The rapper and soul singer, who recently released his fourth record, the dancehall and EDM-influenced 'Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose', explains his outspoken nature and defends his potentially problematic second album
Plan B has always taken the path of most resistance. It’s right there in his name – his plan A was to be a soul singer, though he took the less commercial route of rapping about urban decay he grew up around in his hometown, Forest Gate, east London. This resulted in the brutal and bleak 2006 debut ‘Who Needs Action Where You Got Words’, which combines acoustic guitar with violent rhymes.
2010 brought an about-turn, as the man born Ben Drew created ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’, a concept soul record centred on the titular character. It sold more than 1.5 million records, and saw Drew touted as the male Amy Winehouse or Adele – though his third album, 2012’s ‘Ill Manors’, saw him return to bruising rap, with a record that accompanied a gritty, feature-length kitchen sink drama(which he also directed) of the same name. The eponymous lead single told the inside story of the 2011 London riots, when young Londoners depressingly expressed frustration at inner-city poverty through looting and arson.
It’s fashionable now for musicians to be outspoken about politics and social issues, but in 2013, as Tory austerity bit hard, there was a conspicuous lack of dissenting voices. ‘Ill Manors’, then, with that dizzying violin refrain and taut, righteous lyrics (“There’s no such thing as broken Britain / We’re just bloody broke in Britain”) sounded like a brick being thrown through the window of your local Conservative HQ. His latest album, ‘Heaven Before All Hells Breaks Loose’, comes in the wake of a six-year hiatus, during which time he’s helped to raise his four-year-old daughter. Musically, it’s a departure: dancehall rhythms meet EDM and garage beats.
The album is less obviously politicised than his previous records (with exceptions: ‘Guess Again’ is a soulful banger that manages to be both anti-Brexit and about remaining true to your class roots) but he remains fiercely outspoken on social issues. When we filmed his ‘Song Story’ – the ostensibly light-hearted NME video series in which musicians reveal the tales behind their tracks – he explained that his worldview was shaped by his religious zealot father: “I don’t like fundamentalists. My fucking Dad was one. I grew up having an experience of someone who was a religious fanatic – a Christian fanatic – so I’m in a perfect position to talk about it.”
He speaks quickly and forcefully, so it sometimes sounds like he’s barking at you, even if he’s just being conversational. When NME asks about the legacy of ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ – his 2010 album about a celebrity falsely accused of rape – and how he feels it’s aged in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he is typically forthright. He also says, elsewhere, “I haven’t got bad vibes for anyone… I’m there for men and women,” which is undoubtedly true.
This interview was drawn from two conversations; one was filmed (the video is embedded in this story) and one was conducted via a phone call that was meant to last 10 minutes but in fact lasted almost an hour, with topics ranging from Windrush to Blade Runner 2049. The call concluded with him saying, “Sorry – fuckin’ chewed your ear off, bruv.” The pleasure was all ours.
You told a fictional story with the movie ‘Ill Manors’ and, in ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’, made a concept record about a fictional character. Is your new album the first time we’re seeing the real Plan B?
“Yeah, I think so. The first record was born of being an angry kid, pissed off at the world and feeling like I wasn’t allowed to be a part of society. The second record was me being plucked out of that environment and being put into the fairy tale environment of celebrity. With this album it was literally: ‘What am I going to rap about? I’ve just worked solidly from 2003 to 2012, haven’t had relationships with friends, haven’t had real any personal relationships with anyone. I’m not really close with anyone.’ I felt completely isolated and was having an identity crisis. So I was like, ‘I’m taking three years out and I’m not doing no film or fucking music; I’m just doing me.’
“Pretty soon after that I became a parent, which is beautiful and brilliant and in a sense you live in your own little bubble. You’re in your own little Heaven on Earth. I felt like I deserved that. I deserved to take my voice out of the public arena, to not have an opinion on everything fucked up in the world just because that was expected of me. This record is the best music I’ve ever put out. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s me at my pinnacle.”
You’ve said that you started to become pissed off again when began to make music and engage with the outside world. What were you looking out and seeing that was getting under your skin?
“Fucking Brexit, mate. Just fucking open up my windows and looking at everyone on the street and just thinking: ‘You’re a cunt. You’re a cunt’. It was like this filter had kind of been lifted. I had seen the country as this multicultural, progressive place that had learnt from past mistakes and then realised that, actually, I was the delusional one and the country is not like that.”
‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ sold around 1.5 copies and launched you as a mainstream star, which hadn’t looked likely to happen when you released ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’…
“Some people think it was all part of a masterplan, but it wasn’t. I was on bit of a downer because the first record didn’t do well commercially. I was with a major [label] and a lot of people emphasised that if you’re on a major, you need to sell records. And we didn’t sell a lot of records. A lot of mistakes were made. So I took a break from being Plan B and thought, ‘I’m gonna make music like I always did’, because I was a singer-songwriter before I was a rapper. And naturally these soul songs came out. I ended up having an album of soul songs thinking, ‘What the fuck am I going to do with them? Maybe Craig David will sing a couple for me. Maybe I’ll get hold of some of these up-and-coming soul artists and I can coin it in the background.’ In the end I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do a concept album about a soul singer? I can bring a dark element to it and then there can still be hip-hop within it’.”
‘Strickland Banks’ is a concept record about a celebrity falsely accused of rape. How do you feel it’s aged in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement?
“I mean, there is a difference there with Harvey Weinstein. There is one guy who is literally a sexual predator, and another who is just a wanker. [Strickland Banks] has women left, right and centre. He has a girlfriend, yet he sleeps with other women and after that wants nothing to do with them. That is not a rapist, that’s just a bastard. At the same time, she is pretty easy – she latched herself to him knowing he has a girlfriend. She knew he was drunk, and she went back to that hotel room.”
