Today, at 6.15pm, Plan B will walk on to the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival as the number three headliner behind R&B goddess Beyoncé and pomp-tronica numpties Pendulum. Yet another highlight in an amazing year that's already seen the 27-year-old bag a Brit, three Ivor Novello awards and land the role of Carter in Nick Love's film of The Sweeney, opposite Ray Winstone.
Glastonbury! What does he think of Britain's maddest festival?
"It is mad," he says. "A city in a field with no police: and that's what's good and bad about it. I've only been twice. Last year to play, and in 2000. Then, the only thing we spent money on was the train tickets. We was told there was this new multi-million pound fencing, impossible to penetrate. Literally, we walked up there, saw two pallets, climbed over and we was in! I remember dropping down and then – bang! – my mate's bag landing on my head and then – bang! – the tent. There was eight of us so we could only fit six people in our four-man tent. Two of us had to stay up all night. So we just dropped a couple of pills…"
And… we're off! Brace yourselves. Ben Drew – Plan B – is a fantastic raconteur; and not in that self-promotional style of many famous people. (You'll note that he's not talking about playing Glastonbury, but going to it, as a punter.) When Ben recounts a tale, it's more like the two of you are standing at a bar, and he's telling you about his ridiculous day. He goes into detail. He recreates the mood. He'll act it out, if the story needs it – in one he told me, he played both himself, singing live, and two different people, bored in the crowd. He's very entertaining. But be warned: Ben's tales are raw. They're true and often funny. But they are raw.
Anyhow, in his Glastonbury anecdote, Ben's friends try ecstasy for the first time and he takes heroin: "The one and only time I ever done it. It was horrible. I got hot, I got cold, got itchy, felt sick – like all the withdrawal symptoms, all at once. I think I done too much." (He was 16.) He segues into talking about three of his friends who he's lost to smack – "They're not dead, but they might as well be" – and follows that with a story about a mate who, at a festival, used a stranger's tent as a toilet and wiped his bum with the nearest T-shirt to hand.
"Imagine that, coming back to your tent. There's no light and you unzip – it's cold and it's wet and you've been trudging for miles and you're desperate to sleep and you're like: 'What the fuck is that?' You'd go home. You'd set fire to your tent and go home."
He has me in stitches, despite myself. Partly because he has a knack of making the horrible sound funny and partly because the very first thing he'd said to me was: "I've had media training." If only all stars had the same media training as Plan B! Ryan Giggs, take note.
Dark, intense, honest storytelling is what Plan B is all about. He's The Brother Grimm. No fairy tales, though: instead he sends dispatches from the frontline of what David Cameron likes to call "broken Britain". He was born in Forest Gate, east London, and his first scare-the-parents, grime/hip-hop album, 2006'sWho Needs Actions When You Got Words, painted individual vignettes of youth street life: from living with a mother whose boyfriend is addicted to crack, to falling in love with an underage girl, to being forced to fight because you're always being robbed. One single, "Kidz", imagined the viewpoint of the killer of Damilola Taylor.
His second, triple platinum-selling album, 2010's The Defamation of Strickland Banks, which was a UK number one, sounded completely different. This time he used soul music to create a concept album about a singer, Strickland Banks, wrongly convicted of rape and sent to prison, where he kills someone and… well, if you haven't bought Strickland Banks, I'm not going to spoil it for you. You'll have already heard the singalong tunes and Ben's sweet falsetto on tracks like "She Said", but you need to listen to the words, or watch the accompanying videos, to work out the story.
Pop music often tries to shock for the sake of it, but Plan B's brutalism is more complicated; more moral, more wondering, even as it points up the horror. Similarly, he himself is a confusing presence: in his Armani suit, with his rum and Coke, dragging on a cigarette, shooting out swearwords like bullets, he seems like a proper geezer when I meet him, not to be messed with. But you can see the kid in him. He's confiding and likable. His face is naturally soft, even though it takes him half an hour to crack a smile.
What Ben's work is mostly about, he tells me, is injustice. He knows what's right and what's wrong, but life – especially street life – has a tendency to operate in grey areas, and that's what he tries to make sense of.
He says: "I've had people saying: the environment you talk about – it's fabricated, you're exaggerating. But how would you know? You ain't lived here. And these things do happen."
And he says: "I open the paper, see a pair of tits. Turn the page and see death. And that's the thing that stays with me, not the breasts. I can't even look at the breasts afterwards. I read some fucked-up shit in the papers, and once I turn the page I don't forget."
Recently Ben has changed his metier from music to film. Having acted, very well, in Adulthood (2008) and Harry Brown (2009), he wrote a film script, Ill Manors, and thought he might direct it. (He is confident in his creativity and – more importantly – determined.) Though his script was well received, and he did take the helm on a couple of shorts, no production company would give him the money to direct a full-length film. So Ben put in his own cash (£4,000 – all he had) and set about drumming up the rest. He got enough for 18 days' shooting.
Ill Manors is made up of five stories that interweave and come together at the end: "like a hip-hop musical version of Crash". Most of it was filmed last year, though there are parts still to complete and Ben has to write and perform the music for it (he raised more money via a distribution deal). He is very busy: when I interviewed him he was about to go to Switzerland for a festival, even though the Ill Manors soundtrack, which he'd only just started, had to be finished 13 days later. He also has to complete The Ballad of Belmarsh, a hip-hop counterpoint to Strickland Banks, due out in September, as well as do his homework for The Sweeney, which starts filming in October. "I'm being offered everything I ever wanted all at the same time. So I say yes to everything and then find it's impossible."
