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Appetite for destruction

Why Plan B's "iLL Manors" works.

''Everyone knows one person out there they can help who's less fortunate than them. And I'm not talking about help financially. I'm talking about knowledge. Plant that seed." No, not the words of the late civil rights activist James Baldwin or those of Barack Obama in his hopey-changey heyday but an extract from a speech by the singer and rapper Ben Drew, better known as Plan B, at the Observer's Tedx event on 10 March.

Drew's emergence as the conscience of Britain's young "underclass" was revelatory for those – myself included – who had been aware of him only as the crooner behind the 2010 single "She Said", with its slinky bass groove and silly courtroom video: dancing security guards, a finger-clicking jury, even a judge pounding his gavel.

Then, just a fortnight after the speech, the 28-year-old Londoner released "iLL Manors", a blistering essay in hip-hop form on the causes of last year's riots. Gone was Drew's sweet-voiced, soul-singer act; in its place was the inner-city grime first heard on his debut album, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words (2006).

Drew spits out bitter rhymes from start to finish. "Riots on the television/You can't put us all in prison!" he taunts, channelling the defiance of the kids who looted, who mugged, who set buildings on fire. The music, too, is as aggressive as its subject - an artistic decision that Drew has been keen to explain in interviews. "This song needs to have that visceral energy," he said to the DJ MistaJam on Radio 1Xtra, "just like the horrible pictures we see on cigarette packets that are designed to shock us into being aware of our actions."

Despite its menace, "iLL Manors" is no exercise in cheap gangster cool. Not for nothing have the MPs Jamie Reed and David Lammy (whose Tottenham constituency was at the centre of the riots) publicly praised the single, even though its lyrics dismiss party politics as "all smoke and mirrors".

What makes "iLL Manors" so effective is its willingness to engage head-on with the issues facing the groups it speaks for. With a directness that would feel inappropriate in rock, say, or pop, Drew, whose own escape from poverty in Forest Gate is clearly still fresh in his memory, asks: "Who closed down the community centre?/I killed time there, used to be member."

Mind your manors

As well as council cuts, the song rails against the stereotyping of the urban poor as "chavs" and David Cameron's patronising attempts to bridge the class divide: "He's got a hoodie, yo, give him a hug."

Yet its trump card is its ability to make the listener complicit in the excitement of rioting. "Let's go looting," he says, "and if we see any rich kids on the way/We'll make 'em wish they stayed inside." Where many songs about the urban poor moralise from afar (take this line from Elvis's "In the Ghetto": "Are we too blind to see? Do we simply turn our heads?"), "iLL Manors" puts you as close as music can to the horror of being broke, young and ignored – and challenges you to think again.

Yo Zushi's most recent album of songs, "Notes for 'Holy Larceny'", was released by Pointy Records (£9.99)

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. Yo Zushi’s latest album, “Unconditional Love” (TWGDOYP Records), is out now

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy