“When things are going wrong, the only thing you can do as an artist is write your way out. The bottom line is, it’s all about your music: you have to keep remembering that you’re only ever three minutes away from changing your life.”
Craig David knows how it feels to switch from a hot property to a figure of fun.
As the noughties dawned, his long-term global superstardom seemed inevitable. David’s debut album Born To Do It, released in August 2000, sold an astonishing seven million copies worldwide, including more than a million in the US. His first two singles, Fill Me In and Seven Days, capped a trio of UK No.1s, following his 1999 smash with Artful Dodger, Re-Rewind.
Signed to Wildstar Records by Colin Lester, David’s unique melding of two-step garage beats and swirling R&B melodies sent the music industry, typically, scrabbling for facsimiles. A teenage pop prodigy, he clocked up three Ivor Novello and eight MOBO Award wins - not to mention 12 BRIT Award and two Grammy nominations - thanks to songs dreamt up as a 16-year-old within the walls of his mum’s modest Southampton flat.
But in 2002, as he turned 21, British telly presented a stupefied caricature of David to the nation - one loudly lampooning his tendency for musical self-reference and contorting his innate mannerisms. David won’t acknowledge if he ever felt bullied by Channel 4’s Bo Selecta! - brainchild of Leigh Francis, now better known as Keith Lemon. But Lester, with whom David has shared a professional partnership for 15 years, will never be able to forget the sabotage it unleashed.
“I thought it was going to go away, eventually, and that we had to ignore it,” he says. “But it did completely the opposite, it just grew and grew. I was watching a brand, our brand, being destroyed. We can all accept criticism of creative work, but to be publicly ridiculed for it is incredibly difficult to deal with. Protecting Craig was my top priority, but it was impossible. It was an express train - the only way to stop it was to shut up completely.”
By the time second LP Slicker Than Your Average arrived in 2002, Bo Selecta!’s odious influence had gained traction. The record sold 3.5 million copies – a figure that remains a distant fantasy for young artists today – but David’s star was undeniably twinkling a little less brightly. With one nagging catchphrase and a bizarre motif from sixties Brit movie Kes, Bo Selecta! Had diluted the one ingredient even more vital to David’s prosperity than his music: his cool.
Surreal satire quickly mutated into publicly-parroted punishment; destructive, gleefully-enacted mass retribution for David’s supposed crimes of ubiquity and self-regard.
In the studio, an understandable bombardment of doubt began to plague his work. David diffidently bounced between labels like he did genres, and by the time his Greatest Hits whimpered into the UK chart at No.48 in 2008, he appeared officially washed-up.
“Bo Selecta! came at a time when there was no real YouTube channels - I had no response,” says David. “Each week, that show would go at me and go at me. People ask if I met him now, what would I do. In the balanced way I am today, I haven’t got the time to entertain the negative energy of it.
“I do believe that everything happens for a reason; life mirrors something to show you it clearly. Maybe I did say my name on the records too many times - that’s why he highlighted it. Maybe I didn’t see success in America like I wanted to. But it’s true, he did over-step the mark.”
Twelve years on, David’s career is back on track in a big way. In 2013, he’s inked a megabucks publishing deal with Universal in the US and launched a growing national radio show on Global’s hugely popular Capital Xtra.
Ahead of the release of his first album of original material for seven years, he’s just completed a sold-out world tour, taking in Australia, the Middle East, the Far East and Europe. That’s not ‘sold-out world tour’ of embarrassingly teeny venues, either: having been boosted by extolment from the likes of Drake and Justin Bieber - whose recent single Recovery samples Fill Me In - David packed out London’s IndigO2 in May and, according to Lester, could have done so three times over.
“Banish all thoughts of Craig David being a bit of a joke,” demanded the oft-barbed Daily Star in its review. “We need stars like this again.”
This resurgence rewards a long-term bond between David and his manager that begun when the artist was just 17. Bowled over by his experimental take on urban pop, North Londoner Lester invited David to sign with Wildstar - at the time co-owned by Capital Radio and Telstar.
David and then-manager Paul Widger were also attracting interest from Sony, with the major label keen to snap up the singer on a development deal - one David now suspects would have “left me on the shelf ” as “they didn’t quite know what to do with me”.
Debating the inception of their partnership in front of Music Week and 250 music business students at the University Of Hertfordshire, Lester and David’s chummy repartee wears the unifying strength of jointly surviving both professional ecstasy and the torment of fallow years.
Clad in similar black leather jackets, they observe each other’s anecdotes with attentive patience and occasional, protective interruptions. And, now and again, they just take the piss.
“First of all, my office was not a shithole,” retorts Lester after David recalls his own juxtaposition of Wildstar’s office (“a table all mashed-up with dents in it, with old broken chairs - like going to your grandma’s house”) and Sony’s plush London HQ (“a Destiny’s Child disc on the wall next to Will Smith... marble floors, a slick-looking TV on the wall”).
“I did showcases for everybody, but nothing was on the table,” recalls David. “One individual stuck their neck out and said: ‘Forget development deals, forget singles deals. I want to do an album with this guy.’ I owe so much to Colin because of that belief.
“He came down to Southampton to see my mum - and trust me, in that area, had he left his car any longer outside my flat his wheels would have been taken off. I realised that day that it wasn’t about marble floors or pictures of Destiny’s Child or Will Smith: Colin promised my mum he’d look after me, and those words have resonated ever since.”
Shortly after Fill Me In hit No.1, David parted ways with Widger, and Lester reluctantly stepped in as his manager. The partnership soon heralded huge worldwide spoils for the pair, but it wasn’t long before the exec really had to prove his mettle: handling the unforeseeable decline of an artist selling millions of records worldwide, whilst shouldering the tricky job of keeping his friend’s optimism intact.
“I’ve learnt that every success is back-loaded with failure,” says David, now 32, casting a philosophical eye over his fall from commercial eminence. “Each No.1 you have notches up your expectations. Then when you hit No.2, it’s tough; you feel like a failure. It felt amazing to be in the eye of that storm for a while, but I’m probably, genuinely, having the best time of my life now - I’m a lot more balanced. In any career, it’s all about riding the ups and downs.”
Finally, David is enjoying some ‘ups’ again - propelled by an audience young enough to remember falling in love with his radio hits, without the reputational baggage that followed.
As the university presentation from Lester and David (pictured) draws to a close, the floor is opened to a question-and-answer session. One hooded teen boldly delivers a cheeky query - “Can I get a photo with you?” - with audibly excited support from his peers.
When told to volunteer a more earnest question, he doesn’t veer too far from his previous effort: “Okay. Um, could you sing us something?”
David obliges with an unaccompanied slice of Seven Days, and a room full of 18-year-olds go nuts. Before they take their chance to mob the stage en masse - a grinning David satisfying a sea of iPhone selfie requests - Lester has the final word.
“Without Craig, my life wouldn’t be anywhere near as colourful. He’s one of life’s great characters. Nothing hurt me more then when his public persona was damaged - I wanted to kill that puppet. But what the public has never really seen is what a lovely guy Craig is, with such an amazing talent. It feels like we’re re-writing the script a little bit now, and he deserves it more than anyone.”
It’s been more than a decade since the indubitably talented Craig David was publicly battered into a professional quagmire - a fate that, amongst modern pop transgressions of twerking, tawdriness and, well, Chris Brown, seems bewilderingly undeserved.
His response has been consistently dignified and estimable; to keep on quietly trying to write his way out, safe in the knowledge that Colin Lester will be backing him up, rise or fall.