Often referred to as “the guy who did those tracks with Tinie Tempeh”, then to “the one signed by Simon Cowell”, it’s no surprise Labrinth is a tad defensive.
“We’re not a gay couple you know,” he snapped when asked once again about his relationship with grime star Tinie.
To the outside world, Labrinth, born Timothy McKenzie, started his musical career the day he produced and featured on Tinie Tempah’s first single, Pass Out, which entered the UK singles charts at No 1, a song he co-wrote.
But for McKenzie, the path to the top began aged 13 when he first started producing in his London bedroom under the watchful eye of his older brother. He performs in Abu Dhabi on Friday, at Emirates Palace’s Etoiles club.
“I’ve been making music since I was a teen,” he said over the phone from London recently, suddenly aware of his defensive manner. “When you have done something for this long, you’re going to have results.”
“This long” incorrectly makes Labrinth sound like he’s somewhere between his late 30s and early 40s, as he speaks of family, growing up, his long-term girlfriend and his “business mind”. Labrinth, however, is a typical 23-year-old.
His ego and arrogance occasionally getting the better of him, while the Londoner has a lot to say, to begin with it’s a bit like pulling teeth.
“Gravity is what keeps my feet on the ground.”
He laughed at his own well-practiced joke. “I’m joking,” he added. “I mean, it does but I have a better answer.”
Enter Timothy McKenzie: “My girlfriend, my family and my friends keep me grounded. They know me inside and out. My girlfriend sees Tim. She’s the only one who actually calls me Tim and I like that. It’s like I am two different people. She’s very cool and it’s going really well. We’ve been dating for three years now,” he said. “But otherwise, just gravity,” he said, welcoming Labrinth back into the room.
Labrinth was the first artist in six years that Simon Cowell signed who was not involved in a reality television show. Unlike many who have gone before, this is one songwriter who won’t be chewed up and spat out by the music mogul’s giant money-making machine.
“It was just right,” he said of the partnership. “It was right.”
Sounding genuinely confused about being quizzed on how the deal came to fruition, there was a return of the ego. “He signed me because he heard my music,” he said flatly. “He heard a number one and number two chart hit and saw my name attached to them and wanted me.”
He could have added “why wouldn’t he?” to pack a little more punch. It felt like he was probably thinking it.
“It’s not like he’s my manager. I’m just signed to Syco,” he reiterated with even more force this time. “I can speak to Simon Cowell whenever I want. I’ve met him a few times. It’s 100 per cent amazing to have the support of someone like him. But he saw something in me. He saw I could do quite a lot of things and was impressed by that.”
Possessing a refreshingly free and inspirational attitude to making music, it was earlier this year that Hackney-born Labrinth moved himself out of the shadows of production and into the limelight of hip-hop in the UK, with massive tunes like Earthquake and Let The Sun Shine.
In June 2010, Labrinth and Tinie Tempah collaborated again on the single Frisky, which went on to chart at No 2 on the UK singles chart and topped the UK R&B charts. He also features on Professor Green’s track Oh My God and is now writing songs and working with Usher, N-Dubz, Pixie Lott, Preeya Kalidas and Loick Essien.
“Working with Usher was a great experience and now we’re working on some songs together, which may or may not appear on his next album,” he said.
Having worked with the best — and all before his 25th birthday, the Labrinth ego is potentially justified. Although not according to McKenzie. “My mum is the most inspirational person I know,” he said, knowing his audience were expecting the answer to be Tinie, Usher or Professor Green. “I’ve known her since I was little,” he laughed.
“And also my manager, Mark Williams. He allowed me to use his recording studio aged just 15 and it is what got me where I am today. It’s the same studio I now record in — I own part of it now, too. His support is inspirational.”
Labrinth claims his Abu Dhabi show will “surprise and shock”. Performing songs from his latest album, Electronic Earth, which he released earlier this year, will make up much of the live performance. “I’m a rapper, so people are shocked when I pull out instruments and can do it all.”
A word of warning for the organisers however. “I once wouldn’t do a performance ’cause I didn’t have any scones on my rider. I love scones, man. That’s my thing — they’re really important to me.”