Craig David
© Phil Sharp

Craig David talks pool parties, poetry and the next generation of UKG

He was there at the birth of UK garage – and he's back on top as the genre enjoys a resurgence. As Craig David announces a new arena tour, we catch up with him backstage at SW4.
Written by Tracy Kawalik
9 min readPublished on
Craig David’s not new to this. He flexed his prowess as a hit-making heavyweight by penning his first song – a B-Side called I’m Ready for Brit boy band Damage – in the ’90s. He became mates with Artful Dodger and wound up getting behind their vocals as a club DJ, then pioneered garage from the underground before the genre even had a name. And all that before his 18th birthday!
As comes ups go, Craig’s was meteoric. Since stepping on the scene, he clocked up 14 Top 10 hits, sold over 15 million albums and achieved multi-platinum status in more than 20 countries. Then, just as garage slipped from the mainstream back to the underground, Craig somehow found himself going with it.
Yet this didn't knock him off his stride. Craig continued to make music, and slowly set about building a comeback. In 2011, he founded TS5 – a new party series named after the tower and suite of Craig’s bachelor pad at the Mondrian Hotel. Going back to his DJ roots, Craig flexed his prowess behind the decks, and soon what started as a house party in his Miami penthouse landed him his own show on Capital 1Xtra, a host of Hollywood celebs knocking on his door, and a new home for his house party – poolside at Ibiza Rocks.
It's just been announced that Craig is to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his debut album Born To Do It with a 2020 UK tour, Hold That Thought, which culminates with a show at O2 Arena. Red Bull caught up with him at SW4 festival to talk about the evolution of his infamous pool parties and what he makes of the next generation of garage.
Craig David brings TS5 to SW4 Festival, 2019

Craig David brings TS5 to SW4 Festival, 2019

© Nicky Klein

TS5 started as a lit Ibiza pool party, and is now showing up at London festivals. How did you make that move without losing the vibe?
TS5 started as a house party, and that’s always been the theme and vibe I’ve wanted it to represent. A party should have an eclectic sound where someone can play a dance track, a reggae tune, a house record, some dancehall or bashment, a jungle song, or even R&B. Bringing that here and curating the line-up, I wanted it to be as much about picking artists who were hot as the ones who I know give a strong performance that's pure fire and will get the vibe going.
What was your approach with the Ibiza Rocks party?
Ibiza is that holiday vibe, people are there to turn up and get wild. What I’ve done with my party at Ibiza Rocks is show them that this is a pool party where you can actually rave out! I wanted to doing something different than the Ushaiia pool party or the Mambo pool party, where you see people treading water. Sometimes nobody is even in the pool That isn’t a vibe?! So for TS5, Ibiza Rocks trusted me. I got the levels right, I made the water shallow and this year people we’re in that pool going off! I vibe off that energy, and love to see when I’m creating an experience keeps ramping up like that. I try not to get caught up in the sauce at 5am and being like, "I’m gassed, where’s the after-party? What club are we hitting up…" My turn up is on the stage and behind those decks!
You jumped on the microphone from an early age by accompanying your dad who played bass in a reggae band called Ebony Rockers at all of his gigs. What advice would you give the new generation of garage artists who are stepping out for the first time?
For me, as a new artist, the most important skill set you can have is being ready. If I call you up on the stage, are you ready to get on that mic? Or will you choke under pressure? It’s the preparation and diligence that you do behind the scenes that set you up. Put the work in and be ready. If you’re good, the moment always comes. Every DJ who was ready with a record that skipped before the crowd started booing, and every MC that bounced back with a verse from a bar he missed, that’s what shapes you as an artist and separates you from the rest.
Being behind the decks for over two decades, you must have had your share of tricky situations that you’ve had to style out?
For sure. When I was DJing in clubs as a kid I had tracks skip during a set so bad that I had to grab the mic. I’d be freestyling while putting a new record on the deck and trying to mash up another mix before it came back in! I’d run off at the end sweating thinking I was shit! But people would come up like “Bro! That was so sick when you did that mix!” and I learnt so much from that. Another time, I was playing the main stage at V Festival. My mic was ready, but when I came on stage and went to press play... no sound! There was no time to fix things, so I had to go back to being that kid in the packed out club and think on my feet. I was pretty sure these people weren’t about watching a 45-minute acapella set but I got on the mic anyways. I just had to give as much as I could – MCing, freestyling, doing acapella versions of Fill Me In, 7 Days, Rewind – anything I knew would work and just hope they would still want to get down. Lucky for me, it worked.
You’ve collaborated with some of the best in the business. Who would you say has pushed your creativity the most?
Kaytanada was a really good vibe. He’s one of those artists who’s on another level. He’s like a Dilla or a Pharrell. He’ll send me like 20 backing tracks to work on because he’s on a wave in the studio and I’ll be up until the early hours pulling out the ones that I can actually write something too. His beats take you to strange places, and to go there you really have to GO THERE, if you get me? It’s very poetic, it’s intricate and deep to try to meet that. But it was and always is an incredible experience. Guys like DJ Hype and Blonde as well, we've made huge tracks together that go off!
Your history with hit-making speaks for itself. Do you think your background being a DJ plays a part in knowing if a track has legs and radio appeal?
Put it this way, you know when you’re on to something special. There’s an energetic feeling and something in my heart. Like boom! You can feel a beat and think 'Yeah, this song is good'. But the ones that are 'hits', they give you that 'oooh'. With my new track Do You Miss Me Much?, I got that feeling again. It feels authentic. It feels like I could play it against Rewind, or mix it in with any of my early stuff. The same thing happened when I made When The Bassline Drops with Big Narstie – I got that as well. Back in 2015, when we put that out it felt like we were ahead of the time with that one. I just knew I could play it with any other garage tune and feel confident especially as someone who was there the first time garage happened that it still represents the next round for garage.
What’s a record by another artist that blew your mind?
WOW! I was talking about this the other day. There are so many amazing songs but in terms of how poetic a lyric is and something that’s made me moved in a type of way? That has to be Terence Trent D’Arby's Let Her Down Easy. [sings] “In her strawberry eyes/The way she sees you signifies/That she's susceptible to your velvet lies…” I was just like – mind blown from the poetry! Every time I hear it I’m like, I need to go back to the studio and redo half the things I’ve ever done to level up with that.
Playing such a seminal part in the first wave of garage, how does it feel to be out there with the next generation?
I'm gassed, to be honest. To watch new artists like AJ Tracey with Ladbroke Grove, guys like Mura Masa and Conducta, even Jorja Smith flexing on garage mixes – and bringing it in a way that’s so different and not like: “Oh this is a throwback to what my older brother used to listen too…” It’s fresh! Then to have them hit me to jump on their tracks or crossover onto mine... as well as be a part of them rising as artists by booking them or simply by being a fan and showing love at their gigs, that’s mad and so special for me.
What’s the key to staying in the game?
You get to keep yourself relevant. It’s about being open to working with artists who are on the come-up – and more so proving yourself to them. I gotta prove to you what I’m about and that I’m not just the guy who was hot back in the day when he did Rewind. It’s a weird one, but for me, I never want to ride off the coattails of what I’ve done before. Like: “Yeah I did garage, and I had some big hits…” You can’t be okay with that! I can’t be OK with that. If you stay in the game, you need to understand that you’re going up against the biggest garage tunes you had – as well as the biggest tunes coming up.
Craig David's Hold That Thought tour crosses the UK in April 2020. Sign up via before midnight on Monday September 9 to get access to the exclusive pre-sale from Tuesday September 10 10am