Music

Craig David: "I was the Robin Hood of fast food"

UK garage pioneer Craig David on standing up to bullies, his Jewish heritage and realising at the age of 19 that Michael Jackson had heard his music

I was so driven and so passionate about making music. There is such a difference between when you’re living it and when you’re just talking about it.

Going to clubs underage was my apprenticeship. I was getting away with going to a lot of different clubs in Southampton and being DJ Flash’s MC and box boy. We met when he was playing at one of the community clubs that my dad was chairman of. I jumped on the mic one day and I knew he couldn’t say anything to me because my dad was paying his wages.

You have to read the crowd to understand how to make music. I was studying what [Flash] was doing when he was playing records, watching the reaction from the crowd when he played certain songs. I wasn’t really interested in wanting to be on the dancefloor, drinking or looking for girls. I was so fascinated by the mixing and how he got a crowd so hyped. That was enough to give me the bug.

I was the Robin Hood of fast food. I worked at McDonald’s. You know those little tokens where you get a Big Mac and free fries? On my council estate, I was the boy because there was a mountain of those at the back of the McDonald’s which I liked to redistribute into my friends’ hands. I was bringing people happiness, man! At the same time, they were getting slipped a mix CD which I was selling for £10 a pop. It was really good profit to use to go and buy more vinyl.

Craig David performing with Artful Dodger in 1999. Photo: Julian Makey / Rex / Shutterstock

Libraries gave me power – but not in the way you’d expect. I was at college for two years before dropping out and then going full time with Mark Hill [of Artful Dodger]. I was always in the library. People were like: “Wow! You’re always studying hard in the library!” I was like: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” If only they’d known that I was in there just using their printer cartridges and paper so I could print out my mix CD covers. I was on a whole different mission of making things work.

I only awoke to my Jewish heritage later in life. I didn’t really know the depth of the Jewish side of my family until my [maternal] grandmother passed away. She was laid to rest in the synagogue. That’s where I found out more about the Jewish side. Culturally it felt like it wasn’t leaning either way in terms of my mum being Jewish or my dad being Christian. We were just living the life.

My mother was supportive beyond belief. I would be DJing and she’d come and pick me up at 2am!

Bullying taught me to protect myself and others. I was a little overweight so that would be the point of fun that some of the kids would throw away. But what I learnt through those periods of time at school was that I was quite quick-witted. As much as someone threw the banter at me, I would throw it back. I was very grateful for the people that I had around me who would always stand up for me if anyone was pushing the boundaries too much. I was also able to step in for people that I knew couldn’t handle themselves.

Playing in front of your heroes is unimaginable. On my first album, I played three nights in the House of Blues in LA. On the first night I looked up to the balcony and Missy Elliott and Jennifer Lopez were there. On the second night, I was thinking it couldn’t get much better than that. Then I look up and Queen Bee herself, Beyoncé, is looking down and singing the words to all the tunes on Born to Do It. Wow! On the third night, the front-of-house lights come on and Stevie Wonder is in the middle of the crowd singing the words to Walking Away. I got to meet him afterwards with Quincy Jones. Quincy said: “I bought 10 of your albums and gave them to all my friends.” I said: “Is one of your friends..?” “Yeah, I gave a copy to Michael Jackson. It’s cool.” I was like: “WHAT?” Growing up as a fan of Michael Jackson and thinking that Michael Jackson had my album and had listened to it – and I was 19 at the time – was just unbelievable.

My mother was supportive beyond belief. I would be DJing and finishing up at 2am. Because I didn’t have a car, my mum would come and pick me up. At 2am! To even let me be in a club at 14 or 15, most parents wouldn’t even let that go down. And to come up to London to spend all this money [on records] when I knew that she was juggling jobs but she still made me feel like I had everything I could want.

Craig David in 2016.

Seeing your parents’ pride in you is the apex. I played to 40,000 people at Common People in my hometown with my mum on stage in tears of joy and my dad with his poker face. But I clocked a big smile from him about halfway through the set – he was grinning like Garfield. I had to let him know I saw that.

I’d roll strong with the 16-year-old me. I would definitely be able to roll strong [with him]. We would be partners in crime. But the wiser and more mature version would say: “Just enjoy every bit of this moment because it’s just going to go so fast for you.”

Palm trees don’t help you write music. Living in Miami was cool and the weather was good – palm trees and all of that good stuff. But where did I make the best music? As soon as I came back to the UK to work with up-and-coming producers.
That’s exactly the same as how it was when I was working with the Artful Dodger when they were unknown. I am so glad that a year-and-a-half ago I came back to live in the UK. It’s all good to go.

The whole point of this is to make time for your fans. For someone to take a selfie, it takes two seconds for me and I get so excited and happy to see their face. I can’t see how anyone would not be excited about that. I take my time with that and I’m not in any rush to get through it. Someone who spent their hard-earned money to come and see you or to buy your album? And you’re trying to get away? That is what you do all this for.

Craig David’s album Following My Intuition is out now. He tours the UK in 2017. craigdavid.com

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