The majority of us were introduced to Naughty Boy‘s sounds a few years before we ever caught a glimpse of him. Having taught himself to make music from the shed in his parents’ garden on a Watford estate, the British producer and songwriter, real name Shahid Khan, began furnishing homegrown rappers with beats – Bashy, Devlin and Tinie Tempah among them – before connecting with a then little-known Scottish singer, Emeli Sandé.
Their chance meeting led to an engaging musical partnership that resulted in him producing and co-writing all tracks, bar five, on her multi-platinum selling debut Our Version Of Events, which became the UK’s best-selling album of 2012. 18 months on and Naughty Boy’s own album, Hotel Cabana, debuted at number two this summer, tugging Khan to the forefront.
On a mission to delve into the character of the man behind the hits, SoulCulture sat down with Naughty Boy over a tasty curry in Covent Garden to discuss developing his craft, learning from Emeli Sandé, avoiding the industry, growth of the UK music scene and adjusting to prominence.
Khan was raised with a passion for the Bollywood music that dominated his household until his mid-teens, when discovering Timbaland and Aaliyah lured him to the listening posts at record stores for hours at a time. Music had always been a passion, be it Bollywood or Western, but it took him a while to realise it was something he wanted to pursue as a career.
“You don’t expect the music thing to work for you – I didn’t, anyway,” he muses. “I got an A* in Music GCSE but I still didn’t know then it was something I should pursue. I just thought it was another subject I did well in, I wasn’t thinking about how to turn this into a career. Even when I taught myself the piano, none of it was to think that it would be something that I would do [professionally].”
It’s what you grow up around – no one was making music or doing anything like that. Everyone was either a taxi driver, or selling drugs, or in I.T. It was literally three jobs, and you didn’t think outside of that – until I forced myself to.”
While studying for a degree in sound engineering, he realised his interest wasn’t in the science of music – “I was wasting my time, I wanted to get more practical and learn how to get the ideas in my head into the computer” – so he abandoned university to tackle it hands-on. “I dropped out of uni broke, with no job, and mum and dad wanted to send me to Pakistan to get an arranged marriage – the pressure’s on,” Khan recalls. “When you know you’ve got to do it, you just do it.”
Feeling isolated from the industry whilst based in Watford, with no one to seek advice from, in his early 20’s Khan applied for the TV game show Deal Or No Deal and ended up winning enough money to open a recording studio in West London to further his dreams. “I knew I wasn’t going to become a music producer with that, I just needed time and money gives you time – it can’t do more than that for you,” he comments. “It gave me time, a couple of years. Then when I started running out of money I met Emeli, and the next chapter starts. You just get by like that.”
Working with Sandé was a turning point for Khan, and not just in relation to the number of hits conceived. When he initially began producing for rappers prior, Khan reflects that his work was simpler and predominantly sample-based. “I didn’t really understand the concept of producing songs yet but when I met Emeli it changed my whole game,” he explains, “because she was coming from this classical, jazzy background – she understood music, she read music – and I was coming from this instinctive place based on how I feel and how it sounds. When we got together that’s when I understood crafting songs.”
Emeli often credits Naughty Boy as having shaped her sound. “Emeli’s amazing anyway, I believe she would have found her way regardless,” he nods. The singer’s pre-album rise through popular urban collaborations with the likes of Chipmunk and Wiley built a solid foundation for her later solo music to breakthrough, which Naughty Boy attributes as key to her UK success; “I think it helped her more.”
“I was having this conversation with Tinie Tempah, because the song on his [Disc-Overy] album was one of the first things we did, and it’s so important for her to have that base because no one else does that. No one else can go and perform at the White House for President Obama then come back and do something like the MOBOs… She will always be relevant,” he explains. “I think that’s how I helped give her that identity – and at the same time, she gave me my identity because I’m new and her album was my first project at that level, she was the first singer I worked with.”
