No More Walking Away: Craig David Was Born To Do This

After a five-year hiatus, the R&B legend has listened to the masses and is making his return to music.

craig david by ashley verse craig david by ashley verse
Photo by Ashley Verse
craig david by ashley verse craig david by ashley verse

It’s 1.30pm on a half-sunny Wednesday afternoon, and I’m sitting in Craig David’s management HQ in Kensal Green, with the photographer Ashley Verse, taking in the multiple awards and multi-platinum plaques adorned on the walls.

We’re waiting for Craig to arrive at JEM Artists’ base; he was coming in from a hectic Heathrow Airport, having just flown in from Miami to play a sold-out DJ gig in East London later that week. 45 minutes pass, and—from the corner of my eye—a grey Louis Vuitton bag hits the ground. The man, the legend, had finally arrived.

Craig shows love to staff in the lobby area before bopping through to his office/studio space to greet us. “We getting in the booth, yeah, JP? I know you’ve got them bars,” he assumes, to which I reply (looking down awkwardly at my attire): “People always think I’m an MC when they meet me.” The room drowns in laughter and I’m grateful for the ice-breaker.

There has been a lot of fanfare surrounding the Southampton-born R&B star in recent months. I first sensed it when Complex published a piece celebrating 15 years of ​Born To Do It—Craig’s seminal debut—in August just gone. Then, of course, the now-infamous session on 1Xtra took place with Kurupt FM, Shola Ama, Big Narstie et al., prior to Noisey dropping a respectable long-read urging the icon to make a comeback. Fans and tastemakers have been chomping at the bit for new material pretty much since news surfaced that Craig was in the studio with Kaytranada.

But those whispers of a full-on return are soon to become a reality as the icon shares his exciting plans during our chill, hour-long conversation; it’s like he’s one of my older brother’s friends I hadn’t seen in the area for years—the excitement to be talking about the future written all over his face.

“I got the co-sign off Drizzy way back for the stuff I did with Artful Dodger, and he’s taken that style and ran with it.”

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COMPLEX: I’ve been looking at all the plaques you’ve got up on the walls—can you believe Born To Do It just turned 15? It feels like it was only yesterday the video for “7 Days” came out and was on heavy rotation on Channel U and [MTV] Base.

Craig David:
Those plaques are actually up because of Big Narstie. Slightly digressing, but when I came in when we were working together, I had some plaques just around on the floor and he called me up on it. He was like, “When me and my cousin were grounded, we were listening to your tunes. We listened to that album a lot growing up.” I was telling him about working in McDonalds and selling double glazing on the phone and getting cussed out by a million people. He goes, “Anything you went through, and coming up to London with your mum and buying records and paying for vinyl that you couldn’t really afford, that allowed you to make that album. I’m seeing the plaque on the floor. Pick that plaque up!” So I did [laughs]. It’s crazy how that album impacted so many people.

But it changed my life as well. Born To Do It took a kid out of a council estate and put my mum into a home of her own. It changed my whole family’s situation, and all from doing something that I loved. And it’s gone full circle; it’s kind of put me back in that place now. When I made that record, I didn’t take it too seriously. I was making music, I was hungry, I was passionate, and I had fun with it. I never expected it to do what it did. I never expected to be hooking up with one of the biggest grime artists in Big Narstie and him saying “Booty Man” was his favorite tune. So for me, it’s a mad one. I’m very proud of all the records I’ve had, but obviously that one impacted like no other.

How does it make you feel when you hear one of the album cuts randomly played on the radio? It happens quite a lot, especially on the underground stations in and around London.

It’s like being proud of one of your sons or daughters. I haven’t got any kids, at the moment, but in the sense of music, I’ve had many! Putting it out there and seeing how well it’s done and the reaction it’s had with people and changed people’s lives, it really is amazing. A lot of people have had experiences where they had “that” tune and it meant “that” to them—it got them through a certain situation. And not even the obvious ones like “Walking Away”, but songs like “Booty Man” or “You Know What”, songs like “Follow Me” and tracks that weren’t even singles that people say, “That’s my tune!”

The place that I was in, in terms of DJing at the time as well—which is weird to me, because it’s all come full circle—I was at the forefront of knowing what was going on. I wasn’t listening to commercial radio, I didn’t know what was happening there, but I knew what was happening when I played a track in front of a crowd. If I was playing a song for too long, or someone’s going off to buy a drink because of the song I played—what do you do? You can’t just stand there. So you grab the mic and toast something and look for another vinyl. It was a different DJ flow back then [laughs]. All that stuff showed me that when you’re in it, then you’re actually really doing it. That’s why whenever I hear one of my songs played I’m just proud. 

craig david

At the buzzing point of your career, did you have any dark moments? You were never in the tabloids with any life dramas.

