It is the kind of place where high-rollers meet for light supper, 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 (Plan B) sipping still water from glass bottles.
He has been telling me about his new album, about how he had titled it “Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose,” about his six-year break from music and how things had changed in his absence. At the turn of the decade he had released two number one albums in as many years (The Defamation of Strickland Banks and Ill Manors). Then he fell below the radar, retreated into deep hibernation, withdrew from the world without answer. For years he said, he lived in a bubble, remained entombed in a new home with a wife and a new-born daughter, threw his time into building a family, and in doing so discovered that if you searched hard enough, weaned off enough distractions, there was a heaven to be found on earth.
He set up holy camp, swapped a film career for fatherhood, arena tours for his daughter. The album he created in this time largely reflects this state of uninterrupted bliss, leans on his soft soul voice, gently bleeds in inklings of a new, more spiritual life, puts into view a man who searched out paradise while Britain fractured, and has now emerged like a Caterpillar out of its cocoon, from slumber and dream state into a divisive plane of chaos and anarchy, Brexit and Trump.
In his absence, the music industry had also tumbled into an uneasy future. Previously quiet men like Ben, now offer up their private lives to the public, lay forth their inner selves, forsake their privacy, because in this era, where albums are passed over in weeks not months, where playlists have parity with the art of the live performance, good music is regrettably no longer enough for the musician.
So here he was, sinking slowly into his seat as the conversation became more introspective, required candid reflection. “Like a counselling session,” he would remark afterwards, that had 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 falling away around us, the rich and the privileged with it, so that somehow, in this gothic Victorian hotel, where waiters whisked from table to table, fretting over big bills and draining wineglasses, it seemed, for a few hours at least, that it was only Ben and I.
Do you still live in London?
Yeah I still live in London. 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 out 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 and all that, 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 there, and also where I was going it was quite white middle class and that in itself is a culture shock. The first time I was made aware of class was when I went out there because everybody made such a big deal about what they owned and their clothes which I found really fucked up.
Do you get back to Forest Gate much?
Yeah my Mum still lives there.
Do you still feel connected to the area?
It’s changing man. That’s the thing with London, as you get older things get gentrified and all your mates can’t afford to live there. They have to move further out in 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, like Stratford, Forest Gate, Leytonstone, all my friends from around that area, they’re gone now. The ends ain’t the same.
It must be quite different to how your parents generation, where you grow up in an area with your friends and family, and they all grow old together. What’s it like not having that experience?
When all my mates start moving out it breaks my heart. And I see what’s happening. What they’re trying to do…not trying, they’re doing it. They’re making London like Paris, all the rich motherfuckers live in the centre and anyone who can’t afford to live in the centre lives in the outskirts in the fucking ghettos that surround it. It kind of worries me that that’s happening, obviously powerless to stop it.
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 or is it something that you’re still working on?
I do it by default man. I do it by default. 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 honest about that as you are.” What do you want me to do? Do you want me to edit myself? “Nah, Nah just tone it down a little bit.” I’m not specifically talking about management or my label I’m just saying that when you’re in this industry and when you’re in this environment there’s…I’ve always tackled political kind of 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 of, 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 away.” 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 and let’s have it.” My instincts just dig their fucking heels in. It’s just like a burning fire inside of me, self-destructive maybe. Fuck knows what the fuck it is, but I know that ultimately all of those decisions I’ve made that look to other people to be the wrong decisions have got me to where I am today, and where I am today is a really fucking positive place.
Do you feel like you get to live a normal life?
Yeah because this fake shit: celebrity and fame, it is fake shit and you can switch it off. You can keep the tap running, 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’ve got.” 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 kind of has an effect on how well the music does. For me I find that really fucked up but if that’s the way the world is I have to accept it. I don’t know what I’d do about that other than just accept that maybe I’m not gonna sell as many records as I might have because I’m not here to give everybody every little piece of my fucking soul.
Does that bother you?
