Shahid Khan has gone from pizza delivery man to in-demand producer — with a little help from Noel Edmonds.
When it comes to drive, ambition and dogged self-belief, Shahid Khan — or Naughty Boy, as he's known in the production world — should be an example for any headstrong kid trying to make it in the music industry. Khan grew up on a Watford council estate, where the Indian records and films he digested as a youngster made a big impression.
"I grew up listening to a lot of Bollywood music, so that was definitely an inspiration, although I don't make Bollywood or Asian music,” explains Shahid. "Most of my childhood was spent hearing all those big epic film soundtracks, and it has definitely inspired me a lot. I do apply those influences to my music. In particular, there's a guy called AR Rahman and, when he started, I began to appreciate Bollywood music in a different way. There is something special that he does with his film soundtracks. As an influence, I think it's more in terms of my sound, actually, and that thing about being musical but it being cool as well. That's sometimes the hardest thing to achieve, because you want the best of each and then it's still got to have commerciality. That's what I loved about [AR Rahman's music] particularly. At that point, I wasn't thinking about songs and lyrics. That came later. It was the music I was more concerned with: 'How can I get what I hear in my head coming out from the speakers?'”
Although Khan taught himself the piano from an early age, and drums a little later on, he only really started writing music and began harbouring dreams of becoming a record producer during his latter teen years, creating what he describes as "Buddha Bar kind of chillout lounge music” using his Dell PC, MIDI keyboard and Cubase.
In 2004, Shahid started a Business and Marketing degree at London Guildhall University but he dropped out after a single term and began signing up to any job he could get to help fund his musical ambitions. While variously working in Watford General Hospital and delivering pizzas for Domino's, Khan heard about a Prince's Trust scheme whereby he might be able to secure funding to start a fledgling music production business. Naughty Boy Recordings was soon born.
"There's a process you go through where you have your business idea, you send it to them in a business plan and then, over a few months, they decide whether they're going to give you the funding, depending on whether they think you'll be able to achieve your goals,” says Khan. "I basically explained how I was going to go about making money out of music. I wanted to set up a record label and be a producer, and I explained that I would find an act and I would produce their song and I'd release it. I had a mentor who kind of guided me through that process and, in the end, it came down to me playing them some music to show what I could potentially do. I made this piece and I played it to them and they approved the grant, which was £5000, and that's how I set up a little studio in my mum and dad's shed. It was really helpful and it helped me be confident. I felt like I'd got a bit of pressure now and there was a reason to do it.
"Basically, half of the shed was my Mum's pots and pans that she wouldn't be using, and then half of it was my studio, which was just more of a nice vibe then. I didn't have equipment like a good soundcard or an Avalon compressor or the things I have now, but that didn't stop it from sounding cool and I did buy a Macbook and Logic and Reason. I used to run Acid Pro on the Dell so I could sample, and I used to use Reason on the Macbook. I also had a mic set up at the PC and I'd record stuff into that, guitars and instruments, but I was still [mostly] using Reason sounds and drums. I'm still a firm believer that it's definitely not about what you have in terms of equipment. It's about using your ears and not really over-thinking it. I've never tried to be a perfectionist with music, because I think it's those little imperfections that can kind of separate you out sometimes.”
Just a few months after his grant from the Prince's Trust in 2005, Shahid Khan also benefitted from a rather less traditional investment route for Naughty Boy Recordings. Step forward Noel Edmonds and his daytime quiz show Deal Or No Deal. "I went on Deal Or No Deal — it was random, because I'd never even seen the programme before, but I went on there and won £44,000!” laughs Shahid. "A friend of mine's mum wanted to go on there because she loved it and my friend asked me how she could apply to go on there. I got her the application form, but then I just thought I might as well send one off myself as well. They asked me to come down for an audition and then, next thing, I was in Bristol for three weeks, waiting to play while watching 26 shows. It was weird but that was how I learnt to play, by watching!
"When I won the 44 grand, I didn't really know what to feel because I'd never had that kind of money... but that's how I started the actual label and then I did a song with Bashy called 'Black Boys' for Black History Month, released that and it all just started. I bought a little mixer and I upgraded my soundcard. That money definitely helped me survive for those couple of years.”
This unexpected windfall not only enabled Khan to upgrade his studio setup and get his label up and running properly, it also allowed him to take on an unpaid apprenticeship at London's Townhouse Studios during 2007 and 2008. Under the mentorship of Hank Hughes, Shahid assisted on numerous major sessions and learnt important lessons about the ins and outs of engineering, production and running a commercial recording studio, in addition to having access to the Townhouse's high-end facilities.
