“I never had aspirations to be a proverbial ‘big DJ.’ I wasn’t thinking where all this would lead or where it would take me… Maybe not being ambitious enough is a personal failing of mine? I don’t know. It’s just not how I’m wired. All I know is that I was fanatical about drum & bass, I consumed it 24/7, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I was entirely driven and motivated by making this music that was in my head and the idea of being able to hear it on a big soundsystem…”
For someone with no aspirations or visions for the future, Lincoln Barrett hasn’t done too badly for himself, all things told. But then perhaps that’s what’s given him the edge as a highly respected, consistent, unique and influential artist over the last 20 years of drum & bass? You can’t lose a game if you’re not playing it in the first place…
“Maybe it’s right to have big ambitions and set out to achieve them? Like a big house or a Lamborghini,” he reflects. “I’m definitely not knocking anyone who does! Just for me personally, I don’t really think like that. I’m literally just thinking about the sound that’s in my head that I want to translate or do something with.”
A subtle grin creeps up on his face as he says this. Old enough to know that this is not a typical focus of a man his age, but more than successful enough to know that absolutely none of that matters, he seems very content about the way things have rolled out over the last two decades.
If anything, this mindset has enabled him to retain a certain amount of creative purity and that love he’s always had since day one. “Oh definitely,” he nods. “I still think of myself as a new artist who looks up to guys like Andy C and Fabio. It blows my mind when the newer generation of fans or peers see me as the same era as those guys!”
File under Middle School: much too young to be operating at the very beginning, but old enough to have experienced jungle’s explosion in real time and soak up its influences since his childhood, High Contrast came through during a fascinating period in drum & bass history. Signed to Hospital Records in 2001, his debut release (Suddenly on the Hospital compilation Plastic Surgery Vol 2) landed the same year the genre was enjoying a new lease of commercial life as tracks by the likes of Shimon & Andy C and Shy FX & T Power were charting and ushering in a whole new generation of fans.
Two big pivotal shifts were happening at the time; production-wise the art was moving away from outboard kit and analogue studios into the more affordable ‘in-the-box’ set-ups (a production style Lincoln was one of the earliest adopters of in drum & bass) Meanwhile sonically the music was in a great state of flux, too; at the turn of the century drum & bass was coming out of its techiest, darkest ever chapters and was blooming into one of its funkiest, most soulful periods on record. Lincoln, entirely unwittingly, became one of the protagonists at the very front of that new movement. And he puts a lot of that down to his environment and one specific place in Cardiff: Catapult Records.
“For the first few years when I was teaching myself to produce, I was big fan of jump up and I was trying to make tunes that sounded like the records I heard Nicky Blackmarket play,” he explains. “But I hit a wall and I realised that I needed perspective and distance. It just so happened that I started working at Catapult and the guys there – especially Raeph and Lucy – were playing me house music. At the time my only knowledge was the stuff that drifted into the charts but they were exposing me to the stuff from New York and Chicago. Also at the time French house was blowing up. I was just like, ‘Oh my god, these sounds are so amazing! Why am I not hearing this in drum & bass? So I started to try and capture those sounds…”
Listen back to any record from the first five years in Lincoln’s discography and you’ll hear this influence at the very forefront, rippling through every filtered string sweep and every shimmering disco stab. The earliest cuts – especially breakthrough singles like Full Intention and Passion – were entirely characterised by this, giving him a sound and character that really stood out. “At the time it was quite radical,” he admits.
“I remember going into a shop and asking for disco and being met with derision and laughter. Like, ‘What are you on about? You’re a D&B head, you can’t use disco!’ There was a bit of a backlash. I even had a death threat from someone in Canada telling me I was ruining drum & bass.”
