Rapper-turned-singer speaks about his new direction...
Jason Gregory

09:03 22nd March 2010

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In an upstairs room of a ramshackle old pub in East London, Ben Drew sits frantically rubbing his leg. Despite being kitted out in a thick woollen hat, pale denim jacket and jeans, it’s clear from the thickness of each icy breath that accompanies every word that even the hardiest of arctic explorers would do well to survive in this environment. Not even the army of heaters that his publicist has assembled on the floor seems capable of breaking through the impenetrable cold front.

While this uncomfortable environment would, you imagine, irk most musicians, for Drew - better known as the rapper Plan B - it presents little concern. After all, as someone who grew up only a handful of postcodes further east from here in Forest Gate, he’s experienced far worse. His debut album, ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’, for example, ambitiously tackled the type of issues - from knife crime to underage sex - that Drew regularly encountered first hand. But despite earning him a Top-30 chart hit in 2006, the record’s coarse - and often angry - narrative, which was constructed around an acoustic guitar, proved too much for some, even managing to raise an eyebrow from British hip-hop’s most prominent exponent, Tim Westwood. Consequently, the then 23-year-old’s music career stalled somewhat, and he seemed to disappear almost as quickly as he had arrived armed with his self-styled mantra: “This is my time now, you get me? Fucking cunts.”

It speaks volumes, then, that we’re here today braving the elements to discuss Drew’s forthcoming second album, ‘The Defamation of Strictland Banks’. Like his debut, the 13-track LP continues to explore Drew’s interest in the craft of story telling, only this time it’s based around the fictional character of Strictland Banks, a sharp-suited British soul singer who loses everything when he ends up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a vibrant, voluptuous-sounding record, which references Stax, Motown and, most poignantly, soul music. “It just started from my love of soul music,” says Drew, of the album’s origins.

Now 26, Drew says he’s been writing soul songs ever since he was introduced to Michael Jackson as a seven-year-old - it’s only now that he feels secure enough to actually sing them. “I was going to be a singer but I had a lack of confidence in everything - the way I dressed, the way I sung,” he admits. It was only when he performed his debut album with a backing band that Drew learned for the first time about the technical side to singing. “As soon as that happened everything just clicked, and I went from being just a songwriter behind the scenes to a singer-songwriter.”

This newfound confidence, Drew says, was aided by the fact that his new material was “just too good for me to fucking put on a shelf and let rot and not show to the world”. He stops to stimulate some more blood flow through his cold body. “I’m all about that,” he continues. “You make something that’s just good then why hide it because it doesn’t fit into your profile or how people perceive you.”

When I interviewed Drew shortly after the release of his first record, he displayed a similar level of courage towards overcoming stereotypes. He had then, after all, taken it upon himself to try his hand at mastering a music genre that’s still, in many people’s eyes, performed most successfully by black artists. Yet in 2006, as the lyrics on his debut album highlighted, Drew’s bravado often manifested itself through his own anger. Talking to him today, however, he’s noticeably both physically and mentally more relaxed - the result of a year attending anger management classes.

“I was an angry guy wasn’t I?” he admits, when I ask him if he thinks he’s changed. “You could hear it.” After a lifetime spent solving “problems with my fists” on his estate, Drew admits he found it “very hard” when suddenly confronted by the music business. He needed help. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want to go to counselling because they think it’s mad, they think it’s admitting that you’re kind of mentally ill,” he says. “And it’s not that at all - it just means that you’re emotionally ill and you learn how to control your emotions and how they affect your life.” He says his anger stemmed from his belief that “everybody’s got something that’s been broken inside of them because their parents put it there” and describes his 12 months receiving therapy as “the most unhappiest year”. But he would advise anyone with similar issues to get help. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to fix those things and I’ve come out the other side.” He smiles. “Music is my therapy.”

As well as music, Drew’s also been helped by his passion for film - something which he first took an interest in as a child and decided to explore more seriously following the release of his first album. His credits so far include an appearance in BAFTA-award winning actor Noel Clarke’s directorial debut Adulthood in 2008 and, more recently, alongside Sir Michael Caine in Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown. The latter film, Drew says, “made people take me more seriously” and encouraged him to write his first full-length feature.

Entitled Ill Manors (“Spelt Manors as in where you’re from,” he points out), the film, which is due to go into production later this year, follows “six short stories that all mix into each other, but come to a head at the end”. It is, he says more plainly, “the hip-hop musical version of [Paul Haggis’s 2005 film] Crash”. 

Drew says he’s also hoping to shoot a featurette about his present alter ego, Strictland Banks. But first, he’s focusing on the album, which he poignantly describes as a “film for the blind”. “For me, I guess, that’s my aspiration in life,” he adds. “When people see the name Plan B or see my face it represents the way in which I express myself, which is an amalgamation of music and films.” There’s also, of course, the task of singing in public. I wonder if he’s worried whether his new direction might alienate his hip-hop fans. “I’m aware that there are fans out there that might feel alienated by this but I feel like I cater for them; I feel like I have catered for them, they just don’t know it yet,” he replies enigmatically, adding that a hip-hop album, which “explains all the gaps” in Strictland’s story, will be released later this year on his own label, Pet Cemetery.

I had intended to ask Drew whether he was now a rapper or singer, yet, as another cold breath emerges from his mouth, its clear that he already sees himself as so much more. He, instead, draws a parallel to culture’s desire to evolve, as it always has done. Another icy breath emerges. “And I guess that’s with me: I change with the times but it’s not anybody else’s time, it’s my time, you know what I mean?”

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