Sunday, June 7, 2009

Interview with David Banner (Producer, Rapper, Actor)

This interview was arguably the one I was best known for - and one of Planet Weekly's most memorable. Banner's record company linked their websites to our website, resulting in hundreds of comments from people who had no idea who we were. This being Mississippi, we also had a few disgruntled caucasians who lambasted us (me) for wasting paper & pixels on a 'guy who just makes stupid noises over thumps and calls it music.' The fact is, David Banner is one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, in any capacity, and one of the best interviews ever. He says what he means and he says it well. He couches it in language that his audience will listen, though, and anyone who doesn't get that is the one with the intelligence issue. I also found him to be direct, generous, and talented.

David Banner is not the average rapper. He is a producer who has worked with Snoop Dogg, Nelly, Trick Daddy, Busta Rhymes, and Nappy Roots. He is a local boy who began his career with Crooked Lettaz, one of the casualties of Tommy Boy Records.

He takes his name from the Hulk’s alter ego, the man who said, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

He is a smart man, an educated non-intellectual who was the president of the Student Government Association at Southern University.

He is a man who combines production skill, an air of casual violence, and an inquisitive, thoughtful nature to create a style of Southern music that meshes hardcore rap, political soul, and a sort of frantic fire-and-brimstone street gospel. He puts his sex and violence on display, be he is not quite able to hide his reflective intelligence behind it.

In 2003, Banner signed with Universal Records and released Mississippi: The Album. It debuted at Number 3 on the Billboard 200 chart and at Number 1 on the R&B/hip hop chart. It was named one of Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of 2003. The Source magazine gave it 4 out of possible 5. Notoriously picky Spin magazine awarded it a grade of B+.

“Like a Pimp,” Banner’s debut major-label single, was a house rocking, rump shaking anthem to strip clubs. It was a nasty piece of crunk, a slice of the Dirty South, and the song that kicked off the high-octane, if brain dead, 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Banner followed up with “Cadillac on 22’s,” probably the most reflective rap song since “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Wrapping questions about the existence of hell and the difficulty of always doing God’s will around an acoustic riff, Banner created a thoughtful lament to the bling-bling lifestyle.

Seven months after that release, Universal released MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water to more good reviews.

In less than a year, Banner has gone from being a well-respected producer to a well-known rapper. He has brought Mississippi into the spotlight, and aggressively promotes his home state at every opportunity.

We met David Banner at Schimmel’s. He arrived exactly on time and offered to sit as long as we needed for the interview and photo shoot.

PLANET WEEKLY: How has the reaction been to MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water?

DAVID BANNER: Great. I’ve been hearing it’s a better album, but until it sells more than the first one, I’m going with the first one. [laughs] I want to do Eminem numbers. I want to do 50 Cent numbers. I don’t think they’re so much better than me. I want to compete with Outkast. If I sold 9 million albums, I still would know I could do better.

PW: The first single from your new album is “Crank it Up.” How’s it that doing?

DB: It’s doing good. It’s been a little bit hard, because I released the second album a little too quick. It’s been hard because it’s so different from “Like a Pimp.” It’s very different musically.

PW: Speaking of different, tell us about “Cadillac on 22’s.” This was not a single that people were expecting.

DB: [laughs] It’s crazy. That was the song that all the kids in the hood were playing in the first place. They weren’t even playing “Like a Pimp” here. It was my favorite song, but you have to gauge by what the streets want.

“Cadillac on 22’s” was a letter to God. It was laid upon me that it was time, because no one else was doing music like that. At the time I just thought the world needed it, right then. To be honest with you, I think it was the best decision I’d ever made in my life.

But a program director told me that “Cadillac on 22’s” was the biggest drop-off of the last five years. He said that was a hit song, but it wasn’t pushed to the level it needed. But if that song had touched the masses the way it was supposed to, it would have flown. As a whole, it wasn’t accepted. But the crazy thing was – and this is what I don’t understand – is that every place that did play it, it was number one.

“Cadillac on 22’s” was the song most requested by white people on urban stations. White people would listen to the station, but not call in…until “Cadillac on 22’s.”

I think at the time it really changed perceptions about Southern music.

PW: What sort of perceptions?

DB: Our psyches have been affected. America still looks at the South the same way the leaders of the Civil War looked at the South. People still think you can look out the window right here and see the Klan walking. They look at Mississippi Burning and that’s what they think of Mississippi today. I know there’re a lot of adverse things that happened in Mississippi, but that was in the past.

PW: Those kinds of adverse things still happen.

DB: It may be things are still happening on some levels, but it’s not the way that people have it in their heads. You know, we still have problems, but the thing I’ve learned from traveling is that it’s no worse here than it is in Boston.

PW: There’s a contest involved with the new album. What is the “Crank it Up” contest?