Townhouse Studios, sadly, closed its doors for good at the end of March 2008, but it wasn't long before Shahid Khan's career took another life-changing turn. While attending a 1Xtra showcase in Soho, he first saw Emeli Sandé perform. "It was the end of 2008 and she opened the show, and I was just amazed,” enthuses Khan. "I didn't know who she was — and I couldn't believe that everyone else in the room wasn't reacting like me! Afterwards, I just went up and spoke to her. She was just there with her sister and she was going back to Scotland. We stayed in touch for a few weeks and she heard some of my music I'd done with Bashy, and she sent me over some stuff she'd written, and I just felt like there was something there and so did she. Then she just started flying down every other week and she'd stay in a bed and breakfast round the corner and we'd write together. That's when it really kicked off.”
Emeli Sandé's debut album, Our Version Of Events, is, at the time of writing, the biggest-selling record of 2012, and Khan co-wrote and co-produced the majority of it. The last couple of years have seen Naughty Boy co-write [often with Sandé] and/or produce for a host of British stars including Leona Lewis, Lily Allen, JLS, Susan Boyle, Alesha Dixon, Tinie Tempah, Cheryl Cole, Ed Sheeran, Professor Green, Devlin, Wiley and Alexandra Burke. February 2013 will see the release of Naughty Boy's first solo album, Hotel Cabana, and, if the reception of his debut single 'Wonder' (a song co-written by Emeli Sandé, who also provided lead vocals) is anything to go by, could prove yet another milestone success for the young producer.
Of the many tracks that Khan and Sandé worked on during those first few months, a handful would end up on Our Version Of Events, but the pair's first charting success was Chipmunk's July 2009 hit 'Diamond Rings', which peaked at number six in the UK. It would prove a very important career breakthrough — and it all started with an Oxfam-bought ska sample.
"I used to buy CDs from Oxfam of old ska sort of tunes, and I didn't know what I was buying really, but I just heard that sample [from 'Miss Ska-Culation' by Roland Al and the Soul Brothers], and I heard the beat around it and I just took a chance, really,” says Shahid. "UK rappers were underground then, and that was Chipmunk's first commercial hit, and I was really into how to bridge that gap between still rapping and still being British but making it on Radio 1. I always thought that ska had that sound and reggae in general had that sound where you could rap on it. It could still be quite commercial, but would still be cool. I wanted to use a sample which embodied all that, and that track did. I just built some drums around it and it was one of the first things me and Emeli did together as well. I think Emeli wrote that hook while she was hoovering! We went in and recorded it, and that was the first time I had had to get something mixed and mastered, so it was really cool, and then for it to go into the top 10 as my first commercial release — it succeeded, definitely!”
The knock-on effect of that one hit for both Shahid and Emeli was nothing short of extraordinary. "Basically, we had a song on the radio and we had a song in the chart,” explains Khan. "I didn't have a publishing deal and nor did Emeli. I didn't have management and nor did Emeli. And people just started trying to hunt me down. Universal, EMI, Sony, everyone was making a [publishing] offer and then I had to find myself a lawyer, which I did. And people didn't know that me and Emeli had all these other songs until they met us, and that just made it a bit more intense. I went with Sony out of the three for publishing and then I signed with EMI [Virgin] for an album deal. It all happened at the same time, which is really weird.”
Shahid's publishing deal with Sony/ATV in 2009 provided him with a budget to set up a studio, so he was finally able to move out of his parents' garden shed. He didn't have to think twice about where he wanted to build his new musical home-from-home. "Some of the people from the Townhouse had moved over to Ealing Studios and there was one block empty,” Shahid tells us. "I had come down and used a studio here sometimes, and was just comfortable coming here. It's a film studio and it just had a nice cool vibe. There was always a room downstairs that was empty, so I just asked them if I could build a studio in that room, and they were happy with that, so that's how I spent my studio budget. There's two rooms and there's a booth. One room's a live room with a piano. Yamaha gave me and Emeli a piano as a gift so that was quite cool. We built a little side room where there's drums and the tabla and a ukulele and loads of guitars. Then you've got the booth, and then you've got my main studio bit. I've just got a massive M-Audio Keystation, my Mac, a Rosetta Apogee 800, some Adam A8Xs, which are the same speakers I've had throughout, my compressor and soundcard. There's no real gadgets.”
