to Depeche Mode and New Order "and every band that tried to sound like them," as well as industrial acts like Nitzer Ebb and Nine Inch Nails. And he'd look in the back of Rolling Stone at the Billboard dance charts, buying cassingles of every name he saw there. Everything he picked up turned him onto something else, every new discovery prompting a dozen more. "It was weird," Higgins says. "I look back and I see some of the music I was listening to in high school, and even in junior high, and considering the towns I lived in, it surprises me, like, how the fuck I even found some of this stuff." Now, Higgins is waiting for some lonely kid in the middle of nowhere to discover him.
But he's not exactly waiting. Higgins is on the phone from his apartment in Philadelphia at the moment, but he's rarely there, flying from Hong Kong to Helsinki with his record bag in tow, spinning whenever, wherever. For the next month, he's touring the country for the third time with his fellow members in the Planet of the Drums crew, AK1200 (Dave Minner) and Dara (Dara Guilfoyle), as well as an MC, Messinian. The group, all drum 'n' bass DJs, came together in 1999, when they were booked, as part of "some fluke lineup," Higgins says, to play at a party in New Orleans.
"At that point, I kind of had a realization, like, 'Whoa, I'm actually playing with these guys at the same party. I can't believe it,'" he remembers. At the time, AK1200, Dara and Dieselboy were friendly competitors on the American drum 'n' bass circuit. "And then, I was like, 'You know, it shouldn't be like this. We should all be playing together. That would be cool, you know? People could come see all of us at the same time. It'd be a good show.' We kind of came up with the whole concept then, that we should play together. And then, as we started playing together, we realized that, politically, there was a lot we could do with the fact that we were together. We're gonna try to utilize that to help out the drum 'n' bass scene in the States, kind of stand up for it a bit, you know?"
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And they have: The solidarity has helped the Planet of the Drums clique, and other American drum 'n' bass acts, mount an assault on the notoriously guarded U.K. drum 'n' bass community. Not that they don't respect that country's DJs and producers; they just want a piece of it for themselves. Popularized by the likes of Goldie and Roni Size, drum 'n' bass was birthed in British clubs, and as far as most U.K. acts are concerned, it's still the only place that matters. For years, American drum 'n' bass was the illegitimate child of the family, the familiar-looking kid no one wanted to claim. But thanks to Higgins' rising popularity (yes, even in the U.K.), it's finally beginning to change.
"Slowly but surely," he says. "I think it's getting a better reputation internationally outside of, say, the U.K. I think as more producers over here write better tunes and get them out to people in other countries, I think that's definitely helping our profile overseas. As far as England goes, it's been slow. The British are very protective of this music because, you know, it started in England, and they feel very protective and feel like it's theirs and whatnot. I mean, I just played in Fabric over there a month ago, and I know records from the States are starting to sell over there. I think eventually the shell will crack a bit, and I think people will be open-minded to the idea that people outside of England have the ability to DJ and produce drum 'n' bass."
As far as Higgins' own producing, don't expect a flood of new tracks from him anytime soon, though his next release is, in fact, slated to be a set of original material. Maybe.
"With my schedule, I just can't see myself sitting in a studio for three or four months writing 10 tracks," Higgins says. "I would go crazy and kill people in my neighborhood if I had to do that. Maybe for some people that are hard-core producers, it comes easy, but for me, it doesn't come really easy, and it's almost like writing a term paper. So the thought of doing an album would be like writing 10 20-page term papers in a row with no stop. And it would probably drive anyone crazy. The reason I do what I do is because I really enjoy DJing, and I enjoy playing new music for people that might not have heard it before. Just giving someone something to listen to and enjoy. As far as producing goes, I really do like producing; it's just strenuous and it's really stressful to do...You have to listen to the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. Before a track's done, you'll hear it probably like 2,000, 3,000 times because you're listening to it and listening to it. It drives you crazy after a while." And he laughs again.