PLAN B: From A to B
Described as “taking the sound of Motown, Stax and obscure Northern soul filtered through the grit of contemporary East London”, ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ - the sophomore album from Forest Gate-raised singer/rapper/actor Plan B - has already spawned two UK Top 10 hits; the raucous uptempo rock/soul of ‘Stay Too Long’, plus the lilting falsetto shuffle of current smash ‘She Said’ - whose finger-clicking blend of crooning vocals and streetwise rap has even been dubbed in some quarters “Smokey Robinson miraculously meets Eminem”!
Lyrically, meanwhile, its songs interestingly tell the fictitious tale of one Strickland Banks - a sharp-suited British soul singer who finds fame with bitter-sweet love songs like the album’s sexy opener ‘Love Goes Down’ and driving ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, but then loses everything when he ends up in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. All of which results in a fascinating and cinematic concept album, whose soulful melodies and accessible hooks - mostly sung in sweet, aching falsetto - unquestionably finds an ever-unpredictable Plan B at his storytelling, genre-twisting best.
… Cue for the man born 26 years ago as Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew to meet up with ‘Blues & Soul’’s Pete Lewis over a mid-afternoon pint in a grimily-old-school East End boozer! First topic on the agenda naturally being how the idea behind Ben’s new concept LP first came about.
“Well, ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ basically came about just from a love of soul music, a love of WRITING soul music, and a desire to incorporate soul music into the profile that I’d already kinda built-up as an artist”, begins a down-to-earth, warm-mannered Ben: “You know, obviously - in order to make it ‘a Plan B record’ - it had to be story-based and it had to have that Plan B dark undertone in terms of the subject-matter. So I just figured that, if I wrote a soul album that had a bit of grit and a bit of depth to it, then it shouldn’t really matter that I’ve changed my style a bit musically from the first album (2006’s hardcore-rap-flavoured ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’). You know, I am capable of singing and writing that soulful style of music. So I just followed my instincts, followed my heart - and basically just enjoyed every MINUTE of it!”
“I mean, the reason I decided to call myself ‘Plan B’ in the first place was because originally I was a soul singer and then I changed my style to hip hop”, he continues in earthy East London tones: “But then, the whole time I was carrying on publicly as a hip hop artist, behind the scenes I never actually stopped writing soul songs. The only thing was that I’d write them and they’d always just sit on a shelf, or sit as a recording-on-a-phone, or just disappear - and I’d FORGET about them! But then, when me and the band started going on tour and doing sound-checks before gigs, I started playing them the new soul songs I’d been writing. And one of the songs that kinda stood out - that the band seemed to really enjoy playing - was ‘Love Goes Down’. So we just thought it was such a shame that we couldn’t play that live to people, simply because it was different to how the music sounded on my FIRST album… But, you know, with me nothing’s impossible - and where there’s a will there’s a way! And that way was to create this character that I can play called Strickland Banks, and have all the soul songs that I’ve written be sung from HIM rather than from ME!”
With Ben having described his creation as “my alter-ego, the same age as me, looking like me and coming from the East End - but a bit more on the sensitive side”, can he expand on the thinking behind the Strickland Banks storyline? “Well, the storyline is about a celebrity who’s a little bit up his own arse and who thinks he’s untouchable”, he explains: “But then he gets wrongly accused and convicted of a crime that he hasn’t committed. So he gets sent to jail - and then the real kinda crux of the album at that point revolves around an innocent man trying to survive in jail. You know, I just felt that that was something really interesting to talk about. Because you do get a lot of people - men AND women - who get accused of crimes they haven’t done and who, through corruption, get sent down. And to me that must be one of the worst things in the WORLD! You know, to be locked in prison when you shouldn’t BE there, to me is no different from, say, having terminal cancer or fuckin’ AIDS.”
With the songs on ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ openly harking back to soul music’s “Golden Age” of the Sixties/early-Seventies, what did Ben set out to achieve musically? “I just thought that, if I was gonna do a soul album, I wanted it to be ‘classic’ - with ‘classic’ meaning stuff that stands the test of TIME”, he asserts: “You know, I wanted to make a soul record that wouldn’t go out of date - and I feel like I’ve DONE that. Because to me all that stuff like Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Ray Charles is the best music ever MADE. Which is why they’re making films about those guys NOW! I mean, no matter what age you are, no matter what musical background you’re from - I don’t think anyone can criticise that era. Because it’s such genuinely good MUSIC! You know, it’s from the SOUL - and I guess that’s why they CALL it that!”
Meanwhile, visually Ben has duplicated the album’s switchblade-sharp soul sound, recreating it onstage by performing in-character alongside a sharp-suited band and backing singers. A show which - after debuting recently with a sold-out performance at the West End’s Cafe de Paris - goes out on tour across the UK this month before, in the coming months, moving on to the summer festival circuit: “Well, this guy Strickland Banks is obsessed with the Sixties and dresses like he’s a Motown star”, he explains: “So I just feel uncomfortable - even in rehearsals - singing and performing those songs in a hoodie and jeans! You know, it just doesn’t FEEL right - and I feel really self-conscious, because I just think its looks outta place!”
“Whereas, as soon as I put that suit on, I’m STRICKLAND BANKS - and it’s a lot easier for me to kinda move and shake ABOUT!”, he enthuses: “Also, I gotta say, I actually LOOK so much better in a suit than I do in my normal get-up, and it really seems to do wonders with the LADIES! So yeah, I’m having a lotta fun with this whole thing!”
