Rewind. The year is 2002, and despite him holding the record for the fastest selling debut album by a British solo act - one (Born To Do It) that celebrated critical acclaim alongside its commercial success - Britain is laughing at Craig David. Keith Lemon aka Leigh Francis, a ginger comedian from Leeds, with a tacky rubber mask and an even tackier rubber peregrine falcon is shouting “BO SELECTA!” into a camera lens, and in the same motion, condemning UK garage’s breakout star to a lifetime of shit impressions, E4 re-runs and embarrassing street confrontations.
Fast forward to 2015, and the same Craig David, a little older and a lot wiser, is surrounded by comedians again. Only this time, their heads are bowed in reverence, their hands raised with iPhones capturing the unbelievable scenes in front of them on Snapchat. David - in the 1Xtra booth as a guest of garage-inspired BBC comedy show People Just Do Nothing - is calm and collected, spitting bars from the screen of his phone, performing Born To Do It’s first track “Fill Me In” over an instrumental of Jack Ü and Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now?” As his inimitably silky flow builds, so does the sense of awe in the room. These comedians aren’t shouting “boink” or throwing pseudo-street hand signals up, instead they are nodding eagerly, listening and worshipping every word that is leaving his bloody wonderful mouth.
The journey from Leigh Francis’ Bo' Selecta! in early 2002 to the world of Kurupt FM and People Just Do Nothing in 2015 has been a lesson in what happens when we take ‘the new’ for granted. It’s the same thing that has happened to grime over the last decade; a first wave rose, quickly descended into crass mainstream fodder and disappeared ignominiously, before eventually a modern audience — prepared to take the scene seriously on its own terms — re-welcomed it, and blessed it with the understanding it was robbed of first time around. This is now Craig David’s reality. The world, fifteen years after his first number one, is finally ready to accept him on his own terms.
It’s an old, and regularly disputed narrative that Craig David’s career was actually ruined by Leigh Francis’ sketch show Bo' Selecta!, and doing so would also excuse the fact his albums did experience something of a deterioration in quality (“What’s Your Flava” aside). Yet the show paints a picture of the mainstream mood Craig broke into first time around. A world where garage, R&B, hip-hop and later grime were grouped into a wholesale, patronised mess. A time where most people thought rappers wore sunglasses and said “Yo!”, and where Ali G existed in the same imaginary realm as the then Puff Daddy.
Craig has said, in a recent interview with the Mirror, that he was never really that angry about Bo' Selecta! and that his statements in a Sunday Times interview in 2007 about punching Leigh Francis were in fact the work of PRs insisting he “play hurt” in order to douse the fast-growing flames of the rubber face. In fact, according to recent reports, Craig and the artist now known as Keith Lemon have even made up, sharing a tense hug at Fearne Cotton’s wedding. Maybe Craig has found it within himself to forgive Leigh Francis, but it’s hard to believe that frustrations at the height of Bo' Selecta! were completely fabricated.
Now a chapter of modern music folklore, the hidden camera footage of Craig’s manager Colin Lester whole-heartedly losing his shit in the confines of his office tells a different story. The wounded words ping off the white walls, an uncomfortable echo chamber full of tensions running nearly as high as Lester’s blood pressure.
“All this bollocks I’m having to listen to about Bo FUCKING Selecta... How many people have got to come up and say ‘boink, Craig David all over my fucking boink’?” It’s a salient question. How many people saying “boink”, and not just “boink”, but “Craig David all over my fucking boink” did it take before an artist with underground credentials and commercial aspirations was written off as a national joke?
Unlike Craig, a more recent interview with Colin Lester, in Fearne Cotton’s Fearne and Craig David — a sort of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends for the ITV2 mum crowd — features a short conversation with the manager resolutely standing by his outburst. “If someone’s going to dick around with my clients, then they’re going to dick around with me first. The truth is, I’m very passionate about the people I manage.” As strange as it is, this passionate music exec, with probable anger management issues, was one of the few to see the truth. The rest of us, distracted by a bloke with a ginger goatee and a neck brace, missed the memo.
