Plan B is about to release the soundtrack to his feature film: iLL Manors. Polari’s music reviewer Little Bastard takes a look at the career of Ben Drew, and argues that he is the poet for a generation.
When Ben Drew, AKA Plan B, broke onto the music scene in 2010 with the Gangsta-Soul concept album The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, few of the 1,000,000 people that bought the album would have known who he was before the single ‘She Said’ hit number 3 in the UK singles charts. And chances are, the people who supported him at the height of his fame will be shocked by his return to the brutal, genre defying rap-poetry of debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. So, as Ben gets ready to release his sonic assault on society, the soundtrack to musical film iLL Manors (which also doubles as Ben’s latest studio album) here is an introduction, or a re-introduction, to one of most talented artists of his generation.
Born in Forest Gate in 1983, the son of Paul Ballance of punk band The Warm Jets, Ben saw himself as a social outcast. Residing in the void between “working” and “middle” class that most of us fall in to, he learned to play the guitar at 14, taking to music as an escape. He started out writing pop r’n'b songs but became uncomfortable with the formula and wrote his first rap song at the age of 18, the amazingly poetic ‘Kidz’, a reaction to the death of Damilola Taylor.
‘Kidz’ would become the opening track of his debut album, and it was my first proper introduction to Plan B, and a heavy one at that. I’d seen a copy of RWD magazine (an urban music and lifestyle magazine) with Plan B’s bloodied face on it lying in the street when I was walking to work one day, and the image was so striking I had to pick it up and find out who this guy was. Realising I’d already heard his Kelly Charles sampled track ‘No Good’ a year before, I purchased the album and pressed play, only to be confronted with one of the best opening lines of an album in history …
It’s my time now, you get me?
You fucking cunts -
and from that moment I was hooked. ‘Kidz’, with its acoustic guitar loop and lyrics about gang violence and underage sex, hits you hard in the face like a fist. And the album never lets up. We get a man killed in reverse, a song about his non-existent relationship with his father, a song about unintentional statutory rape, a Kelly Charles sample, a Radiohead sample (removed on the released version due to copywrite issues) and all from someone yet to turn 23. Seeing him live also blew my mind, as I’d never seen a rapper pick up an acoustic guitar and, like a cross between Eminem and Bob Dylan via London, play all his songs live. The acoustic videos for ‘Kidz’ and ‘Sick 2 Def’ on his website made me realise that he was a one-of-a-kind original. Not just a fly-by-night Channel U rapper who would make a controversial album talking about bitches, but a true artist whose stories needed to be heard. At the time of the album’s release, there was also bootleg mix tape, Paint It Blacker, on which Ben sampled everyone from the Rolling Stones to Coldplay. It was as dark as it gets, with songs from his first album bootlegged with some of Ben’s favourite songs (and in some cases the samples they should have had reinstated) as well as songs that didn’t make the album like ‘Suzanne’, a harrowing tale of a prostitute murdered and dismembered set to a sample from Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name.
After disappointing sales of his first album, Ben went away and decided to explore songwriting, and the result was The Defamation of Strickland Banks, a concept album about a musician falsely accused of rape. Whilst in prison for the crime he did not commit, he is tormented by a fellow inmate and so, with the help of another, decides to kills him. His accomplice, knowing he will already be in jail for life, takes the blame for the murder, but the guilt of this consumes Banks. At the end of the album we see Strickland back in court again yet the album leaves us not knowing whether Strickland is sent back to prison or released. Whether the majority of people listening to the album were aware of its dark story is difficult to say, but if it hadn’t passed them by, then Plan B’s next step shouldn’t have been such a shock.
Let’s all go on an urban safari,
We might see some illegal migrants!
Oi look, there’s a c.h.a.v.
That means council housed and violent!
we hear over a string section before a dubstep beat cuts in and Plan B continues on his political rant, which is arguably one of the most arresting “protest” songs in modern years, ‘iLL Manors’.
The key to Plan B’s writing is that the majority of it is written in the first person, enabling the listener to go inside the heads of the characters he inhabits. Like an English Marshall Mathers, Ben draws on his own experiences and what goes on around him and uses it as social commentry, making geniunely poetic, story driven rap that is unlike anything else on the music scene today. He was of course heavily critisised for “glorifying” the London riots of 2011, the focus of the ‘iLL Manors’, with lyrics such as,
Let’s go looting,
No, not Luton!
The high street’s closer,
Cover your face -
but being provocative is the point. Ben himself said, the London riots made him “sick to his stomach”, but he wanted to give a voice to the people who he felt didn’t have one. The accompanying video got people even more wound up, showing “happy slapping”, burning cars, and even footage of John Prescott smacking the prostestor who hit him with an egg, while Plan B jumps around in a hoodie, seemingly enciting everything that is happening around him. Its a very provoking piece of work and that’s just the beginning. The single comes from the film of the same name, Plan B’s directorial debut. A savage portrayal of life in London, featuring drug addicts, prostitutes and lots of violence.
iLL Manors is created from 6 short stories which interlink, each presented with a different rap song, taking the form of a film musical and turning it on its head. If Ben’s short film Michelle, a harrowing tale of a drug addict forced into cheap prostitution for stealing someone’s phone (at one point, her modesty is sold for £10 and a kebab!!) was anything to go by, iLL Manors was always going to have the promise of something hard hitting and shocking – and it was. A punch-in-the-face social drama with a pop video aesthetic, iLL Manors sweats “debut film” from every pore – and whilst it is a flawed film, creativity and brutal style ooze out of every frame, and it left me feeling thoroughly violated for several hours afterwards. The resulting soundtrack album, out on July 23, will be stunning. ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Lost My Way’, two tracks that have been pre-released for free download by Ben, both have the bite of his earlier work with the mature sound of Strickland Banks, showing how much he has matured as an artist. The music will go a long way to tell the story of iLL Manors without the visual treats the film gave us.
If the tracks that have been pre-released prove anything, it’s that Plan B is a poet for a generation. The Kurt Cobain of UK Hip-hop, if you will. Describing his touring musicians as a ‘punk band that play soul music’, the unintitated may not know what to make of Plan B’s future. His next project after iLL Manors (actually slated for release before the film, but was put back due to touring commitments) is The Ballad Of Belmarsh, a hip-hop counterpart to The Defamation Of Strickland Banks. Whether the housewives and office workers that bought into Strickland Banks will like it, or the audio-visual concept that is iLL Manors, is anyone’s guess, but that’s the best thing about Plan B… he doesn’t care.
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