The ‘Champion’ Soundtrack Gives Black British Music Its Flowers 💐


Words: Yemi Abiade

UK rap is blazing a trail of dominance throughout the country and the world at large, with the likes of Dave, Central Cee and J Hus putting up serious commercial numbers on the board. In this exciting new context, Champion has arrived at just the right time. The eight-part BBC drama series, written and conceived by Candice Carty-Williams and out now on BBC One and BBC iPlayer, follows rap sensation Bosco Champion (played by former Top Boy star Malcolm Kamulete) as he returns to claim back his top spot in music industry after a brief period in prison. Along the way, his relationship with his dutiful sister, Vita (played by Déja J Bowens), herself a promising singer, is torn apart as Vita’s career takes off, setting the stage for a conflict that will rip through the entire Champion family.

Champion is a deft examination of the music industry and its oftentimes negative impact on the artists trying to break through, tracing themes of mental health, family strife, strained relationships and the nefarious situations artists face when at the mercy of the industry machine. But in many ways, the series serves as an intimate love letter to Black British music. From the start of production, showrunner and proud South Londoner Carty-Williams was adamant that music would play a vital role in Champion’s creative arc—a role that would showcase every layer of generational Black music, from R&B to rap to grime to drill, and map our journey through sound.

This is evident in Champion’s sprawling soundtrack, an epic 26-song project that is being released by 0207 Def Jam. It was constructed by music executives Ghetts and Ray BLK (who also makes her acting debut in the show), with song writing by artists including M1llionz, Shola Ama and Debbie, music consultancy by Hattie Collins, music supervision by Catherine Grieves, and production by the likes of Toddla T, MNEK, Wize, A Class and Ceebeaats, with the series scored by Swindle.

“It’s an eclectic offering that I think you would be able to hear on any radio station or any playlist on a streaming platform in this country and beyond.”

The soundtrack is an extensive musical experience for historians of the scene, with performances reflecting the dynamism of Champion’s acting performances. “I feel the soundtrack encapsulates the very best in Black British music, the energy, the vibrancy, the mood and the tempo,” Hattie Collins tells TRENCH. “It’s an eclectic offering that I think you would be able to hear on any radio station or any playlist on a streaming platform in this country and beyond. Ray BLK and Ghetts are both leaders in their field; they’re both incredibly talented musicians and were open to being involved in the process. That’s what you want; you don’t want someone who’s going to dial it in and just take the cheque. They were really into the idea of the show. They both wanted to give as much as they could to the project so it made complete sense for them to be music executives.”

Anchoring both the series and soundtrack is the title track, “Champion To The World”, performed by Bosco, a trap-flavoured, defiant roar of a track outlining his mission to never give up and elevate himself. When we first hear the track in episode one of the show, Bosco is up on stage, psyching himself up to perform after having a panic attack. Setting a majestic tone immediately, with bars as incisive as If I never existed, would you be number one? "Champion To The World" is Bosco’s theme tune, empowering him even at his most perilous mental state to rise above the noise and be a star. Not one to be upstaged, Vita finds her powers in another musical pillar of the show, “My Girl”, the track that maps out her road to stardom.

Performed by Ray BLK on the soundtrack, the song is a beautiful ode to female friendship, soothing with Ray’s angelic vocals cascading over tender piano and guitar tones. When we find “My Girl”, Vita has linked up with her new manager Mark for their first studio session, rebelling against his predetermined formula for her success and singing something from her heart. The track places a battery on her back as she finds confidence in herself to take music seriously.

Vita’s decision is hastened in episode one when she outshines best friend Honey (played by Ray BLK) in a studio session with Birmingham rapper Bulla, a key rival of Bosco’s, over an addictive drill remix to Sugababes’ classic debut single, “Overload”, courtesy of producer Ceebeaats. It is here that Vita spots the possibilities for her own career outside the paradigm of her loyalty to Bosco. Ceebeaats’ update retains “Overload”’s smooth production and elegant guitar patterns but blended with a sped-up tempo and sliding hi-hats and 808s typical of modern drill, adding a frantic feel to a classic track. On the track’s creation, Collins recalls: “We were talking about remixing a classic song and I said, ‘We should do Sugababes’ ‘Too Lost In You’’, and Candice was like, ‘We should do Sugababes but what about ‘Overload’?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ It was a beautiful combination of great minds thinking alike and thinking apart, adding and enhancing ideas to the next level, which was amazing to work within.”

