"Life has this beautiful way of playing out..." The continued renaissance of Craig David
One minute he was the hottest name in British music, the next, he’d virtually disappeared, leaving a trail of endlessly quoted lyrics in his wake. Now, he’s back. Craig David fills Max Williams in on where he’s been, and where he’s going
MIDNIGHT IN MIAMI, 2010. Craig David’s Ferrari is refusing to start. This isn’t any Ferrari but the car of David’s childhood dreams: coveted ever since he drove it on the arcade game Out Run, and now he drives it for real. Only, tonight, he doesn’t.View on Instagram
Until this point, it’s been a good evening: dinner at a nice restaurant, plans to hit up a nightclub – at least until the Ferrari intervened. David tells the others to go ahead. He calls the car dealership. “The guy says to me, ‘OK, you need to turn the car on and off 20 times, and open the door 20 times because it resets the ignition.’” He does. Nothing happens. He calls back the dealership. They tell him the tow truck will be an hour and a half.
So he sits tight – a superstar stranded in a supercar. The restaurant empties. Time ticks away. David’s discomfort grows: for all their many virtues, Ferraris are not designed as waiting rooms. “It’s hot, like humid in there, and I can’t turn the air conditioning on because I can’t turn the car on. So I’m hot.”
Then it starts to rain, “like pouring down, tropical rain. So now I can’t get out the car, and I’m hot, and I’m getting frustrated, and I’m like this is all long, my night’s messed up, it was all going so well.”
And then Craig David has a kind of epiphany. “I looked at the yellow badge in the middle of the steering wheel with the black horse… I looked at it and then all of a sudden I saw myself as that kid playing the little Outrun game, putting the pound coins in. And then back in the car again! I was like, whoa, wait a minute: I’m actually in the car of my dreams. I own the car of my dreams.
“You know when people say they see their whole life flash past them? I was seeing: ‘Oh, you not only own the car, but you live in Miami, you’ve got a home in Miami, you have a career that’s now spanned 15 years at this point… I’m seeing all this music, I’m seeing Born to Do It, I’m seeing all these different records, I’m seeing living in Miami – and then I came back and I just got really emotional.”
I was a young kid who kinda bought into statistics. People saying, ‘it’s got to be bigger’ and the record label hyping it up
“I was looking at the stitching in the car, thinking ‘this is sick…’ And I had a realisation: if I can’t be grateful for what I have now, I will never be grateful in my life. Ever. That was the game-changer for me. It was like: I got it. I was like the boy who got everything, and he’s still not grateful. I couldn’t be that.”
Even in 2010, Craig David had much to be grateful for. His debut album, the aforementioned Born to Do It, sold more than 7.5 million copies worldwide and rocketed a teenager from Southampton to immediate stardom. Its two biggest singles, ‘Fill Me In’ and ‘7 Days’, weren’t mere number ones but calling cards of British R’n’B. In 2000, Craig David didn’t just rule the present – he sounded like the future. A fresh new voice for an untarnished millennium, barely out of its box.
His second album, 2002’s Slicker Than Your Average, managed to be a critically acclaimed, double-platinum number four that was perceived as a relative failure. Selling 3.5 million copies is an incredible achievement, except when your previous album sold double that.
“I was a young kid who kinda bought into statistics. People saying, ‘it’s got to be bigger’ and the record label hyping it up: ‘this is going to be ten million, it’s going to be huge!’ So you buy into this thing.
“Now, I look back in isolation: 3.5 million albums! Give 3.5 million albums to any artist right now and they’ll be like, ‘I’m going to be partying for the rest of this year.’ And the hard copy: not like there’s some streaming here, a bit here. I’m talking hard copy in your hand! It was a different time back then.”
‘World Filled with Love’, the album’s fifth UK single, was written in a hotel room in the aftermath of 9/11. It peaked at number 15 – David’s first single not to reach the top ten. His 23rd birthday lay ahead of him, but already David had started on the journey that would reach a manner of spiritual climax one rainy Miami night, stuck outside an empty restaurant in a Ferrari that wouldn’t start.
KURUPT FM, London’s ‘second most popular pirate radio station’ portrayed in mockumentary sitcom People Just Do Nothing, have taken over DJ MistaJam’s #SixtyMinutesLive on BBC Radio 1XTRA. Guests include Stormzy and Big Narstie, the grime MCs of the moment, but the most rapturous reception is reserved for the final appearance. “I’m gassed for Craig David, I’m gassed for Craig David!” screams a delighted Big Narstie. “The don, the don, the don! Craig David the don! International don!”