For a lot of years, though, people didn’t believe victims of celebrity abusers, and ‘Strickland Banks’ is a narrative about a woman who is a liar. I wondered if it feels awkward to perform tracks like ‘She Said’ [the lead single whose lyrics document Strickland’s testimony in the witness box] in 2018?
“When women accuse men of something like that and it hasn’t happened, they are contributing to the problem that most women face, which is not having enough evidence. So we have to talk about that. We can’t just say that that doesn’t happen. Yes, I did ‘Strickland Banks’ at that time and #MeToo has since happened, but do I feel awkward about singing those songs? No fucking way. I don’t feel like every time something happens for the greater good and for greater change, we have to become so fucking PC that we can’t talk about the grey areas that exist. I don’t know – do you think it’s awkward?”
I do wonder if narratives like ‘Strickland Banks’ contribute to the myth that false rape allegations are common, when statistically they’re not
“I think you are going super-intellectual on this shit. At the time when I wrote that album, do you know how much stuff was going on in the news? We had rugby players, football players, celebrities being accused of rape and when they were acquitted, it didn’t appear on the news. It appeared in a little caption that said, ‘Oh, by the way, they were found innocent. That rugby player didn’t actually rape that girl.’ Those people will be tarnished for the rest of their lives just because they have been accused. And they were accused because they were celebrities. The women who were accusing them were doing it for financial gain. They’re part of the problem, too.”
‘Strickland Banks’ was such a huge album, though, so you’re sort of seeing these ideas seep into the mainstream
“Just because #MeToo is relevant to the media now, it doesn’t mean that the things I was saying in ‘Strickland Banks’ are not relevant. #Metoo should always be relevant – not just when the media wants it to be. It’s bullshit to say [that only] one of them is relevant, because both sides of the story need to be told. It’s sad that we’re not going to have music or films or books about the other side of the story. It’s like saying we are not allowed to make films like The Shawshank Redemption unless they’re about people who actually did it. We live in a society where it is supposed that everyone who goes to prison is guilty, and that is just not the case. As an artist putting out creative things, I don’t feel fucking responsible. With my music, I always talk about taboo things, because we live in such a fucking PC world and everyone is trying to be PC.”
“I would never feel guilty about that album. And if anyone, after all these years, decides they don’t want to listen to that record because they feel like I have contributed to the myth, then they don’t have to listen to it and they don’t have to watch any movie over the 15 certificate. They can go and wrap themselves in cotton wool and hide themselves away from the world. No, I don’t feel like I contributed.”
The track ‘Ill Manors’ was released six years ago, but would still sound vital and incredible if it came out tomorrow. Are you familiar with the Gang Violence Matrix, the Met’s controversial means of keeping tabs on people they suspect to be in gangs, which was set up after the 2011 riots?
“What are they doing? When they focus on a child that they think is going to be in a gang, what are they doing? Are they putting them in a Pupil Referral Unit [Drew, expelled from school, was placed in this form of alternative education for troubled pupils, which take a more vocational approach to learning]? Are they giving them special support?”
It’s more a case of keeping tabs on people
“Well, that’s where they’re fucking up. Why not recognise who these kids are from a lower age, take them out of that school and put them into a school where they get the support that they need? There is no emphasis put on rehabilitation because taxpayers don’t want their money going towards bad kids. They see rehabilitation as a reward. When you go to a PRU, there’s a lot of emphasis put on vocational subjects. There’s Technology, Drama, loads of trips. There are fun trips where you go to Alton Towers, and trips were you go to learn. The one thing right-wing people are interested in there is Alton Towers: ‘Why the fuck is taxpayers’ money going on sending bad kids to Alton Towers?’ Well, check this: these kids have never been anywhere – they’ve never been on holiday, never been taken to the fucking funfair. Nothing.”
“There’s this thing called ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs’, a pyramid of the standard shit people need. It starts off as shelter, warmth and food, but then it gets more complex and goes through education and school. But you can’t go get the education if the first needs aren’t being met. These kids are going to school without their basic needs being met, so they’re unable to learn.”
How old were you when you were in the Pupil Referral Unit after being expelled from school for being violent?
“I got kicked out when I was in Year 10, so I spent Year 11 in there.”
And it was a positive experience for you?
“It changed my life. I was always intelligent enough to pass my GCSEs, but the violence I experienced at home made it impossible for me to learn at school, because I only knew how to handle occasions through violence.’
You’re very outspoken about politics and social issues – you often take aim at the Tories – perhaps more so than a lot of people would be if they had sold more than 1.5 million records…
“Am I being naïve? Maybe I should be more conscious about what I’m saying. Maybe I should watch my back. I just think that these motherfuckers aren’t listening to me. If I say something, are they really coming and stopping my records from getting played on radio? Are they really talking to their mates at Radio 1 and stopping my shit from getting heard? Does that happen?”
People might feel alienated enough to not wanna buy the record, or not buy tickets to the shows. And that could happen either way if you were coming out as a left- or right-wing person
“I think these things need to be said. I’m sorry, but if somebody is out of touch with the way things are, they need to be told. I haven’t got bad vibes for anyone. I love this country. I was actually on a trip to Dubai recently and I was just thinking about how much I love this country. Regardless of everything that’s happened. I like the complexities of it. I like that it’s not all mono one fucking thing. It’s multicultural. It’s multi-class. I like human beings. I like mankind. I’m there for men and women. I’m here to be the voice of the voiceless. I’m here for people that feel a certain way, but don’t have a voice or a platform to express it.”
Plan B’s ‘Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose’ is out now