Plan B: "I've always been fuelled by a sense of injustice"
Since an explosion of discontent saw Britain burst into flames. The August 2011 riots triggered by the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham had spread to Birmingham, Manchester and beyond. Cars, shops and even a bus were torched, and the 144-year-old Reeves furniture store in Croydon was among the many premises razed to the ground.
The police arrested nearly 4,000 people for 5,175 recorded crimes. The aftermath brought the expected howls of outrage and retribution from the usual suspects – the tabloids and the government. But among the chorus of disapproval was an unexpected voice – that of Ben Drew, aka Forest Gate-born rapper/soul singer Plan B.
“My initial reaction was that these kids are making it 10 times harder for themselves in a world where they’re already being judged, so the government will use this as an excuse to punish them rather than rehabilitate them,” he says. “But I also thought – are you idiots? You’re robbing from Lidl. You’re gonna get a criminal record for stealing a bag of rice.”
It’s the last day of Drew’s Forestry Commission-backed tour of the country’s woods and we’re sitting in a tourbus among the trees of Delamere Forest – Cheshire’s largest area of woodland – and despite Drew’s enormous success it’s notable that the bus is sparse, with only a discarded iPod cable even hinting that the occupant is involved in music.
It’s a world away from the troubled urban areas we’re discussing. “I understand the frustration,” he admits, smoking furiously. “The rioters went out and fought for what they believed in: widescreen TVs, DVDs and trainers!” He emits a tiny chuckle. But he's not pointing the finger at the rioters per se: more the societal pressures that lie behind them.
“Every day they watch TV they’re told to buy these things, and that if you don’t have them people will look down on you. A lot of kids just saw an opportunity – a shop that was smashed in that has the trainers they wanted. But those trainers are an easy fix for now. They’re not going to change your life.”
Since his initial outburst against the riots, Drew’s attitude has developed. “When I thought more about it, I realised it was a positive thing,” he says, today dressed down in Vans T-shirt and plain black trackies.
“Nobody can say we don’t have issues any more. It’s only when it lands in people’s living rooms they realise there is a problem.”
“The problem” is what has driven iLL Manors – Drew’s film (a harrowing morality tale that depicts the grim daily life in London’s drug/gang-ridden estates), album soundtrack and single of the same name. The latter – which addresses the riots’ subtext with sampled violins and hip hop – was heralded by one critic as “the first great mainstream protest song in years”.
Drew isn’t the only artist to tackle the causes of the riots – he cites fellow rappers Lowkey, Akala and “huge inspiration” Skinnyman. But he is the only such voice in pop’s mainstream. It’s certainly an unexpected – even risky – career shift after the triple platinum-selling soul concept album The Defamation of Strickland Banks. But Drew doesn’t see it that way.
“No one said, ‘Don’t risk your career’ because they know not to talk to me like that. I’d slap them. Trust me!” he says, and another mischievous chuckle penetrates his trademark intensity. A remarkably driven artist, Drew is clearly exhausted.
A “mental last six weeks” has seen him work day and night on his film directing debut, as well as finishing his album and being on the road. He’s slept on the floors of recording studios and editing suites so he’s ready to get straight back to work once he’s had the slightest bit of shut-eye.
Rather than cancel shows, he’s pulled all his promotional activities bar The Big Issue, a magazine he “cares a lot about”. He isn’t grumbling about the tiredness: Strickland’s success has given him a platform to get things off his chest. “I’ve always been fuelled by a sense of injustice. If I see or experience something that isn’t fair I won’t shut up about it.”
Over our hour-long encounter, Drew is as good as his word, railing against everything from “teachers who don’t care, just take the money” to – top of his list of iLLs – “the demonisation of the underclass”.
“It seems to be acceptable to attack each other based on class,” he argues, lighting up again. “As a nation we’ve driven racism and sexism underground, and that’s got to happen with class.”
When Drew left school he found prospective employers looked down on his street talk and perceived origins on a council estate (in fact, his mother owned their home). Cleverly he turned the situation to his advantage. “If that’s how people see me, I’ll embrace that and represent that.”
However, finding his own voice has also meant confronting his own prejudices, and asking where they came from. “I realised a lot of them were formed by the media,” he admits, a pop star at ease with questioning himself as well as things around him. “If a newspaper has a story every week about a family of ‘spongers’, when people are struggling, it’s going to make someone who’s already angry even angrier. The papers perpetuate the class war.
