Plan B: 'I ain't no gangster'

He writes brutal songs about guns, drugs and violence. Ben Drew, aka Plan B, tells Alexia Loundras why he's out to shock
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The Independent Culture

Plan B does not pull his punches. Like the most psychologically brutal of Shane Meadows' characters daubed in the crimson hues of Tarantino, the east-London rapper's uncompromising music is as intense and violent as a knuckle-duster to the stomach. Hailing from Forest Gate, east London, Plan B writes uncensored and uncompromising tales of under-age sex, drug abuse and gun crime. His vignettes are shocking in their intensity but his deft, razor-sharp rhymes and acoustic guitar hooks have helped him become a music press darling. He lives up to the hype too: his debut album, the compelling Who Needs Actions When You've Got Words will surely rank among the year's most thrilling releases.

Coming across like a twisted, wrong-side-of-the-tracks Mike Skinner of The Streets, Plan B has made an album so raw, ravaged and bile-ridden that it's not clear where the music ends and the man begins. Live, either accompanying himself on guitar like a rabid folk poet or backed by his band, he holds the stage like a menacing Doberman - filled with fury and just waiting for his chance to attack. Off stage, journalists having spoken of a sullen individual silently sizing them up or refusing to take down his hoodie in interviews - all of which seems consistent with the snarling narrator of these dystopian aural documentaries. Perhaps today's sunshine has softened his tough exterior, but Plan B (real name Ben Drew), isn't nearly as imposing as you might expect. Dressed in T-shirt and jeans and sitting in a south London recording studio café with the sun on his back, he's boyishly handsome. Yes, expletives do pepper his speech, but it's hard to associate this unassuming 22-year-old with the rapper spitting venom on the Plan B record.

"There's a lot of people out there judging me now," he says. "A lot of people hear the music and think I'm going to be a certain way, but I'm not like that," he smiles. "If I have my hoodie up and I'm doing an interview, it's going to stay up. But it's usually because I haven't had a trim and my hair's grown out. I'm not going to let them see my hair like that!" He chuckles. "I ain't no gangster, I don't sell crack, I just have the ability to write hip-hop with a dark edge - a real edge. But that's my music. In real life, I'm the same as ever, which is just a normal guy."

For all his vivid sonic portraits, it's clear in the music that Drew doesn't condone the violence in his songs. Far from glamorising the guns, stabbings, drug use and sex in his songs, Who Needs Actions When You've Got Words is social commentary at its most acerbic. "I wanted my songs to represent important things and raise issues that need to be raised," he says. From the brutality of the opener, "Kidz", to a cautionary tale about lives lost to drugs ("Missin' Links") and a startling depiction of an honour killing ("Tough Love"), Drew's fiery songs drip with fury but always have a salient point.

Moments of dry humour help alleviate the grittiness of his songs but Drew admits he's out to shock. "My mum doesn't like the fact that I'm so direct in my songs," he says. "She's like, 'why can't you express yourself like The Beatles - talk in metaphors.' But everyone's talking in metaphors. I try to write my songs so clear that even a child can understand.

"I've been accused of scaremongering in my lyrics and I would probably agree," he adds. "Like those anti-smoking posters, I want to scare kids so it deters them. I want to show them the reality of gun crime, drugs and gangsters. The reality is that you'll get shot in your face. People like 50 Cent romanticise guns, but the truth is, if you get shot six times, you're going to die."

Plan B's cautionary tales are tinged with experience. Brought up by his council-worker mother, Drew was neither middle class enough to escape the grim realities of his neighbourhood, nor poor enough to be accepted by those who ruled the estates. He was excluded from school and had to attend a pupil referral unit when, already on a final warning after a fight, he lost his temper and threw a chair across a room. "When I was expelled, it felt like a farce - a joke," he says. "They expected me to act like an angel and I couldn't hack it. I was made an example of."

Surrounded by characters whom, he says, were like the irredeemable murderous, raping protagonist in his song "Kidz", Drew took to selling cannabis. But his foray into crime didn't last long. "I realised there's two types of gangsters," he says, "there's the people with no conscience and those who are just plain ignorant and don't realise they don't want to live that kind of life until they're in prison serving a 10-year stretch. I used to sell a bit of weed to help me get by but that's nothing. I'm not naive. I made my decision: I thought, 'is it worth getting involved in this?' And no, it's just not."

Drew long stopped taking drugs; he says he lost too many friendships to heroin addictions and, he adds, "I didn't like the negative effect those drugs had on me." He now considers that his dope peddling past was a means to an end. "I could have got a job, but I knew if I did I wouldn't be able to do music. Music is a full-time job and to be the best, you have to dedicate 100 per cent of your time."

Music has always been Drew's ambition. "Even in primary school I was dabbling in songwriting," he says. But it wasn't until his teens when Drew was a skater kid, that he discovered Radiohead and taught himself the guitar that now takes centre stage in his songs. "I was addicted to Radiohead. They had a real sorrowful take on life, and that's how I felt at the time."

But as Drew cut off his skater-boy locks, grew out of his moody adolescence and discovered girls, he wrote an R&B song called "Tease" that kick-started his music career. Drew's early songs were a world away from Plan B's tirades. "They were all about love," he recalls with an embarrassed shake of his head. Although the R&B ballads went down well, something didn't feel right. "I didn't feel comfortable being that person. I had this darker side that was a lot more real - more me. And that's when I switched to Plan B and went the opposite way."

The emergence of Eminem was a catalyst for Drew's re-invention. "When Eminem came on the scene I didn't like him because I thought that rap was something that white people aren't allowed to do," says Drew. "But listening to his talent I thought, 'you know what? Fuck all that black/white shit'. From that point I felt I was allowed to express myself that way as well. So I did."

"Kidz" was Drew's first song as Plan B. It gave a clear indication that "I could blatantly do this." The similarities between Plan B and Eminem are obvious: they share a biting lyrical delivery, a penchant for unsparing material and flood their songs with reportage and autobiographical detail. While the comparisons are to be expected, there's far too much of Drew in his songs for him to be dismissed as an Eminem tribute act. Drew's songs star real-life characters such as his mother and her former crack-addict boyfriend, his heroin-addled former friends and on tracks such as "No More Eatin'", Drew himself. But when you speak to him, it's clear he uses his music as more than just an outlet for his moral outrage; his songs are a vent for his own, more personal, anger and frustrations.

Drew says he wants his music "to be something teachers give to kids and say educate yourselves about these things." He says he wants "to leave a body of work that is so powerful that it changes people's thinking as soon as they hear it." And listening to his album it's hard not to be convinced by his passion.

"Calling my album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words is the biggest test of my life. Now if I feel like getting back at people who threaten me, I can only do it using my pen - or else I'm a hypocrite. That is the biggest challenge. And it is hard. I need my songs to do all my fighting."

'Who Needs Actions When You Got Words' is out on Monday on 679 and is reviewed on page 19