Champion Records A&R boss Rob Made on revitalising the seminal UK label
UK house labels don't come much more iconic than Champion Records. Sure, there are always hipper names to drop – but those labels can't claim to have been one of the first record in the UK to start releasing house music, can they? They can't claim to have put out evergreen club cuts from Raze, Sandy B, Robin S, Royal House and many more, not to mention hip-hop classics by Salt-N-Pepa, Jazzy Jeff and Sweet Tee. Nor, perhaps most importantly, can they proudly boast that they're still going strong, 35 years on from their inception.
It hasn't always been plain sailing for Champion, mind you. The label's glory years were really from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, when first Paul Oakenfold and then Johnny Walker were in the A&R seat – from the late 90s onwards, the release schedule slowed down considerably. That wasn't necessarily a sign of trouble – it's simply that Rollo's Cheeky label (home to Faithless) and Kerri Chandler's Madhouse (and latterly MadTech) were/are also run out of Champion HQ, and some years that's where the team's efforts would be concentrated.
Nevertheless, from around the turn of the millennium until quite recently, the Champion Records label per se focused mainly on occasional reissues. But in 2019, they appointed a new A&R chief in Rob Made, who formerly ran the Sleazy Deep and F*** House Music labels, and who's on a mission to help propel this most venerable of UK imprints back to the top of the tree.
Accordingly, Champion and sub-label Cheeky Trax have been signing up new talent like it's going out of fashion, and the labels' names once more feature regularly in the 'new releases' lists. But right now, Rob's got something else to think about, because 2020 also marks Champion's 35th anniversary. Back at the end of August they released a limited edition 6x 12-inch boxset packed with some of their best-loved catalogue tracks, and that was followed in September by a Champion Classics album mixed by Stonebridge.
So with Champion Classics Part II, mixed by Rob himself, due to land in stores early in December, we called Rob up to find out how he's settling in at this most illustrious of label HQs – and what else they've got in store…
When was the label set up, and why?
“The label was founded in 1985 by Mel Medalie, who was working in Edgware Road with Paul Oakenfold at the time. An opportunity then arose out of a chance meeting, outside a shop called Bluebird Records, with Ron Balding of Record Imports. Mel wa running a disco label called Polo Records and saw the huge interest in importing US dance music for the UK market, so Ron and Mel created Champion Records.”
Describe the label's music policy…
“Dance music culture since the early days – whatever was current and hot at the time. Predominantly that's meant house music, but Champion has covered many genres within the scene. We're always looking for records that have that potential crossover sound, that could become hits.”
How many releases has Champion put out in total, over the years?
“It's hard to say! But counting both physical and digital releases, you're looking at well over 500.”
How many people are employed by/involved in running the label?
“We’re a relatively small company – there are only four people in-house. But we work with multiple companies to cover areas like social marketing, promo, radio and so on.”
And is Mel still there?
"Yep, still here, still the boss, still comes into the office every day! Well not recently, because of lockdown, but normally he's in for at least two or three hours a day. He still loves hearing all the new music, he's still got an ear for it… and still wants that hit, as always! So yeah, he's still very much involved."
So how did you come to get involved?
“I started at the beginning of 2019. The label had been dormant for a while – well, not really dormant, but mostly working on Madhouse and Madtech stuff. Champion had been doing stuff as well – they'd had a few A&R's in during the 2000s doing different things, but obviously the label's main success was in the early 90s, pre social media.
“So I got a call just before Xmas 2018. I'd been doing my own thing, DJing and producing full-time for the past four years, and I saw it as a really good opportunity, because the label was really starting from scratch on the social media side of things. And so from there we started developing new artists. Doing some classic remakes and whatnot as well, but my main emphasis when I started was, 'I want a lot of new music – it can't be just a rehash label.' Even though the catalogue is definitely there to be worked!”
You were stepping into some pretty big shoes, weren't you?
“Well, yes! The two big A&R guys, other than Mel himself, were Paul Oakenfold in the early days – he was more the Salt-N-Pepa era, Fresh Prince, Jazzy Jeff, all that – and then Johnny Walker took over. But Mel was always the key A&R guy behind the majority of the hit stuff, and what went on with Rollo and Cheeky, which was also run from here… in fact they ended up putting most of their time and effort into doing Cheeky stuff.
“For me, Paul Oakenfold… it was his early albums like Global Underground, Perfecto Fluoro, his Essential Mixes, that really got me into house music. So to learn that he sat at the same desk I'm sat at, 20 years ago, was quite insane! I've since met him at BMC and he's been really good actually – he gave us some quotes for the boxset and stuff, so that was cool.”
You used to run your own labels… what do you think was the most useful thing you learned, running those labels, that you brought to Champion?
“I think the biggest thing for me is just building that network of people around you. Any A&R guy needs a certain amount of music coming to him all the time – and not just random demos through the label inbox. When this job was first talked about, I put a post on social media saying I was potentially going to be starting at Champion, because I need to gauge if I could actually bring in enough music! But within a couple of weeks I had a whole bunch of people wanting to be involved.
