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Rhythm of Ages

British crooner Craig David's career has taken two steps forward.

Comeliness is the only credential most youthful heartthrobs need. After all, good genes and an attractive mug are more than enough to justify the video and magazine exposure that fills the brief careers of typical nouveau hunks or pubescent toy boys. But while twenty-year-old British swoon-inducer Craig David certainly benefits from alluring physical qualities, he arrives on our shores with additional accessories -- namely, legitimate musical skills and an actual title. He's been dubbed the King of Two-Step for his role in popularizing the latest trendy dance-music craze to sweep Europe.

Bully for him, right? Sure, but there are a couple of problems with David's designation. For one thing, few people can clearly and concisely define what the singer is the king of. In an article last June for Salon.com, writer Andy Battaglia spent more than 3,000 words touting two-step without ever quite saying what differentiates it from drum and bass, or house, or whatever. To add to the confusion, some experts, including David, see two-step as a spinoff of garage, a moniker associated with both a previously established dance style and a type of primitive rock and roll. And David himself concedes that his first-rate debut CD, Born to Do It, which has already spawned a pair of irresistible hits ("Fill Me In" and the current "7 Days"), is far from being a primer.

"The album has a few two-step influences," David notes. "'Fill Me In' has the influence in its chorus, but the verse is very R&B. And 'Rewind,' which was one of my first big songs in the U.K., is kind of the other way around. The verse is very two-step, and the chorus is very R&B. So really, the two-step stuff is only on two tracks, and they're not fully two-step in their whole structure."

In other words, David is hardly the poster child for two-step, because it's merely one ingredient in his sound. But he doesn't complain too vociferously about being miscast. "A lot of people have said, 'Your album's two-step, man,' because they've kind of got it into their heads that two-step is this different style of R&B, I guess. And since nobody's telling them different, they'll be like, '"7 Days," that's two-step, yeah!' But if you think '7 Days' is actually two-step, I'll roll with you. I kind of humor it to a degree, because it's not fully understood at the moment."

Such an approach may seem calculating on the printed page, but not when it's articulated by David. In conversation, he comes across as personable, sincere and, most of all, smart. Thus far, for instance, he's managed to appeal to the pop audience without being limited by it -- a trick that few of his contemporaries have managed to turn.

"It's cool to be embraced by urban radio and pop radio at the same time," he says. "I like it when people are given the opportunity to decide if they like a song or not, as opposed to the formatting of a radio station making the decision for them because they're supposed to like this or like that. I look at pop music as being popular in general, so when people say, 'Oh, man, that's pop,' I can't really understand that. I'm more interested in if something's good, not if something's pop. Like 'Baby, One More Time' -- that's a great pop song. And maybe my songs aren't pop in the same way, but if pop fans hear them and like them, I think that's great, too."

David hasn't gone out of his way to lure such listeners, however, and his attention to quality gives him a chance to be around long after his more superficial peers have become the topic of trivia questions.

"I think the one thing that any artist has control of is his integrity -- and you kind of see how people maintain that or how people lose it," he allows. "There are always people who come in and tell you, 'Hey, you should do it like this,' or 'This is the way it should be done.' And sometimes, when you don't actually know what you should do, you kind of go with the flow. But somewhere in everyone there's a voice inside that says, 'Yeah, this is right; let's do it this way.' And I try to listen to that voice."

Indeed, David seems determined to do things according to his own plan, based on his particular values. A native of Southampton, he was raised by his mother in council estates -- government housing. But, unlike many American hip-hoppers and R&B figures before him, he refuses to use the story of his less-than-tony upbringing as a way to boost his street credibility.

"A lot of people use the excuse of music to live out a certain lifestyle," he points out. "And I think that's disappointing sometimes, especially when it doesn't present a positive role model. It frustrates me a little bit when I see people doing the whole keeping-it-real and staying-ghetto thing -- when they do the bad things they were doing back in the day just to keep this kind of ethic of being cool. It's like you know in your heart what's right or wrong, but you feel you have to prove to everyone else around you that you're still down. And I'm like, why?

"Even though Southampton may not be as much of a ghetto as the projects of New York, I can understand where people come from when they want to say, 'This is where I came from, and this is the level I've reached,' through their music. But I just really want to be a songwriter and do my thing and enjoy it. Just make good music, and you'll be fine."

With this approach in mind, David began deejaying in Southampton clubs at age fourteen. Shortly thereafter, he met Mark Hill of Artful Dodger, a popular two-step/garage act. Before long, the pair were collaborating, and their 1999 track "Re-Rewind" (the name has been simplified for domestic consumption) became the most prominent two-step showcase up to that point. As David explains it, the style he and Hill developed was a matter of simple evolution.

