One of the UK music industry's most surprising success stories in recent years has to be the meteoric rise to fame of rapper-cum-soul singer Plan B. Having put out his first single as far back as 2005, the artist christened Ben Drew by his parents quickly found himself signed to Atlantic Records subsidiary 679 and releasing his debut long player, the heavily hip hop influenced Who Needs Actions When You Got Words several months later. However, the record bombed and Plan B suddenly found himself, to all intents and purposes, cast aside by his label .
It's to his credit then that three years later, having picked himself up, he reinvented himself as a soul singer and put together The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, ironically a concept album about an artist with the world at his feet only to lose everything before ending up in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Despite a mixed reception from the critics upon release, the album went on to sell over a million copies in less than twelve months.
Now on the verge of releasing his third album, The Ballad Of Belmarsh, the multi-faceted Drew is also building a reputation for himself as a budding actor and film producer of some merit. Having initially cut his teeth playing roles in 'Adulthood' and 'Harry Brown' between albums one and two, he's currently in the process of finishing his first full-length feature film, Ill Manners, as well as being cast in Dennis Waterman's old role as George Carter in next year's remake of 1970s cop classic 'The Sweeney'.
With all of the above in mind, he should be one of the proudest people on the planet at this moment, yet the Ben Drew we encounter today seems bitter and severely mistrusting of everyone and everything to the point of abject paranoia. Later on he'll headline the Jack Daniel's Birthday Celebration gig in Lynchburg, Tennessee. An hour or so earlier he's holding court at a press conference which eventually turns into a rant about the way he feels people ("cunts") perceive him as an artist, insists several times that he's "for real" (which no one questions) and reveals his plans to make a punk album, followed by a reggae one, and then a bluegrass record. Karma chameleon indeed.
That DiS can count ourselves fortunate enough to be one of only three publications granted one-to-one time with him is perhaps a further indication of Plan B's desire for critical acceptance both as a mainstream and underground artist. We're told we've been limited to nine minutes, not that we're keeping time. Half an hour later we find ourselves even more convinced that Ben Drew is one deeply suspicious individual...
DiS: I read that you are addicted to Championship Manager on the PC, and that one day it is your intention to buy a football club. Any preferences as to which club that may be?
Plan B: You know what, some people don't set themselves goals but if you're one of those people what is there to achieve in life? I'm not one of those people. I feel like I'm living in a dream world right now, so why not have dreams? Why not have ambitions? I don't feel embarrassed about it. Why should I? I remember when I needed money and those fuckers wouldn't give me any money. So where are they now? They're the ones asking me for money! And you know what, I've worked hard to get where I am now. I've worked hard for this. Why would I want to throw all that away? There's people out there that question my integrity for the way I've changed the direction of my music, yet they're the same people who'd be calling me "safe" if I just churned out the same record every two years! It's like tonight. If Steve Cropper and the rest of the New Silver Cornet Band think I'm a cunt then so be it.
DiS: Why would they think that?
Plan B: I don't know, man. I guess it must be as difficult for them learning my songs as it is for me learning theirs. I think it's gone well this past couple of days. I mean, there's nothing worse than collaborating with another artist over the internet. It's all about getting together in a room, and at least then if there are any differences we can sort them out.
DiS: You seem to have serious issues regarding trust around anyone else in the music industry. Is this a result of the breakdown in relationship with 679 Recordings?
Plan B: It's not just about the music industry. I don't really trust anyone. There's people out that...that don't want to or aren't capable of doing their job to the standard...to the standard you'd expect them to. Does that make sense? I'm a control freak. It's like when I'm recording. I won't let anyone else start mixing or producing my work until I'm in the room. That's why The Ballad Of Belmarsh has taken so long. Same with 'Ill Manners'. I've edited most of the final cut but I won't let anyone else finish it without me being present. I don't trust anyone.
DiS: But surely a lot of that stems from your dealings with the record label?
Plan B: Partly, but I don't want to make it sound like I'm blaming them too much. A lot of the issues with 679 were caused by middlemen getting in the way. With The Defamation Of Strickland Banks I made the decision to go straight up to my label without that kind of interference. I don't want people around telling me you can have this but you can't have that. You know, the people at Atlantic that did work on that record were really amazing. I mean, nobody believed that we could sell that amount of records, nobody.
DiS: I guess the success of ...Strickland Banks must carry an enormous weight of expectation as far as the follow-up is concerned?
