Get with the Plan
It was tough going, but Ben Drew’s creative mission is coming good, he tells Tony Clayton-lea
HERE’S A question: what would 15-year-old drug dealer, face smasher, council-estate “skanger” Ben Drew think of 28-year-old singer, songwriter, screenwriter, actor, director Plan B? Tired eyes squint in my direction. There is little hesitation: “He’d think he was the bomb.”
The Ticket and Benjamin Paul BallanceDrew are relaxing backstage. We are in Yorkshire, in the middle of the never-ending Dalby Forest, and we are sitting on a white leatherette sofa that is housed in a voluminous white tent. The background noise we hear is the pellet-like pounding of rain on the tent awnings.
Outside, it is sodden and mucky, and a hive of activity. Despite the sofa, the busy catering team looking after the food tent and the shiny double-decker tour bus, it is far from glamorous. There’s a strong sense backstage that work, not play, is on the agenda.
In two hours’ time, Plan B will walk to the stage with an associate holding an umbrella over him and his smart, shiny on-stage shoes covered in plastic bags to prevent them from getting mucked up. Right now, Ben Drew is in casual mode, in jeans, runners and a rather cool monochrome This Is England T-shirt that peeks out from under a quilted jacket that has seen better days and too many magazine covers.
Ben, also, has seen better days – he looks knackered, to be honest: unshaven, blearyeyed, running his fingers through short, justwoke-up hair. The previous night and for most of the morning and afternoon he was at a friend’s recording studio, located reasonably nearby, putting the finishing touches to his new album, Ill Manors.
“I’ve been living on reserve fuel for the past few months,” he mutters, “working under such pressure, working on average 20 hours a day.”
It may have been tough going, but the results are wholly impressive. Drew’s new album – the follow-up to the career-turning reinvention that was 2010’s The Defamation of Strickland Banks – is, like its predecessor, a concept work. It’s also the soundtrack to the crisp, exceptionally moving realist-urban film of the same name that Drew wrote and directed (and that, inexplicably, sank without trace on its release a month or so ago).
The album and the movie are authentic state-of-the-nation and spokesperson-of-ageneration addresses from someone who determinedly and astutely explores what he terms “the demonisation of the underclass”. So, which came first – the album or the movie?
“The movie was there before the Strickland Banks album,” Drew says. His face squiggles up in thought; he takes a puff from his roll-up and a swig from his bottle of water. “In fact, the actual idea was there for many years before that. When I was about 15, my mum walked into our sittingroom with a present for my blind grandad. It was a novel on audiotape. She asked me for a stamp, which, frankly, was an odd thing to ask me for – I mean, why the fuck would I have a stamp? I didn’t even read books then, let alone write letters.
“Anyway, she said she was posting it to my grandad so he could listen to it. I asked did it have music on it, and she said, no, just someone’s voice, and I thought why don’t they put music and sound effects on it? It was then I decided to do something – a movie, probably – with some kind of narrative on it.”
From this, Drew started writing a series of interlinked short stories, which, he says, formed the basis for his 2005 debut album, the visceral, obscenity-strewn (equal parts remarkable and offensive) Who Needs Actions When You Got Words.
If Who Needs Actions showed that British hip-hop had a formidable and unapologetic wordsmith who was mirroring real-life UK council estate scenarios (muggings, stabbings, drug dealing/taking, casual underage sex and couldn’t-care-less parenting), then the follow-up album, five years later, blindsided everyone by paying exquisitely detailed homage to Stax and Tamla Motown tunes.
But what’s with the five-year gap between albums? Turns out there are more strings to Drew’s bow: acting, directing and screenwriting. Concurrent with his debut album, Drew wrote a script for a movie, but the company he sent it to baulked at commissioning someone they viewed as a blood-raw talent, and passed. Next came a short film/video clip for a non-album track, Bizness Woman, which, as scripted by Drew, depicted another nightmarish scenario of a woman waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up from a red-light district. It was directed, however, by none other than Mike Figgis.
“And that,” says Drew with just a hint of relief mixed with arrogance, “paved the way for the Ill Manors movie, which was of better thematic quality, with an extended storyline and new music.”
The movie, according to Drew, took about four years to get together. He outlines the ignominy of having to deal with the financiers – “meetings with people blowing smoke up my ass and dangling carrots in front of me. Even though people liked the script and a short treatment of the movie, the words ‘credit crunch’ kept being thrown at me whenever the subject of me directing the film cropped up.”
During this process, he continues, his record label was looking for a new album. As we now know, his Strickland Banks album shook the rafters. And then? “All of a sudden people want to help me to make the Ill Manors movie. I couldn’t say no to the opportunity, but in retrospect, I took on too much, which is why I’m so knackered.
“Look, I’m not complaining, really I’m not, but for over three years I haven’t had a personal life. If you do any job, you’ve got a weekend off, right? But one week bleeds into