I meet Craig David on a Monday, but there’s no offer of a drink on Tuesday. He may have promised as much on 2000 single “7 Days,” one of a string of hits that polished the U.K. garage sound into a winning chart formula, but he’s a busy guy these days. Too busy for week-long dating sprees, sadly. When I first see the British artist in a conference room at Sony’s offices the 35-year-old is sorting through boxes of promotional headphones, but stops and greets me with a lottery-winner smile. He’s wearing black jeans and a plain white T over his famously gym-built physique. On his wrist is a watch that doesn’t tell the time, it just says “now.” It’s as if he has taken the philosophy of mindfulness and made it into a tangible, wearable object, and he tells me it reminds him to “align himself” and that life is “not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
No one could have predicted the journey Craig David has been on in the past 12 months. Ever since a video of him freestyling his 2000 hit “Fill Me In” over Justin Bieber and Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now” instrumental on BBC Radio 1Xtra went viral in September 2015, David has been all over your timeline. It’s a level of fame that harks back to his breakout moment in 1999, when his debut single, the Artful Dodger collaboration “Re-Rewind,” made him the face of U.K. garage’s mainstream crossover. That single marked the point when 2-step garage announced itself as a genre with the potential to cross over from being a pirate radio staple to a serious Top 40 concern, with David as both its leading MC and poster boy. His debut album Born To Do It, released in 2000 when he was still just 19, sold seven million copies worldwide, and subsequently earned him two Grammy nominations for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. It opened the door for garage acts like So Solid Crew and DJ Pied Piper to break through with U.K. number one hits of their own, and it made David seriously famous — the focal point of what he retrospectively calls “Justin Bieber pandemonium.”
But the hype didn’t last. David’s second album, 2002’s Slicker Than Your Average, was led by the single “What’s Your Flava?,” which made a play for American audiences with it’s millennial R&B snap and the repeated lyric, It cost me 20 bucks. The track failed to connect in the U.S. though, and before long, his star was on the wane. Some have put this turn of fate down to David being caricatured on the U.K.’s toilet humor sketch show Bo’ Selecta!, which first aired in 2002. But, as “What’s Your Flava?” had proved, he was also less sure of his own musical direction. In the following years, he drifted further away, buying a palatial all-white pad in Miami in 2009, bulking up at the gym, and flying to Dubai to play private functions for lucrative fees. For a time, it seemed his career as a hit-making musician was over.
Yet, the love for Craig David never went away. For a generation now in their late 20s, whose first nights out were spent listening to U.K. garage in the early ‘00s, David’s music is a welcome breeze of nostalgia. For many contemporary British artists, he’s a trailblazer who set a blueprint for how to take underground sounds mainstream — which might be one reason why grime’s heavy hitters like Stormzy and JME are paying respect to him, and why scene stalwart Big Narstie was keen to collaborate with him on “When The Bassline Drops” in November 2015. David followed that in May by dropping the U.K. garage-celebrating solo single “One More Time,” and appearing on a stand-out track on Kaytranada’s debut album. He’s now gearing up to release his sixth album, Following My Intuition, later this year.
When we sit down to talk, David gives me his completely undivided attention, barely turning his face away for the hour, coming across as both gracious and slightly intense. His excitement about his recent return to music and the limelight is tinged with relief, giving him the air of a man who was convinced all his mates had forgotten his birthday, but has just walked into the mother of all surprise parties.