- Tue, 2010-04-06 16:38
Ben Drew is Plan B, the rapper who blew the critics away with his darkly disturbing yet compelling debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words? This time last year you’d have got better odds on Will Young joining Lil Wayne’s posse than on Plan B making his return with a sweet soul falsetto, but that’s exactly what he’s done. Building on a fledgling film career (Adulthood, Harry Brown) Drew presents us with a film and album combination that tells the story of a soul singer fallen from grace: The Defamation of Strickland Banks.
I Like Music huddled over an electric fire with Plan B and found out what happened to the angry young man we were expecting, how the film/album conceit came into being, why London is the greatest musical city in the world, and what direction he might go in next.
"I Like Music because…it's the reason why I’m sitting here now.” Plan B
ILM: The new album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, has come in tandem with a film. What’s the connection?
Plan B: I love telling stories and I love making music. The music came first and then I needed a way of incorporating this new sound into something that Plan B does. Plan B represents a story-telling aspect of hip-hop music. When me and the band started making this soul music, I didn’t want to waste it and I didn’t want it to sit on a shelf and for no-one to ever to hear it. So I asked myself “How can I make this work in the Plan B world?” I thought the best way to do that was to create a character that could represent the songs, every time you hear a song it should be looked upon as if Strickland banks is singing them, not me.
Strickland Banks is a successful soul singer who gets wrongly convicted of a crime and gets sent to jail. That idea allowed me to have love songs on the album, plus songs about injustice and struggle. There's a song about him killing someone on there, I figured that if the music was kind of up-tempo then the subject matter could be dark, and it worked...!
ILM: The album sees a big change in style for you, how did that come to be?
Plan B: On the first record the subject matter was dark and the music was dark. Although I think I proved I was a talented songwriter, a lot of people were like “Look, I love your music, I think you’re really talented and that, but I just can’t listen to your first album. It makes me feel sad. It depresses me.” With this record I just wanted to experiment with making music that wasn’t dark.
The way I compromised was to make the music quite up-tempo, up-beat, and leave the subject matter as it is. That’s what keeps it real for me. If I ever felt like I wasn’t keeping it real, then I wouldn’t put my name to it. But I really enjoyed making this record, I’m really proud of it...
ILM: What’s the driving force behind your music? What is it that keeps you making it?
Plan B: Life can be quite a struggle if you don’t have something that you’re passionate about. I count myself as lucky that I have something, whether it be a gift or whatever, I feel very lucky that I have that. For me, doing a 9-5 job or doing anything else would just be a waste of that talent. So the drive and determination comes from having this imagination, having all these projects that I want to do, but that I can’t do unless I have money.
I have to make art that people want to buy. That’s not me saying that my art has to be commercial, it’s just me saying that everything I do, whether it be a soul record, a hip-hop record, a reggae record, a drum and bass record, whatever, it has to be good enough for people to want to go and buy it. Then I can earn a living off it. It’s not why I do it; I do it because I want to express myself and because I love creating new things and telling stories, but it has to be good enough to package and sell to people.
ILM: You need to make a living in order to continue making music, to continue being creative...
Plan B: Absolutely. It’s like a painting, I could say that I love painting and could go and do a load of paintings, but they’d be a load of shit. No-one would want to buy them! The better something is, the more of a price you can put on it. That’s the thing with the creative industry. I could spend my life being creative, but all the art that I make could just be a pile of shit. My determination and the drive comes from wanting to express myself and wanting to be the best I can be at expressing myself.
ILM: How does that awareness of an audience and/or a market, translate itself to your songwriting? Does it have an affect upon it?
Plan B: Through writing verses I might start thinking about the people that are going to be listening to it, yeah. If I were to write a verse in metaphors that only I could understand, then nobody else would be able to relate to it. You get different kinds of rappers. You get these rappers who only ever rap in metaphors and expect everybody to understand what they’re saying, I’m not one of those rappers. I like to spell it out for people. I want little kids to be able to understand what I’m saying. So yes, there’s aspects of songwriting in which you write for the audience, but the hooks and the music usually come from somewhere deep inside. It’s called soul music, and I guess that’s why they call it that.
