‘The Time Is Now’: Craig David On Balancing Nostalgia With Reinvention

The Brit garage and R&B superstar Craig David is one of pop music’s most adored figures – up there with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Missy Elliott. Emerging as a teenager in the late ’90s, David is balancing nostalgia and innovation with his seventh album, The Time Is Now – a collection of sleek R&B, encompassing jams like ‘Heartline’, ‘I Know You’ (with Bastille’s Dan Smith) and the Kaytranada-stamped ‘Live In The Moment’ (featuring US MC GoldLink).

This interview is postponed after the gracious (and chatty) David is mobbed by fans on a promo stop in Birmingham. “I’ve been doing album signings for the last couple of nights and it’s really so important for me to give everyone the time,” he apologises effusively. “So it’s been going really over. Everyone’s like, ‘Come on, you’ve gotta go.’ I’m like, ‘I can’t – these people have been waiting for hours.'” Unusually, David relishes interacting with his public. “I love selfies and tweets and replying to people on social media. I think it’s the most beautiful thing, ’cause I never had that opportunity the first time ’round to be so personal.”

An estate kid, David launched as a singer, MC and DJ/producer in his native Southampton. His breakthrough came when he linked with Artful Dodger for 1999’s garage banger, ‘Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)’. The following year, he premiered as a solo artist with Born To Do It – which, led by ‘Fill Me In’, was more R&B than UKG. He made fans of a young Drake and Princes William and Harry – and charted Stateside. David would further diversify. He duetted alongside Sting (‘Rise & Fall’), sampled David Bowie with his blessing (‘Hot Stuff (Let’s Dance)’), and, in 2010, presented a Motown covers set, Signed Sealed Delivered.

Yet the soulfully exuberant David struggled with the vagaries of the UK media – and so he escaped to Florida. Here, in his penthouse, David inadvertently reinvented himself by hosting his TS5 house parties – DJing, singing and freestyling. TS5 developed into a club – and radio – counter-brand. In 2016, David took the TS5 concept to Glastonbury and drew 20, 000 punters to a minor tent. Last year, he conquered the Pyramid Stage. “It was very emotional!” Meanwhile, David became a viral sensation when in 2015, during Kurupt FM’s Sixty Minute Takeover on BBC Radio 1Xtra with MistaJam, he sang ‘Fill Me In’ over Jack Ü’s Justin Bieber collab, ‘Where Are Ü Now’. At the same sesh, he bumped into grime MC Big Narstie and they cut the hit ‘When The Bassline Drops’. In 2016 David, having guested on Kaytranada’s 99.9%, dropped his neo-garage comeback Following My Intuition – a UK #1.

David has always been a latent tastemaker (once recording with an unknown Rita Ora) – and, on The Time Is Now, he shows his curating prowess. With production from the likes of old cohort Fraser T Smith, he’s joined by “new wave” British urban artists: JP Cooper, grime MC AJ Tracey, and DJ Mustard protege Ella Mai. This album, David was determined to rep “storytelling R&B”.

In 2018, pop culture is catching up with Craig David – again. He is philosophical about his career cycles. But, even as David embraces change, The Time Is Now is about finding stillness in the flux – and embodying YOLO. In October Craig brought TS5 to RNB Fridays Live – and, he assures, new Aussie dates are imminent.

Music Feeds: Are you still based in Miami or have you moved back to the UK? We weren’t sure!

Craig David: I moved back to the UK. I still have my apartment I bought out there. But, yeah, I moved back about two years ago. It was the best thing, the pivotal move, because literally when I did that everything changed. I met the right people. One of the songs [the ‘Fill Me In’/’Where Are Ü Now’ mash-up] went viral that I did on the radio station [BBC Radio 1Xtra] – that ended up being a song called ’16’ on the last album, Following My Intuition. [One of the people] who I met there was Big Narstie and then I had a song with him called ‘When The Bassline Drops’. So it’s just like a lot of beautiful, serendipity moments kicked in.

MF: The Time Is Now is so sleek and modish. But I guess the biggest surprise is how quickly this album came after Following My Intuition. Did you find you were just on a roll creatively?

