This article originally appeared in Popmatters.
UK acoustic guitar slinger/cinematic rapper Ben Drew (aka Plan B) traces the planting of the seed for what you hear on his debut record Who Needs Actions When You Got Words to the desire to be real about the world he grew up in and plainly tell it like it is, no matter how blunt, violent, or graphic. A transatlantic phone conversation with Plan B confirmed the fact that he’s not just trying to shock, offend, or cause large amounts of disturbing reactions just for the hell of it. When you peer deeper, what you see is a developing talent for deftly transmitting pain and anger experienced into the same kind of life-saving hip hop he first heard and that eventually inspired his desire to speak to the generation of UK youth that is coming of age behind him.
The East London rapper’s musical career started when he was messing around with friends, playing his guitar and learning the ropes by covering the songs of Britpop icons Blur and Oasis. From there Drew followed his initial interests in singing “sappy” R&B, but that got boring as the desire to tell the harsh realities of the youth culture became more important.
Like a sort of sociological music veteran who understands his cultural surroundings and wants to stay true to himself but still reach the ears of the UK youth, he explains that his first hurdle was to overcome the barrier of race. Being a white kid who loved hip-hop and also wanted to rap was something he found he could overcome—like many young white emcees growing up in the mid to late ‘90s—via a little nudge of validation, from his initial emcee blueprint Eminem.
And with much the same fury of an Eminem song and the lasting power of a Stephen King short story, Plan B delivers his brutally raw socio-rhymes to not only rip open the ears of listeners but inject a poignant message that entertains and lingers long on the mind after the song is through.
What role did race play for you growing up and wanting to sing R&B, then eventually turn to rapping about what you saw going on in the UK youth culture?
I dealt with a lot of frustration growing in a black-dominated culture being a white male, a lot of feeling that because I was white that I should not be rapping. But then I realized that I like who I like, and I don’t care what people say. I started to pay more attention to other people’s experiences and I started to notice how bad the world I was growing up in really was. I’d read in the newspaper about the kids getting robbed for Pokeman cards and I’d think that we’re living in a pretty fucked up society. That got me thinking about how UK society is influenced by American hip-hop and the violence. I included the violence in my lyrics for a reason that goes beyond just shock value. I wanted to get more creative by coming in through the backdoor, give the kids what they expected but also lyrically recreate the scene most kids are experiencing. Underneath most of my songs there’s a strong message that forces the listener to ask questions and face the situation. I’m a storyteller.
So you’re doing two things: responding to the youth by coming at them, at their level, and trying to lift them out of the drugs, sex, and violence; and also in the process challenge the adult UK culture to face the truth?
Yeah, it’s true that most adults know about the youth violence and other fucked up shit but don’t have a fucking clue how to deal with it. They don’t know what it’s like to live on the streets. The only way you get through to these kids is through their minds. So many kids don’t have dads so they look to hip-hop music, and whatever the British government tried to do never solved anything in my city. I eventually realized that the only way you’re going to get through to these kids in the films or music. I talk about the reality of drugs and violence because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel and most kids end up catching some kind of disease like AIDS or something depressing like that. Growing up I saw life like as a very pessimistic person but now that I’m older I try to be more optimistic, but I’m also glad I saw those nasty things. Again, most kids, are not intending to killing each other just send a message like, ‘I’m gonna cut you,’ but what ends up happening is that they do kill each other because they have no clue about reality. So I want to help teach them what I’ve seen and that there is a real fucking danger in doing what they’re doing. The government or parents aren’t doing anything about it, so I’m making music to try and get into their minds and help change what they’re doing.
When I visit my friends in jail, and they don’t have the proper books to read, I give them my songs and they pass it around and the other guys in jail start talking about [what] I’m talking about, because in jail there’s no library, no chance for a proper rehabilitation so I give them my music, and it gives them a chance to think about things that are going to help them without being preachy or self-righteous.
I was fucking lost—that’s why I wrote this music, man. I wrote it as therapy for myself and to find out what I really stood for, and in the process I did find that and that process continues as I work on my next album.
Who was it that you heard or saw that flipped the validated switch and freed you to rap regardless of your skin color?