When I made this record I didn’t base it on a Marvin Gaye record, or a Smokey Robinson record, I based it on myself. It was only when we came to the production of it, the sound and the sonics, that we started listening to old music. She Said, for example, was just guitar chords and a beat and I said “this sounds like it needs brass and strings.” We went and listened to Minnie Ripperton for the strings, and Ray Charles for the brass. Then we started looking at other old artists. But where the songs come from in the first place? That's just from in here *taps chest* and then written on the guitar.
ILM: It sounds like your process for creating a song is very organic?
Plan B: Yeah. The music just comes naturally. I’ll be throwing a couple of chords together, then when I hear them, they'll just sound addictive. I know they’re addictive because every time I hear them I’ll just want to sing something on top of them. When I sing on top of them, something will just come naturally. It’s like every time I hear that note, I'll want to sing this note. That’s how I end up writing a melody. It’s almost like a voice in my head. Like when you hear a song on the radio that you can’t get out of your head no matter how hard you try. That’s what the writing process is like. Every time I hear this sequence of chords, this melody naturally comes into my head and I can’t change it. So that becomes the melody or the hook. Then I'll just throw a couple of words in there...
ILM: What influence has London had on your music?
Plan B: It gives me an identity. My voice, my vocabulary, my lyrics are London and I want to represent London. Before I started rapping, there were UK rappers, but half of them used to rap in US accents. I couldn’t understand that, but I do think it’s different with singing. People say that anyone from England who sings soul is putting on an American accent, but I think that’s the sound of soul. The sound of folk is hearing that British accent in the singing. The sound of punk is hearing that British accent. For soul, I think it’s different. I think it’s okay to sing that way. I wouldn’t say it was American, I’d just say that it was the sound of soul music. But with rapping I feel that it’s very important to keep your identity and your integrity. Therefore when I rap I sound like a Londoner and I don’t sound like anything else.
London has inspired me no end. I think that for underground music, for underground scenes like the rave scene, the drum and bass and jungle scenes and the garage scene, we have the healthiest underground in the world. For me it’s a very inspiring country to be in. We have times when it kind of dries up and everything goes a bit stale, but then something new always comes along. Grime dried up and dubstep came. Jungle was dead for a long time, no-one gave it the time of day for years, and now it’s back. So, yeah, being from London is something I’m very proud of and I try to project that in my music.
ILM: You’ve mentioned so many genres of music. How many more versions of Plan B are in the pipeline? Will there be a folk song next? A jungle mix...?
Plan B: Haha! We almost released a folk song that I wrote straight after the first record! We recorded it with strings and all that! I love the song, I think the lyrics are great, but I wasn’t comfortable with my voice so we didn’t release it. That’s the thing about me. If I feel like I’ve created a great piece of music then it doesn’t matter what genre it is, I'll put my name to it. With that song I just didn’t like my voice. I think it’s a great song, but I didn’t want the world to hear that voice because I didn’t think it was good enough. So yeah, we didn’t release it. So back to the question of what can you expect? Don’t expect anything...! Just expect to be surprised each time. Expect me to always come from somewhere outside the box...
ILM: How do you push yourself to evolve as an artist? With so many inspirations and such a strong relationship with music, how do you continue to move forward and beyond what you've already done?
Plan B: Coming from outside the box is what will always keep it fresh for me. All kinds of music have been done before. We’ve kind of heard it all. Dubstep’s a new kind of music, but the sounds are from drum and bass, it’s just slowed down, there’s a lot more space. So for me, it’s not something we haven’t heard before, it’s something we have heard before but done in a new way. That’s what I’ve done with the Defamation of Strickland Banks. I’ve tried to make a sound that you’ve heard before and do it in a new way, I've done it in my own unique Plan B way.
