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Craig David 2020
Nine Songs
Craig David

From Djing clubs as a teenager to seeing Robyn S sing along to his Ibiza Rocks set, Pop's renaissance man talks Kitty Richardson through the formative songs in his life

10 April 2020, 12:00 | Words by Kitty Richardson

Of all the noughties popstars still speckling our cultural landscape, Craig David has thrived where many others have become memes or cautionary tales.

It might have something to do with his evolve-or-die ethos. After dominating the millennium with pop-garage game-changer Born to Do It, he's returned as a Kano collaborator, a radio presenter and an Instagram fitness guru. Arguably his most successful turn of the last decade though, has been embracing his long-held passion - playing to packed-out dance floors.

“One thing I love about my mum and dad is that they trusted me to go out and be in these places when I was just a kid,” he beams, speaking about his teenage years spent infiltrating clubs along the South Coast. “And I learned so quickly! When another DJ was playing, I'd be stood watching them, seeing how they mixed, checking what was going on. That's how I learned everything.”

Now a regular fixture at Ibiza Rocks, David looks fondly upon his youth spent smuggling himself into clubs, being gifted 15-minute end-of-the-night slots by his then mentor DJ Flash. “I remember moments where my vinyl would start to skip, and the crowd would be looking at me. And all of a sudden I had to jump on the mic and freestyle while I'm finding another bit of vinyl I can play. I'm sweating like crazy and people are 'Craig why are you sweating?' and I'm like 'Jeez, did you not understand why I just pulled off?'”

“But I loved it. And now when I do shows, if anything goes pear-shaped, I'm ready for it.”

As you might expect, David has clearly approached his Nine Songs choices from the perspective of the decks. He admits, with something akin to embarrassment, that he considered including Notorious B.I.G's “One More Chance / Stay With Me” remix featuring Faith Evans, but dropped it because “I didn't think many people would know that version” (The famous Biggie hook was later used as the backbone for Ashanti's “Foolish”).

Picking these tunes also got him reliving his crate-digging days. “It's a bit different now,” he sighs. “The stores used to be all new music, so you could get a track on vinyl that wasn't released anywhere else. Every bit of money I got from making mixtapes I spent on more vinyl. So I've always been 'in the crates', as we'd say.”

“Now the record stores are doing mainly vintage and old schools tunes, it's a different animal. Still, I try and reminisce a little.” I ask if having such a recognisable face might thwart him should he try and return to his favourite spot – Uptown Records on D'Arblay Street in London. “It's funny. I think because it was downstairs in the basement, you'd just throw the headphones on and it almost felt like, even now if I did that, people would just respect your space.” He pauses. “Man, I miss it so much. But yeah, it might be a little different walking through Soho now.”

Aside from his desire to fill a floor, David's reputation for being one of the nicest guys in pop holds fast. In the course of our conversation, he jokes with me about my intrusive builders (“the drill that's blasting through the whole audio, it's great! Very discreet.”), serenades me with Robyn S and uses the word “privilege” countless times.

“There are so many songs that have shaped my life, so dwindling it down was a mission, but I feel like these are definitely big songs which have got some anecdotes I can roll with. It's a chance to bring back some good memories, right?” I can hear him smile through the phone.

“End of the Road” by Boyz II Men

“I was born in '81 so I think it was around '89, '90 when that came out. I grew up listening to Boyz II Men at their peak and “End of the Road” was my favourite song when I was about 10 or 11.

“It was the harmonies, the vocal abilities, but it was also the go-to song that kids at my school would ask me to sing. Because I could hold a note, but also because I prided myself on trying to learn the ad-libs that other people couldn't quite hit.

“That was really why it really resonated with me, because it brings back memories of middle school. The vocal ability of Wanya in particular in that group was so outstanding to me. I learned so much from that one song.”

“Nice & Slow” by Usher

“I was a huge Usher fan and “Nice & Slow” was, for me, the slow jam. It captured everything I was into: the video by Hype Williams, with that fisheye lens and he was skirting across the wall with that beanie cap on.

“And I very much modelled myself on him, when I started to make my own songs. He had the Usher chain with the big U on it. He was infamous. Him and Jermaine Dupri set the bar when it came to making those RnB slow jams, it's one of my favourites from that time.”

“Mo Money Mo Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G.

“I was very privileged to grow up when Biggie was coming from being an underground rapper to people knowing him as the B.I.G and the legend that he became. The same with Tupac; the East Coast West Coast rivalry, Bad Boy against Death Row - it was amazing to be around for that.

“I loved what Puffy had done with Biggie, because he got him to start using these huge samples from Motown records and R&B artists. He became a little more poppy in that sense, but Biggie still retained his earthy, Brooklyn swagger.

“I was playing “Mo Money Mo Problems” in the clubs, at a young age. I was probably about 16 at the time, sneaking my way into clubs and because Flash was 10 years older than me, I kinda styled it out. He was playing in a community nightclub in Southampton, where my dad was one of the board members. When I went down there, I'd kinda get squeezed to get in there, but the mic was basically free.

"One time I jumped up on the mic and started ad-libbing around what Flash was playing and I think he was 'Who's this kid with the audacity to do that?' He probably secondly thought 'Wow, that's Craig, and Craig's dad pays my wages! So I need to calm myself as to how I react to this!' And then thirdly, I think he thought I was talented.

“He took me under his wing. I'd get to play that little set at the end of his set, and he'd let me emcee for him for the night. So that song brings back all those memories.”

“Doo-Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill

“Obviously the Fugees were huge, but Lauryn, she was at that point where she was the empowered female. If we look back across the decades, she was at the forefront of all that.