That cross-market affinity is something Sandé lacks Stateside, without an array of clever US collaborations behind her, which perhaps partly explains her comparatively less rapid rise to stardom there. Having recently received his own US work visa, Khan has his sights set on that market too, with a later release planned for his album there. “It’s scary though. It’s gonna be different – some artists will be replaced…
“In connection to what you were saying, I can’t just go there with all the artists I’ve got and expect Americans to buy into it. I might have to add like Nas or Andre 3000 or change it up a bit – but still keep the sentiment,” he considers. That said, “songs like ‘La La La’ or ‘Lifted,’ I don’t need to do anything to.”
Whilst ‘breaking America’ is a long held dream of many UK artists, there’s a clear growing pride and emphasis on homegrown sounds among the current generation. In particular, producers are seemingly steering that movement and often doing a better job than label A&Rs at bringing exciting homegrown talents to the forefront.
“I love being part of this wave of producer-led albums and faceless music,” Khan enthuses. “I think some of the best songs are coming out of this, even better than artist songs – as in, there seems to be more of a care about songs. Rudimental especially, even though they do that cool thing they’re making real songs, it’s sick.”
There’s a tangible love to be felt for UK sounds at the moment, but there’s also a greater sense of competition. “I think [artists] are more competitive now,” Naughty Boy comments, “because it’s game time now. We can sell albums, we can go around the world, we can have hits around the world. I think when it’s that kinda time people stop thinking ‘let me help you here’, I think people start thinking, ‘shit, I’ve gotta get to the top now’.”
Everything is there for the taking now. It feels like a different kind of race now
– and not always in the best way.”
Despite feeling like a hotbed for talented producers and singers, there have been a glaring absence of anything resembling potentially classic material from the UK Hip Hop arena. “I do think the rap scene has declined,” Khan agrees. “I’m not happy about that. I thought it was thriving but the thing about rap and urban music in this country is, as soon as it stops working for some people, the labels start thinking it’s not working at all and then you get even less money pumped into it. That’s the thing I fear for. But apart from that I think people are braver [here].
“When I’m in the studio I don’t wanna make anything that sounds like anything. You have to have a different approach. I think Americans got used to having big hits around the world and then you start thinking, ‘shit, maybe we’ve got to replicate this,’ and that’s how you get the situation where you’re chasing your own tail. But while that’s been going on there are people in the UK that are just coming through – Disclosure, Rudimental, myself, Raf Riley,” he lists, “and it’s different but everyone’s being brave with it.”
Throughout our lunch chat, Khan makes his emphasis on carving his own lane clear. “When the label knows that you know who you are, that is the best confidence for them in letting you do what you want,” he says, “because sometimes the biggest problem is that an artist doesn’t know who they are, so the label can manipulate that and you might end up with something different.
“I was offered an album deal and it’s only when I thought about it and had the hotel idea that I decided to make it. I wouldn’t have made the album just for [the sake of] having a record deal, no way. because I was so comfortable being a producer; Emeli’s album was the biggest selling album of last year, that was success, I was comfortable with that,” he smiles, waving a fork.
One of Khan’s ‘many’ jobs prior to music inspired the concept of Hotel Cabana. Whilst working at one he was intrigued by, “how sad the people were, even though from the outside they look like they have everything.”
“When you’re a waiter, you see people when they come down for breakfast and you hear the things they talk about, and that was the one key thing that struck me – there were a lot of sad people that seemed to have it all,” he explains. “That intrigued me the most. Why could that be? I wasn’t thinking album, I was just fascinated by hotels after that – especially good hotels.”
Now rubbing shoulders with stars and embarking on his own tours, celebrity history suggests Khan may soon be in danger of becoming one of those intriguing, sad hotel guests himself. “I love the fact I started making this album three years ago and I wasn’t the guy at the hotel, I was the guy trying to get in,” he reflects.
“Three years have passed and I am now like that guy but also I wish I wasn’t in a way because… I always wanna be the underdog. You don’t ever want to feel satisfied, and I try never to get satisfied. Maybe that will keep me going.” He adds, “The guy on the top floor, he does jump off on the album – so I definitely don’t wanna be that guy.”
Clearly not one for revelling at every party nor plastering his face on promo, I ponder how Naughty Boy is adjusting to the growing attention his music now commands. “I’m just doing it on a step by step basis,” he nods. “The best thing I learnt from Emeli on how to deal with it all, is to stay calm. She does it so well, with interviews, with everything, even though it can be overwhelming.”
