David Banner: Power moves

Southern rapper/producer walks a tightrope between politics and profit

Last year, the rapper known as David Banner became the Incredible Hulk of hip-hop. The genre was in trouble, so he played its superhero.

When — in the aftermath of Don Imus' name-calling — the powers-that-be scolded rappers for their misogyny and gutter language, Banner scolded them back.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton put heat on the recording industry to censor the words "nigger," "bitch" and "ho" from rap recordings, Banner attacked his elder with fighting words.

When Illinois Congressman (and former Black Panther) Bobby Rush called a hearing to question whether rap music was too exploitative, Banner was the only active artist bold — or crazy — enough to take the stand in the genre's defense.

"I can admit that there are some problems in hip-hop," he testified in September 2007. "But it is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick."

The irony is that Banner is more than a vengeful superhero. In real life, he's the rare breed of rapper who wants all his songs to have a socially uplifting message. But he's learned the hard way that positivity doesn't pay the bills, and passion will only take you so far on the charts. So over the past five years the SRC/Universal artist, who got his first big breaks in Atlanta, has vacillated between giving the record-buying public what it wants – which often equates to a bit of thuggery and misogyny – and what he feels it needs.

Banner's fifth album, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which is hitting store shelves this week, serves up a bit of both. He fulfills the "wants" with syrupy vocal samples, risqué rhymes and plenty of high-profile featured artists (Akon, Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne).

But he meets the "needs" by issuing a challenge to hip-hop at-large — a genre and a generation he believes is being victimized by its own rampant, self-inflicting gangsterism. It's an interesting stance coming from the same guy who for the past year has, for better or worse, vehemently defended rap.

"Everybody's taking shots at the young, successful people and ain't nobody saying nothing. I'm tired," he told CL last year. "We're gonna let these folks ruin it for us. They're trying to take it from us because of our power."

Before a crowd last month at Lenox Square, Banner turns on his Southern charm.

"Let me tell y'all a little quick story," he says in his front-porch accent. "About four years ago, I moved to Atlanta homeless. I didn't have no money, I ain't have no car, I didn't have nothing, and ATL supported me so much. That's why I love y'all so much. Everybody knew I was from Mississippi, and Atlanta loved me just like I was one of their own."

Today, an Apple Store sales counter serves as Banner's soapbox. With the charisma of a politician on the stump, he removes the security barrier separating him from the audience, jumps on top of the counter and invites a racially mixed crowd of young fans and parents, media and mystified customers to pile in closer.

For the next 30 minutes, Banner — who wears a fitted white T-shirt with "Gangstas For Peace" printed in big letters on the front — works his mojo and runs through staples from his song catalogue, including "Like a Pimp," "Cadillac on 22s," and such new cuts as the single "Get Like Me."

Every now and then, he cues his DJ to stop the song so he can address the crowd: "Don't y'all act like just 'cause we in the Apple Store we don't know how to get crunk!" he says before grabbing a young boy off his father's shoulders and rapping while holding the boy in his arms.

If some of the middle-aged dads at the Apple Store were really familiar with Banner's edgier lyrics, they might have been hesitant to let their children near him (or their wives for that matter). But, as Banner says during a phone conversation a week later, "I've always had a way with kids."

He taught high school as a long-term substitute in Baton Rouge, where he earned his undergrad degree from Southern University. And he came within a semester of obtaining a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland.

That was before hip-hop became his bread and butter.

Shortly before the rapper born Levell Crump graduated from Southern, he met another Jacksonville, Miss., native, who called himself Kamikaze. By the time the duo known as Crooked Lettaz debuted with Grey Skies on Tommy Boy Records in 1999, they were being touted for putting Mississippi on hip-hop's expanding map.

Similar to Soul Food, the 1995 debut from Atlanta's Goodie Mob, Grey Skies was both streetwise and spiritual. But sales didn't add up fast enough. The two amicably split, and Banner packed his MPC beat machine, a keyboard and a gun into an old, maroon Chevy Astrovan. Then he drove to Atlanta and started hustling beats to up-and-coming rappers.

One such cat, who'd been dropped from Arista Records after lackluster debut sales, called himself T.I., the "King of the South." The beat he bought from Banner became his first big hit, "Rubber Band Man."

While Banner produced for other acts, he kept working on his solo career. His well-received underground CD, Them Firewater Boys Vol. 1, released on his own b.i.G.f.a.c.e. Entertainment imprint in 2000, garnered significant street buzz. After signing a $10 million deal with music executive Steve Rifkind's SRC label, Banner released two albums in 2003: Mississippi: The Album and MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water.

The first two singles released on his major-label debut highlighted the dichotomy that still defines his career. "Like a Pimp" sounds like an instant strip-club anthem – with a seductive "Triggerman" bounce sample, and lyrics that fashion Banner and the track's featured artist, Lil Flip, into a couple of foul-mouthed, crunk gigolos.

As if on cue, "Cadillac on 22s" followed. Banner drowsily delivers a prayer for mercy over a twangy acoustic guitar and a stripped-down beat: "God I know that we pimp/God I know that we wrong/God I know I should talk about more in all of my songs." The video features Banner walking through the streets of Jackson using supernatural abilities to carry deceased relatives and friends to a place of peace beyond this life. At one point, he dons a T-shirt that reads "R.I.P. Emmett Till."

If it seemed odd for Banner to pimp his way through one song and offer praise on the next, it didn't bother him: He embraced the contradiction. But when "Like a Pimp" made it into the top 50 of the Billboard 100 and "Cadillac on 22s" failed to chart at all, it taught him a lesson. "People talk all that positive shit; they don't want that," he says. "People want you to act like a nigga."

