On Plan B’s newest release Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, Drew’s adulation of Eminem becomes apparent in the style of storytelling contained therein, relying more on personal tales rather than on his surroundings of Forest Gate, England. Assuming a different persona for each song, Drew tackles heavy subject matter from tales of being abandoned by his father (“I Don’t Hate You”) to religious oppression (“Tough Love”) — an approach Drew sees more akin to directing a film, with each song serving as a different clip.
“I’ve written a film here,” Drew tells as he sits poolside at a trendy Los Angeles hotel, the backdrop of Hollywood framing his face. “My house got raided. They had sniper rifles out back and armed police around the front. They were waiting for us to come out. We opened the door and all of us were smashed down the floor. That experience gave me the original idea. Everything has been taken from [things] that have happened to me, or stories I’ve been told, which when I was told them came clear in my mind. All the dialog is conversations I’ve had with friends. My music is just me being frustrated at not being able to make a motion picture. What I’m recording at the moment is a great way to satisfy that need.”
Though oftentimes compared to artists such as the Streets and Eminem, the 23-year-old Drew has seemingly more to offer than his contemporaries in the sonic realm. A proficient guitarist, his playing weaves its own narrative throughout Who Needs Actions — its acoustic flavorings serving to soften the overall dimension of the album while contrasting starkly with the heavy hip-hop beats. Seamlessly flowing from hard raps to full-blown R&B breakdowns, harsh rhymes to melodic croons, Drew’s style recalls equal bits of Non Phixion, Justin Timberlake, and Tracy Chapman.
A strange conglomerate of audible influences, for sure, but appropriate given his background. Starting with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, Drew always felt a kinship with the rap scene, having intended to eventually merge his almost folksy approach to street music with more traditional beat oriented hip-hop in the recorded realm. Likening his work to a newly electric Bob Dylan, Drew was met with a similar strain of disappointment when clamoring audiences won over by his work on stage picked up Who Needs Actions only to discover something entirely different than what they had originally witnessed. But with musical input from Rage Against The Machine and the Prodigy, Drew felt it imperative to add more elements into his songs in order to make the end result as alternative, and grimy, as possible.
BRING THAT BEAT BACK
While more of a traditional singer-songwriter in his compositional approach (save for the times where he demos guitar tracks over Mobb Deep rhymes, or tracks raps over sampled guitar lines), Drew relies on cohort Cassell the Beatmaker to flush out the pounding rhythmic lines that add up to the Plan B patented hip-hop folk mesh. As Drew says, “[Cassell] hears that stuff naturally, and can write it for me quicker than I ever could.” Beginning his work inside Logic’s base of soft synth bundles, step sequencers, and drum machines (such as the UltraBeat), Cassell runs the signal out into the TL Audio M1 Tubetracker 8 Valvemixer in order to add warmth and “phatness” to his beats — a gear employment he also uses for Plan B’s live drum tracks as well, which add enormous depth to Who Needs Actions’ thumping and cracking beats and rhythms.
Says Cassell, “We compress the hell out of all the drum tracks, and then run through the outboard M1 to get that rough, beefy, gritty sound, sometimes layering them with additional samples and straight cut live drums to get a live feel and an extra solidness to the drums.”
Samples culled from their favorite albums of old rarely do, as Cassell tells it. Instead, he consults a vast library of live drum breakbeat sample banks, tirelessly processing stock samples until he can barely recall their point of origin, oftentimes matching them with sequences programmed on his trusty arsenal of original Roland TR-808 and 909s, layering and sequencing the tracks within Logic.
Still, Cassell almost prefers cutting the tracks live, and at times letting the raw tracks shine, such as on the standout single “No More Eatin’.” Dialing in a click track and then playing a full kit (along with everything from tea cups to guitar cases, using a re-tasked speaker pulled from an old stereo cabinet to mic the sources), Cassell laid down the basic tracks for Drew to play over before programming minor percussive accompaniment. “It’s much easier for me to play involved drum parts than program them,” Cassell says. “It takes too long [to program] and you risk losing the vibe of the track. If nothing else, I like to just play and lay down the groove first so the rest of a band can use it for their timing. Then I’ll add in everything else.”