There was a time when I was just rapping bullshit lyrics and then I realized after listening to Pharcyde, Tracy Champman, and Kurt Cobain that I wanted to talk about things that mattered. But then I realize that I’m not going to be a gangster. When Eminem came out and I realized that you, first, could be white and rap and, second, that you didn’t have to be a gangster to rap. There was just so much bullshit and inferiority about a white kid picking up a mic and rapping. When Eminem came out that all changed. But I also realized that Eminen was already Eminem and I couldn’t be him. He had the Slim Shady character so I knew I had to come at my rapping a different way and find an angle that was my own. I always liked film so I decided to create a style that was like creating songs that were like short films. Songs like “Momma (Loves a Crack Head)” and “Charmaine”, were written as if they were short films because that’s where I felt the most comfortable and true to who I am. It allows me to become a method actor and become a different rapper. I had a friend whose granddad was blind and I thought of recording stories so blind people could enjoy a story. I called the concept “film for the blind” and wanted to put it to music. I knew Sticky Fingers did something similar but I believed that I was going to come at the concept my own way. I read a lot of short stories and decided that’s how I wanted to write. A lot of filmmakers write about what they read about in the paper. If I read a story in the paper that moves me, I write about it. So I wrote the song “Tough Love”—someone told me about this girl whose parents beat her because she was becoming Westernized. I moved on from subject to subject and then I wanted to mix in some more personal subjects. And in the end the album turned about to mix of both personal and fictional accounts.
You slide back and forth almost mid-note or from chorus to verse from hip-hop to R&B. Which came first as a musical interest?
The R&B came first, mate. I taught myself how to play guitar at 14, messing around with Blur and Oasis songs when Britpop was big. My friends and I started singing joke songs and that built my confidence, making people laugh, getting comfortable performing, not taking myself too seriously. I started writing some serious songs, and I wrote a song about a girl at a party, R&B, that song develop and eventually got me singed. But it wasn’t the R&B that got me where I am today. Nobody wanted to sign a white R&B singer. I wanted to sing about more serious songs. I didn’t really feel comfortable singing about love and soft shit but what I did feel comfortable with was singing about current shit going on in the world, So I went to my manger at the time and played “Kidz” and told him I wanted to pursue this type of song writing and he said no, that hip-hop was dead, especially in the UK, no hip-hop artist has ever made in big: “Just leave it, man. your career is going to be in R&B. Then I said to him, that’s fine, I’ll just stay underground, but I don’t want to sing R&B no more. I don’t give a shit if I don’t make it big; I just what to make music that feels real to me and that I feel comfortable with. So I convinced him to play “Dead and Buried” at a show and it blew everybody away. The rapping and playing guitar. So I thought this is what I was fighting for and then I got signed after making a demo.
You’ve received some Stateside press and played a few shows in the US before your recent New York show. How was the crowd?
It reminded me of the first time playing live in the UK, when no one really knew me. I couldn’t understand why a song like “Charmaine” [it has a shocking ending with a twist] didn’t have the effect that it did in the UK—maybe it was UK slang or maybe they already heard it. But other than that it was a good time coming back to NYC. I’ve got no big expectations. I know the US is a big fucking country. I’m just from the UK and I don’t expect anyone in the US to give me a chance or to give me any kind of leg up. Hip-hop comes from the US so what should anyone in the US give a fuck about what I’m doing? I expect to have to work hard and earn the respect as I go.
What have you learned from other UK rappers that have come to introduce themselves to a U.S. audience?
I don’t think anyone has ever been that good enough to really take over the U.S. Even myself. I know I’m as good as anyone out there. I’m not afraid to say that I’m a better lyricist then a lot of US artist who are making money and getting their songs and videos played on MTV. I’m also not afraid to say that a lot of US hip-hop has no substance, it’s just about money and hos. I take pride that UK artists like me are rapping about things that are 100 percent more deeper. It’s going to be a long time before a UK artist takes over America, maybe never. Prodigy hit it big in America because they had their own sound, their own thing. That’s what I’m striving to do and that’s the only way to do it. If I just bring the typical hip-hop shit that’s already been done before and if I try to sell back what the US already sold us than it ain’t going to work.
