It is the kind of place where high-rollers meet for light supper. Where they wash down Dorset Crab and Cream Cake with black China tea: a five-star inn above St Pancras train station, whose interior is more Hogwarts than hotel. The sun is crashing through the glass ceiling into a lounge as big as a football field and I sit on a corner table with Ben Drew, artistically known as Plan B, sipping still water from glass bottles.
He has been telling me about his new album (out today) and how he titled it Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose – in relation to his six-year break from music. For the uninitiated, Plan B’s career started with the rap-heavy debut 2006 LP Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words – an album where inner city ballads like “Kids” stared from eyes of unsettled teenagers who broke bottles over heads; a collection of tunes for the forsaken crowd who were disregarded by detached newspaper journalists as “beasts”, “feral” and “inhumane”. But then, in 2010, Plan B released the The Defamation of Strickland Banks, a conceptual album stitched together with soul and falsettos, not rap verses.
Celebrity arrived next, with money and record sales. The boy from the East End was famous, but he was also stubborn. Ditching the sound of Strickland Banks, he wrote and directed the film Ill Manors (depicting sex workers, dealers and addicts on an east London estate) and scored its rap soundtrack. And... here’s where he fell off the radar. For the next six years Plan B walled himself from the world, lived in a bubble with his partner and daughter, built a family, and in doing so, he says, found heaven on earth. He put a pause on music and enjoyed funnelling his attention into fatherhood, figuring out turning 30, living like a civilian again, as if he were back in East London.
Plan B’s new album Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose largely reflects this state of uninterrupted bliss. It leans on his soft soul falsettos, wrestles with faith, parenting and the sacrifices a man must make for happiness to ultimately shine through. To my ears at least, it listens well. There is commentary and confusion about the state of the times, about a Britain that is fractured. It steers into view a Plan B, who – after his period of isolation – has emerged like a Caterpillar from its cocoon and into a divisive plane of chaos and anarchy, Brexit and Trump. While Heaven presents a man who has found meaning in his life, in becoming a father, it also showcases someone who has more questions than answers.
And so here he was, sinking slowly into his seat as the conversation became more introspective and required candid reflection. “Like a counselling session,” he would remark afterwards about a chat that started with the sun still high in the sky and ended with sunset’s shadows being thrown across the lobby. We spoke for two hours, the world and the rich and the privileged falling away with it, so that somehow, in this gothic Victorian hotel – where waiters whisked from table to table, fretting over big bills and draining wine glasses – it seemed, for a few hours at least, it was only Ben and I. The man behind Plan B, the human who is no different from the rest of us.
Noisey: Do you still live in London?
Plan B: Yeah. If I continue to live in England I’ll continue to live in London.
I just love London man, I’ve always felt uncomfortable straying outside of it, different worlds. You know what I mean?
Do you feel like London gives you anything?
Identity, definitely. Anywhere I go in the world, if I meet a Londoner we’re just going to have more in common. For a little bit I used to commute from London to Essex and there was a very big difference socially – not to say I didn’t meet some fucking diamonds out there, good friends that I’ve kept in touch with – but that was the first culture shock I’ve really had. I wouldn’t even call it predominantly white, it’s just white. There’s no other cultures out [in Essex]. Where I was going was quite white middle class and that in itself is a culture shock. Everybody made such a big deal about what they owned and their clothes, which I found really fucked up.
Do you still feel connected to Forest Gate?
My Mum still lives there. [But] it’s changing man. That’s the thing with London; as you get older things get gentrified and your mates can’t afford to live there. They have to move further out to places like Dagenham and Rainham, then what have you really got left other than to say “I’m a Londoner?” Where I grew up – Stratford, Forest Gate, Leytonstone – all my friends from around that area, they’re gone now. The ends ain’t the same.
On “Heartbeat” you say “I gotta make my own decisions about what to do / Can’t be changing up the rhythm just for you.” Do you live your life like that?
I do it by default man. Like this situation right here. I’m a pop star trying to sell music… I don’t see myself like that, but everyone else fucking does, everyone I work with. So it’s like “let’s not talk about certain things in interviews, you don’t need to mention that, you don’t need to be [as] honest about that as you are.” What do you want me to do? Do you want me to edit myself? I’m not specifically talking about management, or my label, I’m just saying that when you’re in this industry… I’ve always tackled political subjects, and you’re always kind of met with “do you think you should do that?” Do you really want to try and complicate your life like this? We’re selling records, why don’t you just put the record out and do a safe video?” But I can’t, I just fucking can’t. The music I’m writing is about that shit, so when I’m gonna do a music video it’s gonna be about that shit. So if it gets under people’s skin, it pisses them off, fucking good.
I’ll always strive to do what my instincts tell me to do, regardless of what anybody is telling me, even if on paper what they’re saying sounds like the right thing. People go “Ben, don’t do it, just this one time take the easy way.” And I’ll be going “Yeah, he’s right, and you’re all right,” but there’s something inside of me going “don’t take the easy route. Fucking challenge yourself, challenge other people.” It’s like a burning fire inside of me, self-destructive maybe. But I know that ultimately all of those decisions have got me where I am today, and that’s a really fucking positive place.
Do you feel like you get to live a normal life?