Yeah because music, first things first it should be faceless. You should hear music before you see. Now, I love music videos and I love performers. I’m fascinated by SIA and definitely The Prodigy, I used to love their videos and the fucked up shit they was doing, but ultimately you’ve got to hear music first and say “I like this.” What’s happening is that people are seeing someone, seeing an individual, seeing a music video and deciding they like the track afterwards. It’s fucked up, it feels a little backwards to me. I feel like they both need to be good. The music needs to be good, the music videos need to be good and when you see the motherfucker live that shits definitely got to be good. I feel like I’ve done that throughout out my career, but it’s looking like maybe that’s not enough no more.
On Grateful you said “My life changed the day you were born.” Is it possible to describe the gratitude you have when you have a child?
I didn’t know what Gratitude was until I had a kid. I didn’t know what it was. I would wake up in the morning and just say ‘thank you’ to thin air. “Who you saying thank you to?” I don’t know, God, the Universe, just thank you for this feeling. I’ve never felt it before and I’m very grateful for it. And I’m like ‘ah that’s gratitude.’ All my life I’ve been going “Yeah I’m very grateful, thank you.” No you weren’t. You didn’t know what that word meant, but now you do. It’s a blessing and a blessing is something that is…given to you from a higher power, something you couldn’t control. You know what I mean? And having a child, that’s what that is.
That’s God’s choice. And I’m not stupid. I know it’s your choice to have sex with a girl, pregnancy and all that, but you know…without getting too dark, that’s not everyone’s experiences. People lose children during childbirth, things can go wrong and for God to bless me with my child and for my child to be healthy, I have nothing but gratitude. It’s not one of them things where I’m religious and I have faith that God ain’t gonna do that to me. It’s not that. It’s that I believe in a higher power and that higher power has blessed me with a child and the feeling that I have inside now, all I can call it is gratitude, love.
Do you feel like a different person now that you’re a father?[pauses] Yeah obviously I do. [pauses]. It’s one of them things 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?” Your kids growing up and you start comparing their life to your life, and four years go like that. Then you start seeing your traits in them and you go “You know what? I remember being her age.” Then I look at my relationship with my own Mum and I think of how hard she’s had to work, how dependent me and my brothers and sisters were on her, to the point where she didn’t really have no time for herself, and then you look at your own situation and go “yeah that’s the situation I’m in right now.” I love it, I want to be here but that’s the situation and therefore the clock is ticking.
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 that 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? Is this actually who I was before all of that crap. Have I just come back to someone I’ve been trying to run away from?
Was that the conclusion you came to?
I’m still working it out bro, still working it out. The thing is when you have kids, life gets real. You question everything about yourself, you question every decision. You have to because the things you do will affect your child now. You fall out of a fucking nightclub, drunk, acting like a cunt, it’s gonna affect your child. People start talking about ya, “You’re not a good parent, fucking alcoholic, getting drunk all the time.” That’s gonna affect your child, anything you do. Before I could be distracted. I could go “Fuck the Record Label, I’m gonna do what I want, the record label could drop me, I don’t’ give a fucking shit.” But now it’s like yeah, have that attitude and maybe they will drop you and then what? You’ve got a kid you’ve got to support so you need to keep your career on track. I guess with the experience that I’m going through with becoming a parent has got me to that point where I can be a little less controlling and be a little more open to suggestions because then if I’m not I’m just going to push good people around me away. You’ve got good people there, trying to help you, who believe in your creativity and if you just go “nah you’re all wrong,” and be completely uncompromising, then people go “alright man, go and do it your way,” and they don’t feel enthused and they don’t want to work on your shit.
Going back to 2006, on ‘Mama’ from ‘Who Needs Actions When You’ve Got Words’ you were talking about being the man of the house. How has fatherhood made you feel about what it means to be a man?
I think I’m in a very privileged situation where I’ve managed to follow my dreams and accomplish things that other people said I would not. If I hadn’t of accomplished those things, I think I’d be very angry and bitter and I think ultimately I would still be chasing it, I would still be trying to prove everybody wrong and I don’t think that would be a positive place for a child to grow up in or person to grow up around. I think my own experience or lack of experiences with my father, because he left when I was like 6, was God’s way of saying you don’t need this negative force in your life. I’m completely at peace with that. I don’t miss my Dad, I don’t feel a void that he’s not there. It’s whatever, I don’t really give a shit, you know what I mean? I think it’s for the best.
