East London rapper Ben Drew aka Plan B was previously known for his hard hitting abrasive hip hop debut Who Needs Action When You Got Words. Now he has changed direction and is hitting the charts with soulful songs about his character 'Strickland Banks'. With his new album, The Defamation Of Strickland Banks due out in April, we chatted to him about how his awkwardness as a child fuelled his music career, his unusual filmic style of writing and his diverse ambitions for the year ahead.
CM: Where does the name come from?
PB: My friends call me 'B' because of Ben and when I invented the whole kind of Plan B before it had a name; I wanted them to still be able to call me 'B'. I didn't want to say to my mates who have been calling me Ben all my life, 'no you've got to call me f*cking MC Lightning' so I wanted a name that had B in it and I was toying with 'Strictly B' which was short for 'Strictly Business' which was when I was doing soul. When I started doing hip-hop, I thought well that's not going to work anymore, so Plan B just felt relevant because I was switching my whole style.
CM: So there was no 'Plan A' then?
PB: Well, I like to think Strictly B was Plan A, which is why I called this album 'Strickland Banks' because if Strictly B was to be tried in a court of law, they wouldn't refer to him as his stage name, they'd refer to him as his Christian name.
CM: Your biog says you had a hard time fitting in at school, did that push you towards music do you think?
PB: Yeah, you feel like an outsider because you don't know how to express yourself around people, so music is one way of doing that and music is therapy. I think there are a lot of people who feel like that and they don't necessarily have the gift to make music, so I think whether or not I felt out casted, I'd still be in music. But music was definitely a great comfort to have.
CM: Did those experiences when you were younger influence your music?
PB: Yeah, the first album definitely! It was an angry album. I was very angry and p*ssed off and I felt like no one was listening to me and no one was listening to the forgotten kids of society, the underclass. They were getting written off because they were going round f*cking stabbing each other and all nasty things but I understood why they were doing those things. It was because they didn't have parents they could look up to, they didn't have parents that showed them love or told them that they could be anything better than what they was. So if someone tells you you're a piece of shit, you act like a piece of shit. On the first album I wanted to say, the way these kids behave f*cking disgusts me and I wanna show these kids that what they are doing is wrong but I want to talk to them in their language and their language is f*ck, c*nt, b*llocks, sh*t and all the rest of it, so that's how I done it, you know.
CM: Do you still feel like you are a bit of an outsider in society?
PB: Constantly, but I'm trying real hard to fit in. I mean in terms of interviews, they were really hard for me to do. I had to really learn how to talk and interact with people in such an unnatural environment. But I know that once you make a record, you have fans that wanna understand you better and wanna hear what you think about things. So I think I've been trying really hard to fit in in that aspect. To not be aloof and not be reclusive and try and make an effort to be more of a public figure. But again, it's not an everyday environment, it's not normal and it can sometimes be hard to be this public figure and to be this f*cking celebrity but I know that it comes with the territory. It's not something I wanna be, but I know that I kind of have to be, so I've made more of an effort since the first album to try and be that kind of person.
CM: You originally started off rapping and as you said your songs were quite abrasive and angry, what made you change to the more melodic Motown style?
PB: Just because it comes natural to me, the only reason people think it's a change in direction is because they didn't know what I was doing before. People don't know me, they know Plan B, they know that first record. That is me, but it's not just me, its one side of me. Human beings are complex people and there's a lot of layers to me and soul music was always there and it was there before hip hop. Hence why I refer to Strickland Banks as 'Plan A' and the story of Strickland Banks is how Plan A's life would have turned out.
CM: You have lots of different influence from different genres, who are your main influence and idols?
PB: In this order: He-man, Michael Jackson, Ian Wright, Jungle music as a scene, there wasn't anyone in particular, The Prodigy, Radiohead, Tracy Chapman, Kurt Cobain, Eminem, Necro, Xzibit's early stuff, Far side, Cypress Hill, Johnny Cash.loads of sh*t man! I never discriminate, it's all an expression of how someone feels and when you listen to it, it makes you feel how they feel. What's the point of limiting yourself to one style of music? That's why I've got the b*llocks to go and do this, because as long as it's done well, then what's wrong with it?
CM: Your songs are character based, almost filmic rather than about personal experience. Why did you choose to go down that route?
