Plan B's new Motown sound | Interview

Rapper Plan B reveals why he has bared his soul Motown-style for his second album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks

The flurry of soul singers to appear in the wake of Amy Winehouse was nothing if not predictable, each seeming to arrive with less in the way of talent and skin-covering clothing. But who would have predicted that the most convincing of them would be an East End skinhead known for rapping about STDs, crack cocaine and making girls "have an abortion for the eighth time"?

Twenty-six year old Ben Drew makes music under the moniker Plan B, and as stage names go this is pretty apt. His debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, was a gritty, grime-flecked rap record that garnered rave reviews but little in the way of sales, whereas its follow up, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, showcases a Smokey Robinson-esque soul sound and looks primed for mainstream success.

"I just thought, I don't give a fuck what anyone says any more, I'm making a soul record," he says, decked out today in black Crombie coat and paisley pocket handkerchief. "I've been writing soul music from the age of 14. I was doing this before Winehouse, before Duffy, before Daniel Merriweather. Everyone who knows me knows I was doing this before them! So if my original fans don't like this record, they can fuck off. If other people don't like it because they don't like it… they can fuck off too."

Charmed, I'm sure. Yet Drew can afford to be cocky, because his second album is really rather great, with tunes to match the Motown stylings, turning schmaltzy only occasionally. Better still, there's more to this record than pure nostalgia because it is a concept album – about a singer, Strickland Banks, who lets fame go to his head and ends up in jail for a crime he didn't commit.

"Instead of people looking at me as a rapper, I'm also a singer, a songwriter and a storyteller," he says, adding that he wants the album to work as "a film for the blind". He even talks about releasing a movie of "deleted scenes", because part of the Strickland Banks story didn't make it on to the record. "There's parts to the story that only I know," he explains. "On the album, Strickland goes from being a recluse in his cell to trading his cigarettes for a knife to defend himself – but you never find out why he does this. Through film that part can be told." Drew has form as a film director, after working on the 2008 short Michelle, as well as an actor. Following a minor role in Adulthood (Noel Clarke's sequel to Kidulthood), he played an un-huggable hoodie opposite Michael Caine in Harry Brown.

"I also want to release a hip-hop record about Strickland's time in jail called the "Ballad of Belmarsh". Originally I wanted that to appear with this as a double album, but the label thought it was too hard to market so I'm going to release it on the underground."

Confused? Don't be. The songs on The Defamation of Strickland Banks work as love songs as well as telling Strickland's story. "I ain't guilty of no crime, get these chains off me," he sings on "Free", sounding as much like a member of the Supremes looking to escape a relationship as he does a fictional celebrity. With so many roles swirling around his head, you wonder if he's having an identity crisis.

"It is hard to know who you are sometimes, especially in this industry," he says, "because it's so false. I spent a year promoting Who Needs Actions surrounded by fakes. I'd see these artists with top 10 hits who I knew weren't going to last but people were up their arse. And it's hard not to be resentful."

Drew's anger would seem to have its roots in his upbringing in east London – somewhere in the "void" between working and middle class. He was raised by his mother after his father left home when he was six. A violent relationship with his stepfather was hardly the best basis for stability and, aged 15, he was sent to a pupil referral unit after being expelled from school for hurling a a chair at his teacher. It was here that he started to focus on his talent, but that short fuse never really left him. And when an incident with a supposed fan during a night out saw him slapped with a suspended sentence two years ago, Drew decided to seek anger management counselling.

"I'm not an alcoholic but when I used to drink my insecurities came out. I knew that rather than stop drinking it was better to get to the bottom of those insecurities."

And what were those insecurities?

"People would say things like, 'Oh, Plan B, I like your album, man, didn't sell a lot did it?' and I'd think, 'What do you do?' When people chip away at your last bit of belief, your defence is to smash their face in and that isn't positive. I had to sit down and remind myself where I'd come from, what I'd achieved. And then things started happening: top 10 records, the Jonathan Ross show… All because I had this new approach."

This is most definitely Plan B, then – in more ways than one.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Plan B; Clare Maguire – review
Plan B's reinvention as a fictional soul singer is utterly convincing, says Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

09, Oct, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
Plan B review – Bard boy makes good
The Globe proves an inspired backdrop for Ben Drew’s dramatic live return, complete with gremlins and groundlings

Kitty Empire

30, Jul, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Plan B – review

It's been a busy year for Plan B, writes Kitty Empire, but his fiery intensity shines through in a set where anger vies with pyrotechnics

Kitty Empire

08, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Plan B: Ill Manors – review

Ben Drew graduates to a new level with these ferocious yet compassionate dispatches from the British underclass, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

21, Jul, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Motown the Musical review – hits add up to a miss
Only Eshan Gopal’s amazing turn as a mini-Michael Jackson is worth the price of admission in this charmless homage to Berry Gordy’s celebrated label

Kate Kellaway

13, Mar, 2016 @8:00 AM

Booker T: Sound the Alarm – review
Veteran soul man Booker T marks his return to Stax with an impressive set of collaborations, writes Molloy Woodcraft

Molloy Woodcraft

10, Aug, 2013 @11:04 PM

Article image
Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color review – riveting, kaleidoscopic second album
Brittany Howard leads the southern garage rockers on a magical mystery tour through soul, psychedelic funk and all points in between

Kitty Empire

19, Apr, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
Leon Bridges: Gold-Diggers Sound review – unashamedly grown-up songs for the soul
The soul singer breaks out of his comfort zone with a sparkling collection that evades easy answers

Damien Morris

25, Jul, 2021 @2:00 PM

Electric Proms: Elton John and Leon Russell – review

Elton John and his old inspiration, Leon Russell, open the Electric Proms in grand style, says Gareth Grundy

Gareth Grundy

30, Oct, 2010 @11:08 PM

Article image
Plan B | Pop review

Brixton Academy, London
This was a magnificent performance from Ben Drew as he played out the psychodrama of his Strickland Banks album via a Stax-style revue band, writes Ian Gittins

Ian Gittins

11, Oct, 2010 @8:31 PM