Craig David, England's king of club pop, crosses the pond with hits and a craze called two-step

By Rob Brunner
August 03, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Craig David obviously has no idea what he’s doing. It’s less than a week before his American concert debut, and the 20-year-old English R&B sensation is holed up with his eight-piece band in a dingy London rehearsal studio just south of the Thames. Perched on a stool, David has spent an hour fine-tuning a delicate a cappella coda to show-closer ”Fill Me In (Part 2),” and the quietly authoritative singer and his three backup vocalists are clearly thrilled by the possibilities of their voices. Each subtly effective tweak evokes whoops of pleasure from the crack band — skilled musicians reveling in the pleasures of the creative process.

What could David be thinking? Where are the stylists for costume changes? Where are the prerecorded vocal tracks for lip-synch rehearsal? Where, for God’s sake, is the choreographer? ”I’m not really into dance routines,” David explains in a lilting accent that belies his B-boy look. ”I like to move around on stage, but it’s a balance — if you do a great dance show, the vocals can be shaky if you’re singing live.” The vocals? Man, does this guy know anything about being a pop star?

Apparently so. In the last two years, David’s debut album, Born to Do It, has sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide. He’s scored seven international No. 1 hits, sold out a three-night stint at London’s Wembley Arena, and has earned gold-or-better certifications in 20 countries. With Born just out in America and the single ”Fill Me In” nestled in the top 20, David now seems poised to replicate that success in the States, although he’s well aware that other heavily hyped British acts — Robbie Williams, say, or All Saints — have failed to seduce American listeners. ”I’m excited, but I’ve got a lot of work to do in the States,” he says, relaxing at his manager’s office a day before the rehearsal. ”I need to prove myself. Why is someone going to buy my record when they can go and buy Usher or Joe?”

For one thing, because Born’s sophisticated understatement makes for richer listening. A honey-voiced crooner whose sneaky melodies tap you on the shoulder rather than smack you in the face, David is the rare contemporary R&B singer who understands the value of subtlety. ”I think the simplicity is so key in what I do,” he says. ”With a lot of R&B, you get to the first chorus and people want to start riffing all the way through. If a listener is confused about whether an ad-lib is part of the melody, or the melody is part of an ad-lib, you’ve got a problem.”

Wise words for such a young singer, but then, he’s been a pro for more than half a decade. David grew up in Southampton, an unhip port town on England’s South Coast. His family lived in a housing project in a multiethnic neighborhood that reflected David’s heritage. His mother, Tina — who worked as a salesclerk — is white and half Jewish; his father, George — a carpenter — is a native of Grenada. His father also played bass in a local reggae band called Ebony Rockers, which released a few records on EMI that were regional hits in the ’80s. ”I didn’t even know what he had been doing until I found records with pictures of my dad,” David says. When the 12-year-old showed interest, his father steered him toward classical guitar. ”I loved the guitar, but I wasn’t really feeling these classical songs,” he says. ”I wanted to sing.”