Naughty Boy interview: The dreamer who became the real deal

Winning ‘Deal or No Deal’ kickstarted Naughty Boy’s career. Now he’s the most popular collaborator in pop

Emeli Sandé remembers her first professional meeting with Naughty Boy. It was 2009, and she was still studying medicine at Glasgow University. But the writing was on the wall.

“He paid for me to fly to Luton Airport, came and collected me, played the beat for “Daddy” in the car, and I just sang the first melody that came out. And he was like, ‘yeah, remember that one’. I think we might have recorded it in the car. By the time we got to his studio, ‘daddy’ was the word that came out. And we built along that. We wrote three really good songs in that weekend.”

A partnership, a hit single, the best-selling album of 2012 and the second-best-selling album of 2013 were born. And now, with Sandé off writing the follow-up to Our Version of Events, it’s her producer/writing partner’s chance to shine.

Naughty Boy’s debut artist album, Hotel Cabana, released last August, was heralded by “La La La”. Sung by another fast-rising star, Sam Smith, the single was a UK No 1 and a bona fide global smash. Its YouTube views currently stand at 350 million (that’s more than Pharrell’s “Happy”). He’s about to release a repackage of the album, including a brand new single, electro-gospel track “Home”, sung by Sam Romans, also a newcomer. It’s all over Radio 1’s A-list, and Radio 2’s, and is a Top 10 airplay hit already.

True to the simpatico nature of their relationship, Naughty Boy is quick to credit his breakthrough vocalist collaborator with helping him step from studio to centre-stage.

“Emeli gave me the confidence to believe that things I think about, song-wise, are good enough,” says the man born Shahid Khan. “’Cause I was always writing songs, in my head – I was just never writing them down. I didn’t even have the confidence to make music, let alone be a ‘pop star’,” he shrugs, the quote marks hanging in the air.

He might still be a curious mix of shyness and flamboyance, but the 29-year-old lounging backstage at the Wireless festival in Finsbury Park, north London, very much oozes spotlit stardom. There’s the small entourage of band members and associates, the unlit spliff clamped between his fingers, and the regally purple, monogrammed Adidas tracksuit.

The top-to-bottom leisurewear says “Naughty” on the front, “Boy” on the back. It’s one-of-a-kind, a bespoke gift from a sportswear company “showing a lot of love”. There’s another, equally rare version, too, this one branded “Zaughty Boy”. It’s a nod to a hook-up Khan has in the pipeline.

“I’ve been working with Zayn Malik,” he says of the One Direction-er, a fellow British-Asian Muslim. “I’m really impressed by him and his writing ability.” Khan, Malik, Sandé and Romans have written a song, “One Chance to Dance”, that he says One Direction are recording. “I spoke to Simon about it recently and it looks like it might be a single.” Simon as in Cowell?

“Yes, we text each other. Why not?” he twinkles. “And I think Zayn will probably sing a lot of it ’cause he sounds great on it. I haven’t recorded the other boys yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s gonna change the perception of them slightly. It’s still One Direction but you can see there’s a bit more... oh hi!”

Naughty Boy with Emeli Sandé  

Shah breaks off as Sandé approaches. She’s his surprise guest at the festival later. “Nice tracksuit!” she says with a smile.

Growing up in a council estate in Watford, on the far outer boundaries of north London, music was always on Shah Khan’s mind, but also far from realistic. His dad was a taxi driver, his mum a housewife, and money was tight. “I didn’t grow up with any kind of music lessons, which is what I wanted. You’ve got to pay for these things. And the school I was in, music wasn’t the main focus; there probably wasn’t the budget. So it really had to come from within, this urgency.”

 Were his family sceptical about his aspirations? “In the early stages they were. I’m the youngest. I was the guy that was always borrowing a fiver, who always needed petrol money. So I don’t blame them in some respects. I grew up in a Muslim house, and there’s a sense of expectancy. Especially in the Pakistani community in Watford... ’Cause our parents want us to be the best we can be. They’ve come here as immigrants, so they don’t want us just to do as well as them – they want us to do more. And sometimes that actually turns into them wanting to be like them, without even realising it.”

Khan had that “urgency” to follow his own path. So he took part in Channel 4’s Deal or No Deal.

“I just thought: ‘I have to think out of the box. If what I want to do is ridiculous, then to get there I’m going to have to do something equally ridiculous. And a game show was that. But I didn’t know I was gonna win £44,000!” he hoots.

He used the money to set up a studio in his parents’ garden shed, and to fly unknown Scottish singers down from Glasgow. “Winning the show actually gave me the confidence to think, ‘I can do anything’.”

Sandé – who recently wrote for Rihanna’s next album using tracks supplied by Khan – will forever praise his role in building her success.  She sings on seven of the 18 tracks on Hotel Cabana. It’s an ambitious, quasi-conceptual album that also features vocal contributions from Smith, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Ella Eyre, Ed Sheeran and Bastille.

Sandé and Khan run a publishing company, also called Hotel Cabana, and have signed a young four-piece called Chasing Grace, whose debut album he’s executive producing. That aside, he has his own publishing company, Naughty Words, to whom Smith is signed. Given the American success of the singer-songwriter’s debut album, Khan the businessman has already struck gold.

“I just want to change the game, but in the purest way possible,” he says of his various activities. There is also a label, Naughty Music, a joint venture with Universal, to which he has just signed Thabo. And Khan is about to anchor a new ad campaign for Lynx. He has written a song called “Pardon Me” (which will also feature on his album repack), and Professor Green and Laura Mvula are among artists contributing to the track.

An hour later, Naughty Boy, his live band and touring vocalist ShezAr (the sister of fellow producer-artist Labrinth) take the stage. At the back, behind a raised console, he doesn’t sound entirely comfortable when ShezAr asks him to speak to the crowd. He’s still finding his feet as a performer – his first live performance was a year ago. But as a producer/writer Shahid Khan is already all the way there. I ask what his parents make of his success. “Mum and dad don’t have to work any more. I take care of them, and I always wanted to do that. Especially being the guy that was probably least likely to.”

Naughty Boy is the face of Lynx’s ‘Make Beats Not War’ project. The single “Home” is out on 28 July

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada