In 2021, few success stories were more remarkable than Tion Wayne’s, a UK rap breakthrough powered by the success of the platinum-selling Body, which became the first-ever drill track to reach No.1. It's nominated in thr Song Of The Year category at the BRITs.
Music Week meets the MC, alongside his managers, Warner Music UK CEO Tony Harlow, and Atlantic’s Austin Daboh and Rich Castillo, to chart the history of a campaign that changed the course of music culture for good...
WORDS: ADENIKE ADENITIRE
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this past year, you’ll be aware that one of the biggest songs to drop in 2021 has been Tion Wayne and Russ Millions’ No.1 drill sensation Body. The success that 28-year-old North London-born rapper Wayne has managed to achieve over the past two years is not only significant for his own career, but for the UK music scene as a whole.
With 887,551 UK sales (OCC), the addictive tune has become a certified anthem, almost like a love letter of British youth culture to the rest of the world. With instantly recognisable and quotable lines such as: ‘English girl named Fiona, African girl, Adeola…’, the song started building traction within the first week of its March release, especially on TikTok. What happened next has emerged as a clear template of how to roll out the perfect single campaign. A remix was released shortly after the original, which helped propel Body to a UK No.1 in May. The song has been streamed half a billion times and counting and viewed over 5.5 billion times on TikTok. Internationally, Body has topped the charts in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and reached the Top 10 in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
Body, clearly, is a huge deal, and Warner Music UK CEO Tony Harlow is delighted that it was Atlantic that led the charge.
“Tion has continued to cross over into the mainstream while staying true to his unique sound and voice,” Harlow tells Music Week. “He’s got an incredible sense of what will work in the marketplace and knows how to capture the attention of the public. This year, he has proven to be a real breakout star.”
At first glance, the success of Body may appear to be a simple example of a good song naturally doing well commercially. But really, it is the coming to fruition of Wayne’s team’s work in turning him into one of the most important artists in British music. And the success keeps building: his Top 5 debut album Green With Envy (18,397 sales) features the hit singles Wow and Wid It, and the rapper also appeared on a remix of Ed Sheeran’s global smash Bad Habits.
We catch up on a Saturday evening in November and Wayne (real name Dennis Junior Odunwo) is enjoying a quiet night at home.
“I’m still recovering from playing football the other day, my body is so weak,” he admits. “I need to get back on my fitness.”
Chelsea fan Wayne has always been into football, but music quickly followed. His mum was a nurse and his dad a computer engineer and, growing up in Edmonton as the middle child of three, his first taste was playing drums at school and at church.
“Me and my family went to church on Sundays and while my mum was doing the praise and worship, I’d play the drums,” he says. “It wasn’t every week, but when the main people weren’t there, I would do what I could do.”
Back then, his music tastes ranged from Dipset to Justin Bieber and, now that he’s making hits of his own, he credits his label as being the perfect partners.
“I don’t feel like there are many labels I could work with in the UK, labels that I could have done this with, because some people might not get it,” Wayne says. “But Rich [Castillo, head of A&R] and Austin [Daboh, EVP] are two people who do. They believe in my vision, which is really cool, as usually you’ve got to show and prove before a label does that.”
Castillo’s belief in Tion Wayne goes way back. He started his career at management company Shalit Global, where he helped launch N-Dubz, and joined Atlantic from Sony Music Publishing, where he tried to sign Wayne.
“We kept in touch,” says Castillo (who has also signed Stefflon Don, Young Adz, Pa Salieu and more over a career that has encompassed A&R roles at Universal Music Canada and Polydor).
Castillo continues: “When I joined Atlantic last year, Tion had just come out of a deal and I was like, ‘Okay, cool, there was an opportunity.’ I’ve always believed in him. I think he’s a superstar – the closest thing to what 50 Cent was when he was breaking. That lovable rogue with street sense, and a real ear for a big crossover moment.”
