I’m sitting in British urban pop’s ground zero, which turns out to be a small black room in the historic Ealing Studios complex. Just across the car park the stars of Downton Abbey are donning their tailcoats and tiaras to film their fourth series. Where I am there are disco lights, many fish and an extremely large computer on which the future of music is under construction. It’s the operations room for Shahid Khan, who calls himself Naughty Boy. Most of London’s rappers and R&B singers want to be in his gang.
He owes this status to three unlikely people — Emeli Sandé, Prince Charles and Noel Edmonds. It was Sandé’s huge-selling album, a grant from the Prince of Wales’s young people’s charity The Prince’s Trust, and a £44,000 victory on Deal or No Deal that brought him here.
The 27-year-old from Watford releases his debut album, Hotel Cabana, in September. An effortlessly catchy single, La La La, arrives next week and is already all over Radio 1. He’s a producer who doesn’t sing or rap, so the album features guest appearances drawn from a glittering contacts book that includes Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Wretch 32 as well as next big things Ella Eyre, Mic Righteous and Chasing Grace. He plays up to the svengali image on a concept collection that depicts him as the mysterious proprietor of a hotel for the rich and famous.
Emeli Sandé is on there too, naturally. Khan co-wrote and produced the majority of the multiple Brit-winner’s album Our Version of Events. It is the UK’s biggest seller of 2012, a five-times platinum smash that is currently on its 65th consecutive week in the top 10.
So it’s an honour to be sitting on the grey sofa where its soulful pop songs were largely composed by the pair, directly beneath a large framed disc commemorating its first million sales. Lily Allen was in my spot last week, working on a song for her comeback album. James Arthur, the latest X Factor victor, was here the week before that. On the security camera above Khan’s computer and keyboard setup, we spot Maverick Sabre heading to the studio upstairs to carry on writing his second album.
“I believe the vibe is what makes the song, not how expensive the equipment is,” Khan tells me, offering me the most exotic Werther’s Original I’ve ever had, picked up in Marrakech that morning.
His studio is set up to reflect that vibe with black walls, coloured lights and lasers in the ceiling. A green Post-it note on the door says “Well done Naughts!”
A large fish tank used to contain piranhas but, disappointingly, it is now filled with goldfish. “The piranhas weren’t a good vibe. I still want baby sharks, though,” he says, re-establishing his Bond villain credentials. “When I put the blinds down, this is my own little spaceship.”
Naughty Boy’s cat, Naughty Bob, sleeps on the warm pile of cables behind an amplifier. A second sofa, invisible beneath piles of crumpled clothes, suggests that this is one producer who really does live in the studio. “I like night sessions. A lot of mine and Emeli’s songs were done in here really late at night.”
He’s revelling in maverick status, self-taught at the piano as well as the various computer programmes he uses to craft his tunes. “I just sat there in the shed at the bottom of my parents’ garden, where I started making music, and worked it out myself like a madman. I never read the instructions,” he says. “I don’t want to feel like I’m ‘trained’ in anything — a piano isn’t a machine.”
Strait-laced Sandé, a trainee doctor in Scotland when she met Khan after performing a showcase gig in London in 2008, benefited from his loose-cannon approach to songwriting. “I was never cool,” she told me when I met her in 2011. “He definitely gave me a sound and a musical identity.”
“We were from very different backgrounds,” he says today. “She was going to be a doctor and I was a marketing and music dropout at London Guildhall, delivering pizzas for Domino’s. She made me take myself a lot more seriously. The way I approached making music changed dramatically when I started working with her.”
Before he met her, he was producing mixtapes for London rappers who are big now but were underground then, such as Tinie Tempah, Chipmunk and N-Dubz.
A 2007 song he made with Bashy, Black Boys, was an uplifting roll-call of positive black British role models that was used in the promotion of Black History Month. When he saw Sandé singing one of her self-penned songs, Baby’s Eyes, at the Iluvlive club night, he knew he had spotted a star.
“She captivated me. I felt like she was just singing to me,” he says. He was one of only a handful of people who approached her after her set, and they began emailing work to each other.
The first song they wrote together, in his shed, was Daddy, which became the second single from her debut album in 2011. More recently, they made Wonder, a glorious tune that was his first hit solely under the Naughty Boy name.
She would travel down from Scotland and stay in a B&B near him, paid for by Khan from his Deal or No Deal money. After dropping out of university in 2006, he applied to both The Prince’s Trust and the game show simultaneously, and received thousands from both. “I hadn’t seen the show before I went on it. Everyone was getting stressed out about it, but really you don’t have to know a thing. It’s just opening boxes.”
The money enabled him to buy his music equipment, a second-hand Audi A3, and to support him while he served an unpaid apprenticeship at the now-defunct Townhouse Studios in Shepherd’s Bush. “It was great. Elton John was there, Damon Albarn, Ian Brown. I was just making the tea and trying to learn how to use the equipment whenever it was free.”
Just as he was running out of cash in 2009, he and Sandé landed their first top 10 hit, producing and singing Chipmunk’s bouncy, ska-influenced single Diamond Rings. This resulted in publishing deals for them both and then it was full steam ahead to stardom.
Khan seems less keen on the personal attention that releasing his own album will bring upon this former backroom boy. He looks worried when I say there must be huge commercial expectations for Hotel Cabana. A trailer already on YouTube makes it look like a blockbuster movie. “I like being the underdog. I don’t want people to expect a hit.”
He’s somewhat jittery in his first significant interview, fiddling with an unlit cigarette throughout and asking, “Did I answer the questions right?” But he’s also a great host, full of enthusiasm and sweets, and it’s easy to see why so many major musicians are currently heading to his studio.
“The British music scene is as exciting as it’s ever been,” he says. “I’m not hurrying over to America. Me and Emeli did a song for Rihanna [Half of Me, on Unapologetic] but we made it here. I was asked to work with Mariah Carey recently but I was too busy. I want to make British music the pinnacle.”
He swivels back round in his producer’s chair and plays me the opening song from his album, a dramatic orchestral piece featuring Sandé and Tinie Tempah that sets expectations for the rest of it toweringly high. “I’ve deliberately not shown my face throughout this whole process so far. I just want people to connect to the music,” he says. They’ll have no trouble doing that.