… do you know who I call my friends now?

 

The hoody you want to hug

He’s been knocked down but he always got up again. Plan B, the East End Eminem, talks to Pete Paphides

From 12ft away, it probably looks like perpetual, simmering fury. With every point made, every verbal score settled, 22-year-old Ben Drew leans forward and dispenses a few more accusing finger jabs. Up close, though, it’s something more like intense disappointment. It’s not that Drew — known to the world as the East London rapper Plan B — is angry with Radiohead for vetoing the use of a sample for his album track Missing Links. It’s just that it was barely recognisable by the time he had finished with it — and in any case, the Radiohead number (Pyramid Song) was inspired by something by Charles Mingus.

It’s not that he’s angry with his mother for entering into a relationship with a crack user, it’s just that she wouldn’t listen to his warnings and for a while that made him lose respect for her. Same goes for his old friends in Forest Gate. He needs no encouragement to get nostalgic about the time they went to Glastonbury but, from a group of ten, he is one of the few not to succumb to heroin. Somehow he expected more.

So it’s by his own admission “a recovering optimist” that takes a Jack Daniel’s and Coke to a table at his favourite Shoreditch bar and removes his hooded top. In a few hours Drew is due at the 2006 Mobo awards, where he is up for two gongs — Best UK Male and Best Newcomer, although he rightly predicts that in the public vote to determine the latter, he won’t stand a chance against “the mums and dads voting for Corinne Bailey Rae”.

(He will lose out in the other category, too, to Lemar.) Nevertheless, before the year is out, and we all get around to compiling the records that defined it, it’s inconceivable that Plan B’s ferociously articulate debut Who Needs Actions When You Got Words won’t feature on several lists. And not just those of musos, he’s appearing at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival next month. You don’t have to expend too much thought to work out the last time a hip-hop artist used the vernacular of the genre to subvert its glorification of violence. Since the release of last year’s debut single Kidz, Plan B has repeatedly been hailed as an East End Eminem and, for once, the cliché has some substance. At the heart of his music is a moral exasperation that frequently borders on panic.

Not least for Drew’s tendency to accompany himself on a acoustic guitar, David “Hug a Hoody” Cameron would no doubt approve of the new single No More Eatin’, which chronicles the transition from abused to abuser in detail. But we shouldn’t let that put us off. There’s something chilling about the suddenness with which Drew activates the narrative trip-switch — from the fear-eyed protagonist explaining to his stepfather why he didn’t retaliate when his bike was stolen to the bug-eyed refrain of the monster he becomes: “Hit the f***ing guy so hard he’d already started blackin’/ Before he hit the floor like a sack of potatoes.”

As with Eminem and Marshall Mathers, you could draw a Venn diagram to illustrate the relationship between the narrator of Plan B’s songs and the person who wrote them. Lodged firmly in the overlapping area would be several of Drew’s very bleakest monologues. Perhaps because he comes from the first generation of British musicians to grow up watching TV shows such as Trisha, Drew seems comfortable with the notion that his previous single Mama (Loves a Crackhead) turned dirty linen into art.

Indeed, the accompanying video unfolded like a Crimewatch reconstruction of the real-life situation that inspired it. “The funny thing about it,” he says, “is that the song hasn’t caused as much of a stigma as you might think. By the time I wrote the song they had split. But my Mum’s mates, they hear it, and all it means to them is that her son’s doing well. They’re happy for her.”

Whether he realises it or not, a recurring theme of Who Needs Words seems to be people’s willingness to depict themselves as victims of their circumstances. Describing his mother’s now former lover, he declaims: “If I was him I’d slit my veins at the mains in a lukewarm bath and sit in it ’til my arteries drain/ Do it right this time . . . Because there’s nothing more pathetic than a cry for help/ Either you do or you don’t wanna kill yourself.” Institutionalised political correctness, he says, has merely conspired to bring out the worst in people. “Our lollipop lady used to wear a Santa hat in the run-up to Christmas. One year, it was decided that it was offensive to people of certain faiths.

“Now, you start taking those sorts of complaints seriously and you’re practically encouraging people to harbour a grudge. And because of what? Because of a Santa hat? Do me a favour. If we start taking offence at that s*** there’s gonna be a civil war.”

As for his own father, there has been no contact for 15 years. Drew has no idea if his father — a sometime lead singer with a London pub rock band — is aware that his son has musical talent. Before severing contact with his friends, his father became a born-again Christian, reading to his son from the Bible and using chocolate as an incentive to prayer.

He may have recorded a song about his father entitled I Don’t Hate You, but Drew’s apparent indifference towards him musters a pretty good impersonation of all-out loathing once it gets going. “Do you know what?” he begins, sucking hard on a cigarette, “My grandad’s dying. My Dad’s dad is dying. He’s got cancer. Doesn’t even know he’s got cancer. He’s been lying in this f***ing hospital bed for over a month, blind and nearly deaf, hearing aid in one ear. He can hear about 20 per cent out of it and that’s how we communicate. And my f***ing Dad don’t give a s***, obviously.”

Though it might yet take him some years to realise it, Drew’s father may have given him the thing that has protected him from self-destruction — a hurt that has, in time, metamorphosed into a fierce moral certitude. It’s all over his music. And one day it’ll probably make a great parent of him, although right now he’s far from convinced of that.

“It’s something that I think about,” he ponders. “I’ve got this feeling that I’m going to become really rich one day, but there will always be a part of you that wants your kids to know what you went through. Sometimes I think: do I really want my kids growing up with all that money around them? Wouldn’t it be better if I just get some groupie f***ing pregnant and never see the kid and let it learn all about life for itself? That’s pretty f***ed up, but then, that’s what I’ve learned from not having a dad.”

And his friends? What has he learnt from them? “I’ve learnt that you can’t depend on anyone. Seriously, bruv. One of my best mates — one of the most talented people I ever knew — should be sitting next to me now, talking to you. I used to make music with him years ago, and it was f***ing magic.

“That c*** is on suspended sentence from Belmarsh now because he was robbing shops for money to pay for his heroin habit. I have to accept that heroin means more to him than our friendship, more to him than his Mum, even. It breaks my f***ing heart. I’ve had what I thought were close friends tell me they’re homeless. I’ve put them up, and they’ve just robbed off me and run up huge phone bills. So, do you know who I call my friends now?” Drew points to a table where his two co-managers are seated. “Those people there. The people who are helping me achieve this goal. I know it’s business, but these are the people who believe in me.”

My God, if ever a hoody needed to be hugged . . .

Plan B’s UK tour starts at the Leadmill, Sheffield, on Oct 4. He appears at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival on Oct 8, 01242 227979. www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk. The Live at the Pet Cemetery EP is out Oct 30 on 679 Recordings.

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