The Source Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with British producer Shahid Khan aka Naughty Boy on his first trip to the US. Naughty Boy is one of the most sought after new producers in the UK and is poised to make a big splash in the US.
Let’s start from the beginning. Your parents are Pakistani immigrants and your father was a Taxi Driver and you grew up in Watford, England. When did you first realize that you were passionate about music?
To be honest, it wasn’t a realization. It’s just always been there, I just had to realize that it was there. It was there since I was kid. I taught myself piano. And I would always hear music in my head, but when you’re young, especially anything you’re good at, you assume everyone else is good at it, too. So if I was good at music, I just assumed everyone else around me would be good at it the same way. But as then I grew older I realized maybe not, maybe I see it differently than people. And that’s when I started exploring. I did loads of job. I only started making music in 2006.
So your professional career began in 2006?
That’s when I started actually putting ideas into my laptop and I started. What I did was I went to university thinking I’m going to do a degree in sound engineering and that’s how I’m going to become a producer. But I wasn’t interested into the sound engineering part. That’s when I realized I’m more creative, so I dropped out. And I went on a game show called “Deal or No Deal” and I won 44 thousand pounds. And I used that money to set up a studio…that got me a couple of years of just free time for just making music.
Why did you decide to go on “Deal or No Deal”?
When I dropped out of university, my mom and dad weren’t happy because I was the first one to go to university, but I didn’t finish my degree so they were pretty much going to send me to Pakistan to get me an arranged marriage. So I had to avoid that at all costs. So I went on a game show thinking – because when you need money, you sometimes think “Well, I’m not going to do anything bad to get it. I need to work out a way to make a lot of money quickly.” So I just thought, a game show – why not? And then, “Deal or No Deal” was the only show that doesn’t ask you questions. So I literally choose boxes. So it’s down to the universe and your gut instincts so it worked in my favor!
What are your earliest musical influences?
I grew up listening to Bollywood music even though I was based in London and I was born in London, in my house that was the music that was played. That’s what I grew up on, it’s so epic and dramatic and it’s so emotionally draining – these films. Because what they have is Bollywood films and they have songs within the film like musicals. And I grew up not just with that, but loving it.
I used to be as excited as I am about English music, but the first English Western music I got into was Timbaland and Aaliyah. That whole thing that they had, that changed my whole life. That made me actually get excited about music again, as in I used to think, “Oh, I could actually do this,” as in because it was brave and it wasn’t trying to conform to anything and you can hear the way they’re influenced and I thought if I’m going to make music I want to do it like this, so it changes something, you know?
Would you say the next big event in your career was meeting Emeli Sande at the end of 2008?
It didn’t happen in a sequence of events, honestly. When I look back on it, it’s like a movie. But then the Emeli bit was crucial because I hadn’t worked with a singer, yet. I needed to find one, so I went to this open mic in London and she would just perform one song and then that was it. It’s a song song called “My Baby’s Eyes.” I think it’s on the internet somewhere, but it was amazing. No one can hear a voice like hers and just think, “Oh, she’s okay.” I thought she was just great from that moment. And so I spoke to her and I was a bit nervous because she didn’t know who I was, but then she always says she trusted me the moment she met me…that was cool because I think that’s what got us here. When you work with someone creatively and you trust each other, I mean that’s how it works.
A year later, you had your first major hit “Diamond Rings” by Chipmunk featuring Emeli Sande. You co-wrote it with Chipmunk and Emeli and produced it.
Yeah, Emeli has a hook. So we started off – I put Emeli on a few different hooks. Like Tinie Tempah, Wiley, Chipmunk, these UK rappers and that’s how we started I think. But during that process we started writing her album without even realizing. We were writing songs. We were writing a song called “Clown.” Have you heard Clown? It’s on her album. That’s a special song. It just sums up that whole moment.
What was it like having that first top ten hit, “Diamond Rings”?
That was acceptance. We had no manager, no record label, I had no publisher and I was in the top ten. And I had this massive radio song. So it just made me believe that it was possible, that more should be possible. By this point, me and Emeli still had these songs that no one had heard, yet. So it was even more exciting to be honest.
