90 min • Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London • August 29, 2013
“I’m not allowed to swear … such is life … welcome to hell!” was probably the best introduction to a song ever. I’d already noticed in the first few songs of his exclusive set at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire that he’d censored himself (“cunt” became runt, other swear words were just inexplicably missing), and as he launched into ‘Welcome To Hell’, from the soul rap opera The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, I wondered what the evening would hold. Being streamed live in YouTube to launch O2’s 4G, this would probably be quite a hits orientate set, and it was overall, albeit with a few surprises.
As soon as he announced he couldn’t swear, I knew the chances of us getting anything off his first album, Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words, were limited. I mean, it opens with the line ,
It’s my time now, you get me? You fucking cunts –
and barely lets up the whole way through. I was right about that. We did, however, get ‘End Titles’ and ‘Pieces’, two of his amazing collaborations with Chase And Status, and I chanted along to both, deafening all around me during ‘Pieces’, shouting,
I remember when I used to feel something.
Now I’m just cold inside –
Ben’s performance style has always had more in common with a punk frontman than your average rapper, and tonight was no exception. During ‘Pieces’ he pounded the stage, asking the crowd where the mosh pit was – “I thought this was London!!!” Of course, the mosh pit was not forthcoming. The main problem with trying to incite such a thing in this crowd seemed to be that his fanbase has, over the years, become a lot more … sedate. They knew all the words to the songs from Strickland Banks, but seemed less at ease with the songs from iLL Manors. I did my best to start a mosh pit during both of those songs, and even considered jumping into the small pit that had sprung up on the other side of the auditorium, but thought better of it.
So, being a relatively PG set we got plenty of crowd pleasers, but mostly with twists. A dubstep bass was thrown under the rap of hit single ‘She Said’ (which even my mum likes) and the same happened during ‘Deepest Shame’ from iLL Manors, both of which made me skank like a punk at a squat party. We also got ‘Prayin’ (which I now have stuck in my head the next morning, thanks Ben!), the amazing ‘Playing With Fire’, ‘Lost My Way’ and beautiful ‘Live Once’, and the latter was given the introduction for ‘Stay Too Long’ because he forgot what was next.
“I was in a rush, and I forgot one song … coz I didn’t wanna stay too long …”
And when he did launch into ‘Stay Too Long’, my final chance to try and start a mosh pit on my side of the audience came. I thrashed around and stomped my feet, whipping my hair like a geriatric Willow Smith, but to no avail! The crowd around me consisted of Strickland Banks fans, teenage girls, and a middle-aged woman who kept screaming, “Ben, come and sit on my face!” I have no idea how he managed to refuse …
The biggest shock for me came not only when he performed an impromptu encore of ‘Charmaine’ (a song from his debut album about falling in love with a 14 year old girl … didn’t sound so bad when he was 19, at 29, even he thinks it’s a little wrong) when sections of the crowd chanted for it, and that the previously sedate crowd knew all the words and even sang along. Maybe I was too quick to judge his current fans and their possible MOR leanings. Or maybe I just glanced at the right people? (Ms HRT behind me did seem particularly quiet.) We got ‘iLL Manors’ twice, but with it being one of the best songs I’ve heard in years, I didn’t mind! I screamed every word both times and didnt care about the overwhelming feeling I’d done it all before.
As an artist, a rapper, musician, singer, writer, actor and director, Ben Drew is one of the most talented and most underrated on the UK scene, and this gig was testament to that. But I can’t help feeling that the Ben who used to rap about knives and badly behaved kids with his acoustic guitar, that sampled Radiohead and Nirvana, as the voice of disgruntled lower middle class/upper working class youth, had more bite than the Ben I saw sing soul music in what I’m sure was a Vivienne Westwood shirt. Having said that, I wouldn’t have missed this gig for the world, and it has once more fuelled my hunger for the next instalment in Plan B’s cannon of fantastic and diverse albums. If you ever get the chance to experience this powerhouse live, take it over anything else – you won’t regret it.