ACCORDING TO DRUM 'N' bass star Dieselboy, the title of his new mix CD, "The Dungeonmaster's Guide," shouldn't be taken either literally or metaphorically. It's simply an homage to his role-playing-game days, which lasted from grade school through college. In other words, until not all that long ago for the 31-year-old DJ and producer, who admits that the original "Dungeon Master's Guide" was the first role-playing book he ever bought.
Still, there is the matter of the album's narration, scripted by Dieselboy (with a few gamer-centric references) and delivered with resonant authority by Peter Cullen, who voiced the evil Venger on the "Dungeons & Dragons" cartoon show, as well as iconic Optimus Prime on the legendary "Transformers" animated series. Both aired in the mid-'80s.
And, yes, Dieselboy (born Damian Higgins) was a dedicated watcher of both.
"I was pretty excited that I was able to reference a geek passion that I had growing up for a good part of my life," he explained recently from the Philadelphia office of his label, Human. "I was proud that I could let people know, because for the longest time, I'd thought, you know what, this is not a game for geeks, this is a game for people who have imagination and are more intelligent than your average bear. Now, I can proudly say that I played it, and it's okay to like this game and to be in this kind of vanguard."
In fact, as loose as the narrative is -- it's really more mood than roadmap -- Dieselboy concedes "an abstract parallel between being the DJ who creates a mix CD and being a dungeon master who creates a campaign adventure for people to go on. I actually don't make that direct connection, but you can put two and two together and see there is a direct correlation between the two. What a dungeon master does -- the planning and thought before a game even occurs, the maps and populating the dungeon rooms, that whole process of creativity -- really is a close tie-in with what I have to do when I get tracks organized and develop an idea of what's going to go where."
In fact, "The Dungeonmaster's Guide" is something of a companion piece to 2002's "ProjectHUMAN." Both are built around the notion of a sonic Shangri-La where traditionally competitive producers from vastly different camps in the electronic dance music world can basically all just get along. For the previous album, Dieselboy, who is considered the top American drum 'n' bass DJ, got American compatriots to remix classic drum 'n' bass tracks from England (where the hyperdriven genre originated) and, conversely, European drum 'n' bass producers to remix American tracks.
The twist with "The Dungeonmaster's Guide" is that Dieselboy got drum 'n' bass producers to remix non-drum 'n' bass tracks by the likes of techno and trance superstars Sasha, Tiesto, Josh Wink and BT. On a bonus EP, he commissioned some of his favorite producers (Gridlok, KC, Stratus, Evol Intent and Basic Operations) to remix singles from artists on Human.
"This CD is definitely an extension of what I did [with 'ProjectHUMAN'], which was creating all these exclusive remixes, [commissioning] music made that would never have been made unless the CD came out, having different people remix other people's music," Dieselboy says with great pride. "This new CD is different in that there's more non-drum 'n' bass tracks on it that are being remixed. The idea is to bridge the gap between communities, to see what it would be like if some of these drum 'n' bass artists had a chance to dabble with some of the soundbeds of other big artists from other genres.
"On an experimental level, I thought it would be cool," he adds. "But I also felt that there's Tiesto fans or Sasha fans out there that aren't fully aware of drum 'n' bass and if they saw something like this in a store or saw the track listing, it might catch their eye and it might be a way for them to discover the drum 'n' bass scene. If I were to do another album like this -- and it won't be for a while -- I think it would be drum 'n' bass versions off all different genres of music. I want to do a huge experiment of a huge crossbreed of styles in a drum 'n' bass context and see what happens."
Of course, such forward thinking is not always easy to make happen, particularly in the insular world of dance music, but Dieselboy says he had a surprisingly easy time getting tracks from the likes of BT and Josh Wink, some of whom he'd shared club and rave bills with in the past.
"Some of those guys are giants, huge in their genres [Tiesto was recently voted No. 1 DJ in the world by DJ Mag], and yet they were some of the easiest to work with," Dieselboy says, adding that "surprisingly, I had more problems with the drum 'n' bass guys. No matter how benevolent the project is, some people don't want to help me out on that level, don't want to do anything that's going to contribute to any success that I have," he notes wryly.
