Waxing poetic

Damian Higgins gave himself the stage name Dieselboy because of his, as he puts it, “boyish” interests.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Philadelphia-based DJ’s work, his latest mix CD, The Dungeonmaster’s Guide (System Recordings, 2004), double-exposes Higgins’ adolescent side right from the get-go. Its opening Dungeons & Dragons-themed spoken-word reading is by Peter Cullen, the voice of Transformers cartoon character Optimus Prime.

“I got patched into Peter Cullen’s headset in the studio,” Higgins reveals. “So it was me and the engineer and Peter Cullen all on the line. He was like [deepens voice], ‘hello,’ and I was basically shi••ing my pants on the phone.

“I can’t even explain how surreal it was,” the DJ continues. “Then he started reading my script, and I was getting chills. To hear Optimus Prime from my childhood reading something I wrote!”

Higgins can discourse at length about his boyish pastimes, making heartfelt anime and video-game recommendations, and even comparing role-playing games to DJ-ing.

“There’s a relationship between creating an adventure or campaign or world [and the way] a DJ would create a mix CD or a set,” Higgins explains.

Thus, the title of his new album.

“I thought it was kind of tongue-in-cheek how those are parallel,” he notes.

So clearly, Higgins wants the listener to absorb his CD compilations as an unbroken experience. Traditionally, he’s enjoyed putting his work together as a whole package, going to great lengths to procure artwork he likes, writing the liner notes, etc.

Such a holistic approach comes in handy in Dieselboy’s line of work: Multiple-artist mix CDs not only require scouting for new artists with fresh visions, but also obtaining thorough licensing clearance for every tune. Higgins aims to present the most cutting-edge element of the drum ‘n’ bass community on his records, he stresses.

As with his other favorite things, he speaks about drum ‘n’ bass (and music in general) with compelling fluidity. In fact, Higgins has become a sort of ambassador of the subgenre, a role he embraces while also trying to maintain the integrity of the form. He frowns on overt crowd-pleasing.

“A lot of DJs,” he says disdainfully, “play the sort of Top 40 of drum ‘n’ bass.”

Originating in England at the onset of the ’90s, drum ‘n’ bass or “jungle” (the terms are used interchangeably) is an offshoot of techno generally characterized by fast-paced, intricate rhythms. It’s usually less accessible than other forms of electronica, such as house. (For his part, Higgins prefers a hard-edged, more aggressive brand of the music.)

When he started out, Higgins reports, jungle suffered from ghetto-ization by concert promoters, its DJs consistently relegated to second-room status and forced to perform through inferior sound systems. (Since control of the frequency range is so essential to DJ-ing, inadequate sound projection can injure an artist’s career; audience members are likely to attribute poor audio performance to the mixmaster’s lack of skills.)

Planet of the Drums, Higgins’ brainchild, is now in its fifth run. His original intentions for it were, unsurprisingly, broad: By the end of the ’90s, he and DJs Dara and AK1200 constituted the biggest individual concert draws on the American drum ‘n’ bass scene, so they decided to join forces.

Higgins is understandably happy about the tour’s success. Then again, his artistic aims demand that he shuns mass appeal, so economic viability becomes a thorny issue.

Though perhaps not as problematic as beat-matching, that most intense of DJ-ing skills.

“When you’re trying to mix two records together, you have one record playing and the other one has to be matched, speed-wise,” Higgins explains. “So it’s going the same bpm [beats per minute] as the other record. Once you get that going, you can then blend the records together so they’re playing at exactly the same tempo. Unless you’re really knowledgeable about the music, if [the mix] is good, you won’t be able to tell when one record’s coming in and one record’s [going] out.”

So there’s more to spinning records than just … spinning records. DJ-ing involves the esoteric art of presenting music so that it somehow transcends itself.

A successful DJ, says Higgins, will combine records in a way that emphasize individual elements in the tracks.

“It really does create a level of energy. It’s an intangible thing.”

[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]

Planet of the Drums 2004 will hit two local venues — Club La Cama (14 Carter St.) and Club Mix (38 N. French Broad Ave.) — from 9 p.m.-4:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 27. Twenty-five supporting DJs from the Carolinas will also take part. Tickets cost $15, available at www.groovetickets.com or at Atmosphere Records (1 Walnut St.; 257-4700).

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