The deejay known as Dieselboy is bent over the turntables and mixer in a Southeast Washington nightclub. His left shoulder is hunched against the earphones that are hooked around his neck, and his eyes are fixed somewhere across the club.
He may look distracted, but Dieselboy commands the room.
Drumbeats spit out of the speakers like measured machine gun fire, dueling with careening bass lines and noises from outer space. This is the style of electronic dance music known as jungle, and 27-year-old Dieselboy, whose real name is Damian Higgins, is the king of the jungle.
Jungle evolved around 1992 from a British techno style called hardcore, which was influenced by reggae and hip-hop and characterized by breakbeats (compressed drumbeats), deeper bass frequencies and sped-up vocal samples. It was dubbed jungle because of a record that sampled a Jamaican MC calling out to "alla da junglists."
In an eight-year career that has taken him from his native Pittsburgh to Japan, Israel and England, Dieselboy has converted thousands of young ravers to the sound of jungle and its current moniker, drum 'n' bass. Tonight he performs at the rave-style party at Nation known as "Sting"; on Dec. 29, he plays at "Urban Space," a drum 'n' bass party held at the downtown Club Danko.
"Dieselboy has records no one else can find," says Nick Hammett, 18, who lives in St. Mary's County and often travels for hours to hear a Dieselboy set. "After hearing him, my perspective on jungle changed. His style was way different. He puts a whole new meaning to drum 'n' bass."
Dieselboy started messing around with drums back in elementary school: He played drums in the school band from fourth through eighth grades. He started breakdancing in junior high, learning his moves from watching "Soul Train" and going to clubs. "All that added up to me having a good sense of rhythm and beats, being able to count music and hear musical time," he says.
He went to his first rave when he was 19. "I'd read about raves in the British press, then one day at a music store I saw a flier and went, 'Whoa! This is what I've been reading about! It's actually here in America--in Pittsburgh!' "
As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Dieselboy threw house parties where he'd deejay with CDs and cassette tapes. Eventually, he learned how to spin vinyl records, and it wasn't long before he was deejaying a weekly hour-long radio show on a local university station. "I wasn't very good at first," he says, "but I kept practicing."
He picked the name Diesel because of Oil City (near Pittsburgh), but heard that a graffiti artist was using it. Since at age 19 he looked 16, he went with Dieselboy.
In 1994, he borrowed turntables and made a mix tape he called "The Future Sound of Hardcore." He got on the Internet, logged onto various rave lists and offered the tape for $5. "Not many people had mix tapes back then--it was a new thing--so my first tape I sold about 100 tapes," he says. "Back then that was a lot! Through that people started hearing about me and I slowly started getting bookings."
In 1997 he moved in with Nigel Richards, owner of 611 Records in Philadelphia, who needed a roommate. Richards also needed someone to order drum 'n' bass for his store, so he hired Higgins, who also designs graphics for 611.
Now Dieselboy presides over a club night known as "Platinum," which takes place every Thursday night at Fluid, a Philadelphia club. Some jungle fans--known as junglists--say it's the premier drum 'n' bass club in the United States.
Dieselboy's mix tapes, official or bootleg live sets, are prized by fans, who quickly dub copies for their friends. His first commercial mix CD was "Drum and Bass Selection USA," a compilation he mixed for the British label Suburban Base. The 1997 "97 Octane" and 1998's "Six Eleven Mix Series Volume 1" followed.
In 1998, Dieselboy was the first American nominated for the Global DJ Mix Award for best drum 'n' bass DJ, and he shared the honor with star British deejay LTJ Bukem.
His titled his latest album "A Soldier's Story" to comment on the junglists' complicated relationship with the music's burgeoning mainstream recognition. The album, he says, was "done in the vein of drum 'n' bass heads being referred to as soldiers. We are all constantly fighting for our music, fighting against low billing on fliers, fighting for better rooms, better sound systems, respect in the scene. It is a war out there and we are fighting hard."
The album also marks Dieselboy's emergence as a producer. He recorded the album in his Philadelphia apartment, where he has built a small studio. From there, it's easy:
"I try to visualize playing the record," he says, "and ask myself if it would make me want to dance."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from Dieselboy's forthcoming album, "System Upgrade," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)