This is David Banner's time. The Jackson, Mississippi-based rapper's fourth album, Certified, debuted at number 6 on the Billboard charts, nestled between releases from Barbra Streisand and Earth, Wind & Fire. "Play," the album's lead track, broke onto the Hot 100's Top 10 list, and Banner's efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims landed a favorable notice in The New York Times. In October, Banner was particularly busy: He recorded a series of exclusive, crunk-based ringtones for the Urban World Wireless network, filmed scenes for his silver-screen debut (Banner's portraying Tehronne, a character in Craig Brewer's latest movie, Black Snake Moan), laid down a new version of "Play" for the NBA, and contributed a rap to an upcoming DJ Shadow project.
More mainstream-able than acts like Three 6 Mafia, more grounded than the party-all-the-time Ying Yang Twins, more serious than the always clowning Lil' Jon, Banner -- who possesses a business degree from Baton Rouge's Southern University -- is the perfect candidate to bring crunk music to the masses. For most Southerners, he represents the Dirty South's great black hope.
"Memphis and Mississippi have never been cool enough," Banner explains. "There are so many creative, intelligent people from Mississippi," he says, citing homegrown heroes such as Oprah Winfrey, "but when they were getting hot, they didn't talk about it. At the same time, you've got groups like Three 6, who helped birth the crunk genre but never got credit for it, because other people took off."
Bay area hip-hop phenomenon Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) agrees: "I remember the first time I played crunk stuff, back in 2000 at Scratchcon, which was supposedly the highest echelon of turntablism. People were saying I don't think you can play that here. The subtext was, you're not allowed to step into other boxes.
"I've always hated that mentality," says the freewheeling Davis, whose '96 instrumental hip-hop masterpiece, Entroducing, was released to universal acclaim and re-released in an expanded version earlier this year. "I started off making tracks for a rapper named Paris, and all the early work I did was straight-ahead hip-hop. A lot of people who say they like my stuff aren't as open-minded as they think they are, which is disappointing.
"David Banner has obviously been around for a minute," says Davis, who explains that Banner's work with Crooked Lettaz caught his attention several years ago. "What I like about [Banner's 2003 solo release] Mississippi is that it starts off with really hard crunk stuff but mellows out into Southern soul. It's got a politically conscious vibe, which attracted me beyond his voice and his hit singles. 'Like a Pimp' is banging, but the album is more multidimensional than that."
Davis says that for his upcoming album, which is slated for May 2006, he decided to reach out to Banner and other Southern rappers, including Memphian Project Pat, who hasn't yet committed to the project. "I definitely didn't want to sit down and just do another instrumental hip-hop album," Davis explains. "That's not where my head is now. I wanted to collaborate with people outside of that realm.
"I first got together with David in November 2004," he says. "I tried Mystikal and Project Pat but ended up coming back to Banner. Fortunately, I was able to be with him when he did the first verse in L.A., and when it came to the second verse, I knew he'd be able to pick up the thread."
Banner chose to finish the track here in Memphis, at Scott Bomar's Electraphonic Studio in Midtown. Twelve hours after he, Bomar, and rapper Al Kapone shared the stage for a Craig Brewer tribute during the Recording Academy Honors, held at the Cook Convention Center in late October, Banner arrived at the studio, asked for a blank sheet of paper, and scrawled the lyrics for "Seein' Things."
"I'm wondering if the feds broke the levee/Are they in with the devil to control the weather?" he muses on the song, which touches on national politics, the Katrina aftermath, and the African-American diaspora.
No sooner was that track finished than Banner pulled out a tape containing instrumental versions of "Play," because he needed to cut a PG-rated, basketball-centric version of the song for the NBA. Within the hour, Banner was back on the road, headed to the airport and a European promotional tour.
"Last year, when I was getting this project happening, David was at a lull in his career," Davis notes. "Now, I feel lucky that I was able to get involved."