CD: 100 percent. That was exactly it. I think having Following My Intuition be so well received and to have teenagers discovering my music, saying to their friends, “Have you heard of this new guy called Craig David? He’s got this song called…” The most amazing thing is that they’d be saying that to their older brother or sister, or their mum and dad, and then the mum and dad, or older brother [or] sister, would be like, “Craig David?” And then they bought their album out, or one of the albums, and they’ll have a moment in their living room where they’re both talking about me being relevant to both generations, but with two different time zones. I think for me that knowing that I was having that impact, I just wanted to get back into the studio and create and create and create – ’cause I was like, ‘this is what life’s about!’ I mean, it’s creating those memories for people that would have been a teenager for the mum or dad, or older brother [or] sister, and now that teenager thing’s happening again. It’s like, ‘Come on – let’s go!’ So, yeah, I jumped in the studio and started recording.

MF: The guests on this record are fantastic, but the one that really astonished me was GoldLink.

CD: I’ve been following GoldLink for many years now – and this was a long time before obviously the GoldLink that we know now with ‘Crew’ and [when] those records started to blow up and [he had] a number one R&B record in the States and stuff. Like you said, he’s so well received in Australia, too. So, for me, it was like, I’ve already forged a relationship with [GoldLink associate] Kaytranada. We had a song called ‘Got It Good’ that was on his album [99.9%] and mine – and that was really, really well received. So I was like, “Hey, we need to get back in.” He got a load of tracks to me and started working on this one song in particular [‘Live In The Moment’]. I found out that GoldLink was in London at the time. I literally reached out to him – which is the beautiful thing with social media. My manager knew his manager, but I thought, You know what? I still wanna go the right route, so it comes from artist-to-artist. I just asked him – I said, “Would you like to come in and be on the record?” He was [like], “Oh, man, I’d love to – I’m a big fan of you…” We came up with this song ‘Live In The Moment’ and it really encapsulates everything I’m about right now: Don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about yesterday, let’s just be here and be present. The vibe is just a wave.

MF: I love the vibe you have with Kaytranada, actually. But how did your paths cross in the first place?

CD: Again, I’d been following Kaytranada. I’d been seeing what had been going on when he was out in Canada and he was doing his stuff out there. And I know that whole Canadian production team was starting to happen, from the time where, I guess, 40 [aka Noah Shebib] was coming through with Drake’s stuff – and then you started to see some of the characters that were involved… Kaytranada’s name kept coming up. I was like, I need to check for this guy. And this was years ago. Then, like I said, I reached out to him – and he showed so much love; saying that he was a big fan of my work. He’s like, “Yeah, I’d love to work with you, man.” What happened is, by finding people where I really loved their work, and there was a mutual respect, but they were kind of the next wave – you then end up coming up with them; as opposed to sort of having a #1 record, Following My Intuition, and then picking out names and just trying to jump on something.

MF: I wondered how this album actually captures your headspace, personally and musically, now?

CD: I’m such in a grounded, balanced place… When I first started off as a 16-,17-year-old kid, I was all music. I was just about music. And then – once you put a record out and it has success and you start to have a reference point for how things are doing and how well something’s selling and what chart position you’re at – you kind of incorporate parts of the music business. And I think for me what I’ve learnt over this 17-year career so far is that, when I’m just music, I’m at my best. When I let any parts of the music business come in, it becomes reactive and it becomes over-thinking, rather than it being as simple as it was for that kid who was making Born To Do It. So it solidified everything for me – like going back-to-basics and working with these 18-year-old kid producers when I was making the last record. Them talking in the past tense to me about songs like ‘Re-Rewind’ and ‘Fill Me In’ and saying “Yeah, my older brother, sister used to play your songs,” I thought, You know what? I have to find a way that I can be relevant to you as an 18-year-old kid right now – not talking about songs from the past. So I’d literally walk into the vocal booth and just sing my heart out like I was 16-years-old again and wait for them to press the talkback button to tell me what they felt – and I’d hear, “Ooh, you’ve still got it, Craig, you’ve still got it!” That was a gamechanger – ’cause, when you get a few of those [comments] under your belt with different producers, that little candle inside of me starts to become more like a roaring blaze again. I was like, I’m ready – I know what I need to do. I need to make an album that is authentic, it’s me, it’s not following a trend, and just get back-to-basics – and I’m seeing it happen. I’m seeing people feeling the album, not me thinking it.

