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Movies are Drew's Plan
7:00am Saturday 16th June 2012 in Music
Chart-topping rapper Plan B - aka Ben Drew - has taken time out from behind the mike to make his directorial film debut with iLL Manors, which opens in cinemas on Wednesday, June 6. The accompanying album of the same name is to follow on July 16. The London-based musician talks about directing, drugs and dropping out of school.
By Shereen Low.
Ben Drew is looking forward to some time off.
Lighting a cigarette, he says: "I've been working every day in the last few years, so it doesn't leave much time for life. I think I'm starting to burn out now. So after this, I'm just going to have a break."
Yet with an upcoming film role in The Sweeney opposite Ray Winstone, and a list of summer festival appearances, including a forests tour and Serbia's Exit festival, the 28-year-old - better known as his rap alter ego Plan B - is aware that free time is a luxury.
"I'm dreading these shows, because of the amount of preparation that goes into making sure I perform at the level that I always have. I hate not having time to get things right, because you have to put things out that you're not 100% happy with," he says.
"That kills me. I've been working so hard and so long to do what I'm doing now, and it really upsets me when I can't do it to the level of which I know I'm capable.
"But," he adds, "I will get there, and I'll put on a good show - it just means I'm not going to have a life for a little bit longer."
Plan B fans will be aware that the rapper has gradually been moving away from music into film, with roles in Adulthood, 22.214.171.124 and Harry Brown, in between releasing his critically acclaimed soul album, The Defamation Of Strickland Banks.
He's now taken the next step by making his directorial debut with iLL Manors, which is accompanied by an album soundtrack of the same name.
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he admits. "That was because I didn't have the financial support I needed, and people doubt you, so you have to deal with that. It's pretty tough."
Based on "a collection of stories which me or friends have experienced" in east London, the hard-hitting gritty thriller is not an easy watch, although its provocative nature has won Drew the label of "the mouthpiece of a generation". It has been praised by fellow musicians Ed Sheeran, Professor Green and Tinie Tempah.
"The majority of the white population in this country don't even believe this environment or these people actually exist - they think it's just an exaggeration but it's not. There's no way I can fictionalise that," he insists.
"I'm not sitting there, dreaming this stuff up to make a film I can make money from."
Citing Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn as his inspiration, Drew's film has been criticised for glorifying violence, but he insists: "I know some of the scenes will shock some people. But nothing is included just for shock value - every event portrayed is crucial to the story.
"My original draft was a lot bleaker - tragedy all around, because I guess that's where I was at in my head when I wrote it," he says.
"Then, before shooting it in 2010, my life changed and I've become more optimistic so I took the liberty of changing things in the story."
Drew gives himself a cameo, but didn't want a starring role in the film. "I didn't want it to be a vanity project," he says.
Starring Four Lions' Riz Ahmed alongside up-and-coming actors like Anouska Mond and Ed Skrein, iLL Manors is clearly a passion project for Drew, who has always wanted to make this film to encourage social change.
"This film is a chance for me to show where these problems start and the domino effect they have within people's lives.
"This is about the negative things and crimes you read about in the newspapers that don't explain why they happen, which I feel adds more pressure to the whole misconception of the underclasses," he explains.
The musician - who attended Tunmarsh Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Plaistow after being kicked out of school at the age of 16 - is in a position to confront society with these stories, having grown up in and around London's Forest Gate, but he also wants to touch today's troubled youth.
"I want teens and young adults to learn that messing with guns and being in gangs ain't cool - I know it's hard because it's easy to get sucked in. I want my movie and music to help kids like me, who have been forgotten about and laughed at," he says.
Yet Drew, whose musician father walked out when he was just five months old, readily admits he could have been one of those kids.
"I could have gone down that route, yeah. But I was lucky - I had a talent," he says.
"I knew if I worked hard at it, I could make something of myself. These kids only care about how to get money now and nice trainers and wide-screen TVs, and they will do anything like sell crack."
Making a positive change to his community makes Drew happy. "When I went back to my old PRU and I got the kids to write and perform their own songs, that filled me with so much more purpose and meaning than anything ever I've done in my life, including this film.
"It makes me happy knowing that I have the power to make other people's lives better."
Drew was inspired to write the iLL Manors single after last summer's looting and rioting. The song has been hailed by MPs and Drew's stance has been praised.
"I genuinely want to change things and I feel like this is just the first step. I am an angry white rapper but I'm not just that. People think I don't care, but I do," he adds, lighting another cigarette.
"There are so many insincere people pretending to care about things so they can make money out of it, so I forgive people for being cynical about my motives and what I do. Only time will prove that I do care."
Drew admits the big screen is his calling and now plans to incorporate his music within movies.
"I didn't do this as a one-off thing, I want to make films and be a director. I saw this as my calling card, but also it allowed me to talk about this issue," he explains.
"My hip-hop music is not really for commercial radio, so I felt like if I had a different kind of medium where it could live, I don't have to water it down or compromise. I thought film would be the perfect place."
There are reports that his next film will be about the city's Kurdish community, but Drew says: "I might need a break from all this political stuff, I might make a comedy. It depends on how I feel."
Extra time - Musicians turned directors Ben Drew isn't the first musician to swap the mike for movies. Here are some of the others: :: Madonna - Following roles in Evita, Desperately Seeking Susan and A League Of Their Own, the Queen of Pop went behind the cameras for short film, Filth And Wisdom, before 2012's period drama WE.
:: Ice Cube - The NWA rapper, whose real name is O'Shea Jackson, directed 1998's The Players Club as well as writing the Friday comedies.
:: Fred Durst - The Limp Bizkit frontman made his directorial debut in 2007 with The Education Of Charlie Banks. He later directed The Longshots in 2008 and is set to direct Pawn Shop Chronicles.
:: RZA - Wu-Tang Clan member RZA - aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs - is making his directorial debut with The Man With The Iron Fists, in which he stars alongside Russell Crowe.