The African Caribbean Community Centre on Trinity Road, Southampton, offered a range of activities, but in the 1990s dominoes were the thing. People came from all over the country to flip their tiles in the converted church. There were also club nights, at which a local MC DJ Flash – real name Neal Gordon – spun discs for assembled youth. One night, a big-boned 14-year-old, probably wearing a shell suit, took the mic and started freestyling over Horace Brown’s 1996 make-out single “Things We Do for Love”. Gordon couldn’t say no because the boy’s father, George David, was on the community centre committee and was effectively paying his wages.
Over the next few months the child, who lived with his mother, Tina, a mile away on the Holyrood estate, became an unlikely “hype man” for the older DJ. The pair played the nightspots of the south coast – the Old Oriental pub on Queens Terrace, Southampton; the Zoo & Cage in Bournemouth. And this year, on 24 June, aged 36, Craig David was a hype man again – for Jeremy Corbyn on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. His hour-long set drew an audience as big as Radiohead’s the night before. There was some surprise – but there were no rubber masks in the crowd, thick of lip and beige of skin, referencing the TV skit that came in the middle of his short, fast rise to fame and ruined his life before his 22nd birthday.
It is August 2017, and the lobby of the Ibiza Rocks Hotel in San Antonio vibrates in the grip of Lucifer, the Mediterranean heatwave pushing the temperature up to 37° C. The decor flashes with the fluorescents of late-Nineties clubland. Thick-hided British twentysomethings stagger from sunlounger to pool and back again; frozen cocktails collapse within ten seconds of leaving the bar. The hotel courtyard, a square of blue water at its centre, throbs with bass, furnished with a PA systems like the tall, old tannoys you saw in the town squares of communist countries during the war. The noise is overwhelming but after a few minutes you don’t notice it. David’s live DJ set, which he calls “TS5”, will happen at 6pm, free to anyone staying at the hotel.
Forty minutes east, on the other side of the island, is a five-star hotel where punters have dragged their deckchairs into the surf in an attempt to cool down. In the sanctuary of a private suite, David is tying a knot in the string of his grey tracksuit bottoms. There is something almost hyper-real about him in close-up. His beard, maintained with electric shaver, razor and tweezers, is a landscape of sharp angles and varied gradations. His teeth are blue-white. His luggage is minimal: just an exploded Louis Vuitton holdall. There is a pile of Granny Smith apples on the coffee table and next to it a tub of Arbonne Greens Balance, a dietary supplement, one scoop of which is equivalent to a whole serving of vegetables. He is excitable, leading me out to a sun terrace with a jacuzzi he will probably not get the chance to use.
“My mid-thirties is such a good age,” he says. “You’re not looking for Mum or Dad to tell you what to do. It’s empowering to know you are actually in control of it all.”
David’s team explains that, with respect, on the journey across the island to the venue, he will not be able to speak to me. He sits at the very back of a people carrier wearing a large pair of headphones, laptop on lap, dragging and dropping tracks for tonight’s show. Every few minutes, between soft snaps of a Granny Smith, there are little involuntary eruptions from his seat: machine-gun rapping (“Rollin’ up, rollin’ up with the mandem”) and little croons.
“I’ve got some big tunes here, man,” he breathes to himself. “Too many tunes, always too many tunes!” He is boy-like. His entourage knows what he needs.
“We’re coming up to the billboard, Craig, if you want to put it on social?”
We slow down and someone passes his phone over the seats to take a picture. It really is just a billboard, advertising his show, like the one for Tinie Tempah nearby. But there is genuine excitement in the car. On the one hand, David projects that peculiarly American kind of media training, in which an entire career is put down to God or fate and the celebrity itself remains unknowable. On the other, there’s nothing false about his enthusiasm. He is star-struck – at himself and his second chance.
His long-time manager, Colin Lester, calls to apologise for not making it to Ibiza: he is unwell. David snaps out of his playlist reverie and fusses in a familial manner. “You need water. Flush that system out! You can do it! You’re the doctor here!”
At Ibiza Rocks, punters, stunned from the heat, throng the pool area where the show will take place. There are women in crocheted bikinis with last night’s glitter baked in their cleavages, and a mass of generic stags in thong sandals. Every inch of the courtyard is covered with swimsuited bodies, as are three balconies – though on the top one some stags are naked, with willies swinging.
David will take to the stage at 6.05pm exactly: this is because the sun goes down at 6.03pm, meaning they can remove the parasol from the podium and have him in full view. Until then, he paces in his dressing room. Have I eaten, he asks? “This place do the best chicken Caesar wraps!” He pulls me out of the room and down the corridor into the kitchen, where he throws his arms around the cook, who is probably his mother’s age, and tells her to make me two of her best (one wouldn’t be enough – a friend once attended a dinner with David in Soho and watched him put away a 12-egg omelette).
