Even as a university dropout delivering Domino’s pizza and living with his Pakistani immigrant parents in Watford, England, Shahid Khan — aka Naughty Boy — knew he wanted to make music.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m never going to convince my mum and dad that I can do music if I’m just having a job part-time,'” says the songwriter/producer, who will make his official stateside artist debut via Capitol Records on Dec. 3 with the single “La La La,” featuring Sam Smith. “I had to do something crazy.”
So, in 2006, Naughty Boy entered the British TV game show “Deal or No Deal” — and walked away with 44,000 pounds ($70,300). He used that money, along with a 5,000-pound ($8,000) grant from Prince’s Trust, a youth charity with a program that funds startup businesses, to build a studio in his parents’ garden shed. He recalls telling them, “I’m going to be a big music producer.”
Naughty Boy founded his own production company, Naughty Boy Recordings; bought studio equipment; expanded his self-taught knowledge of the piano; and learned “how to get the music in my head into computers,” he says. In 2008, when he met Scottish songstress Emeli Sandé at an open-mic night, he found the perfect collaborator. “She’s got an incredible voice, and people weren’t taking notice,” he recalls, “so I went up to her and said, ‘You should work with me.'”
Using what little remained of his “Deal or No Deal” winnings, he recorded Sandé’s breakthrough singles with U.K. rappers Chipmunk and Wiley (2008’s “Diamond Rings” and 2010’s “Never Be Your Woman,” respectively) before producing most of her Grammy-nominated debut, “Our Version of Events.” The album bowed at No. 1 on the Official U.K. Albums chart and spent a record-breaking 63 weeks in the top 10. In the United States, it peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard 200 and has moved 228,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Following subsequent collaborations with Rihanna and Lily Allen, Naughty Boy signed a three-year artist deal with Virgin U.K. and focused on making a record for himself, using the Bollywood soundtracks he grew up on and producer-led efforts like Timbaland’s “Tim’s Bio” and Mark Ronson’s “Here Comes the Fuzz” as creative fodder. His first full-length, Hotel Cabana — inspired by Naughty Boy’s time waiting tables at a luxury hotel — is a lush, fully realized concept album with an impressive array of guest vocalists and co-writers, including Smith, Sandé, Ed Sheeran and Tinie Tempah. “There’s no genre,” Naughty Boy says of the set’s wide range of collaborators. “Bastille on the same album as Wiz Khalifa — you wouldn’t expect that. I wanted it to feel like a hotel, where you bump into anyone.”
“Hotel Cabana” debuted this past August at No. 2 on the U.K. Albums chart. The video for “La La La,” featuring Smith (who has collaborated with such acts as U.K. EDM duo Disclosure), has exploded online, amassing 172 million YouTube views worldwide thanks to a cinematic video, an ear-worm vocal sample and Smith’s husky voice and impressive range. With the single’s skyrocketing success leading the way, Naughty Boy is looking to finally invade the United States with help from Capitol, which will release “Hotel Cabana” here on April 15.
“‘La La La’ will open up a lot of doors,” Capitol Records EVP of marketing Greg Thompson says, citing licensing opportunities in particular. “There’s a huge amount of views in the United States — we want to connect to those viewers as we build into the radio campaign” that is planned for January and February. Prior to that, Naughty Boy will perform at Miami’s Art Basel international art show in December. “It’s the perfect place to bring [“Hotel Cabana”] to life,” Thompson says. For the spring, Capitol is planning “hip, cool marketing” efforts at South by Southwest and Coachella.
Naughty Boy and Thompson only have to look at Sandé for proof that success across the pond doesn’t always translate on the same level here. But after his unlikely “rags to riches” (as Thompson calls it) journey, Naughty Boy has faith in his music and his label partners’ plan. “I feel blessed,” he says. “They’ve never told me my ideas were too crazy or anything. They want me to carry on exactly how I’m doing. I’m following a different set of rules.”