British producer Naughty Boy (born Shahid Khan) only discovered his passion for music as a viable profession a few years ago. After a string of dead-end jobs, from selling Victorian dolls to delivering Domino’s Pizza (more than 30 minutes late), he got his big break on the TV game show Deal or No Deal, taking his winnings of some $80,000 and investing it in studio equipment. Shortly thereafter, he met singer Emeli Sandé and the rest is history. The duo collaborated on Sandé’s debut Our Version of Events, a critical and commercial success.
Naughty Boy has since worked with artists like Rihanna, Leona Lewis and Cheryl Cole and his solo fare has only fueled his dizzying success. His first single, “La La La” featuring Sam Smith, is one of the year’s biggest-selling single in the U.K. With over 173 million YouTube views and counting, the Bollywood-flavored track is primed for stateside success on its December 3rd release. The producer will follow-up with his debut album Hotel Cabana in early 2014, which features, among others, Ed Sheeran, Sande and Wiz Khalifa.
Naughty Boy met with Rolling Stone at Miss Lily’s in New York City to discuss his meteoric rise over rum punch and banana pudding.
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You’re a breakout hit in London. What are your plans for U.S. success?
The whole plan is to continue what I’ve been doing. I don’t do many interviews. I think that’s the best way to keep it. With me, personally, my focus is on making my music famous. Doing interviews and things is making yourself famous, which is not part of my plan. I want it to be faceless but I want my music to be famous.
How are you planning on releasing your own music yet maintaining your privacy?
I’m doing it in a clever way because my album is a story. I’m entertaining the listener, but I’m still telling them a story. I’m not giving them me. I’m giving them my ideas. In our age, everyone’s obsessed with fame. I’m scared of that kind of fame. I don’t want to put myself into a position that I have to be “That way.” At Capitol [Records] they know what I’m prepared to do and what I’m not prepared to do.
You’ve already experienced huge sales and critical acclaim early on. How much do those things matter?
I want to be remembered. I’m not saying having the biggest selling single, you need that, but it helps. I want to be successful. I want to be the fucking best but on my terms. It’s not arrogance but I’m just sick of everyone else’s terms. I’m sick of female artists having to change it up, just so they’re cool now. Emeli did it her way and she’s never done it any other way. She’s never had to use anything else but her voice and mind to make and sell her album. That’s inspirational.
You work well with female artists.
One thing Emeli always says in interviews is that when she first met me, she felt she could trust me. I think there’s something about being a producer and how you are as a person. I don’t get star struck.
When you work closely with a female artist, do they sometimes lean on you too much? You turn from producer to surrogate boyfriend?
Yeah. Yeah. It’s not good. You don’t ever want to be that guy, who breaks up a relationship. I don’t want to be that guy. You can get carried away being one of those guys who can talk to girls. At the same time, when they’re vulnerable. . . Yeah. . .
Speaking of emotions, your single “La La La” is a rather upbeat heartbreak song.
Do you remember No Doubt‘s “Don’t Speak”? That’s what I wanted “La La La” to be like in some way. It doesn’t sound anything like it but the sentiment’s there. “Don’t Speak” really resonated to me as a kid, even though I didn’t have my heart broken.
Was the song inspired by a real-life breakup?
Interesting question isn’t it? It was just before everything popped up and she was somebody I neglected while I was trying to find me. When I found me, she found it best to neglect me. It’s cool. That’s what inspired the song. It came from a real, not experience, but that sentiment came from something I felt. Covering my ears like a kid and saying, “La. La. La.” It’s the man-kid in me.
Your forthcoming album Hotel Cabana is a very UK-centric album but features Wiz Khalifa. Why did you decide on that collaboration?
I wanted one international feature. For that song, in particular, I wanted a rapper. This “hotel” is for like, the rich and famous and I needed a flamboyant rapper. I think Wiz encompasses it. He’s the rapper of our generation. I love his tweets when he’s like, “Woke up sleazy.” He smokes big spliffs and he’s married to Amber. So, I reached to him via my manager. He did it for free. He literally loved it that much.
Given your whirlwind success, are you worried about the old adage, “The faster they rise, the harder they fall”?
Of course I am! I fear it. I’m just getting started and I feel like I’m ticking off a lot of boxes. I won two Ivor Novello awards for Emeli’s album. I still have the biggest selling album of the year. I got the biggest selling British single of the year. My first show was in Wembley Stadium in May. I had never done a show before then. I get scared because I come from a different place where I carved my own route to get here. I want to be here for a while. I thank God for success but at the same time, I don’t want to peak. Is this what peaking is? I don’t know!
Do you feel guilt at all?
I do feel guilt! I do. I slummed it for years when I was a waiter or delivering Domino’s Pizzas. My realization of music came when I was 23, five years ago. It should have come earlier but I’m from a Pakistani family. My father’s a taxi driver. Working in entertainment, is not a part of the culture. It’s something you try to do before you become an accountant or your real job.
Have your parents finally accepted you?
Well, there you go! They say, “He’s a musician.” Before, my Mom and Dad’s friends would say “Oh you’re a DJ.” I don’t blame them for that. I used to go with it but then they saw me on TV with Emeli and then it changes. It changes without you even trying to make it change. Capitol presented my Mum and Dad a plaque for Emeli’s album for two million sales. It says: “To Mr. and Mrs. Khan.” My parents were the only parents they gave that to. Those are the things that allow me to not have to explain it. I love that. They’re so proud of me now.