Born in Forest Gate, East London in October 1983 to an architect mother and punk-rock-musician father (who left when Ben was just six), Ben first taught himself to play guitar at 14 before - influenced by classic Motown plus contemporary acts like Boyz 11 Men - going on to write his own R&B love songs. Meanwhile, receiving little or no response to his attempts at being a white teenage soul singer, at 18 - inspired by the success of Eminem - he began rapping and singing in his own accent about the world he’d grown up in while accompanying himself on guitar.
With his songs either reflecting his own personal experiences (‘Mama Loves A Crackhead’) or being written about characters he’d invented (‘Kidz’), next step along the way was the independent release of his raw, incendiary debut LP ‘Who Needs Actions When You Got Words’. A critically-acclaimed album which - hitting the UK Top 30 - broke new ground for British hip hop in 2006; the harsh reality of its lyrics being hailed by some critics as “a loud, proud, obscenity-riddled scream of anger and pride from the estates of East London”!
Nevertheless, today it seems that the Forest Gate kid who shocked the public back in 2006 with lines like “I’ll stab you in the eye, yo; With a fucking biro; The same fucking biro; You used to sign your giro; You fucking wino” has now grown up: “Yeah, I’ve calmed down a hell of a lot”, admits an ever-forthcoming Mr. Drew: “I’ve realised what my issues are. You know, I took anger management for a year because I kept on getting arrested. And, while some people still think I’m this angry little estate kid who wants to get people’s attention by saying really nasty, horrible things, I’m actually NOT that - and I want people to KNOW I’m not that!”
“I mean, the background behind that first album was basically me feeling like I was being ignored and forgotten by society - and the fact I knew there was a lot of OTHER kids that felt like that”, he adds openly: “And, although the behaviour of a lot of the kids on the street disgusted me and I fuckin’ hated it, I still felt like I understood what MADE them like that. So I wanted to write a record that showed them I was just as angry as them - that I felt just as alone and forgotten-about as they did - but at the same time telling them they didn’t have to act in that way. I wanted to let them know that there are positive things in life, and that you can get through life without selling drugs and stabbing people. But, while the first record represented that, now my environment has CHANGED. You know, I’m not just about politics, I’m also a MUSICIAN. And, in that light, I do have these desires inside of me to kinda explore different types of music. So that’s what this NEW album is about. It’s about me feeling that hunger to do different kinda things.”
Meanwhile, Ben’s strong visual presence in the videos for his first album ultimately also led to some prestigious acting roles. With him playing a bad-boy from the estates in Noel Clarke’s film ‘Adulthood’ in 2008, then another hoodie thug opposite Michael Caine in 2009’s British thriller ‘Harry Brown’. A film which also gave him his first UK Top 10 hit in the shape of ‘End Credits’ - a collaboration with UK drum & bass duo Chase & Status, which was recorded for said movie’s soundtrack.. So how does he fit in his film career alongside his music?
“To me they’re the same thing. And that’s what I’m trying to get around people’s heads right now”, he retorts without hesitation: “There’s no difference between me acting in a film and writing a film for the blind, which to me is what my MUSIC is - stories from start to finish, with every song representing a scene in that particular film. You know, in one you see me visually DOING something, while in the other you hear me DESCRIBING something to you. So - while they may be separate in other people’s eyes - for me they’re definitely one and the same.”
Indeed, the two successful ongoing careers are set to interlink ever more with Ben’s upcoming plans for 2010: “Well, my immediate ambition for this campaign is to try and shoot a short featurette film around the Strickland Bands saga, using the same director we’ve used for the videos. So that we can squash all the videos together into that one short film to make a Michael Jackson ‘Moonwalker’-esque-type music film”, he reveals, as our conversation (and drinks!) approaches its end: “Then I’ve also got a hip hop album based on Strickland Banks coming, called ‘The Ballad Of Bellmarsh’. Which is like the deleted scenes that were too kinda grimy and gritty to go on the ‘Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ album. And the whole sound of that will be very reminiscent of my first album - dark kinda hip hop beats. So, while ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ represents his story through his eyes and told through his mouth and in his language, ‘The Ballad Of Bellmarsh’ will be the Strickland Banks story as told by Plan B!”
“Then, in addition to those two things, there’ll also be my first full-length film, which I’m titling ‘Ill Manners’”, he adds: “Which is a hip hop, music-based feature film which has six short stories that all kinda mix together to make one BIG story - and each mini-story will be represented by a different hip hop track. It’ll all be narrated by me, and it’ll actually be the reverse of ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ - in that with ‘Ill Manners’ the film will come out first and the soundtrack will come afterwards. And again the soundtrack will be a film for the blind, in that you’ll be able to listen to it and it’ll tell you the story of the film… So yeah, those are the three projects that I’m working on for this year. Which means it’ll very hard for me to take any straight-up acting jobs on. Because those three projects alone will be keeping me more than busy!”
Plan B’s UK tour runs from April 8 to 16; taking in dates at Bristol, Oxford, Birmingham, Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and London
Plan B’s single ‘She Said’ is out now. His album ‘The Defamation Of Strickland Banks’ follows April 12, both through 679/Atlantic
Words PETE LEWIS