"The name High Contrast is a philosophy"
“I never wanted to be pigeon-holed. Meaning can only be defined through contrast; you cannot describe something without invoking its opposite – explain day and you invoke night. When I started making drum & bass there was also a contrarian impulse. Drum & bass was very dark, masculine and techy-sounding in the late ’90s. I really wanted to flip that, to sample disco and be more feminine. People laughed at me but it was ahead of the curve, and more people started doing that. Now it’s time to find another way of changing it…”
On Barrett’s new album, his sixth, he puts his money where his mouth is, running the gamut from blues to surf to soul, all laced with long-honed skills in the drum & bass arena. The album is also a window into his own life story. Barrett has been at the leading edge of the scene for 15 years. He curated music for the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony; he’s worked with everyone from Underworld to DJ Fresh; he’s headlined festivals; he did a timeless Fabriclive mix; and he’s one of dance music’s elite remixers, achieving acclaim for reworks of Adele, Duke Dumont, White Stripes, Kanye West and, of course, London Grammar’s ‘Strong’. Listen to his new version of rhythm & blues staple “Tobacco Road”, however, and he takes you back to his beginnings.
Barrett grew up in Penarth, where he still lives, the son of Paul ‘Legs’ Barrett, once Wales’ leading rock’n’roll promoter/agent and the man who discovered Shakin’ Stevens. “I grew up only hearing ’50s rock’n’roll,” Lincoln recalls, “‘Tobacco Road’ – that’s a record I heard my dad playing as a kid then forgot about for 25 years. Then it was in an episode of ‘Mad Men’ so I remembered it and became obsessed with it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gone back to my dad’s music. It fits in my obsession with clever, catchy hooks.”
As a boy, though, Barrett was drawn to film. He was a seriously ill child, in and out of hospital with hooping cough and multiple other ailments, missing the start of school. He spent his time watching old horror films, working his way from the black’n’white Hollywood classics, through ’60s Hammer horror and on into the modern era. He even made a zombie flick, aged 10, starring his dad. He admits that his Halloween-flavoured new tune ‘Don’t Go In The House’, is a tribute to this era.
“It’s inspired by the trailers to old video nasties,” he laughs, “It’s so weird that I’m perceived as a DJ-producer. I see myself as a film-maker… I just haven’t made any films!” Barrett’s first musical adventures were in his mid-teens. He became the MC for a hardcore punk-metal band called 187. He even tried his hand at MCing drum & bass events but found it wasn’t his forte. He was into both hip hop and drum & bass, and the DJ Zinc remix of The Fugees’ ‘Ready or Not’ was a key tune that influences him to this day.
“It was this massive hip hop hit and there’s this crazy jungle version of it,” he enthuses. “I loved that combination. It’s stuck with me ever since. I don’t like remixing drum & bass records, I don’t see any point in it, they’re already what they’re intended to be. Whereas, say, Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’, I still think it’s her best song. It gives me something fresh and different to work with. I also did one of ‘Hello’ which has done very well for a bootleg quickie.” Indeed, the latter made Annie Mac’s ‘Hottest Record in the World’.
Back in his teens, Barrett was coming to a crossroads. His Penarth punk peers were appalled by his interest in drum & bass, regarding it as “townie music”. “It got kind of violent and I lost some friends over it,” he says. He ended up forging ahead on his own, going to drum & bass events. He had two crucial experiences which set him on his path. One was seeing Grooverider play Cardiff’s Clwb Ifor Bach in 1998 (where High Contrast is now a resident), just for the sheer energy of it, the other was the Beastie Boys at the Brixton Academy around the same period.
"Up to that point hip hop was on an equal standing with drum & bass for me, but looking at the crowd, the way people didn't dance, I realised this wasn't my scene."