“That moment walking in, and the Kurupt FM guys being so hyped. They went from being in character to being themselves.”
A beaming David – “I’m so good, man, I’m so good” – squeezes into the booth and proceeds to sing his 2000 hit ‘Fill Me In’ over the Jack Ü, Justin Bieber track ‘Where Are Ü Now’. The studio erupts. A 15-year-old tune sounds like it was dropped the day before; a man who hasn’t released an album for half a decade becomes the talk of social media – ‘huge fan. Honored’ tweeted Bieber of the remix.
“To see the first viral moment of that song kicking off… I’d never experienced that before. [At the time of] the first album, for many a year there wasn’t that social impact and response.”
There wasn’t even social media. The first YouTube video was uploaded in 2005; Twitter was created in 2006. Their rise coincided with David’s chart descent: The Story Goes… (2005) peaked at number five in the UK; Trust Me (2007) entered the charts at number 18. Of course these failures were relative – both sold in the hundreds of thousands – but set against Born to Do It, different standards applied. Bo Selecta!, a crass sketch show which caricatured David with catchphrases and a giant latex mask, further undermined a singer for whom greatness had seemed preordained.
Then came the relocation to Miami. David had intended to buy a small flat for his yearly visits to the city, but “I just got ideas of grandeur. All of a sudden it turned into this huge apartment, and I then sold my place here and did the whole move.
“After three or four years, I was like, what is going on here? I feel so detached from all my friends and my mates that were back in the UK. Musically, I feel like I’m not in touch – you can go to social media and the internet to find what’s going on, but you’re not living it.
Don’t be here telling the same story: ‘I did this and I did that and the world owes me.’
“There was a point where I was thinking, there’s nowhere to drive, I’m driving around for no reason. After a while, yeah, the sun’s beautiful, OK, cool. I’m a bit over this, can I go to the club? And everyone’s a bit elitist with the VIP area, and you’ve got the VIP area, and for me it’s all nonsense.”
So David started throwing parties in his apartment: Tower Suite 5. Playing DJ sets to a crowd of friends and acquaintances, like a kid whose parents are away for the weekend. “When I had the house parties, something happened. When I started going back to basics… It was necessary for me to go through that period in Miami to birth this TS5 thing – which really was the DJ element in me that had got left in Southampton.”
He wouldn’t return to the UK for several years but Craig David was musically reborn.
Two months after the appearance with Kurupt FM, David and new friend Big Narstie released ‘When the Bassline Drops’, a raucous garage anthem and David’s first single in six years. It peaked at number ten – his first top ten hit since ‘Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance)’ in 2007. Suddenly, Craig David was everywhere. By the time his January cover of Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’ went viral – 7.5m YouTube views; ‘much respect. Thanks’ the Bieber verdict – the comeback had become a phenomenon.
David through the ages
ONE OF the biggest crowds of the festival has gathered at the Pyramid stage. In an hour, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will call on US President Donald Trump to “build bridges, not walls”; but not before nearly 100,000 people have paid homage to another unlikely man of the moment. The previous September, Craig David scored his first number one album since his debut with ‘Following My Intuition’. Now he plays his second Glastonbury in two years, on the grandest stage of all.
“The Pyramid stage was – wow. The amount of people, the cross demographic of people that were there. To see that much love was one of the highlights of the year.”
Craig David owns Glastonbury that afternoon. He mixes classics with his TS5 set – the audience may be larger but the reaction is the same. Everybody is having the time of their lives, no-one more so than David himself.
“[Doing the TS5 set] all I could remember was being back in the flat that I had in Miami with about ten of my mates there, doing a couple of shots, and them saying, ‘yeah, play that, play House of Pain, ‘Jump Around’, it’ll be sick!’ And I’m doing my little thing, making a little mix, getting a little wavy off the drinks. And then I walk back and there’s 90,000 people in front of me going nuts to the same thing. Because what I’m doing is no different: it’s just actually come to fruition!
“I’m singing these tunes and it’s going off and people are hyped… I’m thinking, this is everything that four years ago I dreamt of – not necessarily Glastonbury, but dreamt of TS5 becoming something, and having this new music that would connect. The magnitude was unbelievable. Mad!”
