Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Craig David’s debut, a UK garage hit parade which became a poisoned chalice for its creator.
It took 15 years to clear his name. Sweet boyish Craig, good as gold, bullied out of his dream. How had it come to this? A star birthed from UK garage yet regarded as a footnote within it. Born To Do It, a multi-platinum hit parade that codified the wider world’s perception of what UKG was all about, reduced to the fine nub of a joke. For as long as there was a stigma attached to the sound, there was a stigma attached to its pin-up.
UK garage originally incubated in South London pubs, as DJs pitched up slabs of American garage house for buzzy ravers looking to push the feeling on to Sunday afternoon. A cut like Mood II Swing’s “Closer (Swing to Mood Dub)” was dynamite, sauntering about with a jazzy flair, but anchored by tough and unyielding drums. In Todd Edwards, the scene had an early unifier, a squeaky-clean sample wizard from New Jersey who gave himself to God first, garage second. His “Saved My Life” was released in 1995 but stayed in rotation for years as UKG developed, a benchmark for how creative the format could become in due course. Edwards showed you didn’t necessarily have to be a renegade club kid to cut it in this new world.
British producers upped the ante, making the basslines chunkier and altering the straight-ahead flow of garage house, so that MCs crossing over from hardcore and jungle raves could find moments within DJ sets to command and conquer the dance. In 1997, Kelly G’s wailing remix of Tina Moore’s minor R&B hit “Never Gonna Let You Go” was a radio smash, breaking the door down for the popularization of 2-step. This variant took the lightly swung drums of UKG and made them outright skippy. Even if this initially caught the unaware flat-footed in an attempt to follow the groove, dominant female voices filled the space left open once the consistent pulse of a four-to-the-floor kick was subtracted. Homegrown singers like Shola Ama, Kele Le Roc, and Anita Kelsey gave listeners something alluring to latch onto, as well as balancing the rowdiness of geezers on the mic.
By 1999, UK garage had gone national. No matter if you repped speed or soul or skip, the mood of the moment was intoxicating. Whenever the sun was out—far from a given in the UK, so appearances are celebrated with gusto––UKG blasted out of cars, ricocheted across council terraces, and accompanied grill smoke on its twist upward to the sky. People got dressed up to go out dancing: no hats, no hoods, no trainers; all smiles, everything nice ’n’ ripe. Champagne replaced H2O in the bloodstream. Times were as good as could be.
As Great Britain blearily swept the kitchen on the first day of the new millennium, a song called “Re-Rewind” was boinging around the top of the charts. Its opening three seconds are an effective elevator pitch to everything attractive about garage: a woofer-vibrating rumble, head turning SFX (in this case, shattering glass), an Anglicized "selec-tah," then a snare which springs us forward into major-key chords—and, invariably, a cork being popped.
“Re-Rewind” was the first of seven UK top 10 hits in 2000 shared between Craig David and his producer Mark Hill, one-half of DJ duo Artful Dodger. April’s racy follow-up “Fill Me In,” billed this time as David’s solo debut, shot to No.1, making him the youngest artist in British chart history to open their account at the top. The great misremembering about Born To Do It is that the garage ends there. “Re-Rewind” and “Fill Me In” form the double helix of commercial UKG’s DNA, staples of every themed throwback party, brunch, cruise, and symphony ever since—but the rest of the album is barely a garage record at all. Though the lingo and affectations remain, its heart wasn’t in soundsystem culture: David longed to be an R&B star, and an American one at that.
A chance meeting between David and Hill had led to an invite in 1998 for the singer to make use of Hill’s rudimentary studio and develop material of his own. Outside of its singles, which received extra polish once management entered the fray, most of the songs on Born to Do It are demos from those sessions that never required a further mixdown. Very little of the album’s beats can lay claim to originality: the pizzicato string plucks, synth bass, and Darkchild-style harp ripples all derive from sample packs, dutifully assembled as if by manual. Hill knew how to mask deficiencies in his setup, including using the smack of a bouncing basketball from the BBC Sound Effect Library to give the bass on some songs extra weight. (“Re-Rewind”’s glass shatter was at least done live in the studio, for that authentic breaking-and-entering feel.)
