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Sunday, 9 January 2011

“I started becoming bitter, and a little bit lost in the whole game,” Plan B, July 2010

Another hot high noon in East London means that the huge glass doors across the front of The Vortex have been thrown wide open. As Ben Drew – or Plan B, as you’re more likely to know him – crosses the paved expanse in front of it, Frank Sinatra booms emphatically from the outdoor speakers. Dotted around the place, three or four small clusters of mostly young black men shoot the breeze. Despite an album – The Defamation of Strickland Banks – that has yet to leave the top ten since its release in April, and a recent supporting role alongside Michael Caine in Harry Brown, no-one recognizes him. Were he to wear the suit that has acted as his de facto uniform in the videos to Stay Too Long and She Said, it might be a different story. But, seated outside this bar in shorts and a t-shirt, 26 year-old Drew looks like almost any young white man who knows how to look after himself in Dalston: squaddie-length hair, a slight pallor and eyes that defy you to think the worst of him. If you made him smile, you’d really feel like you’d earned it.

We met once before, I tell him. Surprisingly, he remembers. It was in the Hoxton Bar And Grill. Drew drank Jack Daniels and Coke and talked about the father who, at that point, he hadn’t seen for 15 years. “My granddad has cancer,” he said, “He’s lying in a fucking hospital bed. He’s blind and he’s deaf. He has a hearing aid in one ear, and he can hear about 20 per cent out of it. The muscles in his leg have stopped working. And my f***ing dad don’t give a shit.” It was an unusually intense encounter. Drew’s debut album Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words had already been out for a few weeks, and – though neither of us said it – we both knew that if things were going to take off for him, it would have already done so by now. The cliché about debut albums (usually cited when bands are struggling to succeed them) is that you have your whole life to write them. But in the case of a record that talked his absent father, his mother’s subsequent relationship with a crack user and the various addictions of his friends in Forest Gate, the cliché never rang truer. Drew had bared his soul – and all, apparently, to no avail. After a week at number 30, his album dropped out of the chart.

All of which, I bring up because – well, to be honest, I thought we would never hear from him again. In a life already coloured by rejection, this would surely have to be one too many. It seemed inevitable that this would be the point where his anger would turn inwards. Most of his friends in Forest Gate, where he grew up, had turned to drugs. The one time Drew had tried heroin, as a 16 year-old going to Glastonbury, he remembers asking the stranger who gave it to him why he had started taking it. “He told me about how he was molested as a kid. That was his reason.” Drew says that if he was ever going to let his circumstances swallow him up, 2007 was the year it would have happened. He scoured magazine articles in the hope that another musician might namecheck his work, but to no avail. Assurances from Radio 1, that they would playlist his single Mama, foundered when the song barely scraped the station’s C-list. His record company spent £40,000 only to release the song a week after the release of the album on which it already featured.

“I started becoming bitter, and a little bit lost in the whole game,” he recalls, in a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. “That’s how I wrote Stay Too Long. I haven’t got a problem with drink, but if you’re feeling bit insecure, and you’re in the wrong environment, around the wrong people, then you’re going to get into a situation where someone really offends you to the point where you wanna smash their face in. So I kept on getting into these situations where I’d go out with my mates, and they’d go, ‘Look Ben, we’re going.’ I would just stay on, then someone who’s being introduced to me as a fan starts to take the piss.”

It’s hard to ascertain how many times Drew fell into this pattern. On the occasion that made him resolve to change, he remembers asking a stranger what he did. “I seem to spend half my life talking about myself, so when he tells me he was a hairdresser, we go outside for a cigarette, and I’m talking to him about his job. Suddenly, he’s like, ‘Don’t you think we’ve been talking about barbering a bit too long now, mate?’” Drew relives the slight. Hurt and fury blur into one red mist. “You open up to people and you give them a chance to take the piss, innit? So I ended up thinking, ‘I’m not having it from this c***. I walked past him and barged him. He said, ‘Yo man, you just barged me.’ I said, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ By this time, all these people are in the way telling me to calm down. I end up kicking a dustbin as the police get out, and then I just start shouting abuse at the police. So I’m arrested and I spend the night in a cell. They charged me and I had to go to court. Suddenly, I’m on suspended sentence. If I do anything else, I’m getting done for that, I get a criminal record, then it becomes hard to sell my music in America.”