Plan B: I don't know, not as far as I'm concerned. You see, that's where things can go wrong. Once you as an artist start concentrating on things like that you tend to lose all sensibility. The only concern for me at this moment in time is making a great record. It isn't about it being the same as or as good as The Defamation Of Strickland Banks. I'm still proud of my first record even though it didn't sell as well as I'd have liked it to. I do partly blame 679 for that because they made no attempt to promote it after the first single. They saw me as little more than flogging a dead horse, and that fucked me up for a while. You see, 679 are owned by Atlantic anyway, so it wasn't so much about being dropped, but more about moving from a big fish to an even bigger one. Atlantic started giving me small pockets of money when they heard the demos for Defamation.... It was like I'd become acceptable in their eyes because I was making a soul record rather than another hip hop one. You know what, I could probably guarantee my survival for a good few years by churning out Defamation...2 and Defamation...3 but I don't want to do that. I've made my soul record. I want to make something completely different now like I said in that room earlier.
DiS: Do you feel as if you've been misunderstood as an artist at any point?
Plan B: That's exactly how I feel! A lot of people don't understand what I do. They don't really get who I am. I feel as though I can't win whatever I do. When 'Ill Manners' comes out people will criticise me for making a film when I'm meant to be a musician. When The Ballad Of Belmarsh comes out they'll be onto me for making a hip hop record. When I first started playing the songs off Defamation... all I got for the first few months was "What the fuck is this? What the fuck's going on?". They see me as a blagger or a chancer, you know? Then as soon as I achieve something it's like, "Oh, we knew you'd make it in the end Ben". Yeah, right. And so now do you see why I'm not comfortable with that? It feels like you can easily find yourself trapped into something you'll never be able to escape from for the rest of your life.
DiS: It's interesting hearing you say things like this as you come across as a very confident individual on stage.
Plan B: I think I am confident when I have to be. How many other artists have the bottle to make a hip hop record, then a soul one, then a feature film, then another hip hop one, then a punk one, then a reggae one, and so on and so forth? I can't think of any that wouldn't have milked the kind of success Defamation... received and just repeated it every time they released a new album. It's like I said earlier. If I want to own a football club I'll own a football club. Why not set yourself targets? Anything is possible and don't let those negative cunts tell you otherwise. I want to be able to look back on my life when I'm 45-50 years old and bald and fat and be proud of my achievements while hopefully setting myself further goals. It might not seem like the coolest thing in the world to be making records then but I don't make music to fit in to some idea of cool. You've got to have more about you than that otherwise people will see straight through you, and if I can spot a bullshitter a mile off so can everybody else. The only reason most people do nothing with their lives is because they're constantly told by other people they'll amount to nothing, and when you're constantly being told you're worthless it's difficult to summon up the courage to try and be anything different. What I've learnt is to follow your own instinct, and if you do that you can do whatever the fuck you want. The more I think about it, the more I think it's just a way for people afraid you might become something they can only dream of to put you down, put you in your place.
DiS: And do you think there are a lot of people out there jealous of your success and what you've achieved?
Plan B: Of course there are! I suppose it's only natural because they don't really understand who you are, and there's no way of me being able to tell every single person in this world who I am.
DiS: It does seem as if you've adopted an underdog mentality.
Plan B: But that's how it is. I'm constantly having to prove myself with everything I do.
DiS: Moving on, you've been quite vocal about the way artists and musicians license their music to advertising, saying that it's one of the few ways for musicians to make an income in the current climate of declining record sales. You've recently signed up with Hewlett Packard and Bulmers cider yourself. Is there any product or organisation you'd refuse to let use any of your material for an advertising campaign or such like?
Plan B: When all's said and done, you don't fucking own any of your product. The record label own the product. One thing I will say is that I would never endorse a product that I wouldn't use myself. You'll see me here tonight drinking Jack Daniel's and that's because I genuinely like the product. There's no fake bullshit around me. You see what you get, and that's why I don't go along with all this "selling out" bullshit. The day you sell your first record is selling out in that case. But then that also means you are only in it for the money and that's not why I make records either. You know, I have turned down opportunities for certain products, some offering huge sums of dough too. There was one company wanted me to dress up as a packet of chewing gum for fuck's sake! And they were willing to pay serious money, you know what I mean? But then what do they expect me to do? Spend it on an even bigger packet of chewing gum to go poncing around in?!? There are some brands I just wouldn't give the time of day to.
And then time is called, just as a baffled DiS was about to enquire where the best chewing gum packet suit outfitters are based. Who'd be a pop star, eh?