Craig David on the set of his "Fill Me In" music video in 2000
Can You Fill Me In: 20 Years Of Craig David's 'Born To Do It'
In March 2001, 19-year-old Craig David was on top of the world. The singer-songwriter's debut full-length, Born To Do It, entered the U.K. albums chart at No. 1 on the week of its August 2000 release. By the new year, he had arena shows booked across the U.K. At the beginning of the month, David played for a sold-out crowd at London's prestigious Wembley Stadium, while camera crews shot footage for a future concert film. As coming-out parties go, it was the stuff of dreams.
On the road that spring, David spoke to the Los Angeles Times about his hopes of cracking America. (He also discussed the careful upkeep of his already-famous beard, seen on the cover of Born To Do It: "It takes about 30 minutes to perfect the symmetry.") While confident in his talents, David knew U.S. success was no sure thing: "I'm at square one."
What he could offer new ears, though, was the distinctly British sound of U.K. garage. The genre, which evolved out of the U.S. garage scene led by DJ-producers like Todd Edwards and Mood II Swing, is also referred to as 2-step garage or simply 2-step. (Genre sticklers might quibble, but the terms are often used interchangeably to describe the same sound.) At the time, David gave the Los Angeles Times a neat explainer on the genre that launched him. "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," he said. "That gives a unique skipping feel."
After bubbling up in grimy London clubs via DJs like MJ Cole and DJ EZ, the genre went mainstream in the Y2K era. In May 1999, Shanks & Bigfoot's unassuming U.K. garage tune, "Sweet Like Chocolate," hit No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart. That November, U.K. garage duo Artful Dodger released "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)," featuring a then-little-known Craig David on vocals. The single fused all the hallmarks of garage—complete with a twitchy beat, breaking glass sound effects and a DJ "backspin"—with the crossover appeal of David's honeyed vocals. "Re-Rewind" reached No. 2 on the charts, officially marking the arrival of the genre's new star.
For David, Born To Do It was the natural next step after the breakout success of "Re-Rewind," but he had no intention of making a pure U.K. garage record. The album, released 20 years ago this month, captures an artist as steeped in U.S. R&B and pop as the "unique skipping feel" taking over U.K. dance floors. Born To Do It also marked the definitive moment when U.K. garage went supernova, a double impact that saw the underground British genre and its bright young ambassador gain enough mass appeal to crack the U.S.
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David met Mark Hill and Pete Devereux, aka Artful Dodger, in their shared hometown of Southampton on England's south coast. After watching the teenager DJ at a local club, the duo invited David to their modest studio the next day. David performed on three tracks on Artful Dodger's debut album, It's All About The Stragglers (2000), including "Re-Rewind." The guest-heavy LP, which also featured British vocalists Michelle Escoffery, Romina Johnson and Lifford, applied pop sheen to a U.K. garage template. (With only a few of its tracks available on streaming services, It's All About The Stragglers is now something of a rare gem.)
Mark Hill recognized that David's ambitions went beyond guest spots. "We couldn't afford to pay him for the vocals [on Stragglers] so we just offered him studio time as well and I could help to produce his stuff … " Hill recalled in an interview with Soul Culture. Born To Do It evolved organically from that laidback arrangement. Without any outside input or label pressure, Hill and David finished the album before "Re-Rewind" blew up in the clubs. After that boost, the pair went back to record one more track that could "bridge the gap," as Hill put it to Soul Culture, between the Artful Dodger sound and the Craig David solo project. That late addition to the track list was called "Fill Me In."
Released ahead of the album in April 2000, "Fill Me In" debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. singles chart. Sonically, its stuttering drums and lush string samples would've been at home on It's All About The Stragglers. However, its songwriting highlighted David's specific touch, with lyrics that shift perspective from the teenagers creeping around to the watchful parents. Buoyed by the success of "Fill Me In" and its follow-up single, "7 Days," released that July, Born To Do It was a lock to top the U.K. albums chart.
