Plan B - The Master Plan

Chart-topper, social commentator, movie star: Ben Drew, better known as Plan B, has indisputably made it – but he's still not satisfied. So what's the reticent rapper going to do next? And what would it take to make him crack a smile?

Christina Patterson
Monday 01 October 2012 00:47
Plan B
Plan B

Plan B is learning French. One of the angriest rappers in Britain is sitting down with grammar books and learning French. "I don't," he says, as we wander away from the prison door, "want to go through this life without ever knowing what it's like to speak another language."

The prison, by the way, isn't real. The prison is the prison that appeared in the first film he's directed, which, like the album that's been winning him accolades, is called Ill Manors. The film, which came out in February, is about to come out in DVD. The prison, which we're using for the photographs, is at a film studio in East London. But for many of the people Plan B grew up with, not all that far from this fake prison, prison is real. For the people he went to school with, and the people he writes about in his music, and the people he plays in the films he's been in, and the characters he's created in Ill Manors, prison is all too real.

For the boy in his song "Kidz", for example, who breaks "a bottle over some boys head" and stabs "a broken piece" into his leg, and leaves him "in an alley where he's screaming and bleeding to death", prison is the future. The song, on Plan B's explosive first album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, was inspired by the murder of Damilola Taylor. It talks about a world where boys whose balls "ain't even dropped yet" steal and sell drugs and look for a "young dumb bitch" to have "bareback" sex with, a world where "respect is the only thing that matters". The language in it is so violent I can't quote all that much of it. That's also why it didn't make the playlists on mainstream radio. But the message was clear. "That kinda shit impresses me," says the narrator of "Kidz", "'cos I got an ignorant mentality". That "kinda shit", in other words, is ignorant, and stupid, and wrong.

Quite a few people didn't seem to read the lyrics. They seemed to think that if you used the kind of words that the people you were writing about would use, then you must think violence was a good idea. They didn't seem to understand that what Plan B was doing, in his first album, as much as in his second album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, which imagined the life and experiences of a soul singer, and in his third album, Ill Manors, and in the film Ill Manors, was telling stories.

If they didn't then, they ought to now. Who Needs Actions When You Got Words may not have sold all that well, but it went down very well with critics. Plan B was, said the NME, a "rare talent". His album, it said, was "the brilliantly foul-mouthed sound of the summer". The Defamation of Strickland Banks, which shocked the hip-hop fan base he'd built up with its sweet soul melodies, was praised by Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Elton John. It went straight into the charts at No 1, was the fifth-biggest selling album of 2010, and has now sold more than a million copies. His single, "Ill Manors", which was released in March, was hailed as "the first great mainstream protest song in years". The album Ill Manors, released in May, had a critical reception which the Metacritic website summed up as "universal acclaim". It has also just been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and five Mobos.

Plan B, you'd have thought, would be happy. His first film has been highly praised. He's handsome. He's rich. He's successful. He's acclaimed. But Ben Drew, which is the version of his real name Plan B uses as an actor and director, doesn't look all that happy. He looks, as he did when he was staring at the camera at that prison door, quite cross. So why, I ask, as we settle on a sofa in a room in a different part of the film studio, doesn't he smile when he's being photographed?

Drew looks up. He looks surprised. "I only smile," he says," when I'm happy. Not that I'm unhappy, but someone has to coax it out of me. Otherwise I find it really false. But people do say," he adds, as if he's prepared to make this one concession," that when I smile, it lights up my face."

You can say that again. In the flesh, Ben Drew looks like someone you wouldn't necessarily look at twice in a street. He isn't tall. He isn't dark. He isn't blond. He isn't fat. He's fairish, and slimmish, and pale. But put him in front of a camera and he changes.

In his early films, like Noel Clarke's Adulthood, made in 2008, and Daniel Barber's Harry Brown, made in 2009, he looks like what he could easily have been: a menacing member of a violent gang. In The Sweeney he looks like what he now is: a star. There's something in his eyes, and something in his face, that makes it hard to look away.

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He has talked, in the past, about the need to have "this thing" when you act. When did he first realise he had it? Drew frowns. "I don't even know," he says, "if I still do have it. I hated interviews before," he adds, "because a lot of the anxieties and any bitterness I had about anything would spew out and make things worse.