"Back in the day, we were listening to house music, garage music, that was very vocal-heavy," he says. "And we would put these songs on top of it. After that, we manipulated it in a way that made it a lot more breakbeat -- more simplistic and sparse in the drum patterns. It would break down, and then it would build back up, and a big bass line would come in. But over time, there were also a lot of influences from R&B music, because DJs would take R&B vocals from well-known tracks and cut them all up, and maybe speed them up a little, so they would sound like a chipmunk.

"That's where I got really interested," he goes on. "I thought, 'Instead of getting people's vocals and cutting them all up, why not write a proper song?' Because, really, the beats per minute of two-step garage is basically the same as a ballad. Take Whitney Houston's 'I Will Always Love You': You can sing the song at exactly the same speed she sang it and lay a two-step backing track underneath it -- and that turns it into a dance track. So by doing the same thing with original songs, you have the energy of house music and the vocals and melody of R&B."

Of course, this blueprint doesn't translate if there are no compelling tunes. But David is a natural songwriter, as Born to Do It demonstrates. On occasion, he writes using a guitar, despite being at a fairly rudimentary stage on the instrument: "I can sing the melodies, but trying to find the notes is another thing," he concedes. More often, he works in collaboration with Hill or six-stringer Fraser T. Smith, with whom he's done a number of acoustic concerts. The ditties that have emerged from these sessions hold up to scrutiny even when they're stripped of studio sweetening -- which is just the way David wants it.

"A lot of music I hear nowadays is very produced, but underneath, there may not be a great song," he maintains. "It's like the production and the beats are really hot and the clubs and the DJs are playing it, but if you were asked to do it on acoustic guitar or piano, the song would be very weak. That's not to say you have to do every song acoustically to prove that it's a great song, because sometimes the vibe of a track is about production -- the beat of it actually is the song. But if a song sounds really hot with just a guitar, when you add production to it you're onto a winner. Do you know what I mean? Otherwise, the cake might look lovely, but when you bite into it, it might not really taste that good."

So strong were David's compositions for Born to Do It that in most cases, Hill, the album's primary producer, resisted the urge to turn them all into two-step tracks. "Fill Me In" juxtaposes a skipping hook with a delicate guitar figure that's equally persuasive; "Can't Be Messing 'Round" uses a low-key hip-hop groove colored by dramatic faux violins; "Key to My Heart" features delicate picking over vocal accents straight from the Timbaland school of mixology; and "Last Night" employs wah-wah effects and random scratching with a subtlety that mirrors David's vocals. Like a male Aaliyah, he's confident enough not to over-sing, resulting in performances that are more seductive than showy.

"I know I can hold notes, and I can keep the flow, riff, do the different things that are really nice and pretty," he says. "That doesn't mean my voice is great. But I know when you put the whole thing together, the tone of my voice brings a warmth to the track."

So, too, do lyrics that value romance over graphic detail. "Growing up in a single-parent family, with my mother, having the whole respect thing for women was important to me," he says. "But, especially in R&B music, I felt no one ever addressed things in a way I could relate to without being too descriptive or vulgar. So I'm trying to do it a different way. I can say, 'Hey, follow me to my bedroom'" -- as he does in "Follow Me" -- "but you don't necessarily have to know everything that's going on in my bedroom. We could be playing PlayStation 2, you know?" He chuckles before adding, "Everybody's got to say, 'We're doing this' or 'We're doing that.' But that doesn't allow the listeners to go into their own imaginations. And that's what I'd like my songs to let them do."

This open-ended philosophy has made him a favorite in England, where he's scored more than a half-dozen solo hits, not to mention multiple nominations for virtually every major music award. He's so beloved, in fact, that when he failed to win any baubles at the 2001 Brit Awards, a number of stars sprang to his defense: Elton John reportedly declared, "If there's a better singer than Craig David in Britain, then I'm Margaret Thatcher." There were fewer complaints after David's "7 Days" was declared the year's best contemporary song at the prestigious Ivor Novello Awards -- and he also walked away with two statuettes during December's MTV Europe Awards.

David hasn't yet achieved that level of stardom in the States, but he's made a good start: Born to Do It has moved over a million units in the U.S., and after 28 weeks, it's still among the forty best-selling discs in the country according to Billboard magazine. On top of that, David's earned recognition for his role in introducing a new form of music to the land of the free -- and even if he's not sure he deserves it, he's grateful nonetheless.

"When people label me 'Craig David, pioneer of two-step/garage,' it's an honor," he says. "It's a label that's a bit inaccurate in terms of exactly where I stand. But it's not one that I fight. In fact, I think it's kind of cool."