In April 2007, a white radio personality's racial rhetoric boomeranged back on the rap community. Nationally syndicated talk-show host Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hoes" and was quickly bounced from his CBS contract.

Soon, the Rev. Al Sharpton was calling for the music industry to censor hip-hip's own incendiary language. Oprah Winfrey held a two-day town hall meeting to get to the bottom of hip-hop's rampant misogyny. Viacom's Black Entertainment Television — which many feel is as culpable as the recording industry for airing soft-porn music videos — even got in the mix with a three-part panel discussion it called "Hip-Hop vs. America."

That's when David Banner took up the underdog cause. He called Sharpton a "permed-out pimp" and wrote a song called "So Special," in which he dissed his elders for haranguing the younger generation. And somewhere in the midst of all that, Congress called a hearing that filled Banner with a bigger call to action.

"Hip-hop is under attack but it's only a part of something so much bigger," he says. "Young people are under attack, and black men have always been the scapegoat for everything that's wrong with America."

At the congressional hearing, David Banner wore a pinstriped suit and tie. He flashed his infectious smile before reading his statement.

"Some may argue the verbiage used in our music is derogatory. During slavery, those in authority used the word 'nigger' as a means to degrade or emasculate. There was no push for censorship then," he told Rush's committee hearing. "Our generation has since assumed ownership of the word. And now that we're capitalizing off the word, now they want to censor it? That's amazing to me."

Kamikaze, who's pursued his own career but has remained close to Banner since their days as Crooked Lettaz, "made a personal pledge to no longer use the n-word" in his rhymes after witnessing commercial hip-hop's negative impact abroad during travels last year to the Czech Republic and Ghana. "It's getting harder for me to defend rap," he admits. But he still believes Banner and others have the right to express themselves as they see fit.

Benjamin Chavis also testified before Congress last year. Today, the former NAACP president and current head of Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is one Civil Rights-era activist who praises Banner's testimony. "I think there's a degree of sincerity in David Banner's passion that a lot of people recognize and identify with."

It wasn't Banner's first time responding with such passion. In September 2005, he rallied the genre's Southern elite to hold a Heal the Hood concert to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief in Mississippi. Some of the biggest names in the game — T.I., Big Boi, Nelly, Young Jeezy, D4L and 8Ball & MJG — performed for free at Banner's behest. In the end, he raised $500,000 toward Katrina relief in Mississippi.

But when he looks back on Heal the Hood, he realizes how it sidetracked him for six months from promoting his album, Certified – and wishes all the people who came out to support the cause would've supported him by purchasing his CD.

"Although Heal the Hood was a great feat, I am not a not-for-profit organization," says Banner, who has yet to achieve platinum sales off any of his albums. "I have one, but that's not my day job. Everybody that's always talking about how much they love David Banner needs to go buy my damn album. That's what you do. I don't want to hear it no more – July 15, go buy my album. Then I'd feel good about those sacrifices."

From the opening of The Greatest Story Ever Told, it's apparent that Banner is pissed about a lot of things: NYPD cops being acquitted after the shooting death of Sean Bell, Atlanta police killing 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in her home. But mainly, he's mad about the inaction that plagues hip-hop culture.

"I think for the most part our generation is full of a bunch of cowards," he says in an interview snippet on "So Long," a plea to his peers to chill with the gangster posturing and stand up for something. "We do every motherfuckin' negative thing and niggas are so hard, niggas are on radio and CDs and tapes and on movies. They got guns and pistols but ain't nobody shooting at nothing but theyself."

Of the 22 tracks on Banner's new album, the most compelling is "Hold On," a cinematic rap delivered over a mournful beat. In it, the big man talks about a kid he calls Little Timmy, who looks up to him as a father figure. Little Timmy has issues. His mother sells her body for crack and his dad's a deadbeat. So when he tells Banner's character he wants to start hustling on the block to keep his mother from turning tricks, Banner gives him the go ahead. Then Little Timmy gets murdered by men twice his age.

Banner spends the rest of the song plotting to avenge Timmy's death while agonizing over his own complicity. "I realized I was a small part of his demise/Coulda said go to school/Coulda said go to church/I knew better than tellin' him to hustle/but words won't work," he raps.

Though Little Timmy is a fictional character in "Hold On," the lyrics could just as easily be applied to Banner's real-life struggle with whether or not he's misusing his influence.

"Last year, I went through a major depression and part of that was over that," he told CL in 2007. "I was wondering if I was doing my people more harm than I was positive."

He rationalizes that sometimes the ends justify the means: "I'm able to touch more people, do bigger things. I'm able to save rap in front of Congress. I'm able to 'Heal the Hood.' You can only change policy if you have power."

Perhaps Banner is too outspoken to be a rapper. Despite his heroics, the one thing he wants most for his music career – a top-selling album – continues to elude him.

So for every impassioned plea he expresses on The Greatest Story Ever Told in songs such as "Hold On," "B.A.N.," "Faith" and "I Get By", he counters it with predictable, radio-ready songs ("Hey Girl," "Suicide Doors," "Shawty Say," "Ball With Me") that will keep the 'hood happy while further incensing the Sharptons and the Oprahs.

It's the same tightrope Banner has walked throughout his solo career, calling his music "a Bible with a Playboy cover." But now he's more determined than ever to prevent himself from falling off for good. "I've stopped trying to balance it. At the end of the day, I've got to make hit records. Back in the day, I just used to do what was emotional for me and I wanted to change music. Naw, fuck that, you know. I gotta take care of business," he says. "Because if I'm not hot, it don't matter what the fuck I say, anyway. It's just rhetoric if you're not hot."