Interviewed December 2010.
Plan B, aka Ben Drew, is a UK hip hop artist whose second album The Defamation Of Strickland Banks became one of the bestselling albums in the UK in 2010. He turned to soul music for this album as part of his effort to present, in his words, a "film for the blind." I sat down and talked with him by phone as he discussed the creation of The Defamation of Strickland Banks, how his music has evolved, and his goals for coming to America in 2011.
Bill: So today you are in Belfast?
Ben: Yeah, I'm in Belfast. I woke up at like 9 in the morning and got to the airport at 11 and sat in the airport until 6 p.m. 'cause they cancelled my flight and delayed the next flight. I got to the gig with no sound check and yeah, it's just been f**king madness....but done the show, had fun, you know what I mean.
Bill: You've obviously had amazing success this year at home in the UK, but most music fans here in the US are likely to know very little about you or your music. How would you introduce yourself and your music to them?
Ben: I would say that I'm a rapper who has written an album, a soul album that is a UK rapper's interpretation of what he thinks Motown soul music is. Although I started my career as a rapper, I'm also an actor and a director, and I'm also a singer and a songwriter. That's why the record says, Plan B Presents...The Defamation Of Strickland Banks. Over here I'm known as kind of a rapper, kind of an underground rapper. Even though I was signed to a major, my first record I used hip hop as a vehicle where I could talk about things that I felt really mattered.
You talk about things that really matter, and then they censor it. That was the problem commercially over here was I didn't censor myself. You know, I spoke about some pretty dark sh*t. I brought subjects to the table that I thought people was trying to ignore, because we have such a good quality of life in the Western world that it's easy to ignore all of the f**ked up sh*t that goes on. I wanted to bring it into people's living rooms and cars and say, "Yo, I'm not gonna let you ignore this sh*t." That was one of the things that counted against me. People who didn't understand what I was talkin' about just wrote me off as someone who was just beggin' for attention. He's just usin' foul language to try and make a name for himself.
When, in reality, the only reason I was using the foul language was because I knew that kids on the street...they don't listen to authority figures, and they don't listen to teachers, but they listen to hip hop. They listen to hip hop, because hip hop is written about people that come from their environment, and have made a success for themselves. Probably used to be drug beaters, and then they started rappin' and got out of the ghetto, and they don't censor themselves. They rap about f**ked up sh*t and they glorify it, and they rap about violence and they glorify it. So I made a record where at first listen it sounded like I was glorifying like all the other motherf**kin' rappers that glorify it. In essence I wasn't. Every piece of violence or f**ked up sh*t that I spoke about was always in context. There was always a message behind it. I was only trying to get into kids' minds through the back door, and I got through to those kids. I achieved that. The kids that had no parents to raise them, my record raised them. But the people with money, the well off people, they didn't get it. The fact that I didn't censor myself. The fact that I didn't make myself pop, that worked against me.
With this record it was never premeditated. I was never, like, I've got to make a soul record because that's gonna get on the radio. I was writin' R&B, kind of contemporary R&B before I started rappin'. That's why I call myself Plan B. For years I was writin' mushy, kind of Usher style love songs, and then suddenly I switched to this conscious, aggressive, uncensored kind of sh*t. You know, I never stopped writin' the kind of soft, mushy sh*t even throughout my kind of early career as a hip hop artist. And with the songs I guess I kind of matured and got older.
One of the first songs I wrote was "Love Goes Down" on The Defamation Of Strickland Banks record. That song was kickin' about for a very long time. The reason it was just sittin' there and nothin' was happening with it was because my band is very capable of doing different styles of music. I only have musicians with me that are willing to kind of venture and explore and experiment with music, but we never saw "Love Goes Down" as a song that I could sing myself, because I started the career as this kind of rapper. So occasionally we played the song in sound checks. We just thought it was a crime that nobody's gonna get to hear it.
It was my ambition always to do a concept album for the second album. The first album was a collection of short stories which is just me teachin' myself how to tell a story through the vehicle of hip hop, because the big idea for me was to be this rapper who wrote concept records. I remember tellin' my friends I'm gonna do this record, and it's gonna be like a film for the blind. It's gonna be a whole record that's a film and every song is a scene. And they're like, "Oh, like Movies for the Blind," and I was like, "What's that?" and, like, yeah this rapper Cage he had done this record Movies for the Blind, and I'm like, "F**k! That motherf**ker got there before me!" That was supposed to be my angle. I checked out Cage's Movies for the Blind, and I realized Cage's Movies for the Blind was basically like my first record which was like a collection of movies, and I thought, well no one's gone there yet, 'cause I'm talkin' about doin' a whole album. Then the motherf**ker tells me about Sticky Fingaz. So I check this record out and thought well this motherf**ker had the idea before me, but the way I'm gonna do it is gonna be different!