Since joining Atlantic, Castillo has worked to take advantage of the credibility and legacy the rapper has been building over his decade-long career. The steady releases of his Wayne’s World mixtape series started in 2010. Such early efforts showed Wayne’s knack for creating music that worked culturally, merging street swag with accessible and melodic song sensibilities. A winning combination of charisma, ambition and relatability ensured early songs like Can’t Go Broke and Minor became underground classics, particularly among the university ravers who hungrily snapped up tickets. This brought forth mainstream success, and a string of platinum Top 10 singles – including features on NSG’s Options (1,051,750 UK sales), KSI’s Houdini (312,082 sales) and Keisha & Becky with Russ Millions (1,041,209 sales) – over the past two years have led to the crossover Castillo foresaw years before.
Daboh says that, working on a magic blend of gut instinct and data, they were able to make Body a landmark hit.
“People thought that there was a limit on what UK drill could do,” he says. “If you wrote down on a piece of paper that a song has had 5.5 billion views on TikTok and half a billion streams in six months, then you’d be saying, ‘Oh, that’s a Drake, Taylor Swift or Billie Eilish record.’ But, no, it’s a bunch of kids that have got together on a drill tune. Body raised the bar of what a UK rap song can do. You could argue that it’s the only UK rap song to have truly broken globally, and that’s why it was so important, because it stretched the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Daboh says that Atlantic green-lighting a remix so close to the original release was pivotal: “We said yes, when others would have said no.”
The label quickly noticed how well Body was doing on TikTok, knowing timing was crucial if they wanted to take advantage. Pre-release, a clip of the song picked up steam on the app and a ‘Transition Challenge’ was born. Videos saw users changing their clothes as the beat dropped, while also performing the dance made famous by Russ in the video.
“This is really one of the first records that went to No.1 off the back of a TikTok campaign, certainly in the UK,” says Daboh. “And the only reason we could do that was because we were able to react in real time, to the energy and data that we were being fed from TikTok.”
In the background, Castillo busied himself with organising the remix. The hitlist included frequent collaborator and the song’s original featured artist Russ Millions; respected Manchester grime spitter Bugzy Malone; New York-based Drake and Kanye West collaborator Fivio Foreign; and Atlantic’s own Nigeria-born British act Darkoo, who had already created a buzz with her single Gangsta. Then, rounding things off were London drill rappers Buni and E1, fellow Edmonton rapper ZT and Brighton-born rapper ArrDee.
“Credit to Rich and his A&R team for pulling that list of features together,” says Daboh. “He worked closely with Tion to lock them in and was quite strong in the stance of, ‘We’re going to go with what’s going to fit this song culturally’ and not just, ‘Who’s currently in the Top 40?’”
Both execs are not afraid to admit there were a few raised eyebrows when their artist first presented the list of names for the remix.
“There wasn’t one single name on there that you could say was an A-lister,” says Daboh. “In fact, there were a couple of people that were relatively unknown to the entire industry.”
However, they trusted Wayne, who was adamant that this mixed bag was right. Wayne had worked with Dave on Back Then in 2016 and hit No.7 last year with I Dunno (630,755 sales), which featured guest verses from Stormzy and Dutchavelli. But this well-connected artist prides himself on not following the crowd, and this was no different.
“There were a couple of reasons [for that line-up],” he reveals. “One: I remember when I was coming up and no one was showing me love. There was no one that was killing this music thing that said to me, ‘Yo, come and do this.’ They might say, ‘You are talented, bro,’ but they weren’t saying, ‘Here’s the opportunity.’”
“Secondly,” he adds, “for a consumer that might have been listening to me for 10 years, there might be a rapper that comes out this year that they haven’t listened to before, but because their song is so refreshing, they’ll take to him straight away, so I feel like it is good to bring through fresh talent.”
Ed Howard and Briony Turner, co-presidents at Atlantic, are understandably proud of how the label worked Body.
“It’s been a brilliant year for Tion and we’re delighted with how he’s continued to grow,” says Turner. “Body was a culturally important moment, built around a real-time, audience-focused campaign that required a huge team effort and resulted in a massive international hit.”
Howard stresses that the major has “always seen Tion as a long-term Atlantic artist; we’re excited for our future together”. Further success beckons as the dynamics between the rapper and his team develop. Daboh, Castillo and Wayne all happily admit that they bump heads regularly. “That’s because Tion is so passionate and knows what he wants,” says Castillo.
