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Will We Dance to His Tunes?

POP MUSIC

Craig David mixed R&B with house-garage to get the whole world skipping-all except the U.S., that is. He's making invasion plans.

April 15, 2001|PHIL SUTCLIFFE | Phil Sutcliffe is a London-based writer and a contributing editor to Q magazine

LONDON — Outside the rear door at the BBC Radio Theatre, there's an air of restless tension. A gaggle of girls giggles. A pack of paparazzi prowls. A parked Mercedes purrs discreetly.

Suddenly, a shout: "He's round the front!" Fans and photographers run for it. The moment they've gone 50 yards, the stage door crashes open and the slender figure of Craig David, shepherded by security, darts toward the car, slides into the rear seat.

The girls scream, the paparazzi curse and Britain's brightest 19-year-old pop star laughs merrily. An old trick, but it worked.

Already renowned as both a motor-mouth and a paragon of good manners, David thanks the driver for anticipating that he would need a bottle of water and apologizes for being rather sweaty from recording his spot for the biannual TV charity extravaganza Comic Relief. Then, as the car makes for the motorway and a two-hour drive to that night's gig in Bournemouth, he's straight down to business.

David jokes about the burry South Coast vowels and R sounds that color his accent ('I sound like a farmer'), but his high-energy phraseology is littered with "focus," 'demographic" and "that's key!" Not to mention the sanguine assessment that, in music industry terms, "every artist is a commodity and if you aren't making money you will be dropped. It's not that they have a love and passion for you." That's from someone with 4 million in worldwide sales of his debut album, "Born to Do It," in nine months (it won't be out in the U.S. until July).

This then is the formidable youth who scored more kudos than any other artist at the recent Brit Awards (the U.K. answer to the Grammys). Remarkably, he did it without winning any of the six categories in which he had been nominated. Instead, icons of all rock generations spoke up in spontaneous sympathy with someone they recognized as a musical peer.

"If there is a better singer in Britain, then I'm Margaret Thatcher," said Elton John. Bono wove a verse of David's hit "Walking Away" into U2's song "One." Noel Gallagher and Robbie Williams weighed in too.

David admits he's still basking in the warm glow. The megastar embrace was particularly pleasing to an artist who, despite roots in underground dance sounds and major influences in the likes of R. Kelly, greatly admires the crafted mainstream work of such stars as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.

But then David is in that uncomplicated early phase of his career when compliments rain down like overripe fruit. Atlantic Records won a bidding war to license him for the U.S., and the label's vice president in charge of marketing, Ron Shapiro, proclaims: "As a 19-year-old, his talent is incomparable: an extraordinary songwriter, very personable, a great live performer, great to look at, and unbelievably centered and driven. He's absolutely on a mission." Blimey, as Brits say.

Nonetheless, David's ego seems startlingly well-balanced and controlled. Already committed to basing himself in the States for the rest of 2001, he reasons that his European triumph counts for nothing in the U.S.: "I'm at square one. You have to go in, do the hard work, slog, make each radio station feel that they've 'found' you. I'm going to hit them with a secret weapon."

He's smiling, but maybe he does have one: two-step/U.K. garage, the now-indistinguishably blended dance genres that he and producer Mark Hill's production team, Artful Dodger, have taken from their seaport hometown of Southampton to a fair chunk of the world the past 18 months.

The David definition?

"It's a hybrid of R&B and house-garage where you take the bass drum off the second and fourth beats of the bar. That gives a unique skipping feel."

Skipping is right. If not exactly a vehicle for soul-searching, the light, uplifting sparkle of two-step seems a perfect match for David's character and ultra-positive story-so far.

In rock 'n' roll's vast catalog of significant artists from broken homes-John Lennon through Kurt Cobain to Eminem-Craig David may prove to be one who emerged undamaged. His father, George, a black carpenter from Grenada in the Caribbean, and his mother, Tina, a white English shop assistant, separated when he was 8. Yet David recounts nothing but happy memories.

"I didn't even really know that they'd broken up properly," he says, sipping from his bottled water as the car continues through the rolling countryside. "It was just, like, my dad wasn't staying at home anymore. But I saw him almost every day. They maintained a sense of security around me. I knew who I was."

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