It’s a remarkable story – but what of the man who lived it? Craig David arrives at the music studio (temporarily transformed into a photography studio) bang on time, greets everyone with genuine warmth, and within five minutes is posing for pictures: no makeup, no fuss. He complies with every request, answers every question, and even records a couple of mobile videos for the friends of those present. (“Hey Soraya. I just wanted to say happy birthday…”)
Craig David’s niceness is incontestable, almost overwhelming. Positivity radiates off him – a Tiggerish joie de vivre that extends to spending a January afternoon with Square Mile. “I’m gassed we’ve got a cover shoot! I’m hyped like I was the first time!”
He acts as though he’s won the lottery twice over… but then he starts talking music, and you realise the man’s knowledge on the subject is basically depthless, and you remember his renaissance wasn’t gifted but earned through graft, self-belief and talent, the same traits that secured his first shot at stardom all those years ago. The difference this time round is perspective: “I’ve realised it’s not about the numbers. It’s just about making great music, and having a positive impact in people’s lives.”
David’s latest album – The Time is Now – sounds like a man in total control of his craft, and utterly in love with it. Discussing the record, his excitement is palpable – more like a teenager chatting about a breakthrough mixtape than a 36-year-old veteran of the industry. Jaded, Craig David is not.
“It’s an R’n’B album at heart. I wanted to do an album that was all about inclusion, and a very positive message as the undertone of it.”
He describes The Time is Now as new R’n’B with “all the sensibility of that original R’n’B. And that is what really excites me – because whatever happens to the record, wherever it charts, wherever it doesn’t, the record is fresh, and it’s now.”
The youth and diversity of his collaborators is testament to David’s continual nowness: an artist who appeared fossilized in one era is now at the vanguard of another. “I’m definitely one of those people who moves with the change: otherwise you turn into [music] your parents can get into, or your grandparents. ‘Oh, it was better off in my day.’”
He scorns the idea of suffocating competition. “No! Bring everyone through! It keeps you very much fresh, and it gives people a platform. You want people to succeed.”
David on The Time Is Now collaborators
This mentality encapsulates Craig David. As a fan, he knows where the talent is; as a person, he wants to help young artists break through; and as a musician, he refuses to fall back in a comfort zone, rehash the same tunes with the same old names. It may sound obvious: but take a look at the charts in August 2000. Ronan Keating, David Gray, Melanie C, even Eminem: it’s like opening a time capsule. (And those are the ones you’ll recognise: Ruff Endz, anyone?) Only the man atop the list could claim to still operate at his peak.
“The only thing that hasn’t changed [in the music industry] is three minutes in a record. Three minutes will always change your life if you are willing to be in the studio and write those songs. I know that for sure now.
“It’s not just like there’s a nostalgic thing about me – if I didn’t come with anything new or anything fresh, people would just be like, ‘yeah, we’ll pull out some Born to Do It tunes.’
“Be willing to drop the bags of your success. And be grateful for it, but don’t be here telling the same story: ‘I did this and I did that and the world owes me.’ The world owes nothing. I’ve gotta come out and just be fresh.”
It’s tempting to portray the Miami years as a period in the wilderness; albeit a wilderness filled with beautiful women and fast cars and house parties. (Craig? Where did it all go wrong?) Perhaps ‘distraction’ is a better term – why concentrate on your music when you can take that new Ferrari for a spin?
It took a junior employee at David’s management company to confront the Miami issue – telling the singer, “we feel like we lose you. You go to Miami, it just feels like you’re messing about.” The words resonated. Rather than fly back to the East Coast, David stayed in London – and the studio. Matt Dodds is now his manager at JEM Music Group.
“I’ve still got my apartment in Miami, but I haven’t actually been back there for about nine months. I have no idea what’s going on out there. I know it sounds a bit frivolous but I’m just like, ‘I’m on a wave! I’ve gotta be in a studio, I’ve gotta make the tunes, because I’m loving it! Not laying out getting a suntan driving your sports car around like a waste. No one needs that right now.”
What if David had stayed in Miami? “That question is great because there is only one path… If I didn’t tell my mates, ‘listen, I’m going to stay in tonight and finish this song’ – if I had just gone out and kept on wrecking my voice, drinking and going crazy – then ‘Fill Me In’, ‘7 Days’, ‘Walking Away’, ‘Rewind’ wouldn’t have happened.
“When I look back, it’s every single thing, as much as some things feel like, ‘why does this not seem to go to the plan that I set out? A, B, C – why’s it gone A, J, D, F?’ But life has this beautiful way of playing out. You realise, in hindsight, those things were so necessary.”
For Craig David, life has played out very well indeed – and I doubt anybody in the world could begrudge him. He belongs in the spotlight – living proof that nice guys do indeed finish first. (Twice and counting…) Nearly two decades after his arrival, once again his moment is here.