Interview with Labrinth
Right now, Labrinth just about has the world at his feet. His debut album Electric Earth, released under Simon Cowell's SYCo label, is still shifting units at an admirable rate and his records are still making the rounds on radio. We managed to catch up with the man to discuss his work with the Olympics and Coca Cola as well as delving into a few more intimate details about his music and life growing up around musicians.
You're working with The Olympics and Coca-Cola as they travel with the Olympic torch across the UK, how did you get involved in it?
Well, Coca-Cola called us up and asked us to get involved in the Olympics and basically create a buzz for the whole event, but, to be honest, I was a bit cynical about the Olympics, but then, when I got involved, and I've been performing around the country for the last few days, I'm really feeling it! One of my friends came down to my gig yesterday in Cheltenham and he was like 'I wasn't really that hot for the Olympics but once that Torch came in and they lit the cauldron, it was just like 'actually I'm buzzed up now!'' so I feel like, for me personally, it's doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing so, yeah, I'm happy to be a part of it.
How does it feel to be representing your country like this?
Well, that's exactly what it was. I think you start to notice that when the event starts, it's now official, and when you see the Torch come so many times and make so many people happy, you kind of feel like you're really doing more than you thought you were. And that's how I feel now, I feel very proud to be part of it now, man.
It's quite an honour I suppose, would you say it serves as some kind of heartening response to just how far you've come in such a short period of time?
Yeah, could do! Yeah, I think I could say that but I wouldn't say a short period of time because I've been working like a f**king crazy guy for most of my life but it just so happens that the rewards come a little bit later. I've worked with a lot of artists and I've done more than enough to get where I've got to now but it's nice to know that people think of me when they think of inspiring young kids around the UK and supporting the Olympics, that's really healthy, man.
Tell me about your new single, 'Express Yourself.' Is the message of the song as clear as the title makes out?
It's as clear as the title, man! I feel like I kind of took from Charles Wright and done a modern day version of what he was saying back in the day and I feel like it definitely translates now and, for me personally, just with what I've been doing - a lot of people wouldn't say that what I've been doing was normal or the generic way to go - I was just like, there's nothing wrong with that, and some people feel like there is because they feel like they have to follow what's going on or the trend and to me I'm like, whether I win or lose, I'm being myself.
Did you listen to many artists like Charles Wright or Baby Huey growing up?
Yeah, I did! Yeah, I remember, I've said it a few times but, it was a big record when we were younger, my mum used to play it quite a bit so it does have some kind of personal sentiment as well.
There's an obvious reference to hip-hop and the use of sampling from NWA, is this the old skool vibe you're trying to recreate and was this style a big influence on you?
I wouldn't say necessarily hip-hop but a lot of people have said that; I've had people on Twitter going 'why would you try and do NWA song?' and I'm like 'if you get your facts right you would know it's originally from a legend'. For me, it wasn't aiming at hip-hop; I wasn't trying to be hip-hop on the record. I replayed all the parts so, all the sound that you're hearing are some of my mates playing the horns and then I play the bass line and the guitar line and added some of my own extra parts so it wasn't a complete beat jack - it was something that I enjoyed performing when I was younger and then I just thought, why not put it on the album?
Like a reimagining of a classic.
You said that you'll be hooking up with Usher in the near future, when are we likely to hear anything from that?
You'll have to ask Usher! He's got the material, I can't tell you! [Laughs] Unless I call Usher up and say, 'Mate, you've got to put it out on exactly err. January 2030!'
Have you got any other collaborations coming up?
Yeah, I like collaborating, I like working with writers, that's what we do, isn't it? As writers, as producers, we work with people.
You worked with Master Shortie for a while around 2008/2009, are you still in contact with this underground UK hip-hop? Are you still trying to promote as much of this as you can?
I wouldn't say underground hip-hop because what me and Master Shortie made was nothing of the sort really, 'cause it was more like two crazy kids in the studio, we were like 17 and we were just making what we wanted to make, really. A lot of our peers at the time like all the grime-heads and urban, hip hop-heads, they were like, what we were making was wet - they didn't really believe in what we were doing so, I wouldn't really call it- THEY wouldn't really call it hip-hop or urban so, for me, what I'm trying to sell or promote is musical freedom. That's what I believe in and that's why when people call me a rapper or they say I'm urban I'm like 'please understand that I don't believe in that'. I believe in just music like, rock, indie.; I don't mind what it is, I just want to be as free as possible. It's natural that we have to put everything in a box; it just makes sense, it makes it easier. Hopefully, eventually we'll move into a future where people just make what they wanna make and it's considered art instead of genre.
