How Craig David’s ‘Born to Do It’ Put UK’s Garage Scene On The Global Map
By the time Craig David broke into mainstream music, the Brit-pop invasion wasn’t a new phenomenon. From The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, to Elton John, Boy George and the Spice Girls, the UK has been known to pump out some of the world’s most fascinating, and times kitsch superstars. But when it comes to black British artists, the selection ran thin. Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack” made it to the top of the charts, and has been a stalwart in the clubs since its 1996 release, and though they didn’t play up their heritage, Monie Love and Slick Rick are British expats who became popular in NYC's hip-hop scene. Neneh Cherry, who has been classified as a UK artist, caught the world’s attention with "Buffalo Stance," but the rapper-singer actually hails from Sweden. Then there are groups like Loose Ends and Soul II Soul both of whom released dance-infused riddims, along with more obscure artists like Tricky who built a small cult following. But aside from Sade, there wasn’t a black UK artist – or band for that matter – that put a distinct UK sound on the map, until Craig David.
The Southampton-born singer’s career started in the UK’s underground music scene, going as far back as 1997. He teamed up with the English duo, Artful Dodger, a local group from David’s hometown (then comprised of Peter Devereux and songwriter-record producer Mark Hill), whom he met via a Southampton FC youth project. The group was part of a subgenre known as 2-step garage, which was gaining momentum on London’s pirate radio circuit. David, an unknown, laid down uncredited vocals on “Something,” before making a guest appearance on “What Ya Gonna Do” a year later. But it was the breakthrough hit “Re-Rewind The Crowd Say Bo Selecta,” which put a face to David’s vocals, and catapulted him into stardom “‘Myself and Craig [David] used to play at the local West End London clubs. R&B and reggae used to be quite niche, and it wasn’t as big or as commercial as it became,” Artful Dodger’s MC Alistair, who joined the group a year later, told Time Out Dubai. “‘Re-Rewind’ was a massive hit underground and it all went from there. Underground was all organic, we made music because we loved it. There were no two ways about it. We didn’t do it to become famous, it was sheer love. If it hadn’t become big, we would have loved it just as much.” Through the indie British record label Telstar, formally known as Wildstar, David, a 19-year-old fresh-faced star on the rise, released his seminal debut Born to Do It.
The album was written, produced and composed by Artful Dodger’s Mark Hill and David, who was quite the musical prodigy. “When we started writing Born to Do It, there were no labels involved or managers or anything,” Hill told the now defunct UK-based music mag, SoulCulture. “We’d written the majority of the album before any of us was signed, so it was very much an organic process and it was just the two of us working on it without anyone. I remember when we were taking demos around the industry trying to get a deal, we had ‘7 Days,’ ‘Walking Away,’ ‘Time To Party’ and others and those ended up being the final versions of the album.” The collaboration proved to be a goldmine. Born to Do It debuted at No. 1 on the UK charts, selling 225,320 copies in its first week – a first for a British male solo act, and had already sold 3.5 million copies before its US release.
Once the album’s lead single, Fill Me In, dropped in the US, it was a smash. And what set David apart both in the UK and the US, as a pop star, was a signature UK sound, and Hill played an integral part in making that happen. “Around the time that ‘Rewind’ broke through, Born to Do It had already been written and done,” Hill told SoulCulture. “The only song which was made after the initial album was completed was ‘Fill Me In.’ I wanted to create a track which had a Garage element to it which would bridge the gap between Craig’s project and what The Artful Dodger was doing.” The album was released in the US through Atlantic and its lead single, "Fill Me In," about the singles debacles in dealing with a girlfriend under the grip of protective parents, positioned the teen as a heartthrob, and featured a gritter UK music video that was replaced by a polished US version, directed by Darren Grant for the American audience.
The single peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard 100, and the album was certified platinum in America, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard 200. Born to Do It earned a plethora of award nominations, including two Best Male Vocal Performance Grammy nods, and nine international award wins. But the success came with a price.
“When I first started out you could do and say anything because no one knew who I was.” David said in an interview “As soon as you start to paint a picture people start to become familiar with things a certain way and they don’t really want you to do anything too crazy that’s different. But at the same time, the only way to have a long-term career is to keep on reinventing yourself, you can’t keep giving someone the same thing.” David experienced success with the follow-up, Slicker Than Your Average, but back in his home country, a stand-up comedian named Leigh Francis had stigmatized the singer with the invention of his Bo’ Selecta! series, an adult sketch show that kicked off eight grueling episodes on Channel 4 starting in 2002 (the show would run for five seasons). Its main character was a pantomime take on the British R&B singer, who took the spoof to heart, particularly since it came about during a time when the artist was struggling with what direction he wanted his career to head “To be honest, I didn’t really care either way,” David told the UK-based music mag, Q. “He could have eased off, but had that character not happened, I might still be meandering along.” “It actually wasn’t [the show] itself which was the lowest point for me,” he told iNews. “It was not being able to put music out in the way I always wanted to.”
The tacky comedy show didn’t stop David from experiencing massive success; it may have helped. The album went on to sell 8 million copies worldwide and, despite the singer's frustrations at the time, positioned him as the face of music for the new millennium for years to come. The singer has since experimented with various subgenres and became a DJ on the Miami house music scene, but he’s still the only black British who brought a signature UK sound to the ears of the mainstream. What Craig David did has yet to be repeated. Now, that's what you call molding your culture.