To be honest, what I realize now is that everything goes hand-in-hand. You have to have those times when your hunger and drive is in a different place because you’re under pressure to have success. When it came to the second album, Slicker Than Your Average—even now, this is madness to me—I bought into the fact that it was an album that was, in some way, unsuccessful. The first album did 7 million, and to then go to an album that did 3.5 million—we were thinking more along the lines of 8 or even 9 million. We weren’t on some Willy Wonka stuff, going up through the elevator, but we definitely wanted it to move.

I bought into that nonsense, because I’m looking at an album going in at 20,000 now, less than 20,000—3.5 million people bought your album and you’re on some kind of downer! I actually bought into that. And that’s where the nonsense started. Before, as a kid, I’d be like, “I don’t care if people get or don’t get ‘Rewind.’ I’m gassed in my car, I’m playing out to crowds.” That was my validation. But I fell into the trap and it was hard to get out. “Your song went in at No. 4.” I would be on an instant downer. I started to buy into the effect of the hype. It always used to happen when I jumped in the studio to put a tune down. Now, I don’t take things as serious.

How did you overcome that way of thinking?

You know what? I had to get away from myself; I had to get out of my own way. Because what happened was it then led to the point where I got to doing this album called Signed, Sealed, Delivered—which is a covers album. It was an opportunity that came through Universal in 2010, and it was gonna be done through the whole TV lane. It was an opportunity at a time when there weren’t as many opportunities, and I love Motown music—I’m still proud of the music—so it was genuinely a nice album to make. But it went from me doing “Fill Me In” with “I was checking this girl next door” riding it to “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide rolling in.” It wasn’t a chopped ‘n’ screwed version or some heavy trap version. It was a straight-up cover version. How have we come from “Fill Me In”, riding “7 Days” to “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”? When it didn’t quite work out, my own intuition said to me, “This was all wrong getting into it in the first place, but as a professional, I will do my best with this opportunity.”

At this point, I had my own home in Miami for about three or four years. So I just took some time and chilled on the terrace for a bit and lived life. But even then, it got to a point where the luxury was so boring that I wanted to get into the most ghetto studio ever and prove myself. I needed to go there. Be that guy. “Yeah, you wanted to go to Miami. Yeah, you wanted to party. OK, cool. Now you’re bored out of your mind with that. It doesn’t mean anything to you. You’re hungry to get back into the studio to show people what you are really made of.” I had to do all of that to get to this point today. 

I can tell you’re excited again.

Ah, man! It feels like I’m that 15-year-old kid again. I’m on that thing where I’m having to calm myself down a bit because people are like, “Craig, calm yourself down.” [Laughs] But don’t remind me! Let me be the kid that’s playing and let me get on the mic. That’s why I got so hyped when we walked into that BBC 1Xtra thing with Big Narstie and the Kurupt FM guys. Madly enough—to a younger crowd, especially—the Kurupt FM/UKG concept is new to a lot of people. Garage music to a 16-year-old kid now is brand new. I’ve had people in America hear that “Where Are Ü Now/Fill Me In” mash-up and tell me, “Your new tune is sick!” And I didn’t correct them. I just let it be.

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UK garage, grime—both genres are popping on a wider level again. What do you think of the evolution of the whole underground scene?

I love it! I love it because it’s back in the hands of artists again. You see Stormzy come with his freestyle and set the charts alight. Big Narstie’s doing his thing as well. Skepta... Now, Skepta’s a great one because he’s been in it from time, doing stuff back then with Wiley and Kano and all those guys. What I love about his stuff now is when you’re seeing artists like Drake saying the grime thing’s right, opening it up for the whole Boy Better Know crew, people can recognize that this isn’t just some fad. It’s like a controlled madness at those grime events. Narstie told me once, “I’m the zoo keeper. I part the sea!” And I’ve seen him go off in the raves. Play the right tune and when you see it, it’s like the closest thing to the rock events with a big mosh-pit going on—but controlled. If you don’t know about it, you’d say it’s a frenzy. People aren’t getting hurt, they’re loving it! It’s a different kind of energy.