PB: I just love telling stories and artists always write songs about themselves and I just think "get over yourself!" Sometimes I just think other people are more interesting than me and also there are certain subject matter I wanna tackle that I haven't necessarily experienced for myself, but I still want to be able to talk about them. By creating a character that's going through them, it allows you to do that. Like Strickland Banks goes to prison, I've never been to prison but by creating a character that goes to prison and making him fictional, it means that I'm not lying about prison, I'm just telling a fictional story about it.
CM: Do you think it can come across less personal than if you were to write about your own experiences?
PB: No, I don't think so. There was a quote, I can't remember it exactly but it went something like this; 'Every work of fiction is in some way an admittance of the truth'. So every work of fiction I do, in some aspect, somewhere is some kind of truth. It could just be the way I feel about something, so I write a fictional story about something that happens to someone to express my political view. But then I hide behind that character to say 'I'm not saying that's my view, that's his view' and I write the song to bring that particular subject to the surface so that we can all talk about it and that's the great thing about works of fiction, that you can kind of stir sh*t up.
CM: So would you say there is a part of you in Strickland Banks?
PB: Definitely, yeah! When I first started writing soul music, if people had given a shit and had given me a record deal, I would have been a soul singer, I never would have been Plan B. I always told myself that I would be successful in music and make a living out of it, so imagine if it had just happened for me just like that! I'm sure I would have been a very different person. Right now, I'm sure my feet would no longer be on the ground and my head would be severely up my ar*e, you know what I mean?! So I wanted Strickland to embody that, I wanted someone who just always said he was going to do something and done it, and therefore was just in love with himself. And like so many celebrities out there, I wanted to build him up and tear him the f*ck down, and that's kind of what the album's about.
CM: Obviously the new album is going to be very different from your debut, what can we expect from it?
PB: It's a soul album, presented by Plan B. So it's a soul album done in the Plan B way, which means there's a little bit of rapping in it and the subject matter's quite dark. But the music is quite soulful and up tempo and upbeat.
CM: So the album will have the Strickland Banks concept, is it a story from start to finish?
PB: It is yeah. And there is another accompanying album called The Ballad Of Belmarsh which is the hip hop version of events, it like the deleted scenes. It's very reminiscent of the first album in the way it sounds and the way the stories are told, it's almost entirely hip hop. That going to come out a bit later on.
CM: Can you tell us a bit about the new single, She Said?
PB: The video for She Said is a continuation from the last video and so is the song. The songs are episodic, we have a video called Writings On The Wall, which is the intro to the saga, if you go on YouTube you can see it. It is Strickland performing his single live at the Caf' De Paris and it ends with him coming off stage. Then Stay Too Long starts with him going backstage, going out with his entourage, getting drunk, getting in a fight and meeting a girl and bringing her back to the hotel. Then She Said starts with him back in the hotel and then suddenly he's in court and she's accusing of something he hasn't done.
CM: Do you feel you have found your niche as an artist now? You said you were doing an accompanying Hip Hop album; do you want to do a bit of both?
PB: Yeah, no, I'm doing one soul album. This is the one and only time I'm going to make this style of music. Then it's onto the next thing. It's like anything, it's like fashion, the way you have your hair, what clothes you wear, if I've done it, I've done it.
CM: Any clues as to what you're going to go onto next?!
PB: Maybe a reggae album, maybe a Dubstep album, I dunno, we'll see. But we've got a couple more hip hop albums, just straight forward Plan B hip hop that you're used to, we have a couple of them coming out before I decide to do that.
CM: What would you like to achieve this year?
PB: I wanna get the Strickland Banks campaign out the way; I want to shoot a short film around it, so the videos and that go together as a sort of musical feature film. I want to then release The Ballad Of Belmarsh, the hip hop record and then I want to shoot my film, my directorial debut, Ill Manners and that's also music based, a musical again. It will be the reverse of Strickland Banks, so the film will come out first and the soundtrack will come out after that, so I've got a busy year ahead of me doing all that. Then 2011 I guess I'll start work on something new.
CM: I'm not sure how you're going to fit all that in! Are you also planning to tour the album this year?
PB: Yeah, yeah, we've got a small tour in April and we've got all the festivals to do. Then at the end of the summer I'm probably going to shoot Ill Manners and then I think we'll probably have a bigger tour just before Christmas.
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