"People would write pieces about me that it would be really hard for me to read. But eventually you learn how to cope with it. I guess it's the same with acting, and with the whole celebrity thing that goes along with being a successful artist."

For many interviewees, this would be enough. It might not be the most precise answer to the question, but it certainly would be enough. But Ben Drew doesn't seem to be interested in what he can get away with. "I wear my heart on my sleeve," he says. "I'm not comfortable walking into a room or having my picture taken, but you learn to deal with it. I just come out of every situation hoping I haven't embarrassed myself. It makes it hard to enjoy a lot of things. I'm always on edge."

When he says this, I want to hug him, or at least cheer him up. So I congratulate him on the Mercury shortlisting, and the Mobos. He thanks me, like the polite boy he clearly, in spite of all the swearing, is. So was he, I ask, expecting it?

Once again, the answer isn't brief. "I was overlooked for the first two albums," he starts. "I understand the second one, because when something gets that successful and that big, they can't be seen to…" and he tails off. "But with the first album, it really upset me. So many doors were slammed in my face."

I want to cheer him up again, but it's quite hard, when he's in full flood, to find a way to butt in. He had, he says, to sell the rights to the album of Ill Manors to the record label to be able to finish the film. He thought it was going to be a "side project", and was shocked when it went straight to the top of the charts. He had the idea of doing it as a film because he "felt that the music would have a stronger effect on people if there was something visual they could watch with it". He is, he says, "essentially talking about the same thing" in Ill Manors as in his first album, but "the reason Ill Manors has done so well is because of the riots".

The riots, it's true, haven't done him any harm. Politicians who would never have watched a film about gang life on inner-city estates were asked to respond to the album and the film. The film would offer a much-needed glimpse of a largely hidden London at any time, but it was a glimpse that was needed more than ever after the riots. It is, to be honest, better at evoking a mood and a world than at presenting a plot that gets just a little bit melodramatic. But the album, even for those of us who aren't exactly hip-hop connoisseurs, is a triumph. And it would be even without the riots. What pulses through its angry lyrics, and through the bleak visual poetry of the film, is Drew's desperate desire to give a voice to a lost generation. "I made this film," he says, "because I wanted people to see the issues, and leave it feeling something, whether it was disgust, disbelief or shock."

He could talk, it's clear, about those "issues" all day. He could talk, and has talked, in a powerful TED lecture he gave earlier this year, about children without parents. Many don't have fathers. Many have mothers who had them when they were children themselves. He could talk, and does talk, about children who "believe they're part of a system where they cannot win", a system where "everything's set up for them to fail." He could talk about the class snobbery that's still acceptable in places where racism isn't.

"So you've got all that," he says, after talking about all of these things, "and you're thinking 'OK, I'm part of a system here, and they've fixed it up so I'll fail. At the same time, I am a consumer and I watch TV, and the TV is telling me I need to have these things. And actually, although I don't have an education, if I was suddenly to come into a lot of money, people would start respecting me.'"

When the riots happened, he was, he says, "so disappointed and upset". He was the only one of his generation who "made it and got out". He thought of all the "great social workers", like the ones who had tried to help him, and of how so much of their work had been undone. But now he sees the riots as a positive thing. "It's the first time in 30 or 40 years", he says, "that the issues are at the front of the pile". And then, he says, and he looks disgusted, "the Government swept it under the carpet, because of the Olympics". With his single, he says, it was "like, let's take it back out".

OK. So, he doesn't like the Government. He doesn't like the media. He doesn't like advertisers. He doesn't like a system where he has to pay 40 per cent of his money in tax. "The Government," he says, "don't give you a choice about where that money goes." Yes, I tell him, they do. In their manifestos, they do. "But only," says Drew, "if I vote for them." Well that, I can't quite summon the energy to say, is how democracy works.

But Ben Drew, unlike most other angry 28-year-olds, and unlike most other armchair critics, and unlike most journalists, has decided to do something where the Government fails. He has started a charity called the Each One Teach One trust. "I want," he says, "to give money to the individuals within the community who are doing great things, but struggling to do them because they've got no financial support".

