It's easy to make Damian Higgins laugh. All you have to do is ask him how much work it takes to put together a mix CD. 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 run through the motions.
Higgins is laughing because he knows all too well why that cynical impression circulates. Just take a trip to the nearest record store, he says, and there's more than enough evidence to hang the guilty. But he's confident that no jury would convict him of similar crimes. Better known as Dieselboy -- or "the reigning champ of American drum 'n' bass," according to Urb magazine, a sentiment echoed so often by others, you'd expect to see it on the spine of his albums -- Higgins just released his seventh mix CD, 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 okay, they mix them together And they put it in a package and sell it," Higgins begins.
The Planet of the Drums Tour, featuring Dieselboy, AK1200, DJ Dara and MC Messinian
Hyperia, 2001 Commerce
Wednesday, May 15; 713-224-HYPE or 713-629-3700
"When I do a CD," he continues, "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 him to come up with a certain look for the CD."
"I mean, I really put 1,000 percent effort into it," he insists. "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? Most mix CDs, you know, stuff that sells a lot, like, say, [LTJ] Bukem's CDs -- all it is, is a compilation of, like ten, 12 tracks, maybe with a small intro. That's it. There's nothing to it."
You don't have to take Higgins's word for it: Spread over two discs, projectHUMAN's 24 tracks find Higgins and an assortment of top-notch producers 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 the concept, it's something about man fighting machine; as the familiar voice of movie-trailer narrator Don LaFontaine puts it in the Terminator-worthy intro, "Our own technology has turned against us, leading a race of synthetic life-forms bent on the annihilation of one species alone -- ours.") On Higgins's 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.
And Higgins's road to drum 'n' bass glory is as unlikely as Carl Lewis winning a marathon. Higgins grew up in the sticks of Pennsylvania, the son of pop balladeer Bertie "We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall" Higgins. 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 industrial acts like Nitzer Ebb and Nine Inch Nails. Everything he picked up turned him onto something else, every new discovery prompting a dozen more. Now, Higgins is waiting for some lonely kid in the middle of nowhere to discover him.
Well, 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, spinning whenever, wherever. For the next month, he's touring the country for the third time with fellow members of the Planet of the Drums crew, drum 'n' bass DJs AK1200 (Dave Minner) and Dara (Dara Guilfoyle), as well as an MC, Messinian. The group 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. 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 We're gonna try to utilize that to help out the drum 'n' bass scene in the States."
And they have: The solidarity has helped American drum 'n' bass acts mount a stiff assault on the notoriously guarded UK drum 'n' bass community. Not that Planet of the Drums crew doesn't respect the Brits; they just want a piece of it for themselves. Drum 'n' bass was birthed in British clubs, and as far as most UK acts are concerned, it's still the only place that matters. Thanks to Higgins's rising popularity (yes, even in the UK), that perception is finally beginning to change.
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"Slowly but surely," he says. "I think it's getting a better reputation internationally outside of the UK. 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."
As far as Higgins's 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 ten tracks," Higgins says. "I would go crazy and kill people in my neighborhood. Maybe for some people that are hard-core producers, it comes easy, but for me, it doesn't. It's almost like writing a term paper. So the thought of doing an album would be like writing ten 20-page term papers in a row with no stop. As far as producing goes, I really do like producing; it's just strenuous. You have to listen to the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. It drives you crazy after a while."
And he laughs again.