Initially, Vita’s solo venture doesn’t sit well with best friend Honey—with whom she has been singing for years—and when she’s forced to go back to singing in front of ungrateful customers at a restaurant, she delivers “Drowning”, a heart-wrenching exploration of love and identity, set to lush harp chords that, in turn, allows her to take charge of her own destiny, much like Vita.

Balancing her dual role as actor on the show and music executive for the soundtrack required tapping into a new aspect of artistry for Ray BLK, as she tells TRENCH: “If you want to diversify yourself, everything can’t be about you. When I write music as an artist for myself, I’ll pray and I’ll be like, ‘God, give me something to say,’ and then it just flows and comes out. For acting on Champion and exec’ing the music, it was about stepping into the shoes of this character or the shoes of this scene, this moment. What does this moment need? What do I need to bring to this? It’s the same with a character because I think lazy acting is just doing a version of yourself, right? It’s important to remember that you’re basically trying to tell someone else’s story.”

Meanwhile, a rap clash takes centre stage at the end of episode two when Bosco and Bulla have it out over a varied blend of grime and drill. If you close your eyes while listening to the four-part track on the soundtrack, titled “Clash”, you can immediately summon memories of watching classic match-ups on famed DVD Lord Of The Mics, such is the ferocity with which both MCs lay claim to be the best out. Bosco’s journey is complex, as he tries to balance his career with his deteriorating relationship with Vita, his controlling father Beres, his lack of contact with his daughter and adjusting to life post-prison. As a result, he is prone to panic attacks and fight-or-flight moments of action, such as episode four when he leaves his tour to check in with Rusty, an ex-cellmate, in Birmingham. Here, for a fleeting moment, Bosco is comfortable, inspired as Rusty unleashes “Rusty Dots”, written by Birmingham rap star M1llionz.

The track is a bar-heavy drill banger detailing his time in prison and the passion with which he’s attacking life outside. Bouncing off ice-cold synths and hi-hats, it comes at a time when Bosco is questioning his worth, showing him that if his friends can move forward, it’s not too late for him either. Replacing Bosco on tour is Honey, who is emboldened by her new shot at success and gets into her grime bag on “Eskikid”. Rapping over quintessential Eskibeat production, Honey proves she’s a threat to the game on multiple fronts with braggadocious bars and pinpoint flows, wowing the crowd and setting up the next stage of her rise to fame.

As a standalone series, Champion is an enthralling view of the music industry from the lens of a warring family, a story we can owe to Candice Carty-Williams’ rich, detailed visionary mind and its deft execution on screen. But it becomes essential viewing thanks to the journey the music takes us on, how it cuts through each moment in the show with grace and potency at the show’s essential moments, and a variety symbolic of modern UK Black music. If the scene didn’t have a visual representation of its course and history, it has one now, one that can be shared to generations of fans seeking the genesis and continuous forward movement of our culture.

Champion helps give the UK music scene some context,” Hattie Collins says. “Grime and UK rap are just a part of everyday life. Everyone knows Stormzy, Central Cee’s at Glastonbury and you’ll see Skepta on Good Morning Britain. Grime is a part of the everyday fabric of modern British culture, but it came from a place of marginalised voices, and no one wanted to hear grime music or their stories 20 years ago. What’s brilliant about Champion is that it shows how far the music and culture have come, and how incredibly important it is to modern British life.”

Watch Champion now on BBC iPlayer.

Listen to the official Champion soundtrack now on BBC Sounds and check out Ray BLK’s ‘My Sounds’ here.

Posted on July 20, 2023