David Banner Biography
Sold CDs in Parking Lot, Slept with Pit Bulls, Drenched Listeners with Cognac, Selected discography
Termed "a thug intellectual in a world of crunk" by the Miami New Times, Mississippi rapper David Banner made a name for himself as an artist whose work is rife with contrasts and contradictions. He did not shy away from exploiting the raunchy and violent themes characteristic of hip-hop music's Southern branch, delivering tales of sensuality and mayhem in a quiet, rough voice that made them all the more intense. Yet he also wrote raps that described the environment in which poor African Americans lived in Southern cities, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 he became, along with Kanye West, a strong voice raised in protest against the United States government's response to the tragedy. To Billy Watkins of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger he described his music as "a Bible with a Playboy cover," and that schizophrenic quality, combined with Banner's mastery of the art of self-promotion, made him one of the most exciting emerging stars in hip-hop's so-called Dirty South style in the mid-2000s.
Jackson, Mississippi-born Lavell Crump took the name David Banner from the mild-mannered alter ego of the title character on the television show The Incredible Hulk. He also went by his family nickname of Billy when he was young. "He's a lot of people," Banner's mother Carolyn Crump told Watkins. "But he's true to each of them." Banner grew up in a supportive, religious, two-parent household and learned music on a ten-dollar electronic keyboard, then a drum machine, then a Casio keyboard sampler that he had at home.
Sold CDs in Parking Lot
His tastes from the start ran toward both hip-hop innovators such as Stetsasonic and street-credible gangster acts like NWA and the Geto Boys; later, as Southern rappers began to make their marks, he was influenced by the highly varied soundscapes of the Atlanta duo OutKast. Banner's rap debut came at Jackson's Raines Elementary School, and by the time he moved on to Provine High he had put together a distinctive sound of his own. While working as a grocery bagger at a local Kroger store, he made extra money by selling homemade CDs out of the trunk of his own car.
On instructions from his mother, Banner went to college at her alma mater, Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Even though his college career was not self-motivated, he did well, graduating with a business degree and enrolling in a master's program at the University of Maryland. Music began to take up more and more of his time, and finally, just one semester and a thesis shy of his master's degree, Banner left school. But his years of business classes would help in his burgeoning music career. "Look, I was the artsy type of dude who was trying to change the world with my music," Banner recalled at an industry meeting attended by Sonia Murray of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I'm a businessman…. When I left the University of Maryland, I was in the top five of my class. I know what it takes to win in this business."
His path to success started while he was still a student at Southern, where he and fellow rapper Kamikaze formed the duo Crooked Lettaz. Though Southern hip-hop acts were still comparatively rare when the duo started out, they forged a distinctive sound and got the attention of the durable rap label Tommy Boy. Banner's own profile rose when he produced tracks by Trick Daddy ("Thug Holiday") and Li'l Flip, earning a reputation as a multitalented young artist. And some of Banner's own music won airplay on Jackson radio station WJMI. "David's stuff stood out," WJMI operations manager told Watkins. "It was quality material. His beats were tight. He had an ear for the streets. So we put him on the air. He earned a pretty good following in this area." Banner released a solo CD under the name Them Firewater Boyz, and it sold briskly in Jackson clubs.
Slept with Pit Bulls
When the Crooked Lettaz album Grey Skies was released in 1999, it won praise from hip-hop magazines and from Jon Azpiri of the All Music Guide, who praised the live instruments of "A Girl Named Cim," the use of the koto, a Japanese instrument, on "Firewater," and the inventive recasting of the Run DMC rap classic "Rock Box" on "Get Crunk." The album was poorly promoted, however, and after this promising beginning Banner's career seemed to stall. Short on cash, he moved in with a friend in Atlanta, sleeping on the floor with the friend's four pit bull dogs. Things went from bad to worse when, back in Birmingham, Banner's decrepit van, containing most of his remaining possessions, was stolen by a group of teenagers.