“This was around the time that I was making those trips up to Soho and to D'Arblay street, or Red Records in Brixton. I put this song on and I thought ‘This is amazing.’ And then you get to see the video! You know that split screen one?

“I think she set the bar for a lot of women who came after her. When you think of Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim - those type of artists - you can draw a line to the Nikki Minaj’s and Cardi B’s of today. But Lauryn was super conscious. And vocally – fuck you can sing!”

“Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child

“I love female empowerment in pop, and there was a lot going on at the time when I think back. There was a time when women were fucking fed up of dealing with stereotypes.

“I felt Destiny's Child were very much at the forefront of that, saying “Right, we're gonna have some fun now. “Bills Bills Bills” was part of that and then “Say My Name” - I'm gonna call you out.

“I remember releasing “Fill Me In”, which came out the exact same week as “Say My Name” in the UK. It was my first ever number one and even though I was like “Wow” and I couldn't stop grinning, I remember I couldn't get my head around being anywhere near Destiny's Child. They were number two in the charts and it was one of my favourite tunes. Ah man, I had posters of them on my wall. It was unbelievable.”

“Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus & Pliers

“I grew up with a lot of my dad's reggae records. I used to always buy the compilations, the Reggae Hits volumes, Ragga Ragga Ragga! We always listened to music in the car and “Murder She Wrote” really captured everything that was great about ‘90s dancehall music. The melodies were right, the emceeing was just the right tone, and the beat itself was of an era of dancehall that I loved so much, from listening to sound systems like Kilimanjaro and Addis.

“What I've really enjoyed, having been in this for a minute now, is to see how styles and trends and music are cyclical. I used to think all that was BS; “Oh yeah, don't worry, this is gonna come back round”, but when I start to think, I guess it was around 2015 that there was this new sound everyone was talking about called 'Afrobeats'. I was like “Let's check this out” and to me it's ‘90s dancehall with a twist. You know what I mean? And now we've got Diadora, Kappa, Fila, all these brands that kind of had a moment, and all of a sudden it's retro, it's vintage. It's like “Wow, this is happening in front of my face.”

“So to have that wisdom of what those songs were about is exciting for me. I can go in the studio and I can draw samples from a ‘90s dancehall tune, that, if you didn't grow up during that time might be lost in the vaults, because you wouldn't even know about Jigsy King, Sanchez, Beres Hammond and old school dub reggae.

“Now I can pull out my tracksuit and people are like 'Mate, where'd you get that?' and I'm like '1990', this is real vintage coming out my mum's cupboard.”

“Sign Your Name” by Terence Trent D'Arby

“As much as it seems like it's a go-to song if you're into someone and you want to show your affection, “Sign Your Name” is actually from my mum. She's a huge fan of Terence Trent D'Arby, to the point of sending him fan letters and stuff when he first started out.

“I grew up listening to the first album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, and he was the first artist I saw play live, at the Guildhall in Southampton. I was at the front and I was like ‘Who is this guy? He's got this Marvin Gaye vibe, but there's Prince there, and Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the vocal.’

“This was his big hit. Lyrically it said so much, it was a very poetic and eloquent way of saying ‘Let's cherish this love I have for you.’ It was a really nice way of approaching it, and it was a good way to learn how to write my own songs.”

“Human Nature” by Michael Jackson

“I love what he was trying to say in that song, it touched me. He was trying to connect people and give them this earthy feeling - that we're all connected in some way. And the melody is just incredible.

“The funny thing about this song is that you can drop it mid-set, maybe mix it into SVW's “Right Here” to keep it moving. You’ve got to find ways! That's the beauty of the whole DJing thing. Why not drop “Nice & Slow” and then the tempo of “Human Nature” is around 60, 63, 64 BPM. If you double it, it's the same speed as a fast dance tune, so you can just put a dance beat underneath and then you're in the mix. So this one I try and play out when I can.

“The sample was used everywhere too, and this is one of the things I love about hip hop. The ability to take a classic and flip it. It's what makes DJing so great too.”

“Show Me Love” by Robin S

“This is a go-to tune for me whenever I'm doing any of my TS5 shows. I remember when I was playing out the original in the early ‘90s, but I prefer the remix of it, where the beat is a little tougher. “Show Me Love” is always guaranteed to go down. Anywhere I go, as soon as people hear the opening chords, they're like ‘That's a tune I can make memories to.'

“And her voice! I got to meet her at Ibiza Rocks, where I do a pool party residency. I played the song in my set and I looked up on the balcony where she was standing, and it was this moment - I'm playing the song, Robyn S is up there mouthing the words to me. I'm thinking, “Should I jump off the stage and get a mic to her? Should someone get a memo to her to come down?” And she's sending me love heart signs from where she's standing. It's Robyn S! And I'm playing one of the most iconic dance tracks of all time.

“Why does it resonate with people? Well, for one, the vocal range she's hitting grabs you from the start, like that long “Ohh” she hits at the top. It's also a very simple synth line, which it has in common with “Nightcrawler” too, and it has a simple chord progression. Everyone was trying to copy that kind of pattern, but her line just nailed it.

“And lastly it's what she's trying to say, ‘Show me love’. Instantly you feel this euphoria, you feel uplifted. And it's kind of angsty the 'show me love' she's singing, like ‘you gotta show me love and pass all the nonsense’. But if you don't know the context of the story and you've just got your hands in the air, it’s like “ahhh”, you feel it.”

Craig David's 'Hold That Thought' anniversary UK tour starts April 4 2021. Find out more here
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