On the album cover it says ‘Plan B presents…The Defamation of Strickland Banks’. It’s me trying to say that I haven’t reinvented myself, I haven’t changed myself. I’m just taking time out from being the angry rapper, and…acting in a film I guess, portraying this character Strickland Banks for this one project, this one album. Then once I’ve done that it’s on to the next thing, that's how I'll always move myself forward, by always moving on to the next thing.
ILM: What music have you been listening to recently?
Plan B: I’ve been listening to Mayer Hawthorne. I’d written most of this album last year, and a friend had heard the new songs and said “Listen, you need to check out this guy.” He’s this geeky white American guy who does soul. He’s amazing! I’ve been into him ever since. One of his songs, called Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, has a really cool video, you should check it out.
I’ve been listening to Drake too. I know Drake’s massive, but there’s a reason for that: his stuff is good. Canadian rappers weren’t really taken seriously until he came out, so he’s kind of paved the way for that, which is good. The next thing is for a UK rapper to do the same, and the one track I’ve heard recently is the new number one by Tinie Tempah. That’s one song that I think could cross the pond and the Americans could get into. The beat is sick, the hook is sick, and his voice sounds really good.
Just to spin all that shit on its head, I’ve also been listening to Black Keys which is all guitar and drums. That’s it, really sparse rock with just a really resonant blues voice on top. You should check it out. That, and I've been listening to some old-school reggae too. Toots and the Maytals and that. My flat-mate loves all that shit. He wakes up in the morning and blasts it out.
ILM: Lots of music...
Plan B: Yeah...You know, I don’t get people who are into an artist and then five years later never listen to the album again, just because they’re suddenly into something different. When you play that old artist they tell you to turn it off because it’s out of date. I don’t get people like that. If you’re into something you’re into it for life. So, with my musical taste, occasionally something new will come along that I like, but mostly I listen to old stuff that I like. I might put a Radiohead album on for fun…well, I don’t know how fun that would be! I used to love sitting in my room listening to depressing Radiohead songs...
ILM: Have you seen any gigs recently that have blown you away?
Plan B: The last time was a band called UnkleJam, maybe two or three years ago now. They're this kind of black neo-funk soul group. I saw them live and thought they were fucking amazing! I saw them at Leeds I think. The album they made didn’t sound as good as they did live, which is maybe why not that many people have heard of them. I kept bumping into them at festivals and the recording studio and I’d never seen them live, so I went along and I was blown away! I dunno what they’re doing now, or if they’re even still together...
ILM: You're very driven, hard working and talented! What would be your advice to anyone looking to do something similar?
Plan B: Just don’t hold back your best work. A lot of people write good stuff and then save it. They don’t show anyone because they think they need to get a record deal and then that’ll be their first single. You often plan all this shit out in your head but it’s wrong to do that ‘cos this shit always changes. During the process of making this record there were certain singles we were gonna release as the first single and it changed. Things change. If you’re sitting in your bedroom nobody knows about you. If you’re holding back your best work and only giving songs to labels that are half as good as you can do, then the labels won’t notice you or give a shit.
You’ve got to give a little bit of yourself away for free before anyone’s going to give you anything back. That’s just the nature of anything professional you want to do. You want to get into film? Then you've got to go and be a runner. You run around like a fool making cups of tea for people or just being a skivvy, and you don’t get paid. But what you do is build up relationships with people, and build up experience till you get to a point where you’re so good at what you do that you deserve to get paid and you’re in demand.
It’s the same with music. You’ve got to give a little bit of yourself, a little bit of your soul away for free before you can make any kind of living out of it. So you need to put all your best work on a CD and that’s what you should be showing to the labels. You holding your best shit back is like saying you’re never gonna write anything better than that. That’s just you admitting you have a lack of confidence and a lack of belief.