There’s a long history of the US and the UK sort of volleying back music styles, especially in rock ‘n’ roll and with the blues, a sort of one-upping or re-creating.
Yeah, grunge music started in the US and then died out and the UK brought it back in the form of grime because garage music came first, then the UK created grime out of what we heard from grunge. Yeah, it is like tennis. We seem to influence each other but we never seem to meet at the same place in hip-hop. You might get some UK artist like Westwood trying to imitate crunk but nobody really listens to that shit, just the suburban kids who don’t know their ear hole from their asshole. Us kids in the streets don’t listen to that shit. We listen to our own artists who are rapping about what’s relevant to us because where we’re living, we need to hear that kind of thing for our souls because we can’t be hearing bling bling and bitches and hos because we ain’t seeing it.
Do you think that hip-hop talks to the issue of race in a way that challenges what people really believe or think they believe?
So far, as I understand it, white culture seems so shallow. I see black culture as being more unified. White culture seems to be more focused on class and money. We have the same thing here in the UK. I think that because we don’t have any respect for our own race then we don’t have any respect for the any other race or people. The reason that the shitty hip-hop music is selling is because it gets sold to the suburban white kids who don’t know shit and think that re-done UK crunk music is good music. They get told by music industry pushers that “the kids in London are listening to it,” and the suburban kids say, “Really? Cool.” And so they buy and think that it’s what we’re listening to in London when actually we fucking hate that kind of music. But the suburban kids don’t question what they’re told and buy it anyways.
Yeah, I’m racist. I’m racist against other white people, especially against the white suburban kids who continue to get sold shitty hip-hop because they’re ignorant and instantly believe what they’re told. I’m proud of who I am as a white man who appreciates other countries and cultures, but I hate the fact that there are white kids in the suburbs who don’t stop to think and really listen to the good hip-hop that’s coming out of London. I know every race has scumbags, but I look around and I want to be able to say that I’m proud about having unity with other white classes. I tend to see that more in black and Asian culture, but not so much in the white culture.
Your dad was in a punk band.
Yes, he was in a band early in his life and then got fucked over in a bad record deal, played in a few other bands that also failed, and then he had a breakdown after that. But the dad that people tell me about and the dad I remember are two different people. I remember a dad who was a Jesus Freak that told my mom and my siblings that if we didn’t believe in God then we were going to burn in Hell. That’s why he took off. My mom was always telling me that I could believe in whatever I wanted to, so her and my dad split. He took off and I stayed with her and my siblings. I grew up very confused. My dad telling me I need to believe this or else I was going to Hell and my mom was relaxed and chilled about religion, letting me choose what I believed.
How does the lack of relationship with your dad or that confusion growing up influence your music?
Well, when someone hasn’t been in your life that long it’s like they never existed. Like me and you are speaking for the first time today and the only thing we have in common is my album. You’ve listened to it and you and I have more in common than I have with my dad. But if I met my dad, he’d be like any other guy on the street. I might have some emotions towards him but it would only be that, even though he brought me into this world, the only emotion or thought that I would have is that I don’t give a shit anymore. I suppose I would want some answers, some closure; I would want to know why he fucking took off. I might spit in his face and give him a couple of jabs and want to rob his bank account and take back the money that he should have given to me and my siblings growing up. To be honest, it’s not an issue I cry when I talk about it because growing up there’s things I wish he would have been there to teach me, but, actually, if I had the kind of man my father is, in my life growing up, I would have been a fucked-up person, even more than I am now so I really don’t feel that bad that he’s not in my life.
It’s not on the album but what’s the perspective in the mixtape song “Cast a Light”?
I don’t have kids yet but I know if I did would be a shit dad if I were to have kids right now. I got my career and I would never be around. So with that track I was looking at the future. The smoking part of the song is subtle but in the end of the song I die. I needed a song to always remind me of what I saw my granddad go through when he died of cancer. Seeing him die got me thinking about dying, so I stopped smoking last October and haven’t had one cigarette since. I’m not saying, “Don’t smoke,” because I fucking love smoking, but in the process of writing that song I realized that if I kept smoking I wasn’t going to be able to see my kids or grandkids.