He's giving £1 from every ticket he sells on his next arena tour to a "big pot" which will be used for things like the Hair Project in Hackney, which teaches young people how to cut hair, and Box4Life in Leytonstone, which helps children from deprived backgrounds develop self-discipline by learning to box. "It is," he says, "like a society within a society. Or maybe it's just a fictional society that exists in our hearts and our heads."

Once again, I want to hug him. But I'm also, 50 minutes into the interview, glancing down at six pages of questions and realising that I've only managed to ask him one or two. I, too, could talk about the riots all day. I, too, could talk about absent fathers and gangs. But I also really, really want to find out a bit more about Ben Drew. He grew up, I've read, in Forest Gate, north-east London. His mother worked for a local authority. His father played in a punk band, the Warm Jets. He wasn't, he said in an early interview, working class, or middle class, but grew up in "the void in between". His father left his mother when he was five months old and disappeared from his life completely when he was six. So what effect does he think this had on him?

It's not," says Drew, "uncommon. We're talking about a generation of kids that have been raised by parents that may be only 15, 16-year-olds. You're not an adult just because you've got a kid. I've got band members who've been in my band since they was 18 or 19 and they've acted like little kids for the last three years. It's been me being the father figure, to one of them anyway, because he didn't have a dad, and because his mum was never around."

I'm sure he has, and I'm sure he was great, but what I wanted to find out about was his own childhood. Instead, I get a little lecture on how you can't expect a generation brought up by 15-year-olds to have a moral compass, and how it's a bad idea to give 15-year-olds a key to a council flat, and how middle-class mothers are happy to bond with each other, but not to make friends with working-class young mothers who could do with the support. I agree with him, as it happens, but while his mission might be to change society, mine is to find out more about him.

So what, I ask, about his mother? What about that song, "Mama (Loves a Crackhead)", on his first album, which, as you might guess from the title, talks about his mother's relationship with a crack addict? Drew looks sad and I almost wish I hadn't. "That song exists, yeah," he says, "and I don't regret putting it out, because at the time it was the only way to change the situation. It was a piece of art that I'd created over a torment she'd put me through, not just through that period with that person, but throughout my whole childhood, with my stepfather as well." Who used to hit him? "Yeah. But all the information you need," he says, "is in the song and it's like a scar that exists in our life. Whenever I talk about it publicly, it just opens it up."

And what, I ask, about the "sports counselling" he was given at school, which he was given for getting into fights and which, he has said, had nothing to do with sport? "You're a product of your environment," he explains, "but if you hit a dog with a stick since he's a puppy and feed him raw meat, he'll be a violent, vicious motherfucker and he'll hurt people."

The counselling, he says, helped. So did social workers. And so, most of all, did the Pupil Referral Unit in Plaistow he was sent to, after throwing a chair at a teacher when he was 15. He went back to it earlier this year, and made a BBC documentary about the children, the teachers and the work. It was, he said, the most rewarding thing he'd ever done. "All the teachers there care," he says. "They've made it their life. I just swan in and the kids engage with me straight away."

I bet they do. You can't really meet this fiercely talented, fiercely honest man and not want to listen to what he has to say. It's in the music: bright as a diamond, sharp as a knife. It's in the characters he has played, and in the first film he has made. And it's in the eyes of the man who's sitting on this sofa: the kind of passion that won't let go.

Is he less angry now? Ben Drew looks at me and he almost smiles. "Yeah," he says. "The anger used to come out because I cared so much, and I didn't know how to deal with it." And is he happier now? "Yeah. But I think," he says, "if I was content then I might as well retire. There'd be no fire in me to try and do anything."

No fire? I don't believe it. No fire in this man, who wants to direct more films, and make more music, and design clothes, and learn a language, and save a generation? No fire in this man, who says he doesn't have a girlfriend, because he "doesn't have time"?

He'll be happier, he says, when his charity is "up and running". "But will I be happy?" he says, perhaps thinking that if he asks himself a question, it will make up for the ones I couldn't get in. The answer comes with such force I think he'll blaze for ever. "No!" he says. "Never."

'Ill Manors' is available on DVD, Blu-ray and download from 8 October

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