Will We Dance to His Tunes?

Phil Sutcliffe is a London-based writer and a contributing editor to Q magazine

Outside the rear door at the BBC Radio Theatre, there's an air of restless tension. A gaggle of girls giggles. A pack of paparazzi prowls. A parked Mercedes purrs discreetly.

Suddenly, a shout: "He's round the front!" Fans and photographers run for it. The moment they've gone 50 yards, the stage door crashes open and the slender figure of Craig David, shepherded by security, darts toward the car, slides into the rear seat.

The girls scream, the paparazzi curse and Britain's brightest 19-year-old pop star laughs merrily. An old trick, but it worked.

Already renowned as both a motor-mouth and a paragon of good manners, David thanks the driver for anticipating that he would need a bottle of water and apologizes for being rather sweaty from recording his spot for the biannual TV charity extravaganza Comic Relief. Then, as the car makes for the motorway and a two-hour drive to that night's gig in Bournemouth, he's straight down to business.

David jokes about the burry South Coast vowels and R sounds that color his accent ('I sound like a farmer'), but his high-energy phraseology is littered with "focus," 'demographic" and "that's key!" Not to mention the sanguine assessment that, in music industry terms, "every artist is a commodity and if you aren't making money you will be dropped. It's not that they have a love and passion for you." That's from someone with 4 million in worldwide sales of his debut album, "Born to Do It," in nine months (it won't be out in the U.S. until July).

This then is the formidable youth who scored more kudos than any other artist at the recent Brit Awards (the U.K. answer to the Grammys). Remarkably, he did it without winning any of the six categories in which he had been nominated. Instead, icons of all rock generations spoke up in spontaneous sympathy with someone they recognized as a musical peer.

"If there is a better singer in Britain, then I'm Margaret Thatcher," said Elton John. Bono wove a verse of David's hit "Walking Away" into U2's song "One." Noel Gallagher and Robbie Williams weighed in too.

David admits he's still basking in the warm glow. The megastar embrace was particularly pleasing to an artist who, despite roots in underground dance sounds and major influences in the likes of R. Kelly, greatly admires the crafted mainstream work of such stars as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.

But then David is in that uncomplicated early phase of his career when compliments rain down like overripe fruit. Atlantic Records won a bidding war to license him for the U.S., and the label's vice president in charge of marketing, Ron Shapiro, proclaims: "As a 19-year-old, his talent is incomparable: an extraordinary songwriter, very personable, a great live performer, great to look at, and unbelievably centered and driven. He's absolutely on a mission." Blimey, as Brits say.

Nonetheless, David's ego seems startlingly well-balanced and controlled. Already committed to basing himself in the States for the rest of 2001, he reasons that his European triumph counts for nothing in the U.S.: "I'm at square one. You have to go in, do the hard work, slog, make each radio station feel that they've 'found' you. I'm going to hit them with a secret weapon."

He's smiling, but maybe he does have one: two-step/U.K. garage, the now-indistinguishably blended dance genres that he and producer Mark Hill's production team, Artful Dodger, have taken from their seaport hometown of Southampton to a fair chunk of the world the past 18 months.

The David definition?

"It's 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 a unique skipping feel."

Skipping is right. If not exactly a vehicle for soul-searching, the light, uplifting sparkle of two-step seems a perfect match for David's character and ultra-positive story-so far.

In rock 'n' roll's vast catalog of significant artists from broken homes-John Lennon through Kurt Cobain to Eminem-Craig David may prove to be one who emerged undamaged. His father, George, a black carpenter from Grenada in the Caribbean, and his mother, Tina, a white English shop assistant, separated when he was 8. Yet David recounts nothing but happy memories.

"I didn't even really know that they'd broken up properly," he says, sipping from his bottled water as the car continues through the rolling countryside. "It was just, like, my dad wasn't staying at home anymore. But I saw him almost every day. They maintained a sense of security around me. I knew who I was."

While living with his mother in their local housing authority apartment (until this year), David spent a lot of time with the West Indian side of the family and took to multicultural life as naturally as breathing. He made the best of everything, talking his way out of any trouble while never evading his racial identity-at 15, the first track he recorded with Mark Hill was his own 'Let's Kick Racism out of Football," commissioned by the town's Premier League soccer club.

Music flowed through his life. His mother brought him up on her eclectic favorites, the Osmonds and Terence Trent D'Arby. His father played bass in an obscure band, but more pertinently he ran a West Indian social club in Southampton. As a kid, the hyper-verbal David started picking up the DJ's mike to toast and rap. Before long, he was MC-ing around town and earning about $150 a week-riches he partly invested in a bedroom mini-studio.

There, songwriting simply flowed from his MC experience. He compares improvising a lyric and melody live to the way a grand prix driver at 200 mph sees everything in slow motion. His rough demos soon caught the ear of Hill, 10 years older than David, a club DJ himself and the owner of a local studio.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship. They kicked ideas around until that Southampton sound took shape and, out of nowhere, during Christmastime in 1999, they had the U.K.'s No. 2 single with "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)," credited to Artful Dodger with Craig David.

At which point David's whole life hit 200 mph and stayed there. Instantly the most courted solo artist in Britain, he signed to independent label Wildstar because he liked the way boss Colin Lester respected his vision.

While he and Hill were still recording the album, interest picked up across the Atlantic. For one, the then-Puff Daddy rang him and offered to fly him to New York on the Concorde, according to David. But David politely refused, determined to stick with Hill and Southampton.

"We're these guys from the outskirts, we write differently because we're from a different place," he asserts. "A lot of people wanted to put me with the hottest producers and I was saying, 'It's not about the hottest producers, it's about the songs I'm writing. I've got a good thing going on with Mark, why change it?"'

He smiles, vindicated by gold and platinum records in 21 countries since July.

Craig Kalman, the Atlantic vice president who signed him, agrees that the noninterference policy must be maintained in the U.S.: "We have to preserve and protect and champion his own creation."

The U.S. campaign launched last week with the release of a new video for David's first U.K. chart-topping single and self-styled party piece, "Fill Me In." The album comes out July 31, and a club tour with his excellent eight-man band is scheduled for the autumn-the crunch, according to Wildstar's Lester, because "Craig's got to convince America. It's not about prancing around being a pop star, it's about delivering live what you've delivered on record."

That should suit David fine if he can sustain the quality of the concert he plays to a full house of 4,000 in Bournemouth. Very much at home in Bournemouth, the next big seaside resort east of Southampton, David bounds like an antelope through freewheeling two-steppers "Re-Rewind," 'Last Night" and "Fill Me In," and sexes up the smoochy hits "7 Days," 'Follow Me" and "Walking Away." Teenage erogenous zones are teased. Girls twirl thongs round their heads and hurl them at his feet. Still it seems very innocent.

As does the star himself backstage, relaxed, off-duty and mother-henned by one and all. After he's had supper, the road manager drops by to worry at the tour caterers: "Did he eat properly tonight? He mustn't skip meals, you know, he'll get ill."

He walks away beaming when the chef reports that their boy downed three bowls of soup, two chicken breasts and a plate of beans and mashed potatoes.

Meanwhile, the star has moved on to another weighty concern: styling his beard. "I'm not a vain person, but it takes about 30 minutes to perfect the symmetry," he says with a smile. "Electric shaver, razor, tweezers, all that going on. If you want to go out there and look good, you have to put in the hours."

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