For a moment, the scene was kind of getting saturated with record labels and major labels always having a hold on the market. And at award ceremonies, it was always getting pushed to the sides. I think social media has allowed it do its own thing and to be seen again. You didn’t always have credible platforms for the scene. The way in which Complex allows people to see what’s going on is exactly what I’m talking about. It wasn’t there before. You were begging for someone to put you on radio or begging someone to put you on TV, maybe a magazine publication might do it but you’d do a whole load of nonsense selling yourself out, doing interviews you didn’t want to do and talking a load of nonsense. By the time it even got to what you’re about, you were some washed-up poppy grime act who was no longer that guy. So it’s wicked that everyone’s getting it raw now.

With the new material, will you be incorporating grime and garage into it? Will you be taking it back to the R&B-meets-UKG days?

I’m not going to harp on about Born To Do It, but in terms of being my lane, it’s R&B, it’s garage. Even with the grime thing, when I was with Narstie he said, “Craig, you have to do a grime track.” I told him that I didn’t want to be the guy who’s all of a sudden jumping on it. He said, “Firstly, bruv, I’m the zoo keeper. If I say you’re the guy for doing grime, you’re doing grime. I’m giving you the certified sign-off on that. Furthermore, do you forget it was the garage thing that got grime going off?” He was saying all this before he even bunned a zoot, so I knew it was real [laughs]. After that, it was just hype. So I would say I’m back in that R&B lane where, when I do me, no one touches what I do. As soon as I try to jump into a next man’s lane... If I try to do what Chris Brown’s doing, I’d be a watered-down version of about 10 other guys I know who do that stuff. But as soon as I get in my flow, it’s a wrap! You can be talented but you still need to stop going in the other lane or you start watering yourself down. I’m just back to doing what I’m good at. I’m doing R&B and narration and telling stories and hopefully saying things that people can really connect to.

I’m not trying to be the kid on the street. I’m not 15 or 16 years old. I’m not that guy. It’s grown music for the mature ear. When I wanna hear an R. Kelly record, I wanna hear the R. Kelly that did those slow jams, “Down Low” and all that. I wanna hear Usher do “You Make Me Wanna” and “Burn”. I’m a massive Usher fan, by the way. Confessions is a classic. I love the fact that I’ve seen the Drakes of this world—and I love Ed Sheeran and what he’s done. The fact that he got an acoustic guitar in front of 80,000 people and shut the whole place down gives me so much happiness because it’s a validation without even needing validation. The acoustic thing is something that’s very close to me and seeing one guy with foot-pedals, and seeing Drake doing what he’s doing, it’s just great. I got the co-sign off Drizzy way back for the stuff I did with Artful Dodger, and he’s taken that style and ran with it. They’ve inspired a whole new generation, and some of us old guys, too. I did an interview the other day and there was a question about the new music and, from what I can tell, people want it right away. They don’t want anymore talk—they just want me to put the tunes out, now. I’m sitting in front of my computer now and I’m seeing lists of songs and songs and songs. Come 2016, if it starts to get long, I’ll just put them all up on SoundCloud [laughs].

Staying on the subject of Drake for a sec, did you hear about when he went to Wimbledon earlier this year and everyone thought it was you?

I did, I did. It kinda got to the point where it showed that blurred line “Oh, it’s a black guy with a beard.” I think that’s what it came to because, obviously—that is clearly Drake. I took it as a compliment, though. That's a handsome young brother right there. So yes, we do look the same [laughs]. 

“If I try to do what Chris Brown’s doing, I’d be a watered-down version of about 10 other guys I know who do that stuff. But as soon as I get in my flow, it’s a wrap!”

Who have you been working with on the new music?

So many new guys. I was doing some bits with the Got Some crew, the Eton Messy Bristol crew. That was the same time as Blonde and all those guys. There’s a dude called White Nerd from Manchester, and we’ve done a lot of garage stuff together. He gets it, because he was a fan of the older stuff, but he’s not trying to flex it like the old stuff. There’s Kaytranada as well, who I did some wicked stuff with out in Canada. He’s about to drop his project which is going to be fire because he’s still on that futuristic R&B thing and he’s taken it electronic. Working with him was dope. Diplo too; we’ve actually got a few things coming up. That’s going to be big. Oh, and GoldLink. He’s got his new record dropping soon, but we have a few bits dropping together next year... Who am I forgetting? I’ve also done some stuff with Chase & Status—pure flames, man!

I’m gassed for you.

I’m gassed myself! You’re getting the same feeling I got at Notting Hill Carnival earlier this year. 15 years ago, I went when I was 18 or whatever, and “Rewind” had just started to get played heavily. It would’ve been ‘99, really. I’m in the crowd, I’d found some soundsystem—I didn’t know who they were—they started playing “Rewind” and when it came to the drop, it went OFF! The DJ pulls it up four or five times, there’s girls all around, I can hear them singing my name and, at this point, I wasn’t even in the video. No one knew who I was but I’m looking around thinking, “Oh! My! God! This is so, so sick.” They were singing man’s name and I wanted to just run up and grab the mic and start singing [laughs]. So when it came full circle this year, Shy FX—who I’m a big fan of—says to me, “Do you wanna come and do Carnival?” I was straight back into that mode.