THE (NOT SO) SIMPLE LIFE
With Cassell having a handle on the entire rhythm section, Drew is free to focus on tracking his acoustic guitar, which he does with just one [Shure] SM57, allowing only minor compression and EQ to be applied during the mix. When questioned about his simplistic approach (especially given the vast array of styles present on Who Needs Actions — from the flamenco-styled “Mama (Loves A Crackhead)” to the melodic blues musings of “Charmaine”), Drew says the intent matches his approach, a disarmingly humble answer that every sound that comes out of his guitar is “accidental and raw.”
Elsewhere, on such tracks as “I Don’t Hate You” and “Tough Love,” a similar approach (i.e., SM57, with the signal largely untreated) is taken on recording the stellar string melodies that shine through the mix. “The strings were all me,” says Drew. “I’m into my classical music, so I sat with Harry Escott, my cello player, and hummed a few ideas. He threw a few ideas back my way as well and we ended up just putting a cello on the album.”
This additive process of these various peripheral musical elements was one of ease to the team, as the majority of Who Needs Actions is built upon previously demoed tracks Drew and Cassell flew into the session. Whether it is in the case of beats being programmed to fit around solo guitar lines, cello accompaniments being recorded to match singular vocal lines, or vocal segments being composed and tracked to correspond with scratch drum takes, the recording process decided upon for the forging of Who Needs Actions is clearly a bit, well, backwards — a modus operandi oftentimes balked at by most producers. Thankfully for Plan B — a group that is notorious for jumping from producer to producer on projects — one Paul Epworth made himself available to facilitate the completion of Who Needs Actions.
SCREAMS GO HEARD
While Epworth served as the main credited producer for the Who Needs Actions sessions (helping give the widely varied styles both from track to track and within each song a sense of cohesiveness and consistency), he’s quick to unload any due credit to Drew, who he calls “a unique artist . . . through his voice, character, and lyrical content . . . that always gives his tracks a sense of cohesion.”
Nonetheless, Epworth brought some invaluable tools and techniques to the table, particularly in regards to capturing Drew’s ever-changing vocalizations — sounds that can be, at times, difficult to capture faithfully. Setting up a Neumann U87, which Epworth says is perfect for both of Drew’s main vocal stylings (rapping and singing), the signal was then run into a GML 8304 mic pre (for Drew’s raps) and an Avalon VT737 SP (for tracks where Drew sang his vocal lines). When it came time to mix, Epworth found that applying approximately 3–5dB of compression with the old faithful Urei 1176 helped bring the vocal tracks together, with only mild EQing and low pass filtering being necessary to smooth out the soon-to-be finished product.
This tactical outboard treatment, similarly, was employed for the multitude of backing vocals that populate the mix of Who Needs Actions. This is especially apparent on tracks such as “Everyday,” “Where Ya From,” and “Missing,” where Drew assumes the voices of many characters germane to the stories he spins, running the gamut from the terrifying emanations of the predatory to childish chirps. As Drew says: “There are certain things that have to be told in a certain way. Certain characters have to say certain things. I want to portray people in a real life. They’re going to say certain words. With the little kid on ‘Kidz,’ I’m putting myself in the shoes of a 14-year-old. [The language] comes from being a kid and no one cares and everyone’s talking over me.”
Tackling current controversies surrounding the subject matter Plan B touches on, Drew says, “I always have a moral message in all my music,” he points out. “People that criticize me are people that listen to my music at arm’s length. Might put it on, listen to about a minute, and write it off straightaway instead of properly listening to a song all the way or listening to the album at least half way through so you can get a gist of what I’m trying to do.”
One thing is for sure: Regardless of the misconceptions, when the film of Drew’s stories is finally released, it will have all the ratings you would expect: rated R for Adult Content, Adult Language, Violence — and Compelling Sound.