Yeah because this fake shit: celebrity and fame, you can switch it off. It’s your choice to keep going out in front of everybody and wearing flashy clothes and making a big statement when you arrive places. I get on the fucking tube, I grow my beard out, I don’t cut my hair, I look like shit. Ain’t no one batting an eyelid at me. I was fat and then I lost weight. So they go “Is that Plan B? Nah Plan B is fat.” I’m laughing.
I’m not the type of guy to be posting that “I’m here, I’m at this restaurant, I just bought a new car, look at these shoes.” I’m not that guy and that’s a choice. But now I’m looking at how everybody else is kind of working the industry, and maybe I need to do more of that online shit. But I feel like my private life is my private life. I don’t understand why everything has to be on sale. It’s feeling like if I don’t let people into my private shit, it has an effect on how well the music does. I find that really fucked up, but if that’s the way the world is I have to accept it.
Do you feel like a different person now that you’re a father?
[Pauses] Yeah, obviously I do. Before you have a kid you feel invincible. Death is one of those things that you kind of think is not gonna happen – it will, but it’s gonna happen so far down the line. Then you have a kid and you think “oh shit it’s not that far down the line is it?” You become aware of your own mortality. And suddenly all this fear and anxiety creeps in about your child, about your child’s wellbeing. But also the world that you’re bringing your child up in. And that leaves no room for that carefree, irresponsible motherfucker you used to be. And when there’s no room for that, you start questioning ‘Well, who the fuck am I? Was [being irresponsible] my identity or was that the bullshit? Me running around, being carefree and acting like a dickhead and having a good time and whatever, and doing all that shit, was that actually me? Or is this me? Have I just come back to someone I’ve been trying to run away from?
What does having a child teach you about love?
The love for your child is unconditional… do you have kids?
It’s just unconditional. See in the past, when I’ve had feelings for women, it’s hard to tell how much of that was a choice and how much of it was lust. With your child, all the other shit is taken out of the equation. It’s just “that’s your child and you have no choice but to love them.” You can’t turn it off. It’s instant, there always, forever. With a woman it is conditional. I love you right now. But I may not love you in ten years’ time: it all depends on how we treat each other. With your kid it doesn’t matter. Your kid could be a fucking nightmare, hooked on crack, constantly stealing the TV and fucking up your life but you’re never going to stop loving them.
How was turning 30 for you?
How old are you?
Before 30 you can go out and get drunk and act like a fool and people go “Ah it’s alright he’s just young.” When you get to 30 it’s like “This shit, you’re not going to get away with no more, it’s not funny anymore. You’re 30, you’re a man, grow the fuck up.” Realising you’re at that point is quite… sad. You know what I mean?
What was sad about it?
Just like… it’s freedom being able to do that; to be yourself. Even if you’re a dickhead, go and be a fucking dickhead and have that freedom and people ain’t really gonna judge you too tough. When that stops it is a bit sad, them days are over, now everything is real. Now I’ve got to take responsibility for shit. That’s what turning 30 was like for me. And if you don’t go through that when you’re 30, you’ll go through it when you’re 40. You come to some point in your life where you have the realisation that you can’t carry on the way you’ve been carrying on and you’ve got to fix up.
I hear that.
But that sadness doesn’t last, too. I’m looking forward to the future and everything that’s in store, watching my daughter grow up, all the films I’m gonna make, all the songs I haven’t written yet. it’s just the perspective they’re coming from is going to be different than what it was before.
On the title track of this new album, you say “Ignorance is bliss.” Have you felt like to be happy, you’ve had to live in a state of ignorance?
When you have a kid, and you’ve made money, you can do that. And that’s what I did. I shut myself off from work and doing anything and just spent time in that bubble. It was like heaven on earth and anyone whose affluent is doing that. Most people who are affluent have got something to lose and don’t want to involve themselves in shit that involves other people that aren’t directly related to them, so they turn a blind eye.
I was on a different planet. And you know what? Fuck it, I deserved it, I worked hard. I’ve always fought that corner for people and when my kid was born, I just wanted to shut myself off from everything and just enjoy that, you know what I mean? I don’t regret that. But let’s just call it what it is. Only through my success was I afforded the privilege of being able to do that, because I had the money where I didn’t have to go and do a 9-5 and could buy a nice house. But just because I’m in that position, doesn’t mean I’ve got so much to lose that I’m not gonna say something.
What’s the most recent lesson you’ve learnt?
Really difficult question. I don’t know what the most recent one is. I’m in a transitional period right now, where I’m learning a lot about myself and who I am, and questioning who I was. I’m at that point where I’m like, ‘Which one is the lie?’ Neither of them are, you’re both of those things. So stop beating yourself about being one or the other. You can cut down your drinking, you can cut down having certain conversations with people, putting yourself in environments that are going to bring out the worst in you, but ultimately you still are that person. Backed into a corner, you are going to become that person. So you need to stop running away from that person, face that person head on and go “do you know what, you’ve got some flaws but you’re not that bad.” When you face it head on, you can understand why you are that way and you can stop eating yourself up about it and say, “Do you know what? It’s fine, you’re human, nobody is perfect, you’ve got a couple flaws, it’s good. Get the fuck on with your life.”
You can find Aniefiok on Twitter.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.