Labrinth spoke with Okayplayer about his rise as an artist — from his beginnings crafting beats for Master Shortie and Tinie Tempah to his work on Euphoria.
To many, especially those in North America, composer Labrinth is primarily known for his trajectory following his breakout television composer role for the cultural zeitgeist that is HBO’s Euphoria. But for the Hackney, London-born and raised Timothy Lee Mckenzie, music is all he’s ever known, and a career in the field was not only bestowed upon him but ultimately inevitable considering his surroundings. Even in only knowing him as a composer, they miss out on an entire side to Labrinth: the industrial, front-facing music artist who has been this way since his childhood.
“I come from a nine-member immediate family who are all musicians,” he said on Zoom. “[My siblings] and I would host shows for all of my aunties and uncles charging twenty pence per show. My whole life has been geared up to me performing or writing music.”
Some of Labrinth’s siblings gained platforms to play for the likes of Kirk Franklin when in the country on tour, but like most creative endeavors, there was a trade off.
“It was consistent, but low money sometimes,” he admitted, but concurred that the experience only allowed their talents to soar. “It was so uplifting and exciting being around musicians all of the time, it inspired everything for me.”
Post-his adolescent involvement with his first collective, Dynamics, Labrinth became obsessed with music theory in the early 2000s, honing in on aspects such as ascending scales, and channelling his pubescent anger into learning the fundamentals behind recording booths (“I almost threw a guy out of the window for ripping up my lyrics,” he recounted coyly.) Working out of the Chocolate Factory (close to where he lived at the time), Labrinth would study for hours on end, manifesting his craft for eclectic genres and sounds under the guise of his first manager Mark Williams, who Lab’s mother came across when she studied music business in hopes of helping Lab and his siblings capitalize on their talents.
Through Williams, Labrinth learned of artists like Massive Attack, Rick James, and Parliament-Funkadelic, further expanding his taste in music. But these artists also showed him the beauty of genre-blending, noting how genres like jungle, house, hip-hop and funk incorporate sounds and styles from different genres.
“If you think about jungle and dance at the time, it all sampled music from jazz, funk, hip-hop. I would get super inspired trying to sound like Prince or Rick James,” he said. Although he described his first creations as “terrible,” Lab sees those early years making music as both formative and invaluable in his ascendance as a producer, which came gradually. First, he provided work for Extreme Music — an agency that recruited producers to compose TV music and music trailers — where he’d often have to figure out how to merge differing genres like dark-house, funk, and trap. Then, he helped the fusion-rapper Master Shortie co-produce his 2009 debut album, A.D.H.D., which found Lab once again working with varying genres (’80s-inspired hip-hop with new wave and electronica) to help craft a project that backed BBC’s co-sign of him a year prior as one of their Sound of 2009 recipients.
Securing a publishing deal with EMI and Stellar Songs soon after his work on A.D.H.D., Labrinth began working with juggernaut rappers at the time like Tinchy Stryder. “People were curious about what I was doing,” he said. “They’d come to the studio to see who I was and what I was working on.”
Among other rappers that were curious about what Lab was creating was Tinie Tempah, who ended up taking a beat that would become the basis for one of his most popular songs to date — “Pass Out.” A gargantuan infusion of grime and locomoted drum and bass snares and techno keys, “Pass Out” was Lab’s attempt at creating “British music that gave dance floors the eruption they’d get when Lil Wayne would come on.”
“When I played ‘Pass Out’ to [Tinie Tempah] he walked out of the room,” Labrinth said: “I thought he thought it was shit.” But within half an hour he came back with the chorus, which gave Labrinth not only trust, but assurance that what he was doing was right.
Concurring challenges from conventional A&Rs who’d render Labrinth’s early conceptions as “too urban,” or archaic radio formats initially afraid to take a chance on their early singles, Lab and Tinie Tempah still managed to make a mark on the UK’s Official Charts with their collaborative efforts “Pass Out,” “Frisky,” and “Lover Not a Fighter.”
“When ‘Pass Out’ went onto YouTube, people loved it. That’s what made [those people] believe,” he said. Singing to Simon Cowell’s SyCo months after the song’s release, Labrinth has remained on the imprint for years and is still signed to the Sony to this day. “Despite what people say about him, Simon Cowell has trusted me, even when I haven’t trusted myself, and has given me the confidence to go on,” he said.
However, in the wake of the success of “Pass Out” and his inaugural solo single “Let The Sun Shine,” Lab found himself in “very commercial” environments, which stifled him from pursuing some of the more exploratory sounds he had wanted to since his early years in the booth. This became an internal frustration for him, which ultimately led to depression. Recounting this time, Lab’s speech grows faster as he conveys his annoyance and grief with not feeling understood and autonomous.
