On August 14 2000, the UK music industry laid witness to an album which would not only find major success at the time, but would also help to shape the future sound of Black British Music as well as Contemporary Pop Music. Craig Ashley David, at the age of 19, released his debut album Born To Do It; a 12 track LP which fully captured the sounds of the then new and thriving Garage scene, as well as providing some mature R&B and soul which created an unforgettable project which many still reference today.
With the recent succession of chart topping artists belonging to the UK urban scene, it’s somewhat hard to believe that 11 years ago, such a feat was possible. Long before the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and other urban acts began commandeering the charts, UK Black Music back then had yet to fully make its impact on popular music like it does today. Artists such as Beverley Knight, Damage and the late Lynden David Hall were just some of the main attractions of the Black Music scene around that time but even their presence had yet to fully captivate audiences outside of their chosen genres.
Born on May 5, 1981, Craig David grew up Southampton, England and came up through the various club scenes during his teen years as a DJ and emcee. Although his talents may have inevitably blossomed, the teen prodigy arguably owed his first taste of fame to the legendary Garage act The Artful Dodger. The duo composed of producers/songwriters Mark Hill and Pete Deveraux (both also from Southampton), enlisted David to feature on their underground-turned-mainstream hit “Rewind” which peaked at the number two position in the charts in December 1999. “Rewind” would not only provide The Artful Dodger and Craig David with their first mainstream hits, but would also usher in the popular underground genre Garage to the masses for the new millennium.
Garage, a subgenre of dance music, was formed from the popular underground genre Jungle, and followed a 4/4 rhythm and snappy drums (often including emcees or vocalists). Following on from the trio’s chart success, acts such as the So Solid Crew, Miss Dynamite, DJ Luck and MC Neat and many others would also find chart success with the Garage genre, with even pop acts such as Daniel Bedingfield and Mis-Teeq incorporating Garage productions into their material. Craig David’s collaborative efforts with the Artful Dodger wouldn’t end at “Rewind” as Mark Hill would help to produce Craig’s classic debut and brought the distinguished sound of the successful Garage act to fuse it with the singer’s harmonic vocals.
Comprised of rhythmic dance tunes akin to “Rewind,” as well as strong ballads and slow R&B, Born To Do It was released through Wildstar/Atlantic Records debuting at number one in the UK Albums Chart. Since then it has been certified 6x platinum, achieved platinum status in the USA and in April 2009, was voted the number two album in MTV’s Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Soul Culture recently spoke with the Artful Dodger’s Mark Hill, producer and writer on Born To Do It. In a sit-down interview, Hill breaks down the process of Craig David’s classic, the importance of maintaining a British sound as well as where Craig stands in the list of great vocalists from the UK.
Mark Hill first discusses how he first came to meet the young prodigy whilst back in their hometown of Southampton.
“I used to run a small recording studio in Southampton and we were just set up to record local bands and musicians” he recollects. “A mate of mine had brought a youth project he was working with down to the studio and Craig and another singer called Aaron Soul were the lead singers for it and that was when they were both 15. That was my first initial meeting with Craig.”
Although the first encounter with future award winning sensation was brief, it would be later when Craig was beginning to find his way in the club scene, that the two would once again meet. Mark says, “Skip a couple of years and myself and Pete started making some Artful Dodger tunes, and we had done a few remixes which the local DJs were playing and were now at the stage where we wanted to make something original. Pete and I were DJing upstairs one night in a club and Craig was DJing and emceeing and I remembered him from before and approached him. He actually had one of our tunes in his record box. We invited him to the studio the next day and recorded a few tracks.”
The David/Hill partnership would result in some of the most iconic British R&B songs of the 21st century being composed. The affiliation between Craig David and Mark Hill/Artful Dodger became synonymous with many of the music public back in the year 2000, notably due to the vocalist’s long affiliation with the Garage act, even making a few appearances on the Artful Dodger’s debut album All About The Stragglers. Hill recalls how difficult it had been to pay Craig for appearances on his Artful Dodger project and sought a different way to reimburse the 19 year old for his efforts, which inevitably, would prove to be an incentive far greater than any financial gain.
He says, “We recorded ‘Whatcha Gonna Do’ with Craig which appeared on our …Stragglers album. But at the time we were so skint that we couldn’t afford to pay him for the vocals so we just offered him studio time as well and I could help to produce his stuff if needs be.”
