No Compromises: Champion Talks
“I feel a lot more free with what I can make now. And if people take to it they take to it. But then I suppose that was my approach from the beginning, without even realising.”
Looking utterly at home in his new studio space, Champion talks with the relaxed confidence of a producer who seems to have a new lease on his music. His label, Formula, has been making some pretty impressive inroads of late, flying high off recent releases from Flava D and D Double E & Killjoy. Champion's got some pretty high profile festival slots coming up too, with Glastonbury and Field Day both in the calendar. No repeats either, so he’s playing to all new audiences (“a step in the right direction”).
On entering the new studio, my eye immediately darts to a Shut Up And Dance slipmat on the wall – Champion tells me the space is actually theirs. Looking around, the floor is a sea of records (mainly SUAD’s) and some pretty old school gear (“You can tell the shinier stuff is mine!”) So where did the link come from? Turns out Champion and the rave duo go way, way back.
“The Shut Up And Dance guys are basically family even though we’re not blood. There’s a guy called Serious who hosts my DJ sets, and he’s known me ever since I was born because he’s my dad’s friend. And Shut Up And Dance are his blood cousins. It’s a proper family thing right here.”
Pretty amazing family to be part of I’d say! Before now, Champion had been coming to the studio every so often, but three months ago he realised that asking PJ & Smiley to use it officially might result in him getting more work done. So how does working here differ from working at home?
“Sometimes I’ll come here in the morning and stay 'til like 11pm. Sometimes I’ll leave at 5pm so that I can go and do life. When I was working from home, I might have a month where no one could hear from me – didn’t even have a haircut, just in the lab making tunes. And then I’d have months when I was just living. But the work rate was kinda slow that way, and staying at home too much isn’t good for the soul, man. So now it’s nice to be able to get up, go gym, come here and just work. I get more done this way. Saying that, I done ‘Arcade’ at home, while I was watching TV!”
Ah yes, his upcoming release on Formula. Two cuts that deviate from what we've come to know as the ch-ch-ch-Champion sound, but no doubt are still gonna kill it in the club. 'Arcade' has these mad cartwheeling drums caught in a flurry of video game noises, while 'Chrome' is rhythmically more conventional but striking in its sparseness. The release is out this Friday, but how long have these tracks been under wraps for?
“'Arcade' I only did in February. Probably the shortest time I’ve made a track from start to finish, turned it around and put it out. I knew it was quite different to what’s going on at the moment, but I just wanted to throw something out there.”
What makes it different then?
“It’s done at 75% swing – so it’s offbeat by 75% according to the swing algorithm. Garage is like 50%, so this goes further out, and it’s a bit weird to mix unless you’ve got a tune that sounds similar. It’s been done – I wouldn’t say it’s a new thing – but I suppose right now with what’s going on in bass music and everything at 130bpm, there’s nothing out there like it. I think people shy away from doing it because it’s difficult for DJs. This time I just didn’t care. Put it out there and see what happens, show some of the younger producers that there is an alternative, y’know what I mean? I don’t expect this tune to blow up, I just want it to be there, so the people know.”
Do you play a lot of video games yourself?
“I haven’t played one in over a year. It was just a case of making a tune, flicking through some sounds and going, ‘That sounds sick, put it there’, and it just ended up becoming the theme."
Well, that sets fire to my idea of a good angle for the interview. I wanted to know why so many grime/bass producers use video game samples in their work, but I guess it's just yet another interesting sound palette to draw from. Maybe one last try – surely there must be something here – DJ Q’s ‘Sonic’, D Double E’s ‘Streetfighter Riddim’, even Champion’s very own ‘Bowser’s Castle’?
“Ha, even then I didn’t set out for it to be a video game reference. I done the synths at the beginning first and it sounded really 8-bit retro-y so I just thought, ‘Bowser’s Castle’."
Fair enough. Let's leave that one behind and move onto 'Chrome'. This interview is taking place a few weeks before the release drops, so I haven't (knowingly) heard the track at this point, despite it having already been spun by the likes of Toddla T, Monki and Hannah Wants. Not a problem – now I get to experience it for the first time through the studio’s NS-10 monitors.
“I made this one at Terror Danjah’s house two years ago, so I’ve been sitting on it for ages. I’ve always liked it, but there was always something else that I wanted to do first before I put it out. Now feels like the right time. I wanted to accompany it with a track that didn’t sound too similar, but was still in that weird direction.”
