‘People have likened it to the therapist’s couch’: Fraser T Smith on working with Dave and Stormzy – The Guardian

You may not have recognised him during Dave’s performance of Black at the Brits, but the producer helped shape the sound of UK rap and grime
Fraser T Smith is exhausted but buoyed. The veteran producer joined Dave at the Brits the night before we speak, helping out on the rapper’s single Black, an already extraordinary unpicking of ingrained racism sent interstellar by a new verse touching on Boris Johnson (“The truth is our prime minister’s a real racist”), Windrush and Grenfell. “You feel this huge rush of human energy,” Smith says on the phone, “and when Dave did his last verse, I felt the emotion move right through me.” Smith co-executive produced Dave’s debut album, Psychodrama, which earned the rapper a best album Brit to go alongside the 2019 Mercury prize.
Despite not coming from a grime or rap background, Smith has built a considerable reputation as UK hip-hop’s go-to producer. It is all a far cry from his start in music. After growing up in Buckinghamshire and moving to west London, Smith began his career in the early 90s as a session player and touring musician, working with the likes of Rick Wakeman. In 1999, he met a then-unknown Craig David, working on his first two albums, before collaborating with a host of Britain’s most successful artists including Sam Smith and Adele. More recently, Smith has become known for his work with MCs such as Kano, Ghetts, Stormzy and Dave, helping them achieve success beyond the underground (both Stormzy albums reached No 1 in the UK).
He prides himself in his ability to create spaces for rappers to explore new ground. “I’m working with artists that already bring their own expertise, so I find that coming from a different place musically allows me to draw on a greater arsenal that helps take the artist to the next level,” he says. As a white man producing UK rap and grime, he is also conscious not to water anything down. “It’s about being careful with a culture that’s not your own,” he says, “while adding my own musicality.” Patience is a virtue, too. “Everyone’s often so quick to get into making the music, but if you stop and ask the artist how they’re feeling, you’re able to capture the tone and emotion. People have likened it to the therapist’s couch.”
After having a hand in creating some of Britain’s most iconic contemporary records for more than 20 years, Smith is currently working on his own album, which he says has given him a greater appreciation and perspective of what it’s like to be on the other side of the producer-artist divide. But, ultimately, what drives him is watching the artists he works with grow over the years: “To see Kano’s rise as a man, artist and actor is incredible. He’s gone from being a 17-year-old shy kid with a warm and eager heart to performing in front of 10,000 people. That is one of the greatest gifts my work has given me.”