Simon Cowell has already described you as not an urban artist, you're simply a musician. I guess you relate to this assumption that he's made.
The reason why I say musician is because it's a bit hard 'cause I can rap, I can sing and I can play an instrument so it's a bit like 'what do you call me?' I can produce as well so it's a bit of a weird one so the best thing to call me is a musician. People have called me many different titles; they choose what they want really.
Simon talks about you a lot; he seems to have a lot of confidence in you. How reassuring is it that you have free reign to make whatever you want and how much of a role has he played in this?
Simon would tell you himself, he hasn't really played much of a role in terms of my music but in terms of how we want to present it or how we want to push forward with it. We've all sat down and everyone's kind of new to this thing - I came in new as an artist and in terms of being an artist and, Simon's coming in new, in terms of signing an artist straight of the road. well, not really off the road but like out of the whole talent show experience and, for me, I feel like it's just a healthy bond but I could do it on my own as well as with Syco and they know that themselves. It's the same like they could sign an artist and they could make it happen with another artist but they've chosen me to work with and I've chosen them to work with.
You're quite fond of your guitar; can we ever expect to see a Labrinth album featuring just you and your guitar?
Yeah man! Definitely! Definitely, I'm actually working on something now; I've got my guitar in my hand [Laughs].
When did you start playing instruments?
I started playing when I was, I think I was 17 and my manager played me a George Benson record, I think it was 'Give Me The Night', and he started doing this solo and singing along to the solo and I was like 'Oh my god, I need to f****** get on this s***!' and then I remember hearing Foo Fighters, a few of their records, and I was like 'I wanna play!'. Yeah, there's a lot of guitar based bands or just artists that made me wanna play.
So you've always had an eclectic taste?
Yeah, I wouldn't call it eclectic, man. We're in the era where everyone listens to everything so I'm no different from your local Joe Blogs.
When you were growing up, was there a particular artist that inspired you the most?
I would say the same as everyone else, man: Prince, David Bowie, George Benson, Coltrane; loads of artists. I think sound inspired me more than artists; what I heard and certain songs inspired me more than having an idol or wanting to be like someone. If I could join Prince, Dave Grohl and James Brown all in one and pick different things from each one of them, it would kind of be like that in my head. That's my favourite artist. Yeah, a bit of Daft Punk in there, Aretha Franklin. that sounds like a very weird baby though. [Laughs] It's starting to look very odd! [Laughs] Very scary baby! [Laughs]
What do you listen to at the moment? Do you like to go back and forth in different eras or listen to new stuff?
Yeah, I was listening to 'Wildfire' by SBTRKT; that was a regular track that. we even done a version of the record for live to just. yeah, we kind of remixed it. We listen to a lot of different stuff. It just moves into so many different areas in terms of what I'm feeling. Sometimes I listen to a dance band called Weather Report - they were around in the 70s and they killed it then - so, yeah, it moves around. Definitely.
YouTube is awash with people rapping over 'Earthquake'. I'm guessing this is something that you're for?
Yeah man, why not? That's what music's for, really. If someone likes a record then rip the hell out of it, man, do your thing! But buy it first, make sure you buy it! [Laughs] Yeah, I like that, man. It's almost like a respect for the record.
Have you heard one particular remake of any of your songs that you're particularly a fan of?
My favourite remake was the remix with Busta Rhymes in it! [Laughs] No, I'm being silly. I've heard quite a few that were really good.
Going back to past influences, is there one album that you wish you'd made?
I think I wish I made 'Off the Wall'. That was a bad boy album. I wish I made 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'. bad boy album. what else do I wish I made? Justice's album; I forgot what album it was though.
Their first one? 'Cross'?
The 'Cross' one, yeah, that's the one. That one's f****** crazy! Yeah, there's a few, man! I could go on for days! [Laughs]
Music was something that ran through your family; did you feel a sense of competition to individualise yourself?
No, not at all 'cause everyone had their own personality in whatever they doing and all of us were strong in different areas; one of my brothers was more in the drumming side of things and more in the live music side of things, I have a brother who's a producer but he kind of produces more cult hip hop and R 'n' B if you get what I mean... So, everyone was in their own different areas doing their own thing and still now we're all just kind of like, 'yeah, so what you doing? Oh, you're over there-' y'know, everybody's in their own little place so I think we've found our way of getting along. But I hate my brother because he can play drums loads better than me though.
Festival season's coming up; can we expect to see you a lot over the season?
Yeah, we're doing quite a lot of festivals this year but I've been told it's non-stop so. and we had a good year last year in terms of presenting my records and my live shows to people. Yeah, just fresh air and listening new music so now it's time to play to an audience that know my album and know what's going on so, yeah, it should be good this year, man!
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