What I’m not gonna do though is just demonise the guy and say that I’m immune to behaving in similar ways. I’d say that because of that experience, I could never abandon a child of mine, regardless of how bad shit was for me in my own life. I couldn’t do that. I feel like I can judge him on that, but in terms of him feeling like he hadn’t amounted to what he felt like he should have amounted to, I can relate. I understand what happened to me was a mix of hard work, talent, and also luck and stars just aligning for me and things just being the right time. I’m aware of that. There’s so much wasted talent and I almost was wasted talent. The point I’m getting at is I could’ve so easily been one of those guys who had the talent but it never happened for them, and if I was one of those guys, I don’t think I’d be as good as a parent as I am. I think I’d be distracted. I’d be off still trying to make it happen. I see that in myself, I see that in my character, that easily could have been me.
What does having a child teach you about love?[pauses] Well…the love for your child is unconditional [pauses] Do you have kids?
Nah.[Pauses] It’s just unconditional, there’s no choice in it. 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, it’s 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, get hooked on crack, heroin, constantly keep on stealing the TV and fucking up your life but you’re never going to stop loving them. That’s what it’s taught me about love.
Mercy seems like a conversation with God…
I think when you’re in a situation that’s not a good one and you’re just left sometimes talking to God saying “why would you put me in this situation? If you love me and you are what they say you are in this fucking book, why would you do this to me? Why would you bless this man over here with all these riches and a lovely family and I’ve got nothing?” You’ve got all these people saying this is how I need to live my life because it’s written in the text book and then I’ve got my heart saying “nah I don’t need the textbook.” I’ve got the relationship, he’s put me up throughout my life, he’s given me everything I ever wanted, all I had to do was believe in myself, have faith that things were gonna work out in a positive way. If that’s not a relationship with God then I don’t know what the fuck is. Therefore I’m not gonna ex off my Muslim friend or my Sikh friend or my friend who don’t believe in God or the same God. Those motherfuckers guided me.
Do you believe in sin?
In the biblical sense? Like “we are born into sin,” Adam and Eve?
That, and the idea if we do certain actions, they’re wrong, even if not lawfully.
Oh morals, I believe in morals I just think the religious idea of human nature sometimes complicate a really kind of simple conversation, which is: “When you do this, does it feel wrong?” Yeah? Then don’t do it. Otherwise it’s just the fear of God: “I’m not doing it because God will feel angry but secretly I’m enjoying it.” Which is why you get motherfuckers who go to church, pray to God, and then go out the next week and fucking be a cunt, because they know it’s alright because come Sunday I’ll ask forgiveness. You’re getting a get out of jail free card every fucking week.
Just be a fucking good person. But ultimately, we’re humans and we’re all going to do fucked up shit. We’re gonna get stressed out, we’re going to take our anger out on someone and a couple of years later we’re gonna think back and say “You know what? I was a cunt and I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see it, but you see that situation there, I was a right cunt and I owe that person an apology.”
We’re all susceptible to doing that shit. It does depend on the conditioning of the individual, like a crack dealer for example. You;re going around looking for new customers, motherfuckers that have never tasted crack in their life and you know what when you give them the crack they are going to be reliant upon you and they’re going to have an addiction to crack and if they’re not reliant on you, they’re going to be reliant on some other fucking drug dealer, you know what you’re doing to her life.
But if his Mum was a crackhead who allowed him to be abused or allowed other men to come in the house and take the piss, then he’s going to have a lot of other dysfunctions. He might have a disposition towards women, he might be such a male chauvinistic motherfucker by the time that he reaches that age that he might be like “I don’t give a fuck about this bitch or that bitch or this bitch or any other fucking bitch because my Mum didn’t give a fuck about me and she’s a fucking bitch and you’re all fucking bitches. Here, have some fucking crack.”
For him he’s probabaly not even aware that he’s sinning, so I guess that’s where religion comes in. It’s used as a way to show blind people that they’re doing something wrong. That’s why I can’t diss it because in that situation it’s a positive thing and so I have a lot of respect for people that live by codes. I can never take that away from them, who the fuck am I?
How was turning 30 for you?
Ah…how old are you?