Sadly, Colin Lester’s conviction wasn’t enough. The Fearne Cotton interview seems to capture Craig in his lost years. Living in a hotel in Miami, bouncing between there, London and LA, ostensibly wealthy, driving sports cars and recording in plush studio spaces, but lacking a grip on the reality that made him such an attractive proposition in the first place. That’s not to say that Craig David needed to be a young dreamer from an estate in Southampton forever, but sent running from his rubber-faced demons, he lost his organic charm. The barber chair of the “7 days” video traded for the cream leather interior of a showroom Ferrari. It’s easy to understand why he fled for America for credibility, but in doing so he was destined to lose track of the qualities that made Craig David, Craig David. It speaks to the world of UK garage as a whole, an era and aesthetic, yes of Prada handbags and single diamanté earrings, but also of car-park raves, MCs, wet London streets and Reebok Classics.
So what has changed? Why now, despite the mockery, the panicked management meetings, the lost years, the reports of weight loss and confused sexuality, or, at one point, complete disappearance, is Craig David suddenly back in our lives? What have we done to deserve this? Well, in all honestly, we grew up.
We now exist in an era where pop music, and pop culture, is afforded unprecedented levels of credibility — often on an academic scale. Call it ‘thinkpiece pop’ or whatever, we are prepared to give as much (if not more) value and scope for significance to a Miley Cyrus song as we are to a Drake and Future mixtape as we are to Thom Yorke premiering a new song during New York fashion week. Discourse around grime has proven completely different this time around, as we’re not going to waste the opportunity again, so artists from Skepta to Stormzy are being valued as the bearers of contemporary British culture they actually are. By extension, the forefather of grime, UK garage, is also finally enjoying its unanimous moment. One comment Craig made in an interview with The Sun in 2009, buoyed by PRs or not, was that Bo' Selecta! “made people ridicule ‘Rewind’.” He continued to argue, “it should make people think about the garage scene, not some guy with a stupid rubber mask.”
Which is completely true of where we are now. Funnily enough, UK garage is once again the centre of popular British comedy. People Just Do Nothing has brought the scene onto television, and is making it funnier than probably many people anticipated it could be. But there has been a change, the scene is fully realised, the music isn’t the butt of the joke. Grindah’s bars, notably “sit upon the riddim”, while still farcical, are rooting in a respect of the culture. The laughs come from human interaction and failure, not “look aren’t these musicians stupid with their funny hats and weird words they say and stuff”.
With this foundation, of not just nostalgic fondness but interest and respect, Craig David can rise again. In addition to his now famous 1Xtra session, he has also spent the last couple of years honing his TS5 shows, that see him MC and mix live on stage, working cuts of his own material in with other garage slammers, and early noughties R&B classics. It’s not without a sense of humour, and he shamelessly works the crowd by evoking his glory days, but equally it is a million miles from a student union appearance, rolling on stage to perform “Rewind” before slinking off on the nightbus, with £50 in his back pocket. Instead Craig David is a seizing a moment, a wind change, a renewed attention from a generation who fell in love with his music on their Now That’s What I Call Music compilations, and never understood why he disappeared over night.
For young twenty-somethings now, there are many decisions made by the generation before that we were forced to watch unfold as children, that now we will struggle to repair. New Labour, the recession, the environment, Simon Cowell, all spring to mind. Yet for once, we have been given a second chance. Barely any of us found Bo' Selecta! funny. Most of us were too young — I personally wasn’t allowed to watch it because of the bear who always got his dick out — and now on repeat viewings it has all the charm of an angry school child trolling the popular kids in his year. Beyond our control, they took Craig from us before his time, but no more. Now it’s Leigh Francis who languishes on ITV2, parading his mindless Dapper Laughs-lite patter for anyone who accidentally flicks past a Celebrity Juice repeat.
Craig, if you’re reading: this is it. The time is now. Nobody really likes Keith Lemon. I don’t even think Holly Willoughby does. Anybody still saying “Craaaaig David” in 2015 adds about as much value to the cultural conversation as blokes still saying, “Shagadelic baby, groovy, yeah.” We understand “Rewind”, we understand that yes the boink noise is a little bit funny, but more importantly that it represents exactly the sort of subcultural crossover collision our music is so full of today.
So please. Rewind. Once in a lifetime. Time to party. #BeastMode, as you would say on Instagram. The prodigal son, no longer walking away. Let’s do this, Craig. Let’s fucking do this.
You can follow Angus Harrison on Twitter.