Why Plan Bs Ill Manors is the greatest British protest song in yearsDorian Lynskey, The GuardianPlan B is best when he writes about social alienation. His new single rails against how a wholeswath of society has been cornered by prejudiceWhen Plan B debuted the video to his new single Ill Manors over the weekend, shadow healthminister Jamie Reed MP tweeted: "The risk of any lefty politician being pilloried for praising thenew Plan B track is really pretty high. That said, its excellent." He was correct on both counts.For lovers of overtly political music Ill Manors is almost too good to be true: a thrilling releasefrom a multi-platinum star that deals unflinchingly with last summers riots and still lands on theRadio 1 playlist – the first great mainstream protest song in years. Whats the catch?What convinced me there wasnt one was the interview Plan B (born Ben Drew) gave 1Xtrapresenter Mistajam. Far from just ringing the doorbell and running away, the rapper is fullyprepared to expand on the singles ideas. "I genuinely want to change things," he said. "This isjust the first step. Let me make my point first and raise the issue, and then if anybody wants totalk to me about how I think we can change these things Im ready." An album and film, bothcalled Ill Manors, are set to follow, along with plans for social activism. Hes in this for the longhaul.Jamie Reed tweeted that Ill Manors "really does remind of Whats Going On", but its different intwo crucial respects. Marvin Gaye was, by 1971, an established soul star observing the Vietnamwar and inner-city deprivation from a distance; Drew still sounds like the product of a turbulentenvironment in north-east London. And Gayes response to turmoil was transcendent, healingbeauty; Ill Manors, which resembles hip-hop produced by the Prodigy, reflects the ragingunease of its subject matter. It has more in common with Public Enemy or the Clash: music thataddresses a riot and sounds like a riot. "As an artist whos trying to convey a message I need toget under peoples skin," he told Mistajam. "The song needs to have that visceral energy … justlike those horrible pictures we see on cigarette packets that are designed to shock us into beingaware of our actions." (Its based, incidentally, on Peter Foxs 2008 German hit AllesNeu, whichin turn samples Shostakovichs Seventh Symphony).Having got the listeners attention, the song offers a dense and thorny lyric, full of unresolvedcontradictions and abrupt changes of subject. Solid liberal-left talking points – the closure ofcommunity centres, the adverse impact of the Olympics on Londons poor – spiral into jokes andthreats. Although he briefly mentions Boris Johnson (in reference, oddly, to the congestioncharge introduced by Ken Livingstone), Cameron and Clegg appear only in the remarkable video,the work of Top Boy director YannDemange. Its partly about the riots, and the government is inthe background, but mostly its about the psychology of class. Youd have to go back to the mid-90s, with Common People and A Design for Life (both of which were, in part, reactions to theperceived proto-chav mockery of Blurs Parklife), to find equivalently complex treatments ofclass in mainstream British pop.Drew has said of his family: "We werent working class but we werent middle class, we were inthe void in-between." The critic Simon Reynolds has described this as the socially precarious,creatively fertile "liminal class", which produced many of punks prime movers. These days mostmembers of that class fall under the dismissive umbrella of "chav". 1Xtra again: "For me that
term is no different from similar terms used to be derogatory towards race and sex, the onlydifference being that the word chav is used very publicly in the press … When you attacksomeone because of the way they talk, the way they dress, the music they listen to, or their lackof education, and you do it publicly and its acceptable to do that, you make them feel alienated.They dont feel like a part of society … For every person who uses the word chav there is a lesseducated person ready to embrace it. They say, well, look, Im never going to change the wayyou think of me so actually Im going to play up to it and fuel the fire. In essence thats what IllManors is about."With less talent, or worse luck, theres a chance that Drew could have been among the rioterslast summer, which is what gives Ill Manors both insight and nervous energy. On his stark 2006debut, Who Needs Actions When Youve Got Words, Plan B described his experiences and thoseof the people who lived around him. After the hugely successful lyrical and stylistic detour ofThe Defamation of Strickland Banks, hes returned to that terrain with a keener understandingof the political context. The social alienation, the fire-fuelling and the self-destructive lashing outall played a part in his own adolescence. The frustration he has expressed towards his youngerself is now directed at the rioters. "Im not trying to condone what happened during the riots,"he told 1Xtra. "It disgusted me. It made me sick. It saddened me more than anything becausethose kids that was rioting and looting theyve just made life 10 times harder for themselves.Theyve just played into the hands of what certain sectors of Middle England think about them."Ill Manors says if you stereotype people as socially worthless then they will grow into thosestereotypes. "Think you know how life on a council estate is from everything youve ever readabout it or heard?" he asks. You expect a rebuttal, but instead: "Well its all true, so stay whereyoure safest theres no need to step foot out the burbs." Drew writes best about beingcornered – even his hit album is about a soul singer in jail – and here, playing a non-famousversion of himself, hes cornered by prejudices he finds easier to confirm than overcome. Everyrapid-fire verse accelerates with increasing desperation towards the same illicitly excitingchorus: "Oi! I said oi! What you looking at, you little rich boy?" The mingling of despair anddefensive pride recalls A Design for Lifes chorus: "We dont talk about love, we only want to getdrunk."The inhabitants of Ill Manors are in a lose-lose scenario. They riot: theyre trapped. They dontriot: theyre trapped. At least one way they get to feel for a moment the illusion ofempowerment. Drew doesnt celebrate or even forgive that response but he attempts to explainit. Furthermore, when Demange cuts from a staged car-burning to news footage of the realthing, the viewer gets a disconcerting taste of an aspect of the riots that liberal analyses tend todownplay: the fact that wanton destruction can be briefly cathartic and, whisper it, fun. Itreminds me of Greil Marcuss description of the Rolling Stones Street Fighting Man as "achallenging emotional jigsaw puzzle, not congratulations for being on the right side".So is Ill Manors really as good as it at first seems? No. Its much better.