He is of a different species to the people who’ve come to see him. His energy far outweighs theirs: every time he rotates his body a few degrees on the circular podium and lays eyes on another section of bodies, his grin extends an inch. Every line he sings appears to have meaning: “Ain’t felt nothing like this!” He jacks the audience up, and then a bit more – and then he keeps on going up by himself. At the corner of the scene, a middle-aged man with a can, his eyes spinning, sets out for the stage and is pulled back by security. What was he going to do?
It takes David almost as long to get back to the dressing room as he’s spent on the stage, because he won’t turn down a selfie with anyone. To interact one-on-one so soon after performing, he works hard to slow down his breathing. He told me earlier: “How could you not want to positively impact a person’s life when it’s just going to take you two seconds?” He adds, “It’s not like I’m thinking, ‘OK, if I do this, then they’re going to share the picture and help me get out there.’” You wonder how he’ll be able to keep the selfies up if his comeback is permanent.
He’s back in the dressing room, sweating so much that it looks like someone has been at him with a hose. His first words to me are: “How was the chicken wrap?”
David is in complete control of his own mythology. No one can tell his story better than he can. His mother and granny were Reform Jews, his Grenadian dad a Seventh-Day Adventist. The divorced “helicopter parents” were full of love. He was bullied at school and overweight. His first solo hit, “Fill Me In”, which he wrote at 17, was “aspirational”: he imagined his council flat bathtub was a jacuzzi. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory permeates his narrative – the 1971 film is his favourite. His debut album, Born to Do It, the fastest-selling British male solo debut of all time, was named in honour of Charlie. They say that part of your brain gets frozen at the age at which you become famous. His manager told him that statistically one in four households owned a copy of the record. He used to imagine that, looking at rooftops, when he flew over England in a plane.
When he was a child, his mother would take him on the train to London, record-shopping. “A real bonding experience,” he tells me. Did he ever go with friends? “Just Mum!” Their routine was to get the Tube to Brixton for Red Records, then another shop further up the hill. Rare discs would be set aside for him – R&B a capellas and instrumentals you couldn’t find anywhere else in the country, or a Faith Evans record of which only 20 copies were pressed. They might be £20 a go: his mother put money aside. Then they’d have a bit of food. Then Soho, for Uptown Records on D’Arblay Street. He’d be back on the train holding “gold dust” in his hands. “Something that nobody on the south coast would have.”
As he got older, he started to self-fund his vinyl habit, bootlegging his collection and selling mixtape CDs. He took an NVQ Level 2 in electronics – he imagined working at Richer Sounds, or some other hi-fi shop (“anything to do with circuit boards”). He’d use the college printers to make proper covers, then laminate them – “because I knew if you did it half-hearted, then people would see it like that”. Then he’d get them cellophaned and sell them for ten quid.
At London’s O2 Arena in March, his DJ nerdishness played out to staggering effect. The first half of his show was old-fashioned entertainment – dazzling and big-jawed in white, he crooned the hits that sound curiously vintage today. Then he turned the arena into a club. Fifteen-thousand people moshed to jungle mash-ups of House of Pain and TLC while David, headphones wedged between head and shoulder, worked knobs and spat bars over a set perfectly tailored to an audience in its mid-thirties.
The DJ thing allows him to “flex”, he tells me: it is a feeling of “I need to do this now” combined with the sense of “flight or fright” that something could go wrong. The set is a repository for some of the urgency that hums in his body. He recalls the thrill of feeling the vinyl jump in the old days while trying to MC – rapping over a gap in the music, while scrabbling for a record with his other hand. Why does a perfectionist get off on the idea that his work could, in his words, “go pear”, at any moment?
“Because it’s like I’m living it,” he says. “You’ve got to be decisive. Are you going to be that guy who blames the engineer? Everything I’ve honed, I’ve honed through things that have gone wrong.”
Rewatching Bo’ Selecta!, the sketch show created by Leigh Francis in 2002, it is quite surprising how nasty some of it was. The rubber “Craig”, a medical piss bag around his waist, sits down with his granny (David’s grandmother helped raise him) and they wet themselves on a sofa. David later appeared as a guest on the show but regretted it. He also went onstage at the Royal Albert Hall wearing the mask. By that time, the joke – which consisted of singing his name in a wobbly voice – was part of folk culture, the humour of every Wernham Hogg-style office in the land. He says it “went viral”, though he’s referring to people shouting in the street. There is candid footage on YouTube of his manager apoplectic about the reach of a gag that hobbled a career too new to withstand it, and a man too young and serious to laugh at himself.
“If I’d had the confidence to speak clearly, how I wanted, rather than being too young…” David begins. “Rather than being a bit of a pinball in a pinball machine…”
Then he says this: “If you’re riding a bike and the wheels start to come off, do you jump and say, ‘I had my time’? Or do you keep pedalling, till they sync back up?”
Self-help metaphors occupy much of the air between us, but the truth is there, tempered by ifs and sort-ofs.
“If it wasn’t me they were doing, and I was watching it, I’d be like, you know what? You’re going in on him,” he says. “It became so repetitive… The only time it affected me a bit was when I felt like the music itself was becoming a guilty pleasure.”