What have you turned down?
"Women. I'm not joking! A hot girl calls you up that you've been wanting to get with for ages and I'm like: 'I can't – I've got to sit in tonight and write a bloody song!'" He doesn't have a girlfriend. "I don't wanna find the right woman yet, 'cos I'll probably fuck it up. So I'd rather go with girls that only want me for my money or some ulterior motive, 'cos they're a lot easier not to phone back."
One of the Ill Manors stories, Michelle, is up on YouTube and has been shown on Channel 4. Ben's starting point for Michelle was taken from real life. A friend met a crack- and heroin-addicted prostitute at a mutual friend's house. When he mentioned that his mobile phone was blocked the prostitute said she would unblock it for free, took it and never came back. Some time later the phone owner bumped into her. He demanded £60. She didn't have it. So he went with her as she went from chicken shop to kebab shop, giving oral sex in the back rooms for a tenner a time.
"And, to my friend, I was like: 'But what was you doing? 'Cos this must have taken about an hour…' And he was like: 'Eating chicken, cracking jokes.' I couldn't get my head round it! It's only a phone. He just said: 'She stole from me.' I, personally, would feel too dirty waiting there, like a little pimp."
In Michelle, Ben takes that story and makes it even more troubling and violent, because "I wanted people to see my point of view, and to do that I had to make it brutal." The film's final shot sees Michelle getting into a car with yet another punter. "One of the producers wanted to take that out, because he thought it was too depressing, and I'm like: 'No, that's reality. Do you think I want to teach young girls that you can do drugs and you'll be fine, 'cos someone will rescue you and put you in rehab?' That's not the truth. Even after all that, she still needs her drugs, she still needs to suck somebody's cock so she can get her hit."
It can be hard, for those of a sensitive disposition, to look at the world through Plan B's eyes. But the reason why Ben is so uncompromising is, of course, because he's sensitive himself. A "shy mummy's boy", he was taunted at school, because he was "a tramp". All the kids from the local estate had nice trainers and new computer games, whereas Ben wore Golas and had an old Nintendo. But when his friends came round after school, they were wowed by Ben's house, because it had so many rooms. Even though, as Ben points out, they were all rented out to lodgers.
His dad, Paul Ballance, who was in punk band the Warm Jets and now runs various small music business enterprises, left when Ben was five months old – "a weekend dad" – and then disappeared completely when he was six. "He went off with his new wife, didn't even tell his own dad where he'd gone, left me and my sister to it." Ballance got back in touch with Ben last year, but they fell out again – over Plan B's Wikipedia site, of all things – and Ben refuses to have anything to do with him now.
Ben's mother, who worked for the council was, he says, a "saint". But he clashed on and off with his stepdad, though he credits him now for introducing him to Italian food. And after his stepdad moved out, his mum had other, less suitable, boyfriends. "Mama (Loves a Crackhead)", from Ben's first album, is completely truthful, "but it wasn't because she was fucked up as well. It was because she wanted to help. She's like Mother Teresa – she thinks she can save people."
Aside from his tricky home life, Ben had troubles at school. When he was 11, he went to a school in Essex. "Every school I've gone to, I've had to end up fighting someone to gain respect. I learned that violence actually makes things better for me," he says. "When someone's taking the piss out of me to the point where it's destroying me inside I was like: 'Fuck it. I'll get expelled, I'm not going through this any more.' So I'd beat up the bullies. And then when you do, they're like: 'Oh, what's your name then?' I'd have to smash their faces in before they asked me my name."
Ben ended up in a pupil referral unit, which he credits with turning his life around. Although perhaps being a mummy's boy helped him, too.
"Whatever I did," he says, "the shittiest little drawing, whatever, my mum would go: 'That's brilliant, Ben, did you really do that?' And she encouraged me and my sisters [he has two – one older, one younger] to follow our hearts. I never thought anything was impossible; I've always had self-belief. Maybe it is delusion, but the universe seems to align things in my favour.
"When you're really young, it's all about being the same as everyone else. But that gives you no drive or determination to be anything. Being the outsider drove me to make something of myself, to prove them wrong. When I first started writing and singing songs, R&B love songs, I'd go in, and the record label saw that my hair was a bit scruffy and I looked like some council estate kid and they just thought: 'No. His songwriting's all right, but he's not a star.' Now people accept me into their cliques."
And how is that?
"Well, I'm like: 'Oh, this is nice.' And then, after a while, I hate it!"
It is hard to think of a clique that could contain every aspect of Plan B. Outsider, caner, observer, singer, writer, actor, director. He's alone in the centre of his very particular Venn diagram. He's unique. And yet because he's so shaped by his background, because he's a scary geezer with a sweary mouth, because he seems, to the lazy observer, like "some council estate kid", he's continually forced to fight to prove his specialness. "I've always had a problem with people underestimating me," he says.
They must have stopped now, I say. You're practically a role model. I mean it as a joke, but when Ben answers, he's very serious.
"I'd never call myself that, that's for other people to say," he says. "Anyway, if you're a kid with a good life, I'm the worst role model in the world. I drink. I don't have a problem with drugs, apart from hard drugs. I'm no good for you, if you're from a good background. But for kids with bad lives, from bad homes, the fucked-up kids whose parents are alcoholics, who are abused, whose lives are shit, then yeah, I'll bring you up. I'll understand. Listen to my music – I'll help you through. You can rely on me."
Plan B is playing at the Wireless Festival on 1 July, T in the Park on 8 July, Oxegen on 9 July and Benicàssim on 14 July