DB: I had the opportunity to give away $50,000. There are five gold tickets in the first 350,000 [Baptized] albums. If you get a gold ticket, you get a $10,000 scholarship. If you have gone to college already, or if you just choose that college is not for you, you can pass it along to somebody else, family, friends. It’ll be given to the school in someone’s name.

I was homeless two separate times in my life. Not because I wanted to be, but because that was path I chose. The first time I got out was education. The second time was music. I want to open up the same opportunities I had. Soon I’ll fade away. Soon the competition will fade away, but for the person who gains that college education, that’s something that will affect his life, and the lives of his family for a long time.

PW: What is your academic status now?

DB: I’m a semester and a thesis away from a Masters Degree.

PW: In what?

DB: Education. My goal was always to come back and be a teacher. Now I always thought in my heart that I was going to make a lot of money some way. But the thing was, I always wanted to come back and teach kids.

PW: What was your first degree?

DB: Business, at Southern University in Baton Rouge. I think that’s the greatest establishment on the face of the Earth.

PW: You did post-grad work at the University of Maryland.

DB: I was in an accelerated Master’s program.

PW: That’s not what people tend to think of when they think rap music.

DB: That’s the biggest blessing. If a policeman pulls over a young black man in baggy shorts, maybe he’ll think before harassing him.

I was living out on Lakeland, in one of those $700 apartments, selling my CDs out of my trunk. Do you know I got pulled over at least twice a week, going home? No speeding, nothing. I remember one time I got mad and asked, “Why the fuck do you guys keep pulling me over?”
He says, “Because you came down this street two times in one hour.” I told him, “I stay here! You want me to go home and stay for two hours, just to make you happy? Fuck that!”

PW: Do you still live in Mississippi?

DB: I live on the tour bus. But Jackson, Mississippi is home.

PW: No plans on relocating any time soon?

DB: I may end up moving to L.A. for a while, just because I’m about to start acting.

PW: What kind of acting do you want to do?

DB: I want to be an action hero.

PW: Back to the music. Duets are common in the rap world. Would you do a duet with Mariah Carey?

DB: Oh, hell, yes! I’m trying to do a song right now with Justin Timberlake. I am trying to cross over. That is the point. “Like a Pimp” was a nasty-ass street song and Thank You Lord for it. But it went pop. The only way something goes pop is for popular culture to embrace it. It doesn’t matter what the music is. If popular culture embraces it, it’s pop.

PW: You’ve said that you think violent music has a place.

DB: In a lot of communities, the white kids can’t skateboard. We can’t hang out in front of clubs. If we walk in Northpark [Mall] with more than three people, we’re a gang. Kids don’t have ways to vent. They’ve cut back on the school programs, the after-school programs, the band, the football team, and stuff like that.

To be honest with you, music is what kept me from being violent. If I could get that aggression out by going to the club and throwing a couple elbows, that would get me through the day.
There are people who are so gullible to be controlled by music. Those are the same people, that if you took the music out of the equation, they’d only put violent movies in. You take the movies out, and they’ll put soap operas in. If you have that level of weakness in you, something is going to substitute for that. You’re only using music as your excuse to do what you really want to do.

PW: Isn’t this a bleak outlook?

DB: We have been so trained and socialized to deal with this right here [points to skin] when there is something so much bigger going on. It’s really about the elite and the not elite. It’s about who has, who wants, and who wants everything.

If you want to see how the world is, look at the Wild Kingdom. Look at how animals act in the wilderness. That’s really how society is, but since we’re humans, it’s a little prettier.

One thing that America does to its leaders is to either talk about them like dogs or make them so squeaky clean that a kid doesn’t think it’s attainable for him. People need to know that Malcolm X was a pimp. People need to know Martin Luther King was a womanizer. People need to know that so they can see they can make mistakes in their life and still be someone. It’s about doing what’s right. But America gets you into all these other side issues.

The issue is, “Did you do what was right when it was time?”

PW: Thank you. You’re a big Mississippi supporter. But have you had support from Mississippi?

DB: Oh, yeah. Most everyone. Most. Do you know I was in the New York Times before I was in the Clarion-Ledger? They did a whole story on “Cadillac on 22’s.” Do you know how hard it is for anybody – not just a rapper, but any musician – to get a story in the New York fucking Times? I was there before I was in the Clarion-Ledger. That crushed me. At the time, I didn’t need to be in the Clarion-Ledger, but it meant the world to me, because to the older black people, the Clarion-Ledger is the news.

You know, even if I become dead broke, nobody can take away what I did last year. I was on the cover of The Source. Rolling Stone had me as the number four album in the whole of last year. Nobody can take that from me.

I see people walking around with “Mississippi” on their shirts now. I see it in Atlanta. I see it in the clubs. I only wanted for it to be documented, so when my kids do research on their father, they’ll have something to be proud of.

PW: Do you have kids?

DB: Not yet.

PW: Thank you.

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