The resurrection of Craig David is one of the most surprising music stories of 2015. Ahead of the next step in his plan – a free show for ShortList readers – Louise Donovan meets him
It’s Saturday night, and 7,300 extremely sweaty people are swiftly removing their T-shirts inside Alexandra Palace. We are under strict instruction from an equally topless US DJ, Wes Pentz, AKA Diplo, to “f*ck sh*t up” along with his Major Lazer crew.
After racing through several raving dancehall tracks, the 37-year-old then plays his million-selling single Where Are Ü Now, produced by himself and Skrillex (better known as Jack Ü), and announces a very special guest will be joining them on stage. This is the banger which, by the way, made it OK for you to admit you’re now a fully-fledged Belieber.
The crowd at this point have exploded into a fit of manic screams. Yet everyone’s favourite teen titan is nowhere to be seen. The man who does join us? That’ll be one Craig David, dressed in a tracksuit so white I could spot it standing 20 metres back.
We know what you’re thinking. Is this the Craig David? The same guy whose career vanished a decade ago? The one blighted by Leigh Francis’s rubber-faced Bo Selecta! sketch? The answer is yes, to all of the above. David performed his debut solo single Fill Me In, first released in 2000, over the instrumental to Where Are Ü Now and topped it off with a freestyle rap verse.
And it worked. Watch any YouTube video from the night and you’ll see the building practically shaking with joy. So the real question then isn’t why, but how did one of the UK’s long-lost garage stars end up on stage with the dude behind Spotify’s most streamed song (Major Lazer’s Lean On) of all time?
When The Fame Drops
“After the show Diplo said, ‘Oh my God, what just happened?’” explains David. “There was no rehearsal. He just said, ‘Just come on, spit a verse.’ But that response [from the crowd] was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. People were losing their sh*t.”
A cynic could argue people were 'losing their sh*t’ to the (very popular) original, but there has been an increasing amount of noise surrounding the Southampton superstar in recent months. In August, he performed at Notting Hill Carnival alongside Skrillex, Sean Paul and Redlight at Shy FX’s party. A month later he played at Bestival with his DJ collective TS5. But perhaps most pivotal was the now-infamous 1Xtra session with Kurupt FM back in September. During the stars of the BBC3’s mockumentary People Just Do Nothing’s takeover of MistaJam’s show, David rolled in, cracking jokes, and began rapping lyrics from his iPhone alongside Big Narstie and Stormzy. It all went exceedingly well, yet David wasn’t initially convinced: “I didn’t want to be the heritage artist. I hate that whole nostalgia thing, just rehashing what we did back in the garage scene,” he says. “I never expected it to blow up the way it did.”
By blowing up, he means 3.5 million views in 24 hours. And now we find ourselves hurtling towards 2016’s most unlikely comeback: the return of Craig David. The singer is currently working on his seventh album, Following My Intuition, which features a host of credible collaborators: XL Recordings’ Kaytranada, Chase & Status, DJ duo Blonde and “a few things” he’s worked on with Diplo. He purposefully left the sunshine of Miami to record in “the dirtiest” London studio he could find. “There’s a very dominant hip-hop, trap and EDM scene in Miami. If you get lost in it, you end up making that kind of music. Right now I want R&B, I want garage.”
The first single, When The Bassline Drops, features Big Narstie (a result of the 1Xtra hook-up) and fits the mould perfectly. It’s a genius bit of production harking back to Craig’s breakout garage sound. We’re yet to hear more music (the album is unfinished), but David is particularly fond of the Robin S-esque track he worked on with Blonde, and the Kaytranada collab Sink Or Swim, which he “can’t wait” for people to hear. Second time round, his excitement is palpable: “I feel like that 16-year-old kid again with everything to prove.”
The Time Is Probably Now
Cast your mind back to December 1999. It was virtually impossible to escape Re-Rewind’s infectious two-step blasting out of every airwave, and the track marked garage music’s elevation into mainstream pop music. David went on to sell more than 13 million albums, have 13 top 10 hits, win 12 Brit awards and reach multi-platinum status in more than 20 countries. But there’s always that niggling itch when you mention him: Leigh’s ‘career-killing’ mockery. Much has been made of the sketch ruining David’s status, forcing him to escape to a hotel-based existence in Miami and living out his post-glory days with an #EatCleanTrainDirty lifestyle. The singer has previously admitted it was detrimental to his career, but he takes a Zen-like approach to the whole thing now.
“My PR was part of the confusion. One minute it was like: ‘play the victim’, then the next it’s: ‘OK, you want to beat [Francis] up.’ And I was in the middle of it thinking: ‘I don’t take any of this seriously.’ I didn’t care about people coming up to me saying Craig David in a northern accent. But ultimately it was nothing to do with him, it was my music. People say it damaged my brand… nah. Maybe I just wasn’t making the music I needed to create.”
The pair eventually met at Fearne Cotton’s wedding. But those expecting a punch-up were sorely disappointed: “I gave him the biggest hug,” he explains. “Do you know what? It did me a favour. You go away for a couple of years and come back raring to go.”
The real question, though, is why now? Why, after all the mockery, the weight loss and the fully losing your sh*t on camera (his manager Colin Lester, not David – YouTube it), why choose 2016 as the year to reinvent yourself?
“I was riding a wave,” he explains. “The first album sold 7 million, the second [Slicker Than Your Average] did 3.5, and I thought, ‘Wow, only 3.5 million.’ The record company had grand ideas that we were going to sell 8 or 9 million. So you can see how if you start to take things too seriously, and buy into the hype, you do things that are a bit out of character. By the time I got to Signed Sealed Delivered in 2010, I was doing songs like Let’s Stay Together. How did I get from Fill Me In to Let’s Stay Together? And I’m like: come on, man, go away, go find yourself because you’re in there somewhere. And then come back when you’re ready. I had to get back in my lane.”
David hasn’t posted a post-gym picture in three months. He’s cut back on the extreme exercise because, by his own admission, he looked god-awful. As he explains: “I’m just not that guy any more. It’s not real.” Which is great news for us. This is David a little older, a lot wiser. No one’s shouting ‘boink’ any more. No one even likes Keith Lemon. Something’s shifted – we’re not sure what – but we don’t care: the Second Coming is upon us.
And you now have the chance to witness the UK’s finest garage act as David is the final gig in our 48 Hours To… series (now sold out, but you'll see video footage after the event). After three incredible months, five amazing live acts in equally amazing secret venues, we’ve come to the end. David sees off our line-up with a suitably euphoric hurrah.
But as with every big revival, there’s going to be naysayers. What would he say to people who think Craig David isn’t relevant any more? “When I sing in front of people at Ally Pally, or I shut down carnival, those moments of love are beyond. Rewind was a game-changer. So I when play it, and see people going off on it, they ain’t thinking about some caricature in a mask. They’re thinking, ‘F*ck, this was the tune I played when I was growing up.’ Or I play it now and the young kids are like ‘rarrrr’. So in the words of Drake, what a great time to be alive. Your boy is back.”
When The Bassline Drops by Craig David x Big Narstie is available to download and stream on 27 November
(Photography: John Jansheski)