He went to Newport University to study film but was increasingly sidetracked by music. A friend lent him Depth Charge’s seminal breakbeat album ‘9 Deadly Venoms’ and Barrett realised the potential of sampling, of his filmic knowledge, and, using a demo of Cubase, plugging his VCR into the back of his PC, he started playing around. “The reason I got into making it when I was studying film is that you can get a track going pretty quickly, whereas a film is a long process that involves many people,” he explains,
"The ability to make tracks on your own in a short space of time is very seductive, an instant rush, that's my drug"
For two years he was also the resident drum & bass brain at Cardiff’s only dance music shop, Catapult, which dramatically expanded his musical ideas. “I hated house music and other styles,” he admits, “and it exposed me to other genres. I stopped being so myopic. I started understanding deep house, things like Theo Parrish. I became interested in applying the filtered French house sound to drum & bass. No-one had done that before.”
Just before he graduated Lincoln signed his first record deal with Hospital, went straight into music and “shelved the film thing”. The next years were a whirl of global travel, establishing his DJ name and firing out genre-defining tunes along the way.
2002’s ‘Return of Forever’ from his debut album ‘True Colours’ was the first High Contrast cut to break scene-wide, played by everyone from Fabio to Hype to Andy C. It was a groundbreaker in that it was melodic, uplifting and epic, but was also light and not aggressive.
"I wanted to hit people with melodies, the impact coming not from the drums or distorted bass, just from the melody."
Another tune that took things up a level was 2007’s ‘If We Ever’, a dancefloor monster that saw Lincoln returning to classic junglist rave anthems, and featuring Diane Charlemagne, the late, great voice of drum & bass. It came from the album ‘Tough Guys Don’t Dance’, which was also home to, perhaps, High Contrast’s best-loved tune ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. “Things I sampled back into the ’90s still crop up,” says Lincoln. “One of the first things I ever sampled was Julie London’s ‘Cry Me A River’, which was used in the rock’n’roll film ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in 1956, my dad’s favourite film. It took ten years to work it into my music but eventually it became ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’.”
Lincoln Barrett’s heroes, then, are filmmakers. Perhaps top of the pile is Quentin Tarantino who changed Barrett’s perception of film with ‘Reservoir Dogs’, back when he worked in a Penarth video shop aged 18. “That aesthetic of mixing high and low art, old tunes, old movies into new hits,” he agrees, “that’s what I felt I was doing with sampling.”
The new High Contrast tunes ‘Overstimulation’, which deconstructs David Cronenberg’s ’80s horror shocker ‘Videodrome’ into a warped 4/4 techno attack, and ‘Surf Stomp’, a drum & bass update of 1960s surfin’ beach trash, perfectly fit the above ideal. It’s even easy to imagine the latter in one of Tarantino’s films. Lincoln has directed is own videos but the most grandly cinematic event he’s been involved with was undoubtedly overseeing the musical side of the athletes’ opening parade at the 2012 Olympics.
“Underworld got in touch with me out of the blue around 2010,” he recalls, “They said they were fans and, of course, I was a fan of theirs – ‘Born Slippy’ was my first real introduction to dance music. They asked me to collaborate on a tune [‘Scribble’] for the album ‘Barking’, we just connected from there, which led to my involvement in the Olympics. It was a surreal experience, working on this music, trying to forget a billion people are going to hear it, then on the night there’s Muhammad Ali and the Queen and Paul McCartney and my tunes playing. What the hell were they thinking?! It was a once in a lifetime thing and I’m forever grateful.”
High Contrast went on to co-produce Underworld’s latest album, the revitalized sounds of ‘Barbara, Barbara, We Have A Shining Future’. If that connected him with his roots, he also worked with DJ Fresh and Dizzee Rascal last year on the Radio 1 A-listed ‘How Love Begins’ single. Barrett doesn’t like putting limitations on himself. He wants to engage with his muse wherever it takes him, whether that’s experimental or pop, or preferably both. In this vein his ongoing interests are increasingly varied. He has developed a fascination, via his sister Shelley, in DJing Northern Soul; he’s often to be found with ink and brushes, creating comic books; and unlike most contemporary dance music producers, he’s happy to engage in rigorous political debate. And then there’s the new album, recently signed to 3Beat Records…
"I used to think you could be more prescriptive making an album, then I realised you can't control it in advance, you're better off just following your heart and not overthinking it. Music is an escape from the linearity of narrative and language and from a whole lot else."
And when High Contrast wants to escape, it is a very tempting proposition to go with him.