“I think that was the key thing really – having that kind of network, which obviously did come from running the previous labels and having, I dunno… a certain amount of respect, I guess, on the scene.”
And what's the biggest thing you've had to learn since starting at Champion?
“Well, I've come from being a one-man-band type label. So coming to work for a much bigger entity, you've got to get a lot more organised when it comes to stuff like getting releases contracted and set up – especially when you're working with singers.
“If you've got a separate artist and singer, you can get something together and everyone's cool on the day in the studio, but then when it comes to the contracting all hell breaks loose! And then you find you're getting nearer and nearer the release date and everything still needs to be sorted out – that can be quite frustrating. So I'm learning a lot about being more organised upfront.”
You mentioned that Cheeky used to be run out of the Champion offices, and of course the current sub-label you have is Cheeky Trax. Is there any connection?
“There's no actual connection other than, basically, Cheeky Records was how Rollo started out. Come the early 2000s, Cheeky Records actually moved over to BMG, but we still run Cheeky Music Publishing. And a couple of years ago, I was getting sent a lot of big room tech-house tracks, so I thought why not do an offshoot and call it Cheeky Trax… just to be a bit cheeky? And Mel thought that was funny too, so we started doing it. It's a home for those big room club tracks that the kids love on the dancefloor.”
Any plans for any other sub-labels?
“Not at the moment. I was sort of thinking of splitting Champion up into like a Champion Red and a Champion Black or something, but at the moment we're just sticking with how it is, doing a classic pretty much every quarter, and then in-between original new artists and trying to nurture and grow some artists for the label.
“I mean, if we started to get some big hits and I wanted to ramp up the schedule – which I easily could, because I'm sat on music for well over 12 months, so I've certainly got enough there to keep going! – then obviously I'd love to do that. The way things are at the minute, it's tricky, but if we got that big hit tomorrow there's no reason why I wouldn't be able to ramp it up, much like what Defected do, with certain offshoots for the vocal stuff, put the more commercial stuff here, the more undergound stuff there… that kind of thing. But for the minute I'm keeping it all as just one thing.”
You've just released a 35th anniversary boxset, so tell us about that…
“Yeah, that's something we'd been talking about since I started. Mel and his business partner Raj [Porter] wanted to do something to honour the 35th anniversary, so late last year we started putting the concept together. We wanted it to be a boxset because we've done vinyl releases in the past – I think they did one for the 25th anniversary – and they were all the big classic singles like Sandy B, Robin S, but every record had four tracks on each vinyl, and I think for a collector, you really want that 12-inch heavyweight big club mix.
“So I thought let's do that across a boxset, pick all the best tracks and get the 12-inch mixes on there – well, as much as we could. With Kristine W, I couldn't decide on just two tracks so I put four on from her! It's a special collector's piece that looks really nice, a special limited-edition, hand-numbered boxset. And it's been doing really well, so hopefully we'll be pressing up some more this side of Christmas – but those ones won't be numbered, that's just the first 500.”
And what about the new talent you've been signing – who's on your books that you want to shout about?
“There's a few. We've been working with King & Early since I started, they've had two releases out on Champion so far and we're going to be doing another early in the New Year. Then there's a couple of really cool guys, brothers actually, called Off Plan, they've got some good stuff lined up with us… Skeleton Keys… Fubu's just done a really cool track with the singer Litening… oh, and a really big duo that I can't wait to launch, which is coming pretty soon actually – Echofly & Beyond Therapy.
“That's actually Dougal, of happy hardcore fame, and Oli Jacobs, who's like a super-producer who's worked with people like Madonna, Peter Gabriel and Madness as well as a lot of house/dance-type people. They've just signed to FFRR London as Echofly, and at the same time they've signed a track to us, so because going forward they're going to be working with FFRR we decided to come up with another name, which is Beyond Therapy. It's a lot more sort of rave-y, nostalgic, dancefloor kind of music, but they're going to be doing an Echofly remix as well. We've got a massive record with them and Angie Brown called Higher coming in November, I'm really excited about that.”
Finally, what else is going on Champion-wise that iDJ readers need to know about?
“The key thing for me at the moment is really about re-education. Because obviously guys my age, your age – we all know Champion Records. Know it, love it, hold it close to our hearts. But the kids today don't, and I think a lot of today's gatekeepers don't – it's pre-social media, it's a bit before their time. Everyone knows Robin S Show Me Love, but do they know where it came from? No.
“So another reason why I wanted to do the boxset was kind of a re-education thing: trying to get that information out there, today, to the people that really drive your streams and your sales and everything else. I want them to understand how much this label promoted house music in the UK – we actually drove a lot of that, with Mel bringing in all of that early Chicago house music back in the day. So that's something I'd like more people to realise.”
Words: Russell Deeks
The Champion Records 35th anniversary boxset is available now. Champion Classics Pt II (mixed by Rob Made) is out in December.