Would you say the next big event in your career was working on Emeli Sande’s debut album? You produced and co-wrote 11 songs.
The next big event was her album, but again we did that without the pressure of making an album. We did that by just making songs over a year, two years and then we finally realized, “Sh*t we’ve got this album” and “Heaven“ was the first single. So “Heaven” changed the whole sequence of events. And actually, Emeli’s album title, “Our Version of Events,” I came up with that because that’s what I wanted to call my company. Sony offered me my own publishing company with Emeli, so I was thinking, we should call our company “Our Version of Events,” but she kind of liked it a bit too much, so she kept it for her album, which is cool anyway. Because it’s a good title, you know?
You and Emeli have incredible musical chemistry. Can you tell me about working with her in the studio and share what the process was like putting together that album?
Yes, we do. The process was literally very conversational. Like, we never sat there and said, “Oh, we’re going to make the song”. We always sat there and had a chat and talked about our experiences, and inspirations, relationships, girls, guys, you know? Emeli got married last year, so before then. And it was just an interesting time for us because we got really close and I think that is what helped the whole process. We’re best friends as well as people who make music together.
For people who don’t know you, who is Naughty Boy?
Naughty Boy is not me. I am me, Shahid. He lives in me, he’s my alter ego. And he is a naughty boy, but at the same time, he wants to break the rules. Whether that be musically, lyrically. I want to be remembered for musical things. That’s why I don’t do many interviews. I don’t really do many photos or anything. A little in my videos, but I want the focus to be on my music. And if I’m celebrated for my music then people can ask me what they want. But I don’t want to be famous for anything, but the music. And I’m a bit scared of fame to be honest.
Let’s jump ahead to your debut album “Hotel Cabana.” How long have you been working on it?
I’ve actually been working on it a couple of years now. So after the Emeli album, obviously I had a lot of interest from other people to work with them, but “Hotel Cabana,” to be honest, I wasn’t even going to make an album five years ago because I’m a producer so I’m not going to sing and dance or anything. But when I had an idea for this album, that’s when I knew I should do it because it’s a cool idea. I’ll still get to be the artist, it’s my vision and that’s where it started, “Hotel Cabana.”
What inspired “Hotel Cabana”?
Travels and my job. My last main job I had was I was delivering pizzas for Domino’s, while I was on the game show. But just before then, I was a waiter in a hotel, it was a five star hotel. It was amazing. It’s the best hotel around London. And I just saw a lot of things, a lot of customers, people would stay there like Tom Cruise, Madonna, Barack Obama…Then after a while, you would see a lot of people who would stay there for a long time, but I actually started thinking, “I don’t want this life, they’re a rich and they’ve got everything, but they’re lonely. They’re a bit depressed and they’ve got no friends.” So I started thinking, imagine if it was a concept for an album. So the hotel represented fame…We’re in that age where everyone is obsessed with fame. And they’re trained to be obsessed with it and really I think when you get it, it’s not what you need in your life. You just think that’s what you wanted to replace that thing.
You have a lot of really cool guest features on this album. One track that’s pretty dope is “Think About It” (featuring Wiz Khalifa & Ella Eyre). How did you connect with Wiz for that song?
I met him through my manager, Tim Blacksmith. Stargate did the “Black and Yellow” track and they had a good relationship with him. And I had one song on the album, the one that he’s on, that I needed an international feature. And it had to be a rapper so Wiz is just perfect for not just the song, but what the album represents. And in that song he plays the role of someone who’s enjoying being famous and enjoying being at this hotel and doesn’t really give a sh*t about that girl who keeps on phoning and he did a really great job. And we shot the video a couple of weeks ago, he’s an amazing guy to know as well…because he was on tour, I was going to go and watch him perform, but then I was doing a show that night as well so everyone’s really busy. But at the same time, I really appreciate what he’s done and it’s made a difference with the album as well, it just opens it up even more.
And Ed Sheeran is featured on “Top Floor (Cabana)” on your album, tell me about your relationship with Ed and how you first met him?
