We meet Plan B two months after his show at Shakespeare’s Globe. Planned as the grand comeback of a rapper-cum-singer who has been relatively out of the public eye since his Mercury-nominated, gold-selling ill Manors album in 2012, the performance was notable for the sheer number of things that seemed to go wrong. Songs are stopped and restarted. In-ears don’t work. A series of inflatable balls that must have seemed like a great idea in the production meeting overstay their welcome and pile up on stage as various members of the road crew attempt to volley them off. It is, put simply, a complete mess. What’s more, it’s all the better for it.
“It does make it better,” laughs Plan B (real name Ben Drew) to our suggestion that the sole reason his triumphant return to performing felt so exciting was that it all went tits up. “You’re a perfectionist, you want everything to be perfect. But the energy was exciting. Probably more exciting than if I’d nailed it.”
Of course, nailing it and Ben have had a rocky road over the years. For a start his entire raison d’être is that his first career move — making “sweet-boy Justin Timberlake shit” — didn’t pan out and he was left to concentrate on the real-world hip-hop of 2006 debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. When the commercial success he’d pinned his hopes on for that failed, he famously ditched the rap for the post-Amy Winehouse soul tunes of 2010’s The Defamation of Strickland Banks. “The grand designs alway fall on their arse, that’s why I’m called Plan B!” he jokes, but that’s only half the story: The Defamation of Strickland Banks spending almost eighteen months in the UK top 40, ushering in three Ivor Novello awards and nabbing a Best British Male gong at the Brits in 2011.
“I was so arrogant,” says Ben today, sipping from a gin and tonic in the corner of a North London bar. “I thought I do have a fanbase here so, by me doing this soul stuff, I could lose them, the record could fall on its arse and that would be the end of my career. But at the same time, I thought, ‘Yeah, but then I’ll just do film and be a massive film director and that will be my fate’. No question. I was so arrogant. But I wanted to make music that lots of people listen to and I just thought fuck it.”
Ben had always harboured ambitions to direct. He talks about growing up listening to old school hip-hop and visualising the streets and scenes it would soundtrack. “I remember being with my mates and chilling at my house, drinking or smoking weed, and someone would knock on my window, say, “Did you hear about so and so? He got shot” or “Did you hear about that little kid that got run over?’.” Taking clippings from his local newspaper, he began collecting the most messed up stories he could find: “I’d read them and think, ‘fucking hell’ and put them in my scrap book. So I had a scrapbook of shit that actually happened in my area. A lot of that eventually went into ill Manors.”
Released in 2012, the Riz Ahmed starring ill Manors would tap into much of the social anxiety felt following the UK Riots of August 2011. Charting the lives of eight characters over a seven day period in Forest Gate, the film was a critical success which Ben wrote, co-scored and directed — its accompanying soundtrack debuting at number one on the UK Album Charts. “The only fictional thing about it was that everything happens to that one group of people in a short space of time,” Ben describes. “But they were all things that happened.”
With a near constant stream of daily news on the fractured state of Britain today, is he ever tempted to make a follow-up? “Mate, real life is worse than ill Manors now!” he says, voice rising. “Grenfell? Women throwing their babies out the window? You’ve got people throwing acid in people’s faces. Did you see anyone get acid thrown in their face in ill Manors?”
He continues: “All that shit that I spoke about in ill Manors. That shit’s been going on and the wider public don’t believe it. And because, they don’t believe it, they don’t do anything to tackle it. Then it gets worse and worse until it gets to the point when kids think it’s okay to throw acid in your face just because they want your fucking moped! Everything that’s happened since the riots is the symptoms of a crisis that we’ve had for longer than 30 years. What are we going to do about it? Nothing!”
“Everything that’s happened since the riots is the symptoms of a crisis that we’ve had for longer than 30 years. What are we going to do about it? Nothing!”
For all the righteous anger Ben feels, there are signs that the protest artist unleashed by ill Manors will figure less heavily as part of his as-yet-unfinished fourth album. Recent single, In The Name Of Man, eschews the minutely detailed social commentary for a kind of larger-scale thinking with a world weary take on the concept of religion. “It’s like a relationship,” he explains. “If you have a relationship with a girl, it’s not all arguing. It should all be fun and banter and having a good time and finding each other interesting. Then when there’s a disagreement, it needs to be confronted. That’s how I see ill Manors. If you think of music as therapy, all that shit is out of my system. And now that’s out of my system, I need to get this other shit out of my system.”
The other shit that Ben is referring to is having a kid, cutting down on drinking, cutting down on smoking and generally overhauling the entire way he was living in the aftermath of huge mainstream success. “There’s no rap on the album because what am I going to rap about?” he laughs. “I bought a house, got really into interior design, got addicted to eBay, started buying shit, upcycling it and turning it into kitchen units.
“Hip hop is about your environment. If I put out a hip hop record about the streets… Well, look at my neighbours! My neighbours are all rich, affluent white people. So I’m going to bring out a hip hop record about the streets and talk about how rough my life is? Then walk past my neighbours? [Affects posh accents] “Oh, I love your album!” Yeah, it’s real out here…”
You get the impression that behind the constant left-turns is an artist reluctant to be pigeonholed: a suggestion met with, “It’s not that I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I couldn’t give a fuck!” (a response, if ever we’ve heard one, readers, of a man who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a man that doesn’t want to be pigeonholed). “I just don’t want to just be seen as a hip hop artist who plays the guitar,” says Ben. “I don’t want to be seen as a hip hop artist who plays the guitar but also makes soul music. I don’t even want to be seen as all of those things as well as a filmmaker and that just be it. I’m more complex than that. And I’m not defined by those things.
“I want to make films. I want to set up a charity that helps kids. I want to put an album out. I want to fucking decorate my house. I want to do it all at once.” If all that fails, you can bet your life there’ll be a plan B.
i-D, OCTOBER 2017.