Man, you don't know how long it's been since I've been down there," David Banner says, calling from St. Louis to plug his upcoming Memphis show. "I can't wait to get home."
A Jackson, Mississippi, native, Banner has become one of hip-hop's most sought-after producers, laying down beats for artists such as Lil' Flip, Nelly, Trick Daddy, and T.I. Banner, who was born Lavell Crump but took the name of comic-book antihero the Hulk's human alter ego, also has emerged in the past year as a formidable artist in his own right. His 2003 debut, Mississippi: The Album, immediately established him as one of Southern hip-hop's signature talents with its fresh mix of crunk club bangers and introspective, acoustic-laden social commentaries. MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water, Banner's second major-label release, came out last December, and the artist has been on tour ever since.
"Back in the late '80s, I had a cousin who was a deejay up North," Banner says, when asked how he first got into hip-hop. "He came down South to work at a radio station in Jackson, and he gave me all his old records. I started listening to 'em and battling in the schoolyards, doing the same things they were doing on the East and West coasts. We didn't even have [hip-hop] on the radio back then. I was rapping before I really knew what it was.
"It just grew from there. When I was in 12th grade, I met my partner, Kamikaze, and we formed Crooked Lettaz. We faxed record labels 30 times a day and mailed out demos, but people wouldn't even open our packages after they saw the Mississippi return address. You have to understand that the East Coast was big then. The South wasn't hot."
A mention in The Source magazine's "Unsigned Hype" column finally brought some interest. In 1999, Crooked Lettaz recorded an album for the Penalty label, and Banner was on his way. "A lot of kids ask me how I managed to get this far," he muses. "I tell 'em it's because I focused on my goals and worked hard, and I never compared myself to local rappers. I always [compare] my music to people who have made it. The international market is my real competition. I never wanted to get caught up in the local scene.
"Down South, we had groups like OutKast, Eightball & MJG, and the Geto Boys, who were making moves, but in Mississippi?" Banner ponders the question and laughs. "This is new. I don't have anyone to counsel me because I am the first."
The Baptist-raised Banner points to God as his foundation, even crediting the Almighty as "executive producer" on MTA2. But Banner sees no contradiction between his upfront religiosity and the rough content on his records, songs with titles such as "F*** 'Em," "Like a Pimp," and "Wh*remonger."
"A lot of entertainers get it twisted," Banner says with a sigh. "But everyday life is an oxymoron, especially in urban situations. Most people who are deeply rooted in religion have alcohol on their breath because they've been partying all night before church. That's just life. Listen to the title: Baptized in Dirty Water. That's what I'm talking about! Learning to live in a hostile environment taught us this double consciousness," he adds, launching into a discussion about futility in black America.
Banner is one of the most intelligent rappers to emerge from the Dirty South, and with programs like the Book Bank Project, Crooked Lettaz' nonprofit organization for underprivileged children, Banner puts his money where his mouth is.
"I have a college degree in business from Southern University in Baton Rouge," Banner says. "I wanted to get a masters in education so I could come back and talk to the kids. They're not learning the skills they need to survive in the real world.
"There's such a contradiction. They're teaching courses in hip-hop and urban lifestyles in Ivy League colleges, but you can't teach it in a public school. They just make excuses to keep kids from benefiting from other people's real-life experiences.
"People in the South are so talented that we take it for granted. We don't patent or brand what we do. It takes somebody from somewhere else to say 'I'm doing this or that' and put a name to it."
He uses the current "screwed and chopped" phenomenon as an example: "Slow the tempo down, and it's called 'screwed'; then chop up the lyrics and the beats. It's like crunk -- just another part of Southern culture." Banner was the first Southern artist to release a "screwed and chopped" album, but, he says, "I don't want credit for it. I just want folks to notice the South.
"I can't wait to get to Memphis. I have a lot of people there: Three-6 [Mafia], Al Kapone, Scarface, Marcus. I really appreciate the way the city has embraced me. It's a great feeling to have folks on the street and radio stations and rappers like Playa Fly give me so much love."
"Mississippi," he says, "is finally able to reciprocate."