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Original publisher: NME
Mr Oakenfold is available on 12", 7", and desk-top cigar-case ...
New Musical Express 18th April, 1987
CHAMPING AT THE HITS
There's only a few able labels with hot feet and good taste – and CHAMPION is one of them. PAOLO HEWITT goes out on the floor with label boss Paul Oakenfold. Picture: CHRIS CLUNN.
Consider this. True Mathematics, Sybil, Kenny 'Jammin' Jason and King Kenya. Or translated into music that's hip-hop, soul, Chicago house and rare groove. This is the musical brief of Champion Records, a small independent black music label based in Harlesden and fast approaching its fiftieth release.
Champion can boast that 90% of its releases, the majority of which are picked up as red hot imports, have found their way into the national charts. In some cases, like Whistle's 'Just Buggin' and Raze's 'Jack The Groove', they have stormed to the upper echelons of the charts without waiting for Radio One to give them the nod.
If personal credit is due, it must lie with 24-year-old Paul Oakenfold, a one-time employee with the London based clothing shop Woodhouse. His enthusiasm for the music is total. He works as a one man A&R department at Champion, represents Profile and Def Jam Records in Britain, DJs at the Wag Club and at The Project, and in his spare time writes a regular hip-hop column called 'Wotupski' in the black music magazine Blues And Soul.
Hip-hop haste is the Champion policy. Get there first, sign the record, and leave the others choking in the dust. "We're more street that the rest", says Oakenfold reaching for the phone, "we can spot records that are happening before most of the majors even know they exist. So we sign the licensing rights and leave them to their own devices. We picked up a record by True Mathematics last week, it cost us a couple of thousand dollars. A week later the majors were chasing the guy but the deal was over."
Champion have sustained their reputation by spotting the right records then moving like a greyhound on speed. As competition furiously intensifies, outbidding and skullduggery comes into play. Over the last year or so major companies like CBS and Chrysalis have employed bright young guns to do their troubleshooting, with Champion unable to compete when the cheque-books are drawn, the onus is on Oakenfold to bid fast. "If it comes to the crunch, I'll hear a record in a club, rip it off the decks and license it before the bouncers come."
As other labels choke on the dust, Oakenfold is running round Britain with Salt 'N' Pepa, the wisetalking girl rappers who fronted a NME cover only two weeks ago. Since then they have guested on the Janice Long Show, filmed for Channel Four, appeared on The Tube and done the round of London clubs. Their 12" single 'My Mike Sounds Nice' is already released on Champion and their killer album is still selling by the crate load on import. Oakenfold barely stops for breath: "This is what the business is really about. Salt 'N' Pepa are the most exciting independent sound around, everybody wants them. Show me another independent act that's in-demand like them and I'll show you a bunch of liars."
Mel Medalie, the founder of Champion Records, has spent his adult life in the music business. By all accounts he has a sensible head; no visible signs of Berry Gordy or a runaway ego. His ambitions for Champion are realistic:
"The whole policy of the company is to break even. If we can get an album out and sell enough not to lose money we're well happy. The company is very small, besides myself, there are three people working for Champion. We do everything from packing to promoting, no boardroom just cardboard sleeves."
Profits may be the bottom line in the land of the majors, but for Champion the letter 'P' means prudence. The move fast and bid quick policy means that Champion don't have to shell out mad sums of moolah to get the record they want. They refuse to go above a fixed price and are careful not to bid themselves out of business. "Take Lola's 'Wax The Van' for instance," says Mel, "EMI paid 15,000 bucks for it. They must be crazy." Maybe crazy is the wrong word, let's try desperate. From the Sex Pistols to Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the corpse of EMI always lumbers into over-reaction when they think they're off the case. "We had another record", adds Mel, "The real Roxanne's 'Bang Zoom Let's Go-Go', it was all sewn up until Chrysalis moved in and trebled our offer. The American company told us we could still have the record if we matched their offer. We just said no. The profit margin becomes too low and the risks too high."
Ironically, the pendulum has swung in favour of the new breed of funk independents, Champion are convinced that the demand for the music they specialise in is growing dramatically. As the NME has been saying for over two years now, the explosion in new funk and the demand for hip-hop has now broken out of the underground. Records by Jazzy Jeff, Sweet T. and Jazzy Joyce and, of course, Salt 'N' Pepa are selling in their thousands, ludicrous amounts compared to their grassroots beginnings. "We have an audience that grows by the week," says Oakenfold, "a hungry audience, ravenous".
Old habits die hard. In the past, some independent record companies, like Factory in Manchester, have cultivated their own mystique, using design and cultivated depression to promote an image. Others like Rough Trade have vigourously promoted an attitude or even a system of values. But in the new phase of independent British funk labels, self-consciousness is less important, servicing the dancefloor is the objective, and when it comes to mystique or attitude, Champion has neither.
No amount of argument can suppress the facts. Although its name never appears in the highly selective independent Charts of your weekly NME, Champion is one of the biggest selling indie labels in Britain. Impact and importance has already secured a place for hip-hop, acceptance is another matter. For Champion's Paul Oakenfold, it all boils down to personal taste and musical instinct. "I just go for what I think is the best music available and put out what feels right. If people don’t like it, or refuse to accept it, we don't care, our only attitude is we believe in what we're doing. We break dance music in this country."
In the beginning there was Morgan Khan and Streetsounds. Now, there's the future and it is called Champion.
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