Legendary grime producer Terror Danjah is actually one third of the Formula 'think tank' alongside director Louis Cook and Champion himself. The label started out in 2011 with Champion's Lighter EP, the title track becoming one of the biggest bass tunes of the decade. Now, following on from Formula’s first ever fabric showcase back in April (“When you grow the label you don’t expect to see it in fabric in a couple of years”), they're taking over Peckham's Bussey Building this Friday for the second time. Admittedly I wasn't there, but from what I heard, the first Bussey party was a pretty special night.
“It was, yeah. We’ve had packed nights before, but always with the aid of a club or some other outside entity. For this one, we did it all ourselves. Just the core artists – bar D Double – and all our own money, and it managed to be the best one that we’ve done.”
Yeah, that's got to be pretty satisfying. Aside from the core artists, how do you go about choosing guests then? So you had D Double E for the last one, and now Sticky and DJ Cartier this time round.
“Our guests always make sense, even if it doesn’t make sense to the audience straight away. When we lined up D Double we had his single ['Like This'] with Killjoy coming out the month after, but we hadn’t announced it yet. So with Sticky, we’ve got a Foundation release coming out on the label soon – him and Scott Garcia. And DJ Cartier… he's just a safe guy and a sick DJ so we decided to put him on."
The Foundation release sounds pretty exciting. What else is there to look forward to on Formula?
“We wanna do another Killjoy EP next, and a Mike Delinquent release as well, and then the Foundation one. We know how we want them to come out, but releasing records never goes to plan! There’s always a spanner in the works. It’s just music.”
When you’re looking for stuff to put out on the label, do you feel like it has to be forward-thinking in some way?
“I try and make the selection process easier than that. It’s just whatever I listen to and straight away go, ‘This is sick!'"
So if it’s a wicked track you’d put it out, even if it’s not doing anything new?
“Mmm. Those are usually the hardest ones, because I do want people to push the boat a bit. Sometimes it’s a case of guiding people in the actual process of making the tune, and working towards it being something that we can put out.”
What have been the milestones for the label so far?
“The first one’d probably be 'Lighter', because that was our first release and it’s regarded as one of my biggest tracks. The 'f=BASS²' compilation too, because that was our first big project. We put a lot of money into that. And I’d say the Hayfever 'Ground Collapse' release was a step up for us as well, mainly because that’s when Louis joined the label. The level just went up tenfold – the artwork was better, the branding was better, the push to the audience was better. So yeah, those are the three major milestones."
Are you always looking to push the label to another level, see how far it can go?
“Yeah, that’s always the aim. It’s growing, slowly but surely, but we wanna take it to a much bigger place. With what, I don’t know. I’ve got big projects coming out on the label soon which I feel it needs. We’re talking to a few interesting artists about doing a release. And we’ve got a sub-label called F2 where the ethos is breaking new talent. Using our influence to introduce as many new names as possible. With a lot of the sets you go out and hear, half of the tunes are unreleased. Just feels like a waste to me. These new guys won’t progress unless the music’s out there for people to hear.”
I'm curious to hear more about these "big projects" – or at least the stuff Champion allows himself to talk about. I don't want to push him too much, but it's clear there's some exciting stuff just around the corner. One thing he will reveal though (in fact he posted about it on Twitter) is that he's recently been collaborating with North London MC Capo Lee.
“Working with Capo is sick, he just gets it. Like he’ll hear the tune, start skanking, 'Yeah yeah I got something for this already, send me the tune Champs!' Then within a week he’ll vocal it, send it back to me and go, 'Listen, it’s hard innit?' And I’m like 'Yeah you done your thing!' The first one we’ve got is called ‘Grime Champion’, that’s like my usual 130 bouncy Champion stuff. Then there’s another grittier one we done here a couple of weeks ago that leans closer to grime. We wanna do a third one as well, like a skippy garage hybrid that’s still hard enough to be played in a grime set.”
When you write vocal tunes, are you ever working with a specific MC in mind?
“I actually don’t write for MCs. With the three tracks that Capo’s taken, I just made them because it was a vibe, just to play out in my sets as a dub. When I link up with an MC I’ll show them all the stuff I’ve been playing out, and they just gravitate to whatever. For instance when I work with D Double, he tends to want the 130 stuff. ‘Chrome’ is his favourite of mine right now, he wants to put bars on that. He started in jungle, so he’s agile with his flow, he can pocket it anywhere. He’s got some other tunes sitting around that are kinda sick. There’s one mad interesting one – it’s not 140, it’s not 130, it’s bashment tempo. But I'll wait for him to tell people."