The production might be standard fare in places, but that’s fine, because David is the star of this show, crooning his way to a world where he is the alpha shagger. Having grown up with the music of Terence Trent D’Arby and Michael Jackson, he understood how confidence could be distilled into a formula and bottled for mass consumption. All over Born To Do It are spirited imitations of silky-smooth loverman jams that made their way over the ocean in the late ’90s. A hat-tip to Usher’s “Nice & Slow” here, a little pre-chorus mention of “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” there, a few seconds of Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” spliced into “Time to Party”—and why not? His performance was brazen but no one told him to stop.
With "Booty Man," David interpolates the nursery rhyme “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” and Willy Wonka’s “Candy Man,” then spells out the URL to his homepage as if he were advertising a web 1.0 furniture sale. As “7 Days” slides into its final calendar-counting chorus, a warbling syllable soup pours forth, almost certainly recorded with the singer’s eyes closed and one hand tracing the notes through the air. And on “Can’t Be Messin’ Around,” a counterpart to Hill’s own hit “Please Don’t Turn Me On,” David remains chivalrous as he declines the advances of would-be suitors. Maneuvering around the dancefloor with his girlfriend on his mind, David still manages to drop a pick-up atom bomb: “Girl I must admit/You’re looking real fit”—the kind of line Mike Skinner would later latch onto with boozy glee as the Streets, delivered here with the fedora-doffing manners of a gentleman.
Born To Do It is a binary-busting mesh of good and bad, corny to the point of inanity but with charisma to pull it off. At every turn, the Brit in him couldn’t help but leap out: an archetypal kind of chirpy student who cribs chat-up lines from lads mags and can do a wicked a cappella rendition of Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” on cue; king of small and perhaps medium talk, but one who flounders when swimming out into deeper waters than that. Even while having a jacuzzi-and-wine tryst with the girl next door, he wonders if her parents “one day might approve?” People went wild.
By 2001, with his home territory licked, it was time to crack North America. “7 Days” was an especial success, its PG-rated lyrics and clammy Latin flair perfect for a market still fat on the material gains of hits like Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonite” and Santana’s “Maria Maria.” The press were unconvinced, but he left a mark: Cup your ear to Drake’s 2007 mixtape cut “Closer” and hear him shout summers spent “Racin’ through the back streets/On my Craig David shit/The Artful Dodger, Shola Ama.” David was even invited by the Bush administration to perform at a White House concert. Glass eternally half-full, he accepted, though it never panned out. “I don’t know why it didn’t happen,” he later reflected. “I was doing something, I guess, and he was having a war.”
While on this charm offensive, a dark cloud had rolled in over the sunny domain of UK garage. Rougher kids had entered the fray, typified by the sprawling collective So Solid Crew and associated bad-boy duo Oxide & Neutrino, bringing with them a genuine edge of danger. Committees—formal, mob-style sit-downs—had been set up as early as 1999 by older heads to settle disputes between rival promoters and feuding DJs. This time, their attempt to maintain stability failed. Paranoia took hold, shootings spiked, and the police rolled in heavy to stamp out the whole scene, treating UKG as a node of gangland activity.
On the face of it, the pop phenom in a cream rollneck had nothing to do with any of this. If So Solid Crew were treated by the press as a local answer to NWA, then Craig David was MC Hammer. In an astonishingly patronizing skim-read of urban culture, members of the Labour government started parroting the term “gold chain and no brain” as they demonized UKG, which by this point was metamorphosing into grime anyway. David, never ashamed of an upbringing split between his Jewish-Anglo mother on the weekdays and his Grenadian father on the weekend, was being reduced to a set of faux-street catchphrases.
The warning signs had been there: In late 2000, fading rockist rag Melody Maker published a cover declaring “UK Garage My Arse!”, calling for the sound to be outlawed and extending Born To Do It’s artwork to show a light-skinned black man who looked nothing like Craig David sitting on the toilet. The racial overtones weren’t exactly subtle. David led the field at the BRIT Awards in 2001, but he missed out on all six of his nominations, a failing greeted with barely suppressed mirth. Dane Bowers, one of commercial UKG’s other prominent faces, somehow managed to get changed into a T-shirt declaring “Craig Woz Robbed” in time for the afterparty.