Drew reasoned that he could either give up the drink that released his insecurities or he could tackle those insecurities head on. Looking up “anger management” in the Yellow Pages, he alighted on an address is Hackney and saw the same therapist on a weekly basis for a year. What did he learn during that time? “What did I learn?” Rotating the ice in his ameretto and coke, he chooses to address his glass rather than me. “I had stripped layers of confidence from myself to the point where I was a nervous wreck. I had no sense of humour. I couldn’t talk.”

Though he told his therapist what he did, Drew says he doesn’t know if she ever got around to hearing his music. Much of what he presumably told her over the course of a year, she could have got in condensed form on Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. “How long’s it been dad?” began I Don’t Hate You, before lyrically dismantling the father who left the family home when Drew was six. Drew’s father Paul Ballance had been a musician himself, fronting East London pub rock combos such as Dogwatch and Warm Jets – but when Ballance became a born-again Christian, Drew claims his father would use their fortnightly days together to spew passages from the Bible, using Mars bars as an incitement to pray. If nothing else, the recollections prompted the memorable couplet, “Everytime you put something in your mouth you had to pray to Jesus/Why the f*** do you think I never used to eat Maltesers?” For their creator’s ability to articulate the moment when victim turns perpetrator, other songs were chillingly reminiscent of Eminem at his best. Listen to the child on No More Eatin’ trying to explain to his stepfather why he didn’t retaliate when his bike was stolen, and the hurt in Drew’s bug-eyed refrain is one of the most unsettling sounds you’ll ever hear on an album of any genre.

By the age of 15, it became abundantly clear that whatever issues Drew was having to deal with, mainstream school was not managing to contain them. All these years later, he’s still visibly aggrieved at the memory of being upbraided by his drama teacher after an argument with a pupil over the direction of a project left his classmate in tears. She said, ‘I won’t have you making any student of mine feel uncomfortable. I was like, ‘Are you f***ing dumb, miss? Are you dumb? This girl, she’s manipulative. She’s chatting s**t to you, to get what she wants.’ I walked out, ripping all her posters off the wall, calling her a f***ing slag.”

Having already been expelled from two secondary schools – the second for throwing a chair across a classroom – he was sent to The Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit for “persistent non-attenders and excluded pupils.” It was here that Drew met Jo Bates, then a learning mentor at Tunmarsh. Bates remembers a teenager who “wouldn’t just accept what you told him.” Whilst such qualities might have been a problem in a mainstream secondary school, Bates says that Drew’s “questioning” nature was part and parcel of his creativity. Both she and Drew tell a story concerning his GCSE art project, but the differences in their recollections are telling. Bates only remembers the end result – “a huge multimedia thing that took everyone’s breath away.”

When Drew tells the story, you get a greater measure of the sort of sensitivity his character required. Lapsing into the vernacular of surly asbo youth, he remembers being in two minds about going through with his final exam. “My teacher was, like, ‘What’s the matter?’ I’d be like, ‘Everybody else is painting. I can’t be bothered. I haven’t got enough time. I’m late. I want to get a camera and take pictures, and I want to f*** about on photoshop.’” Drew’s project – which eventually involved a series of portraits distorted, printed onto acetate and subsequently projected – earned him an “unprecedented” A*. “They even exhibited it at East London University,” beams Bates.

Which is the better feeling – the A* or having an album go in at number one? For a second, Drew is a man bamboozled by the prospect of comparing such completely different chapters of his story. Considering how much he wanted the validation of a hit record, the sense of calm when it finally happened caught him unaware. It was a sunny day, he remembers – “my brother’s birthday, so we had a barbecue. I cooked some bream in rum and garlic.”

The Defamation of Strickland Banks was a new direction for the rapper. When he introduced the world to his sweet soul falsetto, a minority of detractors suggested the record was a calculated attempt to turn himself into a male Amy Winehouse. In fact, he had been trying to sing soul and R&B songs ever since his godfather gave him his first guitar along with the chords to Tracks Of My Tears. “The soul thing had never worked for me before,” he remembers. As the half a million people who have bought the album will surely attest, by God does it work now. Nevertheless, even when Love Goes Down, the song that opens The Defamation of Strickland Banks, appeared fully formed, it took him a while to realise that he might be the best person to sing it.

