A sharp grey jacket with black lapels. Zoot suit trousers and dangerous looking winkle-pickers – and not a hoodie in sight. Meet the new Plan B, notorious rapper turned Sixties soul boy.
Luscious soul music fills the room of a North London rehearsal studio. Ben Drew (AKA Plan B) and his eight-piece backing band are re-acquainting themselves with tracks from the imminent Plan B album, ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’.
The songs sound great, and Clash is also impressed with the couture on display. “I can’t rehearse without this shit on. If I wear a hoodie when I get up there, it just don’t feel right. I feel uncomfortable dancing and moving, and really giving it my all,” Ben says. “There’s such a strong history of this music, I can look back at pictures of what people were wearing. So, when you hear this music and see us on stage, it looks and feels genuine.”
A lot has happened to Plan B since 2006’s hardcore ‘Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words’ debut, a brilliantly raw album on which Drew outlined a world of gang violence, drug abuse and honour killings. He’s collaborated with Chase And Status, released a series of mixtapes (including 2007’s ‘Paint It Blacker’), while his burgeoning acting career includes parts in Michael Caine’s Harry Brown and Noel Clarke’s Adulthood.
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His new musical direction evokes a little Smokey and a touch of Al, with Drew showcasing a surprisingly sweet falsetto. “Before Plan B, I was doing pretty generic Usher-type love songs,” Ben tells Clash over a distinctly non gangsta-style hot chocolate. “I was very young, and didn’t feel very comfortable with my voice. So I said to my manager, ‘I’m gonna be a songwriter behind the scenes, and in public I’m gonna be a rapper called Plan B.”
Like one of his major influences, Eminem, Drew felt the need to create a number of alter egos in the process – the latest incarnation being soul singer Strickland Banks. “I wanted to make the other side of Ben Drew. The only way I thought that could work is if I was a character and turn the album into a concept album. I saw the album as a film with no images.” However, the visualisation of Strickland Banks will happen, with Drew due to both direct and star in a full-length feature film.
On the album, the character is sent to prison for the clichéd ‘crime he didn’t commit’, and this sense of injustice is a theme that deeply resonates with the twenty-six-year-old Londoner. “I wanted to keep telling stories about struggle and injustice – Strickland Banks is an innocent man. That’s what keeps it a Plan B album, because even though the music is very soulful there is still that underlying dark subject matter that makes it me, you know.”
“I’ve had a great sense of what injustice is from a very young age. I used to get really upset at school when friends would get into trouble for stuff they hadn’t done. Whenever I see injustice, or something I don’t agree with, it often fuels the fires inside of me to write songs.”
What is impressive is Drew’s ability to change styles with such dexterity. Much of the new album is raw, vibrant soul, with Plan B’s distinctive rapping style kept to a minimum. “Previously, the motive behind doing the rap stuff and the social commentary was so I could talk about subjects that I thought society was ignoring. Now that I’ve done that, I’ve grown as a musician, and I’m a lot more comfortable with my voice. I feel that it’s the right time to show people this other side, that’s been there from the start.”
It’s a brave move, but the initial response looks promising with lead single ‘Stay Too Long’ crashing into the Top 10 earlier in the year. Was Drew concerned by how the radical change in direction would be perceived? “I’ve played the songs to a couple of my friends and they’ve been quiet. I’ve said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and they’ve gone, ‘I really like it, it’s brilliant, but I’m worried about what your fans might think’. But they ain’t my fans if they’re gonna hold me back, if they’re gonna stop me being creative.”
Ben Drew is a complex and multi-talented guy; he talks freely and eloquently, often about himself in the third person, and rarely makes eye contact. He distinguishes between himself, Plan B and Strickland Banks, and even talks about a “Plan A” at one point. He skilfully evades Clash’s probing about his compulsion to ‘hide’ behind his alter egos – but could there ever be a ‘plain old’ Ben Drew album? “I reckon when I retire from hip-hop, when I’m in my forties and it’s just not cool to be a bald, fat, white rapper, I’m just gonna do folky blues music on an acoustic guitar – as Ben Drew. Grow old gracefully, like Johnny Cash.”
Words by John Freeman