It would be the “studio time” which was offered to Craig which he would use to create the debut album Born To Do It, in which work for the album ran from the year 1999, going well into the new millennium – long before Craig had even been offered a recording contract. Mark Hill believes that the absence of label executives and such provided the two with greater freedom when producing the album.
“When we started writing Born To Do It, there were no labels involved or managers or anything. 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.”
“So when we finally got a deal, the album was a no-brainer as we already had the material required. We basically had done all the hard work before the labels got involved. I feel that way works best really because you’ve been given creative freedom, there’s no pressure and we had all the time in the world to do it. Obviously things change whenever a deal is involved.”
Whilst responsibility for the overall sound of the project fell mainly on Hill’s shoulders, the producer also had a hand in the writing process which Craig was behind mostly. The first hit for Craig came in the form of “Fill Me In,” a track which explored the goings on in a forbidden relationship. Mark Hill goes into detail about the makings of the track as well as whether the songs Craig penned shed any light on his life away from the studio.
“Around the time that ‘Rewind’ broke through, Born To Do It had already been written and done. 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. Although we spent a lot of time during the studio sessions and I had got to know him as a result of that, I didn’t have much insight into his personal life. He obviously enjoyed sing and writing passionately about certain subjects and whether it was storytelling or from the heart, I couldn’t comment I just worked on the melodies and more.”
Melodies were something which Craig David would become synonymous with for most of his career. Belting out harmonic verses and infectious choruses, the Southampton star was praised from early for creating a signature style which many today have been influenced by. Growing up as a teenager, Craig was known to be a huge American R&B fan and Hill remembers having to encourage the singer to hold back from letting these influences fully take over his product.
“Craig was a massive US R&B fan and he had a huge record collection so he’d always be coming into the studio and playing me stuff on vinyl and giving me mixtapes so I would take elements from them and try and make them British – trying to rein in any American twang. I would be the one to edit them and try and make them sound less American and push him to do tracks that had other elements to them. The first couple of tracks we tried together sounded very American.”
When the US/UK balance was addressed, the end product would result in some of the most impressive material which the UK hadn’t been witnessed to in some years. Two of the standout tracks, “Walking Away” and the number one charting “7 Days” offered a remarkable alternative sound to the American R&B product which had even crept into some of the material composed by UK artists during that time.
Craig’s signature narrative led songs were beautifully woven by the signature acoustic chords which a majority of Mark Hill’s instrumentals all included. Although the long term success of the singles would long be remembered, Hill was more proud of the fact that he had been able to encourage Craig to go a different direction from most.
“There were definitely some musical influences which came through,” Hill proclaims. “As he was really into his US stuff, you’d find that some of melodies he used emulated songs he was really into and some of the beats were influenced by that same material.
“Craig was predominantly behind the lyrics and melodies while I handled the overall sound and more. But it gave me the chance to give him a track like ‘Walking Away’ which wasn’t an obvious R&B track, it had a groove to it but it was overrun by guitars and there was the Spanish elements in ‘7 Days’ so I would always try to push him to do something different. I was quite influential in helping him choose the melodies. He would choose the jam along to tracks and I would choose the melodies that I thought they were really special. Once he got the melodies, Craig would then go and work on the lyrics.”
Craig David – “Last Night”:
Born To Do It was far from the average R&B album as its mood went from the sombre, intimate moments (found on “Follow Me” ) to more exuberant, upbeat vibes exhibited on a track like “Last Night.” With the pace constantly switching, how did this reflect in the studio? Mark Hill’s response is simple; “Pretty much every recording session was relaxed. We’d start an idea and if we knew it was going somewhere, we’d get excited about it and the rest of the process was effortless. It was an absolute joy to be in there and get real inspired.
“We were all broke at the time and had no prospect of selling millions, but we’d start messing about and say stuff like “this tunes gonna be a hit” and “this is gonna sell five million” and as we’ve seen obviously it went on to do pretty well. The tracks which made the albums were the ones which we felt we put the most effort into.”
Craig David – “Follow Me”:
For Mark Hill, however, the tracks which really impressed him were those which would explore the depth within Craig’s ability to perform. “Rendezvouz” (another track which was officially released from the album) and “Once In My Lifetime”, were both picked by the Artful Dodger producer as the two that stood out amongst the rest of the album, which, in his opinion, draw attention to the vocal talents which Craig David had to offer.
“The songs where Craig really came to his own lyrically were ‘Once In My Lifetime’ and ‘Rendezvous.’ I think these songs were the strongest both melodically and structurally because he was always pushing himself to do something different and musically they were a bit of a challenge for him so he could explore different melodies rather than taking soppy melodies from existing US R&B tracks. I think he did really well with those tracks.”