One person not surprised by this success is childhood friend-turned-manager Terry Appiasei.
“Tion is a very proactive artist,” says Appiasei. “He sees things before others, which allows him to stay at the forefront of Black music in the UK. Even down to the artists he works with, he thinks about everything in the finest detail.”
Appiasei, who is also an A&R at Atlantic, is one of four individuals that make up Wayne’s tight-knit management team, who all grew up together. The other three are Davina Merchant, A&R manager at Downtown Music, Glenn Sonko, A&R at 0207 Def Jam, and Nino Dornor, who works for Wayne’s label GDS.
“We have known each other for over 15 years, so we have supported Tion for a really long time,” says Merchant. “We have a close friendship and extensive expertise, so we add value in different ways.”
“They are the ones I go to when I’m angry, going through something, or just the little things that people don’t see in public,” says Wayne. “Their impact and input in helping me be creative has been great because we all started from nothing, and to see everyone’s hard work paying off is a blessing.”
Engaging with TikTok success in the way Tion Wayne and his team have isn’t always the done thing in UK rap circles but co-manager Glenn Sonko argues that this is all just strategy.
“Though rappers can blow off a viral moment, all artists aspire to have longevity, and that requires so much conversation and strategy,” he says. “It’s so important that the artist is able to be their most authentic self, creating records that represent them and their culture.”
Tion Wayne has always been himself and music has long been what has driven him most. Despite being associated with drill, he is adamant that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.
“I’ve got my lane wide open, and I feel like I don’t get judged for anything I make,” he says. “The people, when they listen to me, like, no matter what lane I’m going down, they rock with it. If I do R&B or singing, they’ll be like: ‘Come on, it’s Tion, man, we know he likes that music.’ And if I do a hardcore drill song, it’s the same. But I wouldn’t even say I’m a drill artist. I make drill sometimes, but I wouldn’t say that’s my genre, as there are other genres I’m good at as well.”
And fans can expect a totally different sound on an upcoming collaboration with Ed Sheeran, which will likely drop sometime next year as his second record with the star.
“It’s a big tune,” he states. “It’s like a blend of his lane and my lane, and a lot of people are going to be shocked, because all of his tunes are usually so mainstream. I can’t wait for people to see [Ed] in this light.”
Right now, the sky is the limit for Wayne, a total contrast to just a few short years ago. In his younger years, he got on the wrong side of the law. His first arrest was at the age of 15; more followed and threatened to end his music career for good. In 2017, he was charged with affray following his involvement in a brawl outside a nightclub in Bristol and was handed a 16-month prison sentence. While some of his early lyrics are peppered with some of the gritty details from his experiences, being in prison gave him time to reflect on his life and he resolved not to waste his talent or opportunities once he got out.
“I had a different kind of hunger than I had before I went in,” he says. “The fact I had people out there that were like, ‘Yo, we can’t wait till you come home’: that gave me a lot of encouragement, and I feel that with my success, I haven’t let the people down that were rooting for me.”
“I’ve seen Tion go from nothing to something, from low to high, seen him stressed, happy, angry,” says co-manager Dornor. “But one thing he has never lost is his hunger. Tion is the type of artist you’d be worried about on Monday but by Tuesday morning he’d send you a hit.”
There are no doubt more to come but, for now, Body is the hit that matters most. “Body is an eye-opener for people,” Wayne explains. “They have to ask themselves, ‘Maybe there is something positive about this – why do people love it so much?’”
Before it, a trip to JD Sports was hectic, now, his international moves are catching attention, too.
“Now, when I travel I’ll be on a plane going to Dubai and when I land the locals are coming up to me, and it’s not even just young people anymore, it’s everyone,” he says. “Last time I went, I came off the plane and the Emirates VIP came up and they were like, ‘Dennis?’, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on? Am I getting arrested?’ [Laughs] And they came up and were like: ‘Big fan! We came to escort you.’”
How then, would Tion Wayne sum up all that Body has done for him? “I’ve been saying my life’s changed every year for 10 years,” he concludes. “But after Body, I see that I’m really gone.”