Unlike book jackets, album covers reveal a lot about the musicians they depict. DJ Irene poses for her CDs with bikini babes and blinging decks. Paul Oakenfold takes to turntables in the clouds as if he's God's personal DJ. Ferry Corsten's Moonshine mix depicts him shaking the hands of hundreds of fans mid-set. Meanwhile, the murky cover of Dieselboy's latest full-length, The Dungeonmaster's Guide, is designed to appeal to fans of... Dungeons and Dragons.
"I really wanted to reference my role-playing game past," the drum 'n' bass DJ says confidently of his new D&D-themed opus. "I wanted to nod to the hardcore gamers and tell them, 'Hey, I'm one of you.' I'm not afraid to be a nerd."
If you're gathering that Dieselboy, born Damien Higgins, is not like other DJs, you're right. He's painstaking, methodical, and not afraid to wear his influences on his (record) sleeves. He's been pushing drum 'n' bass -- the electronic hybrid of hip-hop breakbeats and relentless techno sounds -- for the last 14 years, long before the critics discovered it and long after they declared it "dead." And he's known as America's premier drum 'n' bass DJ for good reason -- no one else has pushed the music so tirelessly or branded it as effectively.
Higgins grew up in small towns across the country. The son of Bertie Higgins, a drummer and Jimmy Buffett peer who had a number-one hit in the 1970s with "Key Largo," and, he says, the great-great-grandson of German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, he was born in the North Florida town of Tarpon Springs. From there, he moved to other small towns, including Colorado City, Colorado, and Oil Springs, Pennsylvania. He always had a passion for discovering new music, but in the era before the Internet, this passion entailed a lot more work. "I would read the charts in [British music magazines] like NME and Melody Maker and then go to the local music store at the mall and look for the tracks," he explains of his quest for untested sounds. "They would randomly get electronic stuff; like, I had Lil' Louis' 'French Kiss' on cassette single."
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By the time he was enrolled in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, Higgins had become immersed in electronic music. He had also started to DJ at clubs and house parties. There was just one problem: He was broke. Putting himself through college left him no money for food -- or to buy expensive records. So he got resourceful.
"I worked at the Pittsburgh Zoo selling food," he says. "I did a lot of medical research; I tested many different drugs. I tested Xanax, and they put this electrode cap on my head, and I was in this place from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. for seven weekends in a row for $1000 bucks. I ate ramen noodles, and I would buy biscuits in a can and the cheapest lunchmeat and make sandwiches. I developed a good work ethic early on; I really had to rely on myself."
"Work ethic" is putting it mildly -- in fact, Higgins has often seemed like the embodiment of Kraftwerk's man/machine ideal. More than any other DJ, he's helped create an image for drum 'n' bass, painting it as the music of a high-tech, science fiction-like future. That theme was perfectly displayed on mix CDs like 2000's System Upgrade (Moonshine) and The 6ixth Session (Palm Pictures) -- on whose cover he's rendered as a 3D cyborg -- where he blended crushingly high-speed breakbeats (track names include "Mindscan," "Render," and "Shrapnel") using his trademark pristine precision. Higgins is also known for being the essence of technical behind the DJ decks -- never dancing, rarely smiling, always concentrating. Couple that with a seemingly endless series of projects -- running Philly club night Platinum, producing tracks, and being on the road nearly 200 nights of the year -- and it's no surprise that Dieselboy often seems superhuman.
"I do feel like a lot of people look at me as some kind of machine or robot," he concurs. "But anyone who knows me outside of DJing knows I'm much more human and down-to-earth than that." When he started a record label in conjunction with System Recordings in 2002, Higgins thought he might as well reflect that idea directly by calling the imprint HUMAN. Though the 12-inch releases (many of which are compiled on the Project Human CD) were often just as hard and driving as they had been previously, Higgins had started to cross-pollinate drum 'n' bass with other genres, including metal, hip-hop, and trance.
"The 6ixth Session had a really mechanical techno sound to it, and with Project Human, I was trying to have a more analog feel to the tracks," Higgins explains. "That's always a mission of mine, just to get more people to listen to music. When I play at shows, I don't work my sets to focus on just the drum 'n' bass elite, who just tend to like a certain techno sound. I try to play a little bit of everything, just in case there's some people in the audience that aren't familiar with [the music]; they might be able to hear something that they're into in it."
Higgins knows that drum 'n' bass will never be mainstream by pop standards, but even after all these years, he's still finding new spins to put on the genre.
"With D'n'B, you're very limited by the speed of the music and the sound of the music, but there's not a lot of competition in the marketplace. It has its own solid niche, and I'm trying to take as big of an advantage of that scene as I can. Sometimes, I look at [trance DJ] Tiesto and I'm like, 'I picked the wrong music to play. I could be playing at the Olympics!' but I really don't think I want to be on MTV and all that," he says with an uncharacteristic calm. "I'm really kind of happy where I'm at right now."
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