One man’s ruin is another man’s shoe-in: the strong house influence might have upset a few purists and chin strokers but Lincoln quickly became part of a movement of artists who had all started to look towards the funkier and groove-laden sounds of the 70s disco and 80s/90s house for samples and inspiration. “House was the key that unlocked this new sound for me,” he confirms. “And, around this time, I heard Marcus Intalex’s How You Make Me Feel and all the early Calibre tunes. It was like, ‘Oh okay, I’m on the right track here…’”
It wasn’t long before all tracks led to London where his position in this new drum & bass movement was fully galvanised in what must have been the most mind-blowing moments he’d experienced so far: hearing his music being played at Swerve, the absolute Mecca for soulful drum & bass and liquid funk. Founded by jungle godfather Fabio and Sarah Sandy, with residents like Bailey and DJ Flight, Swerve was the ultimate spot where this new funky sound was being nurtured and championed.
“It was a rite of passage,” says Lincoln who would regularly attend after A&R sessions at Hospital Records’ South London HQ. “If you were a fan or wanted to get involved in that sound then you went to Swerve. Those were amazing nights. The first time I went there was Valentine’s Day and Groove played Suddenly. That was just incredible. To hear my music being played by the guys who invented this whole thing at the number one spot.”
A whole barrage of memories and anecdotes follow as Lincoln digs through the memories like a box of old forgotten dubs. He remembers hearing the crowd cheer when Fabio brought in Make It Tonight – “It hadn’t even been released by then but the crowd already knew it because he’d got behind that record so much” – or other moments where his own music took him by surprise…
“I specifically remember being on the dancefloor, intently listening to every track, looking for inspiration and just so fascinated by it all. Then this tune comes in with these filtered strings cutting through the mix and I thought, ‘Wow I love this. I need to rip this off.’ And then I realised it was my track!”
This is the environment and these were the moments, the sounds and the influences from which High Contrast came from. He’s quick to mention the people who inspired him during this peak career foundation digging period, too. “The first time I went there I met Carlito & Addiction, which blew my mind. Blue Sonix was a regular who was a favourite of mine. Influx Datum. These were the real pioneers of the sound for me. I feel like there’s a lot of amazing artists that people don’t know about but really should. They were definitely big inspirations for me.”
These inspirations felt their way back home to everything he did in Cardiff; his role in the city’s hugely influential record store Catapult Records, his residency at Clwb Ifor Bach, playing for the city’s key D&B night Silent Running and his work with good friend and Concrete Junglists founder David Droneboy Shaw… Between them they were able to set-up the first Hospitality residency outside of London at a bar called Molokos.
Like Swerve and Hospitality’s own nights at London’s Herbal club, Molokos provided a mid-weekly spot for the Welsh capital to find its 174 stripes and sow the seeds for a D&B culture that today has returned to the same levels of excitement and amounts of talent as it had in those early days. Arguably more (the distinct lack of venues notwithstanding). Most of all, though, these elements all led to one pivotal release that changed Lincoln’s life – his debut album.
“I had no big ideas of making an album, I was in this incredible creative zone where I was making stuff all the time. The idea of the name came from the fact it was a very pure album. Just this kid basically with all these ideas coming out in pure form. No dressing or intellectualisation of the concept. It was like, ‘Here you go, have this music I made inspired by drum & bass.’”
“A big part of that is musical naivety, though…” he continues. “Production wise I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have proper monitors or know about compression or things like that. But your shortcomings can become features, can’t they? For instance, I didn’t know how to make heavy beats but on Return Of Forever those really light beats actually become a focus of the tune. I’d accidentally de-emphasised the drums and that brought the melody right to the front and centre in such a way it still worked well in a club. I guess there’s something to be said about not knowing what you’re doing and just riding on your passion…”
Returning to True Colours 20 years later, this passion-riding exploration of happy accidents, complete with his strong influence from house music, created a consistency and unique sound that’s preserved the album incredibly well. His description of it being a pure album rings true with how he described it to me at the time. In one of my earliest interviews as a music journalist I spoke to him for a local magazine just a matter of weeks away from the True Colours release. Both perched on a windowsill one Thursday night in Emporium nightclub he described the album saying that “each tune reflects a different side of my sound. There’s elements like jazz and funk along with more traditional drum & bass elements such as rolling beats and the heavy basslines.”
