For most music producers, building a career within one specific genre is both conventional and well respected. Heavyweights such as Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and Skrillex are renowned for their consistent approaches within their mainstays of hip-hop, R&B, and EDM, respectively. For 49-year-old producer Fraser T Smith, however, an array of genres has informed his trajectory.
Smith, a native of Buckinghamshire, England, began his experimentation 20 years ago when he departed from his rock-tinged beginnings and started work with Craig David, assisting the British singer-songwriter in a live setting (as his guitarist) and with his artistic growth across the globe. After producing quintessential numbers such as “Four Times A Lady” and “World Filled With Love,” in the early 2000s, Smith explored further, working with both regional and international talents building his profile. In 2005, Smith found his next true love: grime. Bonding with Kano, the British rapper and actor, while producing parts of his debut album, Home Sweet Home, the pair built an unshakeable friendship that still stands 15 years later.
In recent years, renowned British rappers Stormzy and Dave have both enlisted Smith to produce parts of their respective album debuts—Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer in 2017 and Dave’s Psychodrama in 2019.
“Rap here is a massive force now,” Smith says. “It’s a legitimate force creatively. It’s so easy for genres to lose their way when they become commercial, but that’s not the case here because it moves forward, allowing new acts to add to it. Rap artists are the new pop stars and continue to engage in unique ways.”
Despite more extensive work internationally, Smith’s long list of collaborations continue to remain instinctively British. From Stormzy and Dave to Sam Smith (“Not In That Way”) and Adele (“Set Fire to the Rain”), Smith has mastered an unshakable commitment to nurturing both rappers and singers on home soil.
As Fraser T Smith approaches his next career juncture—which includes a formal LP release as an artist—he sat down with DJBooth to discuss his desire to “continue improving at every level.” Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You’ve managed to work in music for over two decades. What were some of your first introductions to the artform?
Fraser T Smith: My parents aren’t traditionally musical. However, music in the house was a constant. I remember Marvin Gaye and Carole King’s music playing a lot, as well as a lot of classical music. I had the opportunity to play piano at a young age; this helped in allowing me to see the power of music. My parents would take me to concerts a lot, too. I remember one of my first concerts being Eric Clapton at the Albert Hall. This had a huge impact on me also, as I play the guitar a lot to this day. Later on, when I started my career in music, Tom Rowlands [The Chemical Brothers] introduced me to Jimi Hendrix, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and others. I guess you could call it a rich upbringing, which explains why my music is so diverse now.
You mentioned the guitar. What specifically led to the guitar becoming one of your instruments of choice?
Mainly through the music room at school. I spent a lot of time jamming in there and soaking up the atmosphere. I’m more of a feel-based player than a traditional player. I remember a guy coming around when I was slightly older and showing me a few things, but I’ve mainly learned by ear with it. I can’t read music, so it’s a bit of a barrier for me in areas such as classical music, where they use the more traditional methods. I can make it out a little more now, but I think going by the book takes away from the experience of creating music. The way my brain works, it almost puts a barrier to follow note by note. [Not practicing traditionally] is not something I’m proud of, but it’s who I am.
In the early 2000s, you worked with Craig David, specifically on performances, songwriting, and production. How did you connect with Craig?
At that point in my career, I was going into songwriting. I had a studio and print works at the time. I got introduced to Paul Widger, Craig David’s first manager. One day, he showed me some of his music, and I loved it instantly. [Craig David] gave me more music, including an unreleased “Fill Me In,” at the time, and I thought he was incredible. I particularly loved the drums and guitars used, and the garage influences on “Rewind.” We became friends, and for about five years, we wrote together, and I produced and helped with live performances.
What’s something that has stuck with you from your early work with Craig David?
[Craig] introduced me to R&B and so much more. As well as this, his whole upbringing as a DJ and musician, the experimentation. We’d spend time together putting a D12 riff into songs and then chop and screw vocals; he broadened my musical palette. He also introduced me to people shaping music today, like DJ Premier and Mos Def. It was a great experience.
