Not Ready to Die: An Interview with Plan B.

Chris Catania

Plan B delivers his brutally raw socio-rhymes to not only rip open the ears of listeners but inject a poignant message that entertains and lingers. The UK rapper describes the world he's taking on and the unusual way that he's a racist.

Plan B

Who Needs Actions When You Got Words

Label: Wea
US Release Date: 2007-04-17
UK Release Date: 2006-06-26

UK acoustic guitar slinger/cinematic rapper Ben Drew (aka Plan B) traces the planting of the seed for what you hear on his debut record Who Needs Actions When You Got Words to the desire to be real about the world he grew up in and plainly tell it like it is, no matter how blunt, violent, or graphic. A transatlantic phone conversation with Plan B confirmed the fact that he's not just trying to shock, offend, or cause large amounts of disturbing reactions just for the hell of it. When you peer deeper, what you see is a developing talent for deftly transmitting pain and anger experienced into the same kind of life-saving hip hop he first heard and that eventually inspired his desire to speak to the generation of UK youth that is coming of age behind him.

The East London rapper's musical career started when he was messing around with friends, playing his guitar and learning the ropes by covering the songs of Britpop icons Blur and Oasis. From there Drew followed his initial interests in singing "sappy" R&B, but that got boring as the desire to tell the harsh realities of the youth culture became more important.

Like a sort of sociological music veteran who understands his cultural surroundings and wants to stay true to himself but still reach the ears of the UK youth, he explains that his first hurdle was to overcome the barrier of race. Being a white kid who loved hip-hop and also wanted to rap was something he found he could overcome -- like many young white emcees growing up in the mid to late '90s -- via a little nudge of validation, from his initial emcee blueprint Eminem.

And with much the same fury of an Eminem song and the lasting power of a Stephen King short story, Plan B delivers his brutally raw socio-rhymes to not only rip open the ears of listeners but inject a poignant message that entertains and lingers long on the mind after the song is through.

What role did race play for you growing up and wanting to sing R&B, then eventually turn to rapping about what you saw going on in the UK youth culture?

I dealt with a lot of frustration growing in a black-dominated culture being a white male, a lot of feeling that because I was white that I should not be rapping. But then I realized that I like who I like, and I don't care what people say. I started to pay more attention to other people's experiences and I started to notice how bad the world I was growing up in really was. I'd read in the newspaper about the kids getting robbed for Pokeman cards and I'd think that we're living in a pretty fucked up society. That got me thinking about how UK society is influenced by American hip-hop and the violence. I included the violence in my lyrics for a reason that goes beyond just shock value. I wanted to get more creative by coming in through the backdoor, give the kids what they expected but also lyrically recreate the scene most kids are experiencing. Underneath most of my songs there's a strong message that forces the listener to ask questions and face the situation. I'm a storyteller.

So you're doing two things: responding to the youth by coming at them, at their level, and trying to lift them out of the drugs, sex, and violence; and also in the process challenge the adult UK culture to face the truth?

Yeah, it's true that most adults know about the youth violence and other fucked up shit but don't have a fucking clue how to deal with it. They don't know what it's like to live on the streets. The only way you get through to these kids is through their minds. So many kids don't have dads so they look to hip-hop music, and whatever the British government tried to do never solved anything in my city. I eventually realized that the only way you're going to get through to these kids in the films or music. I talk about the reality of drugs and violence because there's no light at the end of the tunnel and most kids end up catching some kind of disease like AIDS or something depressing like that. Growing up I saw life like as a very pessimistic person but now that I'm older I try to be more optimistic, but I'm also glad I saw those nasty things. Again, most kids, are not intending to killing each other just send a message like, 'I'm gonna cut you,' but what ends up happening is that they do kill each other because they have no clue about reality. So I want to help teach them what I've seen and that there is a real fucking danger in doing what they're doing. The government or parents aren't doing anything about it, so I'm making music to try and get into their minds and help change what they're doing.

When I visit my friends in jail, and they don't have the proper books to read, I give them my songs and they pass it around and the other guys in jail start talking about [what] I'm talking about, because in jail there's no library, no chance for a proper rehabilitation so I give them my music, and it gives them a chance to think about things that are going to help them without being preachy or self-righteous.