I was back to running and grabbing the mic to the point where man couldn’t get me off [laughs]. Shy put me on and I dropped “Rewind”. I was on the other side seeing the crowd go off, and MistaJam had to come up because the police said there were too many people in our space and they were planning to shut it down, which, for me, is shutting down at Carnival. The police came and shut down Carnival; I’m taking that one with me, thank you very much! So, for me, I’m back in that place. If the excitement I’ve got for my music is like how I’m feeling, I hope it translates in the same way. And that’s all I’m really asking for.

Tell me about your DJ set project, TS5. 

TS5 was started at my house in Miami. I was doing a pre-party for some friends, 10 friends or so, and I play a couple tunes from my iTunes playlist and then people start to get a little too clever with their fingers and start pressing the buttons wanting to put different stuff on. It was going from Shy FX’s “Helicopter” tune to vibing to some rock tune. I was like, “Guys, it can be played but not like this.” So I reined it back in, got a little DJ set-up and they were like, “OK, cool. You’re a DJ.” I actually used to DJ and grab the mic, so I just started playing again and singing, vibing to other people’s tunes. It just became this thing. People would be like, “Burn me a CD of this and that.” CDs went out in the ‘90s, bruv. I ain’t even got a computer with a CD on it! So I put mixes on SoundCloud and it got played on Kiss, then on Capital Xtra, then on Nova FM all over Australia. And it was just this little house party.

That has now translated to me going out and doing performances. After a while, when you’re singing your own songs for 15 years, you’re still proud of the songs but it’s not where you’re always at. You’re going on stage just going through the motions. It’s very rigid. I’m singing “7 Days” because I know people want to hear “7 Days”—it’s sung the same way, ad-libbed the same way. Of course, in that sense, I’m a professional. TS5 allowed me to flex it differently, though, because I played O2 Indigo and we had a full band show and I did a 10-minute TS5 segment and people went so nuts for the fact that I played Shabba Ranks. I’m going up there doing whatever. TS5 is really in the growing stage, so now I’ve been going all around the world letting it do its thing. But the exciting ones are always in London.

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Its home turf.

Trust me! And people don’t care in London. If they’re not feeling it, they’ll let you know. It isn’t like going out to the outskirts where they’re just happy to see you. When we did the first one at Shapes, we sold out so quickly. It’s building, but I know where it needs to go and I’m walking in the road. Any intention you have, keep walking in that direction. That’s when it happens. I’ve seen it happen from a young kid who had a little dream, a little hunger, and told his friends, “I’m not coming out because I need to finish off this tune.” And their reply would be, “Why you going on like you’ve got a record deal?” They would call me out on a regular basis. “We’re gonna get mash up, come.” But I knew the track wouldn't be done for another three days. Those days when I kept on telling them no, I kept finishing the tune and it ended up becoming “Rewind”. You’ll sacrifice a lot when you’ve got that hunger inside you.

Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure on you to deliver? Youve had a lot of positive press and there’s a lot of Craig David talk out in these streets. But you haven’t released anything in years.

Nah, and see that’s the thing: you’ve got to take the bricks out your suitcase and never buy into the pressure game. The pressure game makes you make the music that makes you second guess yourself. So you have to keep moving, keep writing the songs. Then, all of a sudden, an album comes together, without trying to go into too many concepts. Born to Do It wasn’t ever really a concept. It was just a collection of songs. For the album cover, we did a whole day of shooting, all this time dressing up. It was for some headphone company, or something... Man, if I’d been around when Beats was around! At the end of the session, we did some little headphone thing; it was like three or four shots. They gave me free headphones and we ended up doing one shot that was like that for their office. So shows me that, more importantly, if the music’s right, you can put whatever on the cover. People don’t care. Just as long as you make the music right.

So, when can we expect the new album?

I’m not going to be the guy who says it because I’ve had so many fans say, “You told me 2013 and it’s still not here!” Even I thought it was coming out then. 2016 though, the album—it’s called Following My Intuition—it’ll definitely be dropping and hopefully on the early side of the year, as well. I’m very thankful and glad to see such love come at this point in my career. I’m 34 years old! I’m seeing people starting at 34 on their first record and I’m like, “I’m coming for you!” I’m in that mode, man. It’s gonna be a good time.

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