The silver lining of this cloud was that the thieves threw the master copies of a CD Banner was working on out of the van, onto the parking lot of the radio station he was visiting at the time. Banner took this event as a divine sign and soldiered on. Performing wherever he had the chance, he caught the attention of Universal label executive Steve Rifkind and was signed to a five-album deal. Banner's major-label debut, Mississippi: The Album, appeared in 2003. John Bush of the All Music Guide called it "a very schizophrenic record, alternating a parade of one-note thug tracks ("F∗∗∗ 'Em," "What It Do") with more reflective material concerned with the realities of down South living ("Mississippi," "Cadillac on 22's")." On the last-named track, wrote Entertainment Weekly's Evan Serpick, Banner "Offers an affecting prayer over an acoustic melody worthy of Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Mississippi: The Album created a buzz. "Like a Pimp," featuring Li'l Flip, dented the charts; various top rappers and producers showed an interest in working with Banner; and the album was remixed by Southern rap producer Michael Watts into a spooky new version called Mississippi: The Screwed & Chopped Album. A quickly released follow-up album, MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water, featured top-level guests Twista and Busta Rhymes, and garnered more positive reviews and publicity.
Drenched Listeners with Cognac
No one doubted Banner's talent, but the energy he put into the promotional side of his music also contributed to his growing success. He cast himself as an advocate of Mississippi music, often removing his shirt to reveal an enormous "Mississippi" tattooed in capitals across his back. At music industry showcases, Banner was a force of nature. Village Voice writer Tom Breihan described a 2005 event at which Banner "ran out into the crowd, jumped up on a table, tore his shirt off, and threw Courvoisier on the crowd," later wearing a Universal label banner as a cape and alternately threatening the assembled industry figures and exhorting them to promote Mississippi music. Banner paid for his own in-store appearances when he felt they were needed, and he bought five trucks to serve as rolling David Banner billboards, wrapping them in promotional materials.
Thanks in part to this kind of hustle, Banner's Certified marked his emergence as a top-level hip-hop star in 2005. The album maintained the basic duality of Banner's previous work, with tracks such as "I'll Take Your Bitch" balanced by raps in which, in the words of the All Music Guide's Andy Kellman, Banner seemed "more fired up and outspoken than ever, fearlessly and descriptively expressing the rage he feels for the way his people have been treated throughout history … Every other chorus seems to have been written for a mob of some kind." Certified rose to the number six spot on Billboard magazine's chart listing the 200 best-selling albums in the United States.
Banner's response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina at the end of August 2005 mixed direct action with criticism of the actions of President George W. Bush's administration. Banner transformed his tour bus into a relief truck. "I got back to Mississippi before our government did, with food and supplies," he told Kelefa Sanneh of the New York Times. And he brought together a host of Southern rappers for a giant Heal the Hood benefit concert, held in Atlanta on September 17, 2005 with the aim of raising $1.5 million. According to Sanneh, he introduced "Like a Pimp" by saying that "Bush is giving his homeboys Halliburton the rebuilding contracts to our cities. Bush is the biggest pimp." Even before Katrina hit, Banner had begun using his wealth to benefit the community, personally funding five $10,000 college scholarships. Mixing a social conscience, powerful ambition, and a desire to break into new areas of the entertainment business—he was searching for a suitable movie role as of 2005—David Banner was definitely a major new star to watch.
(With Kamikaze, as Crooked Lettaz) Grey Skies, Tommy Boy, 1999.
Them Firewater Boyz, Vol. 1, Big Face, 2000.
Mississippi: The Album, Universal, 2003.
Mississippi: The Screwed and Chopped Album, Universal, 2003.
MTA 2: Baptized in Dirty Water, Universal, 2003.
Certified, Universal, 2005.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 28, 2005, p. P5.
Austin American-Statesman, December 4, 2003, p. 20; January 1, 2004, p. 19.
Baltimore Sun, January 15, 2004.
Ebony, January 2004, p. 74.
Entertainment Weekly, May 23, 2003, p. 74; October 17, 2003; January 16, 2004, p. 71; April 22, 2005, p. 63; September 23, 2005, p. 87.
Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger, June 16, 2003.
Miami New Times, April 28, 2005.
New York Times, September 19, 2005, p. E1.
"Biography," Official David Banner Web site, www.david-banner.com (October 4, 2005).
"David Banner," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (October 4, 2005).
"David Banner Speaks on Bush, Kanye & Katrina," Nobody Smiling, www.nobodysmiling.com/hiphop/news/85082.php (October 4, 2005).
"Rap's David Banner Threatens to Kill the Music Industry," Village Voice, www.villagevoice.com/blogs/statusainthood/archives/2005/08/raps_david_bann_1.php (October 4, 2005).