In 2002, an absurdist comedy called Bo Selecta! debuted on British television, its title taken from the call-and-response of “Re-Rewind.” This was the killer blow. At the show’s center lay a masked, mishap-prone version of Craig David featuring a doodled-on goatee and a hammed-up Northern English brogue that would be equivalent to giving Jerry Seinfeld a Down South drawl. The caricature was nothing like its target, yet withering all the same. His manager would explode in vein-popping rage any time it was invoked as an excuse for swooning sales. No matter how hard he had fought to escape the orbit of the garage world that had launched him, Bo Selecta! pulled David right back.
David attempted to stare down the critics on the opener to his second album, 2002’s Slicker Than Your Average. He jettisoned any remnants of Hill’s 2-step signature, bragged about seven million records sold, and nabbed the standing-up gag from “The Real Slim Shady”—just two and a half years late. It was the outlier on an otherwise anodyne album, a gloop of Sting duets, club scenarios where the girls “bang like Dre instrumentals,” and, lessons unlearned, another nursery rhyme. Just one year after the U.S. release of Born To Do It, Slicker slunk in at No.32; the third LP was never released Stateside at all. The dream was over. To David’s credit, he at least managed to make his wilderness years memorable: He moved to Miami, got ripped, donned a watch whose face displayed only the word “NOW,” and spouted silly things in pursuit of profundity that kept him ticking over as a He Said What?! paragon of washed-up celeb.
In the mid-2010s, another satirical show trained its lens on UK garage. People Just Do Nothing was centered around Kurupt FM, a bunch of pirate-radio wannabes in the armpit of suburban London, clinging to a faded blueprint for success. This time the series’ creators were genuine UKG diehards who wanted to bring it back as much as send it up. The show’s parodies were so acute, it provoked many to confront a dormant question: So what if the culture around garage can be daft? This was a national heritage too pure to be smuggled away as a guilty pleasure; UK garage should make us proud to be British.
Come September 2015, a Kurupt FM-fronted radio takeover on BBC 1Xtra secured a major coup: Craig David would drop in for a live PA. In a clearly unrehearsed moment, you can barely hear “Fill Me In” above screams of joy as the show’s cast breaks character and mobs the returning prodigal son. David then glides into a freestyle over Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now” with some typically wink-nudge lyrics—“Packin’ on muscle like bars of protein/Melodies for days, you know what I mean?”—but for once, people were laughing with him. The clip went supernova online. David had a simple message on social media: “This is what I live for.”
Suddenly, impossibly, unstoppably, everything was coming up Craig. A record deal was inked off the back of the impromptu performance. Diplo ceded the stage at Major Lazer’s arena show in London toward the end of the year, letting David supplant Bieber and steal the thunder during his megasmash. By 2016, David was selling out arenas for his own comeback tour. Following My Intuition gave him his first No. 1 album since Born To Do It. The smirk on people’s faces had been replaced with an unforced smile.
Watching Craig David at Glastonbury Festival 2017 was like witnessing a young Lionel Richie crossed with a high-rolling televangelist. Decked all in white, he sprinted across the stage with teenage vim, grinning wildly. After 20 minutes of armor-plated anthems, he announced he would give a little flava of his DJ origins—something no one was asking for. He wheeled out a stage riser with a laptop and a pair of decks, scatted over the Fugees, Eve, and House of Pain, and ended the set not with a hit, but with “16”: a recreation of that redemptive viral moment on the radio, freestyle and all, in case people had forgotten that he played the long game and won.
No matter how close he danced to the edge of awfulness, how hard he tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, how much he willed us to walk away, the audience was there for him again. The anticipation when he took to the stage was choking. The assembled lunchtime crowd was larger than that for Radiohead the previous night: the size of a small city, stretching up and over the horizon. He took a breath and got straight into it. There was a lot to fill in.