Though the songs began to come thick and fast, Drew told himself that he would sell them on to other artists. Only when he alighted on a narrative to knit them all together did he realise he had written most of his second album. On the face of it, Plan B’s second album may seem like a distancing from the raw memoir of its predecessor. In fact, there’s more of Drew in the story of Strickland Banks than one might first imagine. The album, sung from the first-person perspective of its main protagonist, tells the story of a soul singer who yields to the after-show advances of an obsessive fan. When it becomes clear that the arrangement is nothing more than a one-night stand, she then alleges that he raped her. After being tried and convicted of the charges, songs like Welcome To Hell and The Recluse chronicle Banks’ struggle to adjust to prison life – a struggle which climaxes when an attack from another inmate causes Banks to kill him in self-defence. Listen to his supercharged display on new single Prayin’, and you realise it’s the perfect conceit for someone who has spent most of his life defying people in positions of authority to condemn him. Save for the mechanics of the plot, it really isn’t such a great remove from what’s been happening to him for the last 20 years.

For the first time in his life, Drew has more options than he can action. Having been given a supporting role in Adulthood after director Noel Clarke saw him in the video to Mama, this year saw the release of Harry Brown – in which Drew starred opposite a vigilante Michael Caine. “Did I get on with him? It was fine. To be honest, we were all too intimidated by him to try and talk to him. I didn’t want to taint the experience by saying something stupid.”

On screen, it’s fair to say that it’s Drew that cuts the more intimidating figure. He says that he only accepted the role of amoral East End gang member Noel Winters on the proviso that director Daniel Barber let him change some of his character’s lines. “I said, ‘Look, there’s a hundred other kids you could get, but you’re getting me for a reason. You want realism and I can give you that… otherwise there’s no point. You can get some middle-class thespian.” If the scene which depicts Drew in his interrogation cell, hissing sexual obscenities at his female inquisitor, is anything to go by, Barber was well advised to let him.

Far from being fazed by the momentum his star seems to have gathered, Drew carries himself like a man who has spent the last few years meticulously preparing for just such a moment. In a few minutes, he’ll race off to attend a script meeting for III Manors – a film comprising six short stories, all by Drew, which he will also be directing. Plans for a Strickland Banks movie are also afoot. Somewhere amid all this, Drew is also finding time to write with other artists. He’s working on songs with French singer Sophie Delila, and produced an album by When We Are Kings – the latter fronted by his best friend and recovering heroin addict Jamie King.

Is he happy? You have to ask, because in his case, it isn’t immediately obvious. Personable as Ben Drew is, I don’t think he has actually smiled once in the two hours we’ve spent together. “I had a sort of breakthrough, if you want to call it that,” he explains. “And that helped. It came about halfway through recording the album. I realised that I had already achieved what I set out to achieve. I never gave a f*** about hit records before. When I made the first album, I just wanted to make something that reflected where I came from. I told myself to stop giving a f*** about top ten records, and concentrated on making something people would like in ten years time.”

Perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t long before his father attempted to re-establish contact. When the phone call came, Drew remembers that he was in the rehearsal studio with his band. “I remember looking at everyone there, thinking, ‘You lot don’t know how significant this phone call is.’” When I met Drew four years ago, talk turned to the fact that his father had been a musician, Drew’s animosity turned to curiosity. Someone had recently told him that one of the bands his father had been in sounded “ahead of their time – like, if it came out now, you would think it was good.” After a silence of 18 years, Drew and his father agreed to meet. After everything, what hope of a rapprochement?

“Do you want to know what happened? He denies everything. All our memories of him – anything negative, it never happened. He said it’s just distorted versions of the truth that my mother implanted in my head. He started kicking up a fuss about something that was written about him on Wikipedia… I tried to explain to him that anyone can f***ing edit Wikipedia. I’m a grown man and the guy was coming to me house talking to me like I was six years old, telling me not to swear. I’m like, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t smash your f***ing face in.” So, that’s what happened. Not a happy ending, as such – but neither, Drew is at pains to point out, should it be taken as a sad one.

Tapping a cigarette against its box, he explains, “He wasn’t in my life and it was his decision. Now he’s not in my life and it’s my decision. Finally, I got what I wanted. Closure.”

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