I was fucking lost -- that's why I wrote this music, man. I wrote it as therapy for myself and to find out what I really stood for, and in the process I did find that and that process continues as I work on my next album.

Who was it that you heard or saw that flipped the validated switch and freed you to rap regardless of your skin color?

There was a time when I was just rapping bullshit lyrics and then I realized after listening to Pharcyde, Tracy Champman, and Kurt Cobain that I wanted to talk about things that mattered. But then I realize that I'm not going to be a gangster. When Eminem came out and I realized that you, first, could be white and rap and, second, that you didn't have to be a gangster to rap. There was just so much bullshit and inferiority about a white kid picking up a mic and rapping. When Eminem came out that all changed. But I also realized that Eminen was already Eminem and I couldn't be him. He had the Slim Shady character so I knew I had to come at my rapping a different way and find an angle that was my own. I always liked film so I decided to create a style that was like creating songs that were like short films. Songs like "Momma (Loves a Crack Head)" and "Charmaine", were written as if they were short films because that's where I felt the most comfortable and true to who I am. It allows me to become a method actor and become a different rapper. I had a friend whose granddad was blind and I thought of recording stories so blind people could enjoy a story. I called the concept "film for the blind" and wanted to put it to music. I knew Sticky Fingers did something similar but I believed that I was going to come at the concept my own way. I read a lot of short stories and decided that's how I wanted to write. A lot of filmmakers write about what they read about in the paper. If I read a story in the paper that moves me, I write about it. So I wrote the song "Tough Love" -- someone told me about this girl whose parents beat her because she was becoming Westernized. I moved on from subject to subject and then I wanted to mix in some more personal subjects. And in the end the album turned about to mix of both personal and fictional accounts.

You slide back and forth almost mid-note or from chorus to verse from hip-hop to R&B. Which came first as a musical interest?

The R&B came first, mate. I taught myself how to play guitar at 14, messing around with Blur and Oasis songs when Britpop was big. My friends and I started singing joke songs and that built my confidence, making people laugh, getting comfortable performing, not taking myself too seriously. I started writing some serious songs, and I wrote a song about a girl at a party, R&B, that song develop and eventually got me singed. But it wasn't the R&B that got me where I am today. Nobody wanted to sign a white R&B singer. I wanted to sing about more serious songs. I didn't really feel comfortable singing about love and soft shit but what I did feel comfortable with was singing about current shit going on in the world, So I went to my manger at the time and played "Kidz" and told him I wanted to pursue this type of song writing and he said no, that hip-hop was dead, especially in the UK, no hip-hop artist has ever made in big: "Just leave it, man. your career is going to be in R&B. Then I said to him, that's fine, I'll just stay underground, but I don't want to sing R&B no more. I don't give a shit if I don't make it big; I just what to make music that feels real to me and that I feel comfortable with. So I convinced him to play "Dead and Buried" at a show and it blew everybody away. The rapping and playing guitar. So I thought this is what I was fighting for and then I got signed after making a demo.

You've received some Stateside press and played a few shows in the US before your recent New York show. How was the crowd?

It reminded me of the first time playing live in the UK, when no one really knew me. I couldn't understand why a song like "Charmaine" [it has a shocking ending with a twist] didn't have the effect that it did in the UK -- maybe it was UK slang or maybe they already heard it. But other than that it was a good time coming back to NYC. I've got no big expectations. I know the US is a big fucking country. I'm just from the UK and I don't expect anyone in the US to give me a chance or to give me any kind of leg up. Hip-hop comes from the US so what should anyone in the US give a fuck about what I'm doing? I expect to have to work hard and earn the respect as I go.

What have you learned from other UK rappers that have come to introduce themselves to a U.S. audience?

I don't think anyone has ever been that good enough to really take over the U.S. Even myself. I know I'm as good as anyone out there. I'm not afraid to say that I'm a better lyricist then a lot of US artist who are making money and getting their songs and videos played on MTV. I'm also not afraid to say that a lot of US hip-hop has no substance, it's just about money and hos. I take pride that UK artists like me are rapping about things that are 100 percent more deeper. It's going to be a long time before a UK artist takes over America, maybe never. Prodigy hit it big in America because they had their own sound, their own thing. That's what I'm striving to do and that's the only way to do it. If I just bring the typical hip-hop shit that's already been done before and if I try to sell back what the US already sold us than it ain't going to work.