Khan enlisted KMR Audio, who also supplied his equipment, to provide the necessary soundproofing and sound treatment. "Basically, it was just an empty room, but the quality of the soundproofing they put in is amazing,” he explains. "It's really thick and it's everywhere. If I go into the booth and close the door, I can't hear anything. I think it's important for when I'm recording and also for when I'm listening to things. I can hear everything in here really clearly and I think that's down to the quality of [the sound treatment]. All the soundproofing is black so it makes the studio quite dark. I wanted to give it a dark feel and a dark vibe. I've got a massive fish tank [packed with piranhas, no less!] and just a few other things that help create that vibe. This studio was always called Cabana before Hotel Cabana became the name of my album. The first session Emeli and I did there, we wrote 'Heaven'! [Sandé's debut solo single, released in August 2011, which hit the number two spot on the UK charts]. That's one thing that's happened every time we've been together in that room — we write something. It is weird but it's just so natural.”
The experience of working with Emeli Sandé caused Shahid to look at the process of writing songs in a new light. "Before I met Emeli, I think my approach was forever changing but Emeli was the first songwriter that I met. Until then, I'd worked with rappers, so I think writing the songs on her album with her did change my whole approach, especially in terms of musicality. I stopped sampling then. People always ask me how it works, but it just does! I think trust is an important part of it, especially when you're a producer and an artist and you're writing together. I think you've got to be able to trust the person. That's how you learn and we both trust and learn from each other... we do definitely [disagree] sometimes, but it will mostly be something like Emeli will say, 'OK, we need to change the chords there,' and I'll be thinking, 'No, we need to keep it that way!' But, we agree to try everything and we always agree after trying everything.”
The writing and arranging process varies from song to song. "For example, 'Clown' was written here at the studio,” says Khan. "We wrote it to a beat and then got a pianist in and finished writing it to a piano. When you hear it now, you wouldn't think that it started off to a beat. It then went through various stages of production. It's just interesting to watch songs grow, because they don't always start how they end up. I learnt a lot through that process of making the album. Also, we're both signed to the same label, Virgin, so we had to take other people's input in as well, but nothing was compromised in the end.”
Recording sessions for Sandé's album, which took place progressively throughout the course of 2010 and 2011, would almost always start at the Cabana studio, although some of the beats and other elements began life in Shahid's original 'shed studio' back in Watford. String and choir parts and other overdubs were later laid down at London's Angel Studios. Khan enlisted Rosie Danvers to arrange and conduct the string parts, which were mostly based on synthesized Reason string melodies Shahid had already laid down. Other MIDI parts from Reason survived into the final mixes, notably the rich-sounding piano across Our Version Of Events, some of which was played by him and some by Emeli. "It is actually a Reason sound that's built in,” explains Shahid. "I'm really impressed with the piano sounds in Reason 5. People have asked me where I get my piano sounds, assuming they come from a Logic plug-in, but they're all Reason.”
Sandé's impressive vocal performances were captured using one of the only microphones Shahid owns, which he bought with his Deal Or No Deal proceeds. "Most of [the vocals] were recorded here on a Neumann U87,” says Khan. "I bought it on recommendation in 2009. Almost everything that's been done on the album has been recorded with that, and it definitely gives a good sound. It suits Emeli's voice well. I just love the sound of it with the Avalon and the Rosetta 800. Everything just seems to work well together.”
As well as working with Sandé and other stars, Shahid Khan has spent the last 18 months painstakingly writing and recording his debut album as an artist in his own right. The resulting long player, Hotel Cabana by Naughty Boy, will be released in February 2013 and was preceded by lead single 'Wonder' back in October. Guest stars featured on the recordings include Emeli Sandé, George The Poet, Tinie Tempah and Professor Green, with a slew of others yet to be announced as we went to press.
"Hotel Cabana definitely came from the name for the studio but when I actually thought about what kind of album I wanted to make as a producer, it wasn't the easiest thing in the world for me,” explains Shahid. "I thought, 'I can't just make a normal album.' I don't sing or dance, or anything like that. I wanted to do something different and I thought the best way to do that was to make a record that entertained people, that was musical and that featured people that I admire and respect… but I also wanted something that told a story. It all just seemed to fall into place. The whole album is the journey of a guy who goes to a hotel and, as he goes up the floors, he becomes embroiled in what this hotel has to offer, which isn't the best. It's a bit like 'Hotel California' in that sense, where you kind of think you want to but you don't really need it. George The Poet is the narrator on the album and we wrote these skits that tie everything together. It's quite a British album in terms of the sound and the story I'm trying to tell.