“I got frustrated with my publishing deal, I didn’t feel like I had a say as it pertains to my career,” he said. “There was a fear of me losing my success to other people.”
Concluding to himself that the music business wasn’t going to dictate his vocations as a producer, he began owning his direction musically and thematically. Battling his first spouts of depression (which he called “pop trauma”) and moving to the states, Labrinth managed to garner international acclaim with 2014’s “Jealous.” The song went on to go multi-platinum in Australia, and has been performed by aspiring artists on music competition shows like The X Factor and America’s Got Talent. Lab referred to “Jealous” — as well as “Let It Be,” which was also released in 2014 — as a moment of clarification, before going to say that the song “kept things going.” Ultimately, it was this single that caught the attention of Euphoria architect Sam Levinson, who met Lab when they were introduced via the artist’s now-manager Adam Leber. Eventually, Levinson’s want for Lab’s “All of Us” — which was being conceived for his sophomore album Imagination & The Misfit Kid — to be placed on the inaugural season of the HBO show became a reality, with the then-unreleased song playing in the background of multiple scenes. From there, a long-lasting collaborative relationship between Lab and Levinson grew, where he’s not only continued to contribute songs for both seasons (from season one’s memorable “New Girl” to season two’s poignant “I’m Tired”), but experimented with unorthodox sounds to help build atmosphere in the show, too. Case in point: using wine glasses as the foundation for “keyboard” instrumentals.
“With a wine glass you put water in the glass, then you tap the water to get a little bit on your finger, and then you basically rub the edge of the glass,” he said. “If you keep doing it you start to get a ringing sound. I sampled the sound and used a process called granular synthesis, and elongated the sound and turned it into any padded sound. I’ve done it a few times with [Euphoria] for suspense.”
For Euphoria‘s second season, Labrinth and Levinson intentionally chose the organ to center the majority of the season’s soundtrack, using the instrument’s ethereal sound as the backdrop for Rue’s storm and reform arc(s).
“We wanted to create spiritual moments. This season saw [Rue] in a transformative place, her evolving into a new person and wanting that growth for herself,” Lab explained. Like the season paints to audiences, Rue almost buries her old life when she’s forced to withdraw, which is encapsulated in the Labrinth and Zendaya’s “I’m Tired.” Like its Emmy award-winning predecessor “All Of Us,” “I’m Tired” saw Lab and Zendaya collaborate and go viral. Labrinth is thankful for the reception to the track, saying: “It’s beautiful seeing the fans engage with us and the show so passionately. It’s always great looking at the comments.” He also welcomed the lighthearted criticism for another notable music moment in the show — Dominic Fike’s performance of “Elliot’s Song,” another collaboration between Lab and Zendaya.
Lab welcomed any critique as “good publicity,” before alluding to the challenges of bringing such a moment to life under short time constraints.
“It’s beautiful what can be created in such short time spans,” he said. “Not many can do what the editors do with the score and in collaboration with us under these deadlines.”
Labrinth’s role on Euphoria’s sophomore offering also saw his expansion from behind the camera to squarely in-front of it in his collaboration with Zendaya, portraying a church vocalist in Rue’s harrowing ode to her father.
“Performing isn’t a new thing for me, but the scene was overwhelming from an emotional point of view and intense,” Lab said. “I wanted to make sure we got what we needed.”
Like his upbringing, Labrinth is finding inspiration in those around him, especially now as he embraces his renewed sense of fatherhood with his second child, which was welcomed into the world last March.
“I do everything for my family, fatherhood gives me a new sense of motivation and inspiration, I’m always trying to do better,” he said.
As for future music projects, Labrinth shared that his third album will center his partner Muz and their relationship together. Layered in their meeting and eventual partnership, the project will also impart more gospel-references in its construction, building on the singer’s direction to date.
“Gospel will be in everything that I do,” he said. “It’s one of the most consistent anchors in my career, it’s in some way on everything I’ve made.”
In all avenues in life, Labrinth is now confident and unequivocally more centered. He’s grounded in who he is as a producer and artist, and ready to harness that in the contemporary sphere. Plagued with the pressures of pop perfectionism, he’s quickly realizing that there’s more power and attainment in the unconventional path to both creation and success in music’s modern iteration.
“I think I’m finally at that place,” he said. “I’m finally embracing being the wonky producer, and I love it.”
Nicolas-Tyrell is a freelance music and culture journalist and podcaster from London with bylines at HYPEBEAST, NME, Paper Magazine and Clash Magazine. Follow him @iamntyrell