Yeah, we’re friends. We met like three years ago. And he’s the only person that ever knew all the songs that I’d done with all the rappers in the underground in the UK. He is someone who’s really passionate about music. That’s how we started – just a shared interest. And then when I had my album, I just knew I should have a track with him because he’s a great songwriter. And I presented him with this idea…“Imagine you’re the guy that…” his song is like the moral of the story, basically. His song is like, when you’re at the top floor of this hotel, you’ve got everything. You’re in the penthouse suite and I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to give it away. But that tells the end of the story, that song.
Your album also features some of the biggest artists in the UK like Professor Green, Wiley, Wretch 32 and Tinie Tempah, to name a few, so I’m curious to know what you think about the UK hip hop scene versus the US hip hop scene?
I just wish I could be part of more collaborations. I want to do more collaborations with US rappers and UK rappers. And I think that the bigger problem is the US audience with UK rappers. Because US rappers are massive in England. It’s about making something that’s British and stays British as a rapper working in America. That has to be the hardest challenge.
You might be the pioneer in that.
If I can do a track, that would help a UK rapper, blow up in America that would be amazing. That would be historical.
Let’s talk about “La La La,” which was just released in the US yesterday on December 3. “La La La” was a massive hit in the UK, partially because of the music video, which went viral and has been viewed over 170 Million times. You are not in the video, though.
No, I’m not in any of my videos, really. I’m in the new one a little bit.
Can you speak about the concept for the video for “La La La”?
Every video for this album makes you think it’s part of a different album, but that’s what I wanted to do. I would make you think this hotel could be anywhere in the world. It could be in your mind, it could be in your back garden, or it could be in Bolivia where “La La La” was shot. And the sentiment with that video is about the boy and if you think of the boy as being me, and then he grows up to run this hotel which is everyone’s role playing, so that’s my role. But it’s almost like the boy – he’s going to the source of the mao. In the video you see him going to this mountain and he blocks out everyone, his mom and dad. He makes these imaginary friends and I think when the world becomes a bit of a bad place sometimes you have to go to the source of what’s making it bad, you know? And that’s all I will say about it. To be honest…I want people to use their own imaginations, you know? That’s important to me.
And when you were making “La La La,” did you think it would become this huge smash?
I don’t think I’ve made anything that I’ve ever thought is going to be a smash. Like, “La La La,” I loved it. I love all the music I make otherwise I wouldn’t make it, but I don’t have that confidence…you always leave it to the public to make it a hit. It’s always a hit in my head. But my head’s just my head.
And can you tell me about the use of the poet on “Hotel Cabana”?
George The Poet, he’s an incredible new artist launched in the UK. He’s not a rapper, he is a poet. But he says things rappers say, but better, more wisdom and more prolific. Because you remember, hip hop and rap, the whole point of it was to speak for the people. It was never to show you what I’ve got, what I’m wearing. It was never! Hip-hop was always about talking for the people and in some ways it’s stopped doing that. It’s become more self-involved. It might be a cycle, hopefully. George represents what it should be.
Are you excited to be bringing “Hotel Cabana,” which is already a really big hit in the UK, to the US?
Oh definitely. I’m more excited about it being successful here…I feel like this record, not just “La La La,” but the other singles, hopefully, can change musical perceptions of what is commercial and what isn’t, you know? And definitely, I’m a fan of pop music; I want to move popular culture forward. I’m not afraid of it; I’m not trying to be too cool, so I want to make music for the masses. And America is F–ing massive.
It is. Can you speak about your creative process in the studio when you’re writing or producing. How do you work?
I work off Logic mainly and Reason. The software is amazing and I use live instrumentation on every song. So I have a guitarist, a pianist, different kinds of strings that I use regularly. And it’s important to have that element because that’s one of the reasons why I want my album to work in America because it’s not very futuristic or digital or anything. It’s very much a throwback to music. Just music…No special effects, which is important for me.
Anything else you want to add about “Hotel Cabana”?
I’m a new producer even in the UK. I’m the new guy, so, you know, I’ve got a lot to prove yet. I hope we have a long, long way to go so I don’t want to peek in any way. But “La La La” scares me a bit because it’s so big around the world…I never thought I’d top the Emeli album so the fact that I’m able to do my own stuff and have that kind of success, I’ve got a feeling, hopefully it’ll just carry on, you know?