Talking of MCs trying out different tempos, Novelist's Ruff Sound Movement sets on Rinse and NTS (where he introduced his new 152-160bpm 'genre') are still fresh in my mind, so I ask Champion if he caught either of them.
“Yeah yeah yeah, I thought it was sick! I like what he’s done with that whole sound and that he didn’t just come with one or two tunes, he had a whole set’s worth. And then just introduced it to the world. It was proper. It almost sounds like he writes his tunes to 160 anyway and then slows it down for 140. Big up Novelist, we’ve spoken about doing something for ages and haven’t got around to it. Eventually it will come, I just need to give him a nudge."
With the interview drawing to a close, we have a flick through the rest of the Field Day lineup, and naturally Four Tet’s name comes up. The pair recently collaborated on the Disparate/Flip Side 12”, and before that, Champion remixed the pirate radio homage ‘Kool FM’ off Four Tet’s 2013 album Beautiful Rewind. Seeing their names together at first, it doesn’t seem like the most obvious pairing, but when you listen to the tracks it makes perfect sense, their approaches complementing each other really well. The appreciation is clearly mutual – Four Tet even suggested on Twitter the other day that Champion is "mixing club tracks better than pretty much anyone in the world right now." So how did their collision of styles come about?
“Four Tet saw it! I didn’t see it at first. To me, we were in different worlds when it came to making music. I’d always liked what he’d done but I didn’t see the marriage being that proper. But when we done 'Flip Side' and 'Disparate' I was like, ‘These are solid tunes!’ You can hear what we’ve both done on them. And it’s sick.”
No arguments there. So when did the two of you first start talking?
“Since maybe 2012. My manager at the time sent him a copy of my 'Prince Jammy/Hydra Island' white label and he was onto me from there. 'This is sick', following me on Twitter, and we just started talking. A year later I saw a DM one day – 'Do you wanna remix 'Kool FM?'' I was like, 'Yeah? I’m not even gonna charge. Just gimme the stems.' I had trouble doing that remix though. Because it was Four Tet I wanted to push the boat out, creatively. I was making all these random ideas and it wasn’t working… then I remember being on the phone to Terror like, 'Fuck it! I’m just gonna do what I always do.' So I took the stems and just done something gully, and that’s what he wanted anyway. And it worked – everyone played it across the board. I went Rinse and Shorterz is playing it in the middle of bumpy bass house. Then I went Nest and Zed Bias is playing it in between garage. It was sick, I didn’t expect it at all.”
I mention that I admire the way Four Tet handles his Text label. I mean, I know he’s got the kind of profile now that liberates him to make purely artistic rather than economic decisions. But still there's something very punk about releasing records in 2016 with absolutely no promo at all, just sticking them up on the internet.
“Meeting [Four Tet] has changed the way I’ve thought about making music. He just does what he wants to do. No compromises, just whatever he feels like on the day, as organic as it can be. Sometimes as a producer you can feel the strain of wanting to make what’s ‘in’ at the moment, or try and conform to what other people are playing, or do a pop track to make some money. He doesn’t do any of that, and people love him for it. It’s opened my eyes up a bit, so I try and [just do what I want] as much as possible now. And that’s probably why ‘Arcade’ came about. Three years ago, I wouldn’t even have bothered making a track that skippy and weird. ‘I can’t play this in a club though’; ‘MCs won’t get it’ – I would have thought about it too much!"
I say it feels like a full circle return to the mentality of the bedroom producer who's just starting out, making tunes for themselves without thinking about whether they’re going to get played out.
“When I started making tunes, the idea was just to make something that I wanted to hear. But that kind of got lost after a little while. Now, I’m just trying to be as free as I can with the sound. I don’t know what I’ll make tomorrow. I’ve even got R&B tunes sitting around, shit like that. They probably won’t come out for now. But I like the fact that I’m making all sorts of stuff, it’s refreshing. And I hope 'Arcade' connects with people. It probably won’t happen right away, but what I’m hoping is that a year from now, some new kid comes up to me and goes, 'You know why I made this track? Because of 'Arcade'. That’s where I see it going.”
Champion plays Field Day on 11th June, grab tickets here.