Fundamentally this was a love letter to the sound that had taken over most of his waking thoughts as a teenager and young man, setting the parameters for his musical reference points. Rather than looking forward and wondering whether this would lead to any type of career, he was looking back over the first 10 years of jungle drum & bass, paying homage and looking up to his heroes. Not long after the interview he’d fly so high it would be impossible to look down.
I still remember him explaining how he was set to fly out to the Miami Winter Music conference and tour America and how impressive this seemed at the time. “I’d never even flown on a plane before that trip!” Lincoln recalls fondly. “It was pretty unreal. A 22 year old travelling America with a bag full of dubplates playing in these amazing cities like New York and LA and Miami. That album did change everything for me. It was a crazy time…”
Back to the future and Lincoln admits that the crazy times – although heavily dampened by the recent lockdowns and global pandemic – have never really stopped ever since then. Everything he’s ever done since can be pinned back to the first few meteoric years of the century, right down to how he’s made efforts to keep that ‘exploring the unknown’ excitement he had back then.
“It’s why I switched to Ableton from Cubase for my last album. I felt I had to do that to get those happy accidents. It’s why I used the guitar on the album before that, because I didn’t know how to play a guitar. Once you feel you’ve masted something you’ve got to move on to somewhere you’re an amateur again.”
Even the True Colours 20th anniversary remix album carries some of that approach. After years of working with Hospital Records and 3Beat, he’s now at the command of his own imprint Highly Contrasting and this collection was the first album of its kind that Lincoln and his management had ever curated. “It was something brand new to me and, again, a great learning experience,” admits Lincoln who’s able to bring even more people into the story of True Colours as he hand-picked each remixer for each track. Some are a celebration of the current exciting state of health of the scene with acts like Neve & Samurai Breaks, Flava D, Winslow and Camo & Krooked & Mefjus all delivering exciting contemporary flips on Lincoln’s seminal blueprint. Other remixers, however, run a lot deeper. DJ Marky, for example, was the perfect remixer for Global Love.
“I kinda made it as a tribute to him,” he explains. “We met at Silent Running, it was his first UK booking outside of London, so we’d met at the beginning of his journey and mine and he’s supported me since day one. His energy is so infectious. To have a DJ like him, all the way from Brazil, supporting me, from Wales, was a mind-blowing thing. So it was really nice to be able to ask him to remix that.”
Another key person who played a lead role in the earliest stages of Lincoln’s career was Digital who’s present and correct on the anniversary album with a remix of Mermaid Scar.
“I got in touch with Digital right at the beginning,” says Lincoln who, in a bid for a spot on his promo mail-out list, had taken a chance to ring the number on a white label from Digital’s Timeless Recordings imprint. “Before I’d brought in the housey influence I was basically making rip offs of his tunes! All very dub influenced and jungley. Tracks like Space Funk and Deadline were a huge influence on me. I remember giving him a CD and he took the time to listen to them and gave me some great advice. Some I’ve stuck to ever since. So yeah, to have someone like Steve on the album makes it very personal and something I’m very proud of being able to release.”
Digital and Marky are just two examples on one of the most personal and historical bodies of work Lincoln has ever worked on. Not one for dwelling too much in either the past or future, recent global events have caused him to look back over his life’s work so far and consider his next moves. “It’s been interesting,” he admits. “Usually you finish a project and move onto the next one, you don’t have time to reflect, but I have had more time to do that recently…”
The reflections don’t stop at True Colours, either. Moving forward, we can expect more remixes of other seminal High Contrast works as Lincoln looks to flip things once more. “It made sense to do these first ones on the 20th anniversary of True Colours,” he reflects. “But I don’t know if I’ll wait for 20 years of every album. I think it’ll be nice to get remixes for other things now. I’m already working out who I should ask for remixes of High Society…”
For someone with no aspirations or visions for the future, Lincoln Barrett has some pretty sweet plans for the future, all things told.