Later on in your career, you pivoted to grime, working with Kano.
In any field, you have lucky moments. What I was doing with Craig David as a guitar player was very visible, and he would always shout me out when we toured and in raps. When I began doing other things in music, a friend of mine, Richard Thomas, said Kano wanted to do a guitar track for his album Home Sweet Home. So [Kano] came to my studio. At the time, he was a man of few words, so I had to [pry] out of him exactly what he wanted. I tried to play different styles of guitar for him, but it was when I played rockier material that I knew that was it. He also taught me about grime, mentioning the 140 bpm and its hip-hop and garage influences. I had a drum machine and told him to tap out a grime beat, and I’d play the guitar to match. This was when a miraculous moment happened; it clicked. Our two very different minds met in the middle, and it sealed our relationship musically.
Describe your exploration into grime.
Doing the rock stuff in grime was seen as revolutionary, especially after we made Made In the Manor. Kano has introduced me to Ghetts, Danger Mouse, and the wider Nasty Crew. It was so weird, but amazing at the time that these guys would travel through Willesden, rivaling MCs, then arrive in Acton (West London), and we’d create grime tunes. I wasn’t trying to tread on East London producers at the time, so I made sure to add something to the genre. I’m very careful when it comes to my position and cultural appropriation; it’s about contributing to something that already exists to help in moving it forward, I never wanted to re-create and be seen as an appropriator.
In 2015, on “Hail,” Kano questions why nobody credits British artists. Five years later, are British grime acts receiving more recognition?
The road to these questions leads back to around seven months ago for me. Stormzy headlined Glastonbury, which was such a significant celebration of the genre and the culture, representing so many artists from the past and present. Stormzy even credited them on stage. The beauty of this all is that I can see precisely what Kano means. It’s slightly weird that music from the UK isn’t smashing it in the US, but I’m also quite glad this isn’t the case. I feel protective of the music from here; trying to replicate or appeal to broader markets kills genres. Stormzy is an example of an artist smashing it, but still releasing tracks like “Audacity,” going back to his roots as an MC. Regions around the world need rappers that represent issues in their own country because then things get too diluted and homogenized.
Stormzy and Dave are arguably the UK’s most visible rappers today. What were your experiences like helping each to craft their debut?
I loved Stormzy’s vision when he approached me, and I also wanted to work with our modern musicians in this space. He’s so authentic in his storytelling. After Gang Signs & Prayer, Dave’s management approached me. If I’m honest, I was nervous [about] repeating myself and what I’d done with Stormzy, but it was a different proposition, and Dave plays the piano. We came up with “Picture Me” in our first session, and other melodic records. It’s beautiful seeing things such as Dave’s Mercury [Prize] win last year and what it meant to him and his family and friends. These artists have overcome so much to achieve everything they have.
As a songwriter and producer, do you know when you’re in the presence of a future star?
With all the stars I’ve managed to work with, there’s a belief and conviction in what they are doing. Adele, for example, went in with Rick Rubin—who is my hero, by the way—spent a lot of money on records then had the conviction to go back [to] unknown people later on, like myself, and use our records because it felt authentic to her. Stormzy will come up with incredible songs where he addresses the love of his mother and the healthcare issues here, which is not necessarily a thing to do as a grime MC. These artists all have had a self-belief I’ve seen that has taken them out of the cycle of mediocrity in music and made them stars.
Across your career, you’ve worked with a plethora of successful British acts. What has driven your undeniable connection to Britishness?
I’ve gone to America and done that whole thing, but you have to be real with yourself sometimes. Who in America needs a British rap producer or songwriter? There’s so much talent over there. There’s also a slight cultural barrier. There’s nothing wrong with being a global songwriter or producer, but I want to work with artists who speak to the core of their upbringings, for the process to be collaborative. I also love the way radio works over here, even though we still have a way to go. I like hearing an indie record and then a Stormzy. We have a real melting pot right now.