There even were moments on Born To Do It where fans were briefly treated to hearing Craig emcee. “Can’t Be Messin’ Round,” “Time To Party” and a few others would find the recognised singer return to his early days as a Garage emcee to drop a few typical Garage verses to add something extra to his stellar vocal range. Hill was adamant that Craig would have wanted to emcee more on the debut but the right tracks weren’t there for him to do so.
“We looked at the more Garage-y stuff and the more ‘Artful Dodger’ stuff for him to emcee on. He was meant to go on ‘It Ain’t Enough’ and ‘Are You Ready’ (both on the Artful Dodger’s album) but he was already on so many tracks we had to take him off some of them. I think he would have liked to have done it but when it got to the stage of the album, there didn’t seem to be any kind of material which would have been able to fit with the overall tone in which the album was going. Had the right kind of tracks been available I’m sure they would have gone on.”
Mark Hill also highlights the absence of any guest features from the album. Whilst it has now become the norm for R&B albums to include guest rappers, producers and more, Hill suggests the lack of additional names made Craig’s album that more special.
He says, “There were no guests on hand simply because at the time we didn’t have great access to those people. We were working out of a small studio in Southampton. It was also very much a personal thing – it was literally just Craig and I in a room writing the album and the process was going so well. It’s like the old saying ‘if it ain’t broke doesn’t fix it’ – unless there was a track which screamed out for someone we would be quite happy. I think that’s what made Born To Do It stand out – that the minimal guests and more made it feel like a body of work rather than a collection of different sounding tracks.”
Born To Do It spawned five Top Ten hits, solidifying Craig David’s status as arguably the premier act of the UK at the time. When talking about the influence the superstar would have on future acts, Mark Hill was more than capable of naming a few who had been inspired by the 19 year old sensation.
“I’ve worked with so many people who have referenced Craig David,” he says. “Donae’o, Davinche, Ed Sheeran just to name a few – they were all at school dreaming of being professional musicians and because Craig and Artful Dodger came from the underground, it was proof that it wasn’t about X Factor, it was possible to do it.”
When a current Canadian superstar’s name was mentioned as a possible Craig David fan, Hill was more than sure of this. “Drake is another one for sure. When I heard “Find Your Love” I immediately said ‘that sounds like a Craig melody, I could’ve produced it – that could’ve been the Craig David track that never got released.”
After Born To Do It, Craig David went on to make three more studio albums plus a covers album and a Greatest Hits compilation. Whilst relative success followed throughout his career, ultimately it was his groundbreaking work on his 2000 classic which many will speak highly of for years to come. Blessed with a gifted singing voice, a charismatic demeanour and boyish looks, Craig’s place in musical history will never be forgotten.
Looking back on the wave of success which they rode, Mark Hill finally breaks down why he believed their project so successful. “I think part of the success was down to the fact that we had complete freedom to work. There was no label involved, nobody was paying our bills, and we could just literally sit down and write the songs we wanted to write. I think that’s what made him unique,” he says. “The problem is once there’s a theme set by labels and so forth – then you are given a set of limits – it has to be sort of track a DJ has to play etc and we had none of those pressures so were so lucky at the time. Of course that changed when we made music after BTDI, but I think that was key.
“I think back then, people set out to make a very personal album that they were passionate about and would include all of their influences and wouldn’t worry about whether it’s going to fit into the music trends of the time or whether Zane Lowe would play it on radio. Without having any of those constraints you could literally write whatever you wanted. The album just resonated with people and they just bought into Craig as an artist. I’ve worked with a number of producers recently, so very talented but worried about whether the tunes cool or whether they’re selling out, they almost sabotage some of their best tracks in order to try and make it more underground and cool. If someone came out with a fantastic ballad, it could be the best song in the world but they would be afraid to release it because of what their peers would say.
“I think R&B struggles in this country because we prefer to support the underdog – we’ll be supportive of something if it’s really underground but the moment it becomes commercial its almost like it becomes a stigma and we turn our back on it. We were lucky to have the backing of the underground because BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t touch any of our stuff to begin with. It was only when it became so big in the clubs that they had to play us and typically took the credit. Rewind was out in ’97 and took years to plug it. Overall the success of the album was due to the fact that we had loads of time and no pressure to make the album. It was the two of us writing on our own and making music for the fun of it. I believe we both pushed each other to make something unique and special.”