25.[pauses] 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. It’s kind of endearing, people kind of like people who are like that. “He turns up he’s just fucking rude to everybody. He’s drunk, he’s offensive. It’s funny. Yeah he is a bit of an asshole but I like it.” 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 go and 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. It doesn’t last, that sadness doesn’t last. I’m looking forward to the future. I’m looking forward to 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 that was before.
Growing up did you imagine that 34 feels how it does?
I didn’t even think about it man. Just that invincible thing, “I’m never going to get old, I’m never going to die.” But I’m not old, I’m very much young. I know I’m 34 and I know I can’t act like a fool and get away with it and that’s the sad part, but the truth is I still feel young. Has anyone ever said to you that in their 20s they still feel 18? I think that’s true, I am still that same person but I’m more aware of who I am or who I’m expected to be. You start questioning was that the real you or was that the person you became to run away from who you feel you was? There’s definitely two sides to me and they always conflict. There’s the destructive, go out and just fuck the world kind of “let’s have it” version of me and then there’s the really methodical careful, responsible, morally in-tune version of me.
It’s that chaotic energy that has created everything I’ve ever done. I’ve always been able to not give a fuck to the point where I can talk about subjects nobody else is willing to talk about, make films about stuff that people aren’t willing to talk about. But there’s been times of my life where I’ve had moments of madness and made life hard and skewed people’s perceptions of what kind of person I am. Then I think the reason I acted this way was because of all that shit that was happening to me. It was a reaction, but deep down I’m not a bad person, and I care about people. But no one can see that because I went to this place and reacted to something in a bad way.
People do fucked up shit, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people and the reason they are doing bad things is because someone in their life has been telling them “you’re evil, you’re scum, you’re not good enough, you will never be able to achieve.” So for me I’ve always tried to fight the corner for that type of person, the marginalised youth, the hard to reach kids. Because I was one of them. I look like a bad person but actually I’m not. I’m actually a lot more together than all these motherfuckers who think their shit don’t stink.
On the title track, you say that “Ignorance is Bliss.” Have you felt like to be happy, have you had to live in a state of ignorance.
Shutting yourself off from the world. 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 I just spent time with my kid and I lived 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’m someone who can’t do that, so I couldn’t even allow myself to be in situations where I could 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 did that and 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 I 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. It comes back to when we were talking about sin, when your hearts telling you whether something is right or wrong.
You also said on that record that “Sacrifices must be made for happiness.” What have you had to sacrifice?
The sacrifices are things that give you instant gratification. Sex gives you instant gratification. You’ve got a girl there that wants to fuck you, you want to fuck, it’s kind of like instant. Or doing drugs: pop it in your mouth, bang, you’re high, instant gratification. And those things are great, sex, drugs, but they don’t mix with the stuff that truly makes you happy, which is like having kids, being in love, having a family.
Those things, they truly make you happy. They’re not instant like those other things but they’re long lasting. Drugs will wear off, sex will be over. So sacrifices have to be made for your true happiness, true contentment in life certain sacrifices have to be made. Temptation is there and you have to learn to say “no, you know what boys I’m not going for another drink. I’ve got to take my kid to school tomorrow.” That’s more important to me. My daughter gives me my happiness.
It’s the difference between pleasure and joy.
Yeah, like “they don’t love you like you think they do.” They love you but not in that way, it’s conditional, you get me?
What would you say scares you the most?
I would never give anyone that power over me so I’m not answering that one [smiles].
What’s the most recent lesson you’ve learnt?[pauses] Really difficult question. I don’t know what the most recent one is. I think…I can’t answer it because I’m in a transitional kind of period right now, where I’m learning a lot about myself and who I am, and I’m questioning who I was. I’m at that point where 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. I guess it’s easy to beat yourself up about things that you see as flaws in your character, and you can try and be a better person and you can try and not have those flaws and you can do lots of things.
You can cut down your drinking, you can cut down as much you go out, you can cut down having certain conversations with people, putting yourself in certain 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. You can be a bit of a wanker sometimes but you’re not a cunt.” You’re not like a murderer, you’re not a bad person. When you face it head on you can understand why you are that way and you can stop eating yourself up about it and you can 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.”