Ironically, such fractiousness is what originally inspired the Planet of the Drums tour, now in its fifth year and featuring a lineup of Dieselboy, DJ Dara (Dara Guilfoyle), AK1200 (Dave Minner) and, more recently, an MC, James Messinian. There was a time when the first three were earnest competitors, but Dieselboy managed to transform them into allies with a common mission to champion the drum 'n' bass scene and elevate its American DJs at a time when all the power was centered in England.
"We were trying to band together as a force because we were really getting the shaft at parties in our own country," he recalls. "It was us trying to get respect." Even at major dance events, drum 'n' bass DJs were often considered outsiders and saddled with poor production support and exposure. "It was that 'main stage' versus 'jungle stage' dichotomy," Dieselboy says. "I always hated that distinction."
Now, he adds, "after five years, to still be drawing crowds in what can be a very fickle scene is a big thing." And he long ago crossed the Atlantic divide, becoming a dance music superstar in England as well as at home.
On the new CD, Dieselboy teams with Kaos and Karl K on a remix of Dom and Kemal's "Moulin Rouge," recasting what used to be a stripped-down track with strings, drones and blips with a driving pulse and a lot of "Amen" breaks (taken, incidentally, from a drum solo in the middle of "Amen, Brother," a '60s track by Washington vocal group the Winstons, best known for "Color Him Father"; that so-called "Amen Break" is frequently sampled and manipulated by drum 'n' bass producers).
There's another local connection in Evol Intent's remix of Maryland-native BT's "Knowledge of Self." Other highlights include a Paul B & Subwave remix of Tiesto's "Flight 643," Gridlok's remix of Josh Wink's "Evil Acid" and the Ill Skillz remix of Concord Dawn's "Take Me Away."
Dieselboy doesn't micromanage such remixes, even to fit into a loose theme like "The Dungeonmaster's Guide."
"The only thing I asked was that they try to make it something of an epic-style piece, for this CD in particular," he explains, "and to try and make something that isn't going to sound dated in a couple of years. Just spend enough time on the remix to breathe some new life into the track and make it epic. Then it's up to them how to make it different."
As an example, he points to "Take Me Away."
"The original was a dark, moody track, and here it came out as really uplifting, trancy, with a totally different character and personality to it, which I thought was pretty cool because it was almost an entirely different track. Or take a classic hard track like 'Moulin Rouge,' where we tried to make it even more over-the-top, beef it up for 2004, make it a bit more insane, if that's possible!"
That "epic" ambition is also the source of Dieselboy's enlisting iconic voices. For "ProjectHUMAN," which mimicked a movie trailer, he drafted Don LaFontaine, whose name may not be familiar, but whose voice certainly is: Known as the King of the Movie Trailers, he has done more than 4,000 of them. You know that voice.
Peter Cullen's resume is not quite as long, but besides Venger and Optimus Prime, his notable voice-overs include Eeyore in various "Winnie the Pooh" films. As Cullen read from a Los Angeles studio, Dieselboy was patched into a headphone via conference call -- which he calls one of his major thrills.
"I sat through the whole reading -- some parts we had to go over -- and to hear that in real time was so crazy," he says. "I had chills! It was so bizarre to me because I used to watch 'Transformers' when I was younger, and he was in a lot of other cartoons as well. And to hear Peter read the script and then just talk to me and he'd still have that voice -- it was some memorable stuff. I will never forget it."
And it all fits into Dieselboy's approach to his projects.
"I've always been into epic movies, epic books, epic music," he says. "One of my top five soundtracks of all time is 'Conan the Barbarian' with the big orchestra swells and the Bulgarian singers in the background -- that sound and style is something that's always appealed to me, and I think when it comes to making my mix CDs, as far as comparisons to other DJs in my field, I don't feel like I have a lot of competition for what I do. Others might be able to put together solid CDs, but I try to ramp it up with the whole production end of it, make it ridiculous and try and set the bar as high as I can get it for everybody else."
Appearing Friday at Cubik at Nation and June 16 at Sonar in Baltimore. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Dieselboy, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)