Get with the Plan

It was tough go­ing, but Ben Drew’s cre­ative mis­sion is com­ing good, he tells Tony Clay­ton-lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

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

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