With Wembley conquered, David set his sights more keenly on the U.S. Atlantic Records released Born To Do It stateside in 2001, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard 200 chart. The singer toured North America with an eight-piece band in early 2002, then closed his trip that February at the GRAMMYs, where "Fill Me In" was nominated for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. While David didn't win, he shared the category with his boyhood hero, Michael Jackson who was nominated that year for "You Rock My World." It was another pinch-yourself moment for the striver from Southampton. "It's all been very surreal," David told Billboard in 2001. "When I do interviews, I sometimes talk in the third person, like I'm watching this other artist grow."
After the ice-breaker of "Fill Me In," Born To Do It soon strays from the U.K. garage mold. In addition to Michael Jackson, David grew up listening to his mom's favorites like Terence Trent D'Arby, Stevie Wonder and The Osmonds. Later, he discovered the new school of '90s R&B from across the Atlantic. By 19, he was hyperliterate about the music that shaped him. In his concert film, Off The Hook...Live At Wembley (2001), David excitedly recounts the story of an out-of-the-blue call from rap mogul Sean Combs, known then as Puff Daddy. "This guy is a pioneer in taking old samples and bringing them into contemporary music, from [The Notorious] B.I.G. to 112 to Faith Evans," he marvels to the camera. "And this guy is on the phone telling me he likes 'Fill Me In.'"
That easy familiarity with the history of U.S. R&B and pop runs throughout Born To Do It. On "Rendezvous" and "Last Night," David strikes a silky loverman tone that recalls the likes of Usher and Ginuwine. Warm Spanish guitar carries "7 Days," which earned David his second GRAMMY nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 2003. Its catchy, humble-bragging chorus ("I met this girl on Monday / Took her for a drink on Tuesday") later went on to launch a million memes. "Time To Party" is a peppy, innocent celebration of Friday nights at the club, while "Follow Me" slows things right down in a D'Angelo-like bedroom jam. Then there's "Bootyman," which somehow riffs on the nursery rhyme "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" and "The Candy Man" song from Willy Wonka, while also spelling out the URL "www.CD.com" in full.
For all of David's smoothness, Born To Do It is more suggestive than explicit, painting David as the R&B casanova you could bring home to mom. Just as "Fill Me In" considered the parents' perspective, "Can't Be Messin' Around" is about staying faithful to a girlfriend despite the come-ons of an interloper "wanting me to hold her oh so tightly." Late album highlight "You Know What" then balances the libido and lovestruck yearning as David croons about the one that got away.
David released his second album, Slicker Than Your Average, in November 2002. Unlike the boyish ease of Born To Do It, the follow-up opens with a score-settling title track. "Ever since I first stepped up / They thought I wasn't good enough," David sings. The song lists dings made against the singer—he's too "squeaky clean," he's got nothing to say, he's a one-hit wonder—then dismisses them with pointed swagger.
Despite his usually sunny outlook, David chafed against the barbs that came with fame. In 2002, the U.K. sketch show "Bo' Selecta!" turned the singer into a recurring caricature, destining him to years of punchlines. (The show's creator, Leigh Francis, recently apologized for his insensitive portrayal of Black celebrities.) After his 2010 Motown covers album, Signed Sealed Delivered, David relocated to Miami for a fresh start. He got shredded, built a loyal Instagram following and DJed for friends at his multimillion-dollar penthouse. Life was good, but he wasn't making music.
David eventually returned to the U.K. to work on new songs alongside producer White N3rd and others. After a widely shared cameo on Kurupt FM's BBC Radio 1 takeover, David released Following My Intuition in 2016, his first album in six years. Coming full circle from Born To Do It, the LP hit No. 1 in the U.K. Just like that, Craig David was back in the game.
Ever since that surprise call from Puffy, Born To Do It keeps finding new believers throughout the decades. On his 2007 mixtape cut "Closer," Drake rapped about racing through back streets "on my Craig David sh*t." Ed Sheeran and Disclosure, who grew up bumping Born To Do It on CD, helped encourage Artful Dodger, now known as Original Dodger for legal reasons, to return to production in 2017. Earlier this year, R&B superstar Khalid tapped David for "hidden ad-libs" on his late-night slow burner, "Eleven."
As for the man himself, he's still proud of the staying power of Born To Do It. But as his Instafamous "NOW" wristwatch makes clear, Craig David doesn't dwell in the past. If you're born to do something, the best thing is to keep doing it.