Up in the northern parts of Mississippi, buildings seem to spring fully formed from the earth. You won’t find them amid the strip-malls, where supermarkets, video shops, laundromats and maybe a Waffle House cluster together for consumer convenience. But drive a couple minutes off any major thoroughfare, and wide open stretches of billowing fields are interrupted by strange, random structures standing alone under miles of clear blue sky.
Such phenomenons could be taken as signs of hope or resignation, depending on the state of the edifice. Some are gleaming, others dilapidated. Here in Columbus (population: 26,000 or so), the building that David Banner and his crew pull up to is decidedly the former: a big, sparkling white box, home to the local Boys & Girls Club of America.
Banner, as always, is in a resolutely positive mood. The two hour–plus car ride from his house in the suburbs of the state capital, Jackson, has not fazed him. That his SUV (driven by a member of his crew) is surrounded by children the moment it backs into a parking spot is no sweat. The hulking rapper-producer plays pretend, at first hiding from the kids, then rolling down his window and asking them what they’re looking at, all with a grin that, when paired with his wide eyes and long, pointed goatee, exudes a distinctly devilish charm.
But never mind the AR-15 in the trunk. Banner wouldn’t harm a fly. In fact, he’d likely do his best to help it soar to its highest heights. After all, that’s why he’s made the trek to this all-but-forgotten corner of the state. Reggie Flood, a former classmate of Banner at Southern University, who works for local hip-hop station WMSU and helped coordinate the visit, attests, “This might be the biggest thing to happen to these kids in months, if not years.”
Inside, after giving a pithy interview to a local newscaster (sample question: “Do you think it’s unusual that a rapper is here to offer an inspiring message?”), Banner heads into the gym, where he’s greeted as combination celebrity, war hero and space alien. Younger kids recognize him from television and ask questions about what it’s like to be rich. The older ones, adolescents, stand in the back, unsure of just how much excitement they should exhibit in the star’s presence.
For most of the hour as he speaks and takes questions, Banner manages to give off more energy than his audience does. Not that he’s not tired, mind you: He’s been traveling and giving talks for three weeks, when he should be taking time to relax before the final push to complete his third major-label album, Certified, and a subsequent promotional tour that will carry him through the summer. But this is home: Mississippi. It’s also home turf: Banner in control of a room, using nothing more than words.
As Banner’s getting ready to leave, a local rapper who looks to be in his 20s—easily a decade older than anyone else in the room—tries to ask Banner for a hook-up. Banner asks him if he’s carrying a demo, and the guy, who until this point had been filled with bluster and a bit of insolence, admits he hasn’t recorded any material yet.
Rather than brush off the brash newbie, Banner stares at him hard in the eyes and delivers a lecture on self-reliance that would do Ralph Waldo Emerson proud. “When I was in your position,” he says. “I always had my music with me. In the car, wherever, I always had my music on me. That’s being prepared. You want me to help you out, and you not even helping yourself.”
David Banner will not cook your fish for you. He will, however, teach you how to fish. And he knows these waters well. Soon after his first Universal effort, Mississippi: The Album, came out a couple years ago, an executive at the label (Banner won’t say who) asked him to rush the production of his second album, on which he had yet to begin working. Two weeks later, he says, he delivered a copy of MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water to the label, finished, fully mastered, guest appearances and all. (It hit stores seven short months after Mississippi.)
“It was crazy,” he says now of the experience. “And that just gave me more confidence in myself, you know? Steve Rifkind said one time, ‘I signed you because you are a walking corporation. You have done, or you do, what 30 people can’t do.’ Thirty people working together at the same time can’t get an album done in two weeks. Nobody gonna out-grind me. I don’t give a fuck who they are.”
That said, Banner also knows that in hip-hop, grind doesn’t always pay. So, as the title of his new album suggests, he makes no apologies for his commercial ambitions. The deal he signed with Universal in 2003 was for a much-celebrated $10 million, and while his first two albums were widely acclaimed, they have sold less than 900,000 copies combined. And neither has been certified gold or platinum by the RIIA.
“The problem that I had before,” Banner admits, “is that I had all the thought-provoking, meaningful stuff and not enough hits. This time, we turned around and said, ‘Hey, we don’t have any thought-provoking stuff!’”
A lack of moral motivation is hardly a concern for most artists, but David Banner is only as good as the burdens he bears. This is the artist who turned a stone-cold church lament, the elegiac “Cadillac on 22s,” into a crossover pop hit; the guy who’s played a lead role in reviving popular interest in the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for the alleged crime of whistling at a White woman. (Kanye West picked up the theme on his 2003 single “Through the Wire.”)
Before David Banner became a successful rapper, he finished college and spent some time as a teacher. He insists he was a misfit, his methods unorthodox to say the least. “I cursed my kids out, and I beat ’em up,” he says, maybe joking. “I don’t think it’s a rapper’s responsibility to be a role model. I think that it is your responsibility as a man. I wanted to touch kids—it didn’t matter how.”