"I'd say [the music] is a little bit sinister. I've drawn from that whole Quentin Tarantino kind of Rodriguez sound with a real filmic feel. It's still quite commercial, though. I've been really focusing on the writing and the lyrics and trying to make each song seem like an event. I've definitely taken a director's approach to it, so you're not just hearing the music. Even without visuals, you should be able to picture it.”
Lead single 'Wonder', for example, is driven by Rio Carnival-esque beats. "At first, it was just a taiko drum with real hard kicks. I layered loads of kicks on there and there's a lot of 808 bass and stuff on them. It's not conventional! I hadn't made a beat like 'Wonder' before and I was just thinking, 'How can you get the energy of a dance tune but without having to actually make that kind of music and still keep it organic?' I was just experimenting with that idea with the drums, purely layered loads of sound, and it just seemed to work. And there's no real snare on 'Wonder' as well, because every time I put a snare on it, it just started sounding like a dance beat. It was definitely Bollywood-inspired, because they love their big epic kind of drums. I wanted 'Wonder' to have that balance of commerciality but not be cheesy, do you know what I mean? I still like keeping my edge as a producer because I do want people to think they get something different with me but, obviously, I still want to make commercial music for the most amount of people. It's probably the happiest track I've made.”
Hotel Cabana has of course been made mostly at its namesake, but mixing and additional overdubs have continued at Fisher Lane Farm, Genesis's studio in Surrey. "It's great, and that studio has so much history,” enthuses Shahid. "Nothing's been changed at all since the '80s, and it's brought a real different dimension to the sound. Mike Rutherford's son Harry is actually mixing the album with me and he's amazing as well. We're still mixing at the moment and it's really exciting times.”
Exciting is an understatement, to say the least, and Shahid Khan sometimes finds it hard to believe what's happened to him over the past few years. "It has been a journey to get here. I grew up in West Watford on a council estate, and I was delivering pizzas in 2005, so it's crazy how things change,” he explains. "You believe in yourself, but you don't ever really know what it's going to feel like if something happens. Lately, so much has happened but I don't have time to think about how crazy it is. Before 'Diamond Rings' came out, I wanted to phone a publisher and play them my music but I was a bit scared to. Then a year later they were all phoning me themselves, and that just made me start thinking, 'I might get somewhere.' Everyone always tells you, 'Oh, you'll never make it. It's hard. You've got to know people,' but I didn't know anyone. I dropped out of a degree that was supposed to help me get to this point — and the month I would have graduated, I met Emeli. You get rewarded in different ways. It doesn't have to be the scientific approach.”
'Daddy', which was labelled as 'featuring Naughty Boy', was Emeli Sandé's second solo single and is one of the stand-out tracks on Our Version Of Events. "I made the music for the early version of that without the live strings in the shed, and it was mixed a year and a half later,” explains Shahid Khan. "I had a drum break from a Reason sample pack, and that break had this bass line which was quite dark, actually. If you listen to the chords in 'Daddy', it has got quite a dark undertone. There was this bass line and the break and then the chord fill and I had a string arrangement that later on became a live string arrangement. It only had two sections, as well, so it was just like a bass and drumbeat and the chorus bit, but it still sounded a bit keyboardy because I hadn't explored all the different sounds and the chords yet.
"The vocal hook was written on the way back from Luton Airport. I was driving back to the studio with [Emeli] and I had the beat on in the car and she heard it and that's how it started. We went back to the studio and recorded it. Later [at Angel Studios], the actual process began of replacing the strings with the real strings, getting live bass played on it, and replacing the break with the real drums. That was exciting, because the track actually became more live. You think that it's going to lose something, but it definitely brought it out. Quite a few of the tracks were re-vocalled but 'Daddy' was the same vocal track that we did back then when the track was pretty much basic. I played the piano on it. Everything's a bit dark, so the piano was just one note and then the note would change key, and then for the chorus there were just some simple chords. There's a synth bass and a live bass that was played by a guy from these production people, Mojam.
"It took a while to mix, because there were times when it had lost some bottom end and then it had lost something else. That whole process of mixing that album was the first time I'd mixed real songs that I'd produced, and it was a real tense time. You want to be just happy with it, but it's hard to be because there's other people in the room, like engineers and people from the label. Everyone's got ideas, but that's definitely something I've got used to.”