Plan B’s smooth transition from hoody-clad rapper to crisp-suited soul singer may have raised eyebrows but his directorial debut seems intent on grabbing the country by the throat. Made under his real name, Ben Drew, Ill Manors is both structurally inventive and bruisingly frank, following eight characters as their lives interweave in an inner-city cycle of drug-dealing, prostitution and poverty. Having grown up in east London’s Forest Gate where the film is set, Drew, who was sent to a pupil referral unit at 16, has watched these stories play out in real life. When GQ.com meet him in central London he’s wearing a hoody again – and, seemingly, the weight of the world on his shoulders. After flicking his Zippo to spark up a cigarette, he soon begins setting forth his views on the environment that shaped him, the films that influenced him and the style that inspires him.
GQ: You wrote Ill Manors in 2007. Did you make any changes to it after last year’s riots?
Ben Drew: No. The song “Ill Manors” and its video are a response to the riots, but we’d already shot the bulk of the film by September 2010. Really the riots were a response to the issues depicted in the film, so it’s the other way around. These issues have been around since I left school in 2000 and longer than that. People don’t believe that they exist, so they don’t try to change them. Unfortunately the people in charge of fixing these problems are politicians who don’t come from that world. I don’t think the film glamorises anything. The only fiction in this film is that all this stuff is happening at the same time, involving so many characters. That’s the only artistic licence.
What do you think of Kanye West and Jay-Z showing rioting in their video for “No Church In The Wild”?
The problem is when people do that is that it gives others an excuse to be cynical about why people like me are doing things, but I haven’t actually seen the video so I would in no way want to disrespect anybody or talk about their motives. They’re artists themselves so I would never speak for them. When it comes to film and music like that though, the only people who need to be worried are the well-off. It’s only their kids who are going to be influenced negatively by that. The kids that I’m talking about are living that life already. They’re not going to be influenced by Top Boy or Kidulthood to go out in the street and sell crack because they’re already doing it.
Why do you think people get drawn into that life?
They’re doing it because society tells them that they need to have the newest trainers and widescreen TVs and PS3s. In that respect we all have something in common, no matter what walk of life you come from. We’re all consumers: difference is, some people can afford it and some people can’t. There’s so much importance put on these things that the kids who can’t afford them will go and sell crack to be able to afford them. These little kids on the street are prepared to sell crack and ruin another kid’s life so that they can afford a pair of trainers. What made them think it was that important? TV, adverts, magazines and rich kids walking around wearing that stuff and looking down on the kids who can’t afford it and calling them tramps and chavs.
What’s the impact of dismissing people as “chavs”?
It’s a class war perpetuated by journalists. There are so many people walking around with opinions that aren’t their own. How can you judge people that you never come into contact with? You can’t. It’s got so bad now that when you do come in contact with someone of a different class you act a certain way towards them because this war has been created and perpetuated. We’re all falling for it. I had to find a way of dealing with it because I used to get picked on and robbed at school. I was minority white in a multicultural school and I was a target. Not because the kids were racist: that’s just what bullies do. I had to ask the question as to why these kids thought it was OK to pick on people. Then you see where they live and see that they ain’t got s***. They’re just doing what they’ve got to do to get the things that all of us put so much importance on. If you look at life that way it means you ain’t got to fear them, or hate them, or put it down to colour. You put it down to money. The most vile things that we as human beings do to each other is for money. Governments go into other countries and bomb them for oil, power and money. Girls get prostituted and sex-trafficked for money. It’s all to do with class, and nothing to do with religion or race. It all boils down to money.
Could you ever see yourself becoming an MP?
I’m not going to try and be a politician. It would compromise everything that I stand for. These guys get into it with the best intentions and then when they get into power they see the mess they have to deal with. We can’t change the system. As people we just need to be aware of it and make it work for us. Each one of us can teach one other person something that they’re lacking. It’s about taking the time to engage with someone and having patience. These kids need to be able to call someone at two o’clock in the morning and tell them that they’re about to do something really stupid. They need someone to talk to. That goes beyond social work. I was lucky enough to have social workers like that in my life.
Which other films and directors were you influenced by?
I’d say Pusher by Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s not a beautiful film, by any means. It’s shot handheld, almost documentary-style, but the story is strong and the characters are really interesting. I took a leaf out of his book. I also looked at how Shane Meadows works. He’ll write a treatment and then cast the film. Then he’ll get the actors to improv to come up with the dialogue. We did that with bits and pieces. Sometimes we stuck to the script, but sometimes when it was wooden and it felt like they were “acting” I threw the script away and said: “Remember the beats, remember when you’re supposed to walk into the room, remember when you’re supposed to get offended by this person.” It made it difficult to cut and edit the film, but that’s what produced the magic.
Can you recommend a good book?
The last book I read was Premiership Psycho by CM Taylor. It’s about a Premiership footballer who’s a serial killer. He calls himself a “Customer Service Vigilante”. He’s completely obsessed with labels and material things and he hates people that work within customer service who don’t respect the fact that he’s spending money. It’s a black comedy, but for me it says a lot about the society that we live in. It’s hilarious.
What’s your style rule?
The cut is so important, but it doesn’t really matter about the name to me. I really like Armani suits but it’s not because they’ve got Armani written on them: I love the cut of their suits and I think they drop well on me. I get a lot of my denim from Topman. It’s nice, it’s affordable – not that I have to worry about things being affordable – again, I just like the cut. I’d buy jeans from Mr Byrite if I liked the cut. I’ve bought stuff from Primark before. My tip is to know how clothes hang on you and what suits you. If you’re short and you’ve got a round head there are certain things that won’t work for you. If you’re tall and slim and you’ve got a long face there are certain things that will.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Always take insults in the same breath as praise. If someone tells you you’re a piece of shit, you’re not. If someone says you’re the best thing since sliced bread, don’t believe that either. You’re not Jesus or Mother Theresa, but you’re all right. I think that’s how you keep the balance and keep your feet on the ground.
Originally published by British GQ.