Hip hop artist Plan B has already written what some consider the first British protest song of the new millennium. Now, as film director Ben Drew, he’s taking his message onto the big screen. By Stephen Applebaum
THE 65th Cannes Film Festival was notable for the number of musicians on the Croisette. Nick Cave turned up as the writer of John Hillcoat’s Lawless; Macy Gray, Ronan Keating, Kylie Minogue and Pete Doherty all banged the drum for their work in front of the camera; and Kanye West set up a video installation in a car park. West may be the bigger name, but it was Britain’s Ben Drew, and his writing-directing feature debut, Ill Manors, that got journalists excited.
Better known as hip hop/soul artist Plan B, the straight-talking Londoner has taken the grab-’em-by-the-throat approach of his gritty, critically-acclaimed first album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, and applied it to an ambitious low-budget feature with narrative gymnastics worthy of Tarantino. In the same way that his songs purported to show us life as it was actually experienced by some urban youths, Drew’s narrator in Ill Manors claims that he is going to give us reality ”verbatim”. It is a gruelling and intense journey through a world of gangs, drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, murder, corrupted innocence, sex, parental neglect, with a few rays of light amidst the darkness.
Ill Manors is essentially the world of its provocative eponymous title track – hailed by some as the first great mainstream British protest song of the new millennium – made celluloid. And a pointed rebuke to those who claimed that the musician had sold out when he released his cross-over second album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, which eschewed spiky hip hop for a smoother, more accessible soul sound.
“If I would have been famous enough and successful enough at the time, I would have made Ill Manors after the first album,” says Drew, sitting hunched forward on a chair in a beachfront marquee. He was ready to go with the project in January 2008, after playing a supporting role in Adulthood and directing a self-penned short, Michelle, which he’s expanded in the feature. “But I wasn’t famous and I wasn’t successful. People didn’t believe in me enough to give me the money to make this project. So I just struggled to try and get the money together.”
The lack of commercial success of Who Needs Actions… came as a blow. Admitting that his ”ego was pretty big at the time”, he’d never doubted that he would get signed and was convinced that the album would go Platinum. When it didn’t, Drew says he became very bitter and very angry. “And I tell you what, if it had happened, my ego would have been out of control and you would have been here talking to a f****** a***hole.”
Failure was the “worst experience of [his] life”. But it not only grounded him, it made him realise that he had forgotten why he’d started making music in the first place. Until he got a record deal it had been about social commentary, not sales.
“I felt that these subjects I was talking about were being ignored by society and I didn’t want people to ignore them any more. I wanted people to address them and make a difference. I don’t care about the success and the money and the bullshit. All I want to do is be an artist.”
The Ill Manors movie took on ever greater importance as he reconnected with the feelings that produced early songs such as Kidz and Mama (Loves a Crackhead). “Rather than a side project, it became like, ‘No, I want to do this and I want to put as much conviction into this as I do my music, and I want to be a film director.’”
Ironically, the film freed him to make Strickland Banks. Because he knew that it would provide an outlet for his less commercial hip hop, he decided to go in another direction musically. When the album took off, people suddenly wanted to put money into the film. They were too late, though; Drew had already signed a deal with Film London’s micro-budget funding scheme, Microwave, to make Ill Manors for £100,000.
While the success of Strickland Banks could conceivably help the movie to reach the demographic that wouldn’t have touched his first album, Drew isn’t so sure that it will “reach them socially”. In any case, “it’s for the kids that are living in that environment,” he says, “that can’t see past the money they’re being offered to do the illegal things that they do.”
Drew knows their world intimately, even if, unlike many of them, he didn’t grow up on a council estate. Raised in Forest Gate in East London by his mother (his father left home when he was five months old), who worked for the local authority, he lived in a privately owned home. In order to be able to afford the mortgage, though, his mother had to rent all the rooms, he says. “So my house felt like a council estate anyway. In every room there was some stranger that I didn’t really know.” People looked at his house and thought they were rich, he says, but there was no extra money to buy him the Nike and Adidas trainers that many of his friends wore to school. “The kids on the estates, they had the Sega Megadrives and Nintendos and shit, where we didn’t. And I was going to school wearing my sister’s hand-me-down f****** shit pink trainers.”
The people he hung around with all came from council estates and he had best friends that he saw fall victim to crack and heroin addiction. “They were like my family. I would go around and visit them and they would be sitting there with prostitutes, doing crack pipes in front of me.”
When Drew was 15, he smoked heroin at Glastonbury, but didn’t like it. “I guess if I would have liked it, I would have carried on doing it. But I didn’t, it was disgusting. It’s like being really drunk and my head was spinning and I wanted to be sick.” For him, it was more about dealing. “I started off selling weed,” he says. If he hadn’t signed a record contract, “that’s what I would have been doing”.
These days he is helping youngsters walking a similar path by trying to bring out their creativity. He works at a pupil referral unit in Hackney with kids who have been excluded from school, like he was, and feels he can get through to them quicker than teachers can.
“It’s because I’m famous. I walk in the door and they’ve seen me on TV, so they offer themselves to me. Consumerist society, you know? They’re victims of it as well.”
If anything, his fame had the opposite effect when he was making Ill Manors. He came into it as a novice filmmaker and before the cameras rolled asked the more experienced members of his crew not to patronise or talk down to him because he hadn’t been to film school. “They said, ‘Yes, we fully understand. We’re cool.’ But when we started filming they switched and started disrespecting me.
“That was the hardest shit [making the film], because you’re trying to ignore that there is a sense on your film that you’re not respected. And for me, not only was I a first-time director but a young man as well, and these people were a lot older than me.”
Fortunately, his director of photography backed him. “He had the patience of a saint and believed in my vision, and stood up for me when other people were slagging me off. Without him, I never would have been able to make the film.”
The aggravation was worth it as Ill Manors announces Drew as a thrilling new voice in British cinema. It begins shakily but builds into a complex, shocking and humane exploration of life as lived by many people today. As the song says, it is not about broken Britain but people who are broke in Britain. He doesn’t glamorise or romanticise drugs and gangs, but shows the sad squalid reality. His hope is that the film will educate kids like the ones he’s working with. Some of them are as young as 13 and “trafficking crack cocaine around because the older drug dealers have manipulated their brain into thinking, ‘Hey, you need a new bike. You need new trainers. Do this for me.’ This kid, he can’t see the possible outcomes of what he’s doing. I want him to see Ill Manors.”
He believes that people not directly affected by the issues in the film could also benefit from watching it, because it will make them aware of why the things they read about in newspapers – drug dealing, gang murders, the riots last August – happen. “And now that you understand why it happens, maybe it will upset you enough that you want to do something about it, like I do, and help make a change.”
• Ill Manors is in cinemas from Wednesday