Let’s talk about some of the cool US artists and crossover artists that you’ve worked with.
You co-wrote and co-produced Rihanna’s “Half of Me,” with Stargate from her latest album “Unapologetic.” How did that come about?
The Rihanna thing was my first American collaboration and I did that with Stargate, and me and Emeli Sande wrote the song. Actually, the version Rihanna heard was just the demo recorded on the iPhone that we had. But I suppose it just proves that any song doesn’t have to be the best version of it as long as you can hear the song and you can feel the song – even an iPhone demo. That’s what she had a love [for] and I think her grandmother just passed away at the time. So the sentiment of the song I think meant a bit more to her because that’s something I think she would say to her grandmother about what they see is just half of everything. So it’s a nice sentiment, I guess. And it’s the last song of the album, as well.
You produced “Trouble” for Leona Lewis. How did that come about?
Her label, Syco, actually approached me, but Simon Cowell invited me down to “Britain’s Got Talent” and he had heard the stuff I did with Emeli. So before I knew it, I was in his dressing room and then he was telling me how he thought I was a bit of a musical genius and “I want you to work with my artists” and Leona Lewis was one of them and Susan Boyle I did a track for, Cher Lloyd. So he was really the pioneer of that. And it’s good that even someone like him notices things, notices producers, writers. And so that’s where it started.
There are also a few collaborations that were covered in the press, but didn’t end up happening like Jennifer Hudson?
No, I didn’t, I was going to, but I didn’t. Britney [Spears] I was supposed to do…When people ask me about working with someone, sometimes I’m reluctant because I don’t want it to be in the press and Mariah Carey as well is another one, when I didn’t work with her because I couldn’t get my visa, but it came out in the press as in “Naughty Boy Turned Down Mariah Carey” but I would have. I love her. “Honey” is the best video ever. So why would I do that?
What upcoming placements can you share?
I’ve just done Fantasia’s next single, “Side Effects of You,” which is coming out, so I’m excited about that.
What artists would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I would love to collaborate with Jay Z, but not until he kind of knows about me and he thinks I’m cool.
Jay Z knows about you, at least indirectly, because he is a huge fan of Emeli Sande and hand picked her for “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack!
Oh yeah, that’s true. We can’t go on those kinds of doubts. We have to know! I will never approach people to work with them. Me and Emeli were in Amsterdam a couple of years ago and Nas walked in with his friend. And Emeli’s album hadn’t come out or anything, so part of me was thinking, “Sh*t, we should talk to him and tell him what we do” and then I said to Emeli, “No, we shouldn’t because one day he’ll know about us and then we’ll talk to him.” And then Emeli has just done a song with him from The Rudamentals! So everything comes around in full circle, you just got to be patient, you know?
We touched on who you’d like to collaborate with musically, but what producers would you like to collaborate with?
Timbaland I would love to, but obviously Timbaland’s massive. I think he’s in a different space. I would have loved to have collaborated with him in the Timbaland, Aaliyah, Missy Elliot days. Clams Casino did a lot of the A$AP Rocky stuff. I love the beats. Kanye West would be amazing to collaborate with on a production level, definitely. And also new guys. I just want to know what’s going on in America. What producers are people that they don’t know about yet that are sick. Those are the things that excite me a lot more than everything else.
The Source Magazine is celebrating it’s 25th Anniversary this year! Do you have any reflections?
Yeah, there’s a Biggy lyric when he says “My face is up in The Source.” We grew up with that sh*t. So for me, I told my friends I’m going to be doing the interview with The Source Magazine, they loved that. I read The Source, I read these magazines, and you get them in the UK, you get them everywhere…America for us is we’ve only ever seen it in the TV, so if you spend your life watching something in the TV and when I’m in New York all I’m thinking about is “Ghostbusters 2.” That’s my favorite film ever and everywhere I go, I’m like, “Ghostbusters 2”. That’s what I’m thinking. I’m dumb in that sense. I’m still stuck in Hollywood land.
Below are two tracks off of “Hotel Cabana” featuring Emeli Sande.