The show was named after a lyric in the 1999 single “Re-Rewind”, David’s first hit as a guest vocalist, with the garage duo Artful Dodger. “That song was probably the most underground, pioneering sound of the whole garage scene,” David says. “If we’re talking Stormzy or Skepta today, that song was one of the pinnacles of the movement. Then it became a joke. But is it really a joke? Because last time I checked, that bass line was heavy! ‘Bo selecta’ was a cultural thing. The DJ is like [he throws a fist in air], ‘Bo, bo, bo!’ and the crowd want the reload from the tune. The joke messed with the music. But you feed negativity into something, you’re just going to get more of it back.”
He hugged Leigh Francis at Fearne Cotton’s wedding. “All I wanted to say is: ‘You did your thing, and deep down you know you took something a little too far, and that’s cool,’” he says.
I ask him what his mother thought of it. Whenever she reads stuff in the papers, she calls him up and asks, “Are you all right?”
“I say, Mum, be careful,” he tells me. “They’re saying things that aren’t true. Mum, trust me. I will let you know.”
“Re-Rewind” was kept off No 1 by Cliff Richard’s “The Millennium Prayer”. The language of grime was alien to Little Britain: Ali G was a cartoon composite of its tics and poses fed through the body of DJ Tim Westwood. David sang about himself in the third person: he was all made-up words and “funny noises” (boink). At 20, he told the Los Angeles Times that the “2-step” music he performed was “a hybrid of R&B and house-garage where you take the bass drum off the second and fourth beats of the bar. That gives it a unique skipping feel.”
In 2015, the website Noisey ran a call to arms under the headline “Rise Craig David, your time is now”. The British public had finally grown up, it said, and understood his place in the history of grime. David read the piece – and back he came. His next album is also called The Time Is Now.
At the recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes last January, he beatboxed a section of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” in an attempt to show listeners what it means when something is chopped and screwed. There was New York house, he said, and then there was the “slippier, more complex” UK version: he threw a finger towards his drummer, who demonstrated. He “vibed” on his stool, his shoulders rolling, emitting wordless, fluttery snatches of tune. The intimate setting may, on some level, have recalled the shows he put on at home when he lived in Miami, where his TS5 DJ sets took shape. It was another relatively bleak period he has turned into a “perfect story”.
There are vivid conversion moments in David’s narrative: getting angry that his Ferrari had broken down, then remembering a Ferrari arcade game he played as a child and realising he had everything he’d ever wanted. But there are information gaps, too: years of having “all these songs on his laptop and no label to release them on”. References to the “red-rope culture” of Miami, the adopted home of many UK rappers, with a certain ambiguity as to which side of the rope he was on.
“Dizzee Rascal was in Miami as well,” he says. “I never got to meet him out there. It’s weird, because it seems like a small community…” He talks about having to know the right bouncers to gain access to a room that, “if you looked at it in the daytime, would just be a room, with a table. And you’re standing by that table as if your whole life depends on that table. And it has one bottle of vodka on it that is priced at £50,000.”
He began to party at home instead. He’d have people doing the rounds with tequila at his condo – six, seven, eight shots. He filled Instagram with pictures of his exercise regime, under the hashtag #EatCleanTrainDirty, showing his six-pack turning into a 24-pack, his face thin, or his personal trainer wrapping him in a resistance loop as his wiry torso strained away. He thought he looked great at the time. His management told him they had lost him in Miami. So, over time, he “brought the faders down” and made his move back to the UK.
There’s much talk of following his intuition (the name of another album), and the metaphor he always uses is leaving a romantic relationship: listening to your “internal GPS” and getting out. There isn’t a relationship in the public domain and hasn’t been for years. David’s reputation as a grade-A shagger comes from his songs: “7 Days”, which traces the arc of a brief hook-up, was, he winks, actually only four days.
When he sang about love, he was really singing about sex, as any teenage boy might do. Rumours that he was gay started when he was 17 and performing “Re-Rewind” in clubs. Women were interested in him, he recently explained, but he was “relatively inexperienced, sexually speaking, and these women were – what, 24, 25? They terrified me!” He tweets about resisting temptation, be that chocolates, sports cars, or girls.
What is the plan, then, for this man who likes to be in control?
“I love this question,” he says, shifting on the Bali bed, out on the sun terrace. “How can it be any better than now? I’m healthy, woke up this morning, we’ve had an interview together, you’re young, you’re fresh. I’m having an interview, and I’m not reducing you to a means to an end.”
It’s a strange world where you do your job for an hour a day, in one country after another. So intense, but brief, like an athlete on a 200-metre sprint, the whole body finely-tuned for one burst of energy.
After the show, he’ll come back to the hotel, eat and go to sleep. Someone has given him a new book – Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans: the Tactics, Routines and Habits of Billionaires, Icons and World-Class Performers. It explores the dietary and excercise habits of the rich and famous, among other things.
“The Time Is Now” will be released on 26 January on Speakerbox Records
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special