I always loved the fact I’m Naughty Boy but nobody knows I’m Naughty Boy. It’s like being a superhero. But now i’m gonna lose that, aren’t I?”
Whilst coming to terms with loss of anonymity, Khan is clear about holding onto one thing – himself. “It’s all well and good having success but I’ve still got to be a real person, that’s what I don’t want to lose,” he says between mouthfuls. “That would be the best kind of success; if I can get through this and still remain me and still have the same morals I’ve grown up with.
“Because it’s a dangerous place, the music business. It’s definitely not for everyone. It’s about maintaining [who you are] but it’s hard to, because your life changes rapidly – and my life’s changing on a daily basis, more than I ever imagined it could – so it’s about holding onto yourself… which is the hardest bit. You’ve got to be strong.”
Having closely experienced Emeli Sandé’s climb to fame ahead of his own journey, he’s had time to give his approach to it some thought. “There was a point last year when Emeli was doing everything she was doing and I was worried about her,” he reveals, “because I know what she’s like and I know how she is – so reserved and shy – and all this was happening, so it was important that we had each other.
“I think that’s the thing you miss the most. You end up needing the life you had before more than ever, in this game. You’ve got to hold onto some things that you had before – family, actual friends [and there aren’t many] – and it’s even more important to make sure you hold on to that. When you get detached from that, that’s when you can get sucked into everything this place offers – it is like Hotel Cabana in that sense. It’s important not to because that’s how you burn out, and I don’t wanna burn out. I can see why people go crazy in this place, definitely.”
To maintain balance, he keeps away from the unnecessary. “I find by not going out much to [industry] things i’m invited to, I think that helps me more than anything. Because when I go to these things, every time I go out again it gets more intense and more hype. I decide it’s best I don’t go anymore. Whenever you go to these things you see the same people everywhere. Does that not make you feel like you’re going mad?,” he asks. [I nod.] “I always feel like ‘I’m in the music industry’ when I go to these things, and I don’t want to feel like I’m in the industry.”
He would also rather be in the studio than at empty events, and rather have artwork for an album cover than a glaring photo of his face, because for Naughty Boy it really is all about the music and the stories within. Not that he feels the need to make those stories explicit – “I want people to take what they want from it,” he says of his preferred ambiguity. “Like, you’ve got your own mind, don’t be afraid to use it.”
“I think everything’s given to us in packages now so there’s no room for us to make up our own minds about what this is,” he complains. “I want it to be the opposite of that, I want to give you all the room you need to decide. It’s important for me not to give you the answers – I’m giving you the music. It’s the listener’s job, and we’ve forgotten it. I wish the whole culture of music would get back to that.”
Music’s changed lives in the past, helped social situations, but we’re not using that today. Why aren’t we? Everyone’s afraid of politics in music but some of the best music is made from politics and real stuff. I miss that a bit, even though I do like good-time music.”
“People have a song for their wedding, a song for their funeral – and those are the songs I want to make,” he says of his intended legacy. “Not in a dark way, but that is when a song has changed someone’s life. It shows the power of music. You’re dead but you want that song played. You’re getting married but it’s the first song you and your partner want to hear. I want to make that kind of music. Always.”
Our table now cleared, I close the interview asking which songs have impacted him personally in the deep, long-lasting sense we’ve been talking about. “I really like that song ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’,” he quickly responds. “Any time I hear it, I love the sentiment. I will possibly feel like that all my life – as in, I don’t think you ever get to a point where anyone really knows you. And why give the game away anyway?”
A fitting response for a formerly anonymous superhero. I turn off my recorder and he checks his phone as we prepare to leave the restaurant. Evidently the universe is listening to our conversation because, with eerie timing, Khan receives a new message from James Arthur’s manager giving feedback on an unheard track he produced for the X Factor winner’s imminent debut album: “’Roses’ – that’s a wedding song. One that’ll last forever.”
Featuring collaborations with Emeli Sande, Tinie Tempah, Wiz Khalifa, George The Poet, Sam Smith, Wretch 32, Bastille, Ed Sheeran and more, Naughty Boy’s album Hotel Cabana is out now.