Obviously, there is a 'geek' stigma attached to it," Dieselboy allows, regarding the title of his latest disc, The Dungeon Master's Guide. "But I see no shame in it. I was trying to come up with a name for the CD."
Dungeon & Dragons is seldom -- if ever -- the first thing that comes to mind when observing the American drum-and-bass scene, a genre often defined by tough-guy posturing, aggressive beats and an overall aesthetic that tends to mirror hip-hop. But then little about Dieselboy suggests that he embraces any stereotypes. As one of the founding fathers of drum-and-bass in this country, Dieselboy has made it to the top of the scene by simply ignoring the rules dictated by the fundamentalists. He has continually strived to go his own way, which is perhaps best illustrated by the release of Dungeon Master on his own label, Human, the title a clear salute to fantasy role-playing-game enthusiasts everywhere.
"The Dungeon Master's Guide was the first RPG book I bought, back in the third grade," he explains. "I thought about how I could relate it to drum-and-bass. I see myself as a dungeon master -- sort of schooling people in drum-and-bass."
The majority of Dieselboy's releases have featured a sort of futuristic design concept which complemented the forward-thinking nature of drum-and-bass. And although the design elements are important aspects of the album, it's the music itself and the cameos that are most noteworthy. The disc features tracks by such established artists as Hive, Gridlock, Tech Itch and Dylan, as well as drum-and-bass remixes of tunes by a few of trance's heavy hitters, like Sasha, Tiesto and BT. And Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime from the classic Transformers cartoon series, serves as narrator on the record. Diesel credits collaborations like these with keeping the music interesting and challenging.
"I try to stay open-minded about music in general," he notes. "And I think that is what has enabled me to stay where I am. I am extremely dedicated to drum-and-bass; but I am not a purist by any means. Being a purist all the time can be a detriment, because it can inadvertently seal you off from interesting new ideas that you wouldn't have been exposed to otherwise."
This mindset has led Dieselboy to perform alongside rock acts like System of a Down, Orgy, David Bowie and P.O.D. Although some may equate playing such gigs to being a sellout, what matters to Dieselboy is doing new things and taking his genre to places it has never been.
"You can be as drum-and-bass as you want," he points out, "but if you're not playing anywhere, then what's the point? I won't limit myself, and that's how I manage to stay ahead of the curve a little bit."
Staying ahead of the curve, however, leaves little time for rest. Dieselboy maintains a rigorous schedule, which includes a residency at Platinum in Philadelphia, one of the nation's longest-running drum-and-bass nights, and the annual Planet of the Drums tour, which he heads up with Dara and AK 1200. Then there's the studio work: Diesel has a track on the upcoming Grand Tourismo 4 soundtrack, and he'll be tackling more remix work for Sasha and composing more original music with Kaos, his current production partner.
Long before Dieselboy made a name for himself on a national level, he was known simply as Damian Higgins, a teenage DJ from Philadephia with only a few high school dances under his belt. He adopted the Diesel moniker from a name that he used in Internet chat rooms around 1990. Confusion with a local graffiti artist who also went by "Diesel" led him to add the "boy" to his name in reference to his boyish looks and his affinity for boyish things like video games and cartoons.
The boy soon became a man, however. After high school, at a campus radio station at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Diesel taught himself how to mix, live on the air. It was the first time he had access to real turntables. Many of those shows were recorded and distributed to others who occupied the same Internet chat rooms where he spent much of his time discussing techno music. The tapes helped him amass a real fan base before he had even played his first rave. Since Pittsburgh was behind other cities in terms of rave culture, Dieselboy started putting on his own events, embracing the crucial DIY ethos of the scene at the time. He handled everything himself, right down to designing the fliers and making the smart drinks at the party as well as deejaying.
"I put a lot of myself into those old parties," he recalls. "They were extremely important to me at the time."
As the '90s wore on and the music splintered, Diesel stayed with the breakbeat hardcore sound which eventually became known as jungle and drum-and-bass. He eventually produced a track with a then-unknown UK DJ named Tech Itch. And while he admits "it really didn't do anything for my career," the song did lead to further collaborations with Tech that resulted in anthems like "Descent," "Render" and the massive "Invid." Those tracks not only put Dieselboy on the international map, but they essentially helped legitimize the American drum-and-bass scene.
The accolades did not end there. At the 1998 Global DJ Mix Awards, Diesel was the first US DJ to be nominated and win the award for best drum-and-bass DJ. Among many other firsts, he became one of the first American DJs to perform at London's much-esteemed Fabric club; the first Yank to have a track played at the legendary Metalheadz night in London; and he was the first drum-and-bass artist to ever have a single chart on Billboard's dance charts. Not too bad for a former role-playing geek.
Being involved with any music scene for so long would seem to take a toll on anyone; but Dieselboy has managed to remain as enthusiastic about it as he was when he was passing out those first mix tapes, way back when.
"You obviously can get burnt out on anything after doing it for so long," he admits. "If you eat turkey sandwiches every day for a week, you get tired of them. I try to not to listen to drum-and-bass at all when I'm not out playing. That way, when I'm playing and I hear it, I'm still as affected by it as I ever was.
"I still love this music as much as I used to," he adds. "I love music, and I will always love drum-and-bass. Some of the attitudes in the scene I may not like, but I will always love drum-and-bass.
Sounds like a role Dieselboy was born to play.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.