MF: It’s true you are a trans-generational artist. I do notice a lot of generational divides, particularly in relation to R&B. Some people don’t like the ‘weirdness’ of music now. But there are others who find nostalgia limiting. You seem to transcend all of that – and you seem really excited about music right now. You could play your records after James Blake or old BLACKstreet…

CD: Woo! BLACKstreet, what! R&B, for a moment, I felt it kind of slightly pigeonholed itself into a place where, the lyrical content, you’re going down the lines of, “We’re popping bottles in the club” and “The girl looks like this” and “The girl looks like that.” It was like, OK, that serves its purpose for that area. But the R&B that I’ve grown up with – late ’90s, 2000s – was all storytelling. I mean, you talk about BLACKstreet or Joe with songs like ‘Stutter’ or even like ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ or ‘Say My Name’, Destiny’s Child, there’s a story behind it, but also the melody and the track was still bumping in the club. So I think, for me, the key was to take all of the inspiration from the late ’90s, 2000s.

People have said to me there’s this cyclical thing that happens in 15, 16 years – which at the time I thought was a bit BS. I was like, “Really?” But I’m seeing it happen. I think the difference between being a nostalgia artist to come out and do a Born To Do It tour right now [and what I’m doing] is to have leaned into the unknown – like I said about working with these young, up-and-coming 18-year-old producers who are unknown – but also to not have to tell the story of what you did. I don’t need to keep telling anyone, “Hey, I had an album at 17…” The young kid out there does not care. They’re like, “What are you doing now?” And I think [it’s] to accept that I’m OK that the first song you’ve heard is ‘I Know You’ with Bastille or ‘Heartline’ – I’m fine with that; rather than me saying, “Yeah, but you need to look for this song and I did this song in between and in 2012 I did this…” Again, nobody cares. That’s been the most liberating thing as an artist who’s been doing it for 17 years now – to actually be new; be the new artist! And the people who have all been with me from day one, who I’m so grateful for, they’re just grateful that I’m actually doing what they grew up listening to – which is the R&B again. So it’s kind of a win/win, if you are able to drop the story. That’s been amazing for me.

MF: Is there any talk of you coming back to Australia again? You were here just a few months ago, but people want to know if there’s any tour behind this album.

CD: 100 percent… I can’t wait to get back. We’re just scheduling in some dates to come to do TS5 and some band stuff.

MF: What ambitions have you got left to fulfil? Do you even look at things like that?

CD: Do you know what? To really encapsulate what the song ‘Live In The Moment’ and the actual title of the album, The Time Is Now, is [about] – I really just wanna enjoy this moment. Because I think what we tend to do, and what I first-hand have experienced – and that’s through wisdom and hindsight – is that, when you’re always looking to the next thing, the goalpost always shifts. So whenever you get the thing that you thought was gonna complete you or you meet the person that’s gonna complete you or you go to the place that you think is gonna complete you, when you get there, you feel like, This is not quite what… When you get an ‘aha’ moment, you sort of realise that actually it’s just a journey. It’s all about the people you meet; it’s the experiences; it’s the memories. Right now I’m in such a beautiful, grateful place where I’m seeing two generations listen to my music and I’ve got a new album out there that’s really connecting and people are loving the music – I just wanna be in that. There’s gonna be performances, there’s gonna be shows, but [the thing is] to not project it too far ahead where you’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but when I go and perform three nights at Wembley Stadium, that’s when I’ll be completed.” I’ve been there before and, again, it’s a story you tell yourself in your head, but it’s actually: I’m just enjoying this.

‘The Time Is Now’ is out, well, now. Stream or buy the album here.

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