There's a long history of the US and the UK sort of volleying back music styles, especially in rock 'n' roll and with the blues, a sort of one-upping or re-creating.

Yeah, grunge music started in the US and then died out and the UK brought it back in the form of grime because garage music came first, then the UK created grime out of what we heard from grunge. Yeah, it is like tennis. We seem to influence each other but we never seem to meet at the same place in hip-hop. You might get some UK artist like Westwood trying to imitate crunk but nobody really listens to that shit, just the suburban kids who don't know their ear hole from their asshole. Us kids in the streets don't listen to that shit. We listen to our own artists who are rapping about what's relevant to us because where we're living, we need to hear that kind of thing for our souls because we can't be hearing bling bling and bitches and hos because we ain't seeing it.

Do you think that hip-hop talks to the issue of race in a way that challenges what people really believe or think they believe?

So far, as I understand it, white culture seems so shallow. I see black culture as being more unified. White culture seems to be more focused on class and money. We have the same thing here in the UK. I think that because we don't have any respect for our own race then we don't have any respect for the any other race or people. The reason that the shitty hip-hop music is selling is because it gets sold to the suburban white kids who don't know shit and think that re-done UK crunk music is good music. They get told by music industry pushers that "the kids in London are listening to it," and the suburban kids say, "Really? Cool." And so they buy and think that it's what we're listening to in London when actually we fucking hate that kind of music. But the suburban kids don't question what they're told and buy it anyways.

Yeah, I'm racist. I'm racist against other white people, especially against the white suburban kids who continue to get sold shitty hip-hop because they're ignorant and instantly believe what they're told. I'm proud of who I am as a white man who appreciates other countries and cultures, but I hate the fact that there are white kids in the suburbs who don't stop to think and really listen to the good hip-hop that's coming out of London. I know every race has scumbags, but I look around and I want to be able to say that I'm proud about having unity with other white classes. I tend to see that more in black and Asian culture, but not so much in the white culture.

Your dad was in a punk band.

Yes, he was in a band early in his life and then got fucked over in a bad record deal, played in a few other bands that also failed, and then he had a breakdown after that. But the dad that people tell me about and the dad I remember are two different people. I remember a dad who was a Jesus Freak that told my mom and my siblings that if we didn't believe in God then we were going to burn in Hell. That's why he took off. My mom was always telling me that I could believe in whatever I wanted to, so her and my dad split. He took off and I stayed with her and my siblings. I grew up very confused. My dad telling me I need to believe this or else I was going to Hell and my mom was relaxed and chilled about religion, letting me choose what I believed.

How does the lack of relationship with your dad or that confusion growing up influence your music?

Well, when someone hasn't been in your life that long it's like they never existed. Like me and you are speaking for the first time today and the only thing we have in common is my album. You've listened to it and you and I have more in common than I have with my dad. But if I met my dad, he'd be like any other guy on the street. I might have some emotions towards him but it would only be that, even though he brought me into this world, the only emotion or thought that I would have is that I don't give a shit anymore. I suppose I would want some answers, some closure; I would want to know why he fucking took off. I might spit in his face and give him a couple of jabs and want to rob his bank account and take back the money that he should have given to me and my siblings growing up. To be honest, it's not an issue I cry when I talk about it because growing up there's things I wish he would have been there to teach me, but, actually, if I had the kind of man my father is, in my life growing up, I would have been a fucked-up person, even more than I am now so I really don't feel that bad that he's not in my life.

It's not on the album but what's the perspective in the mixtape song "Cast a Light"?

I don't have kids yet but I know if I did would be a shit dad if I were to have kids right now. I got my career and I would never be around. So with that track I was looking at the future. The smoking part of the song is subtle but in the end of the song I die. I needed a song to always remind me of what I saw my granddad go through when he died of cancer. Seeing him die got me thinking about dying, so I stopped smoking last October and haven't had one cigarette since. I'm not saying, "Don't smoke," because I fucking love smoking, but in the process of writing that song I realized that if I kept smoking I wasn't going to be able to see my kids or grandkids.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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