“Kids are growing up in environments where their own parents tell them that stuff, or there’s no love, or they’re in foster care. It’s hard to do well when you’re not happy. So these kids come out of school with no grades. They talk a certain way, mostly slang, then they try to get a job and the person interviewing them is looking at someone they’ve read about in a newspaper. If you’re gonna treat someone you’ve never met before like that they’re gonna hate you back. So the cycle continues.”
However, Drew is no textbook rebel. Ask him how he’d like to change things and stop the riots happening again and he uses unexpected words like “positivity” and “belief”, arguing that everyone has a talent if they can banish the idea – “built by society, then reinforced by parents” – that the lower class must “know their place.”
Ideally, he’d like to instigate a nationwide version of the turnaround in his own life. The son of a local authority architect and punk musician/absent father, Drew was a disruptive teen, expelled from school after hurling a chair at a teacher.
“It didn’t hit him,” he insists, with the flicker of a grin. He was sent to Tunmarsh, a pupil referral unit for problem children. The teachers took an interest in him, got him playing music, and the rest is history.
Recently, he returned to the school to play teacher himself to troubled kids. Documented in BBC documentary Project Hackney, the results make inspiring television: getting a young lad drumming for the first time; a young girl singing a song to her deceased father. “Fantastic, man,” he glows. His next project is setting up an organisation helping kids from deprived areas build careers in entertainment – costumers, caterers, lighting technicians and the like.
“I’m not into giving people false hope,” he insists. “If someone comes up to me and says they want to be a songwriter, but their songs are rubbish, I’ll tell them they face 10 years of hard work to get to my level. They might say, ‘Erm, you’re right. I don’t wanna be a songwriter any more’. But there’s been no one in their life to have those conversations.”
Drew is most knowledgeable about the detail of the daily lives on London’s tough estates: from how drug dealers have started targeting children with strawberry-flavoured crystal methamphetamine to how the justice system punishes the innocent as well as the guilty.
“If a kid’s with a group of others who rob a shop, but he walks away, he gets done as well. If he says he didn’t see anything, the court thinks he’s belligerent,” he explains, bristling. “But he’s probably better off being in jail because if he’s seen as ratting on them kids, the court won’t protect his family. He comes out with a criminal record. Then it’s impossible for him to do anything.”
He’s sketchier on wider policy, calling it a “rabbit hole” he doesn’t feel informed enough to go down. He’s certainly no archetypal liberal. Drew has been critical of David Cameron but seems to share his distrust of state provision, arguing that people need to learn to be self-sufficient.
He insists that governments “rob us for our taxes but squander the money”, but won’t be drawn on what could be done with it instead (apart from greater arts funding). His opinions can seem contradictory. One minute he’s talking about how “obviously there are people that sponge off the government and [want] what you can get for free”, the next musing about the “positive energy in the world, and that’s faith, which you can tap into without religions”.
His worldview seems to stretch from The Taxpayers’ Alliance to the Dalai Lama, but maybe there is something in his idea that we need to look beyond dogma, and a “flawed political process which means one lot do something for four years and the other lot reverse it, so nothing changes”.
He has admirers across the political spectrum. Shadow health minister Jamie Reed compares him to Marvin Gaye, Conservative Edwina Currie to a “21st-century Dickens”, while right-wing commentator Toby Young has even dubbed him a “Tory who doesn’t know it”.
“I saw that and asked myself, ‘Ben, are you a Tory?’
A Tory thinks that no matter what your upbringing you can be anything in this world. The opposite is to think that if you’re born in a certain section of society it’s impossible to get higher under a Tory government. It’s not impossible, but you need belief. I believe that we are” – he quotes iLL Manors’ central message – “a product of our environment.”
That environment isn’t going away, and Drew knows people trapped in terrible situations from which there seems no escape.
“I’ve got mates trying to get off heroin. They get a shitty job and say, ‘This job’s making me want to do heroin again’. That’s the extreme, but depression hits everybody. If you end up in a job you hate you’ll go, ‘Fuck this, man’.”
He’s a 28-year-old multi-media artist and doesn’t have all the answers. However, perhaps he is living proof of the power of positive thinking. He expects there may be more riots, but doesn’t expect a British Arab Spring. As he puts it, with a final little chuckle and a little help from Gil Scott-Heron: “The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will be in the head.”
iLL Manors – the official soundtrack album is out now on 679/Atlantic RecordsWords: Dave Simpson