David Banner: Power moves 

Southern rapper/producer walks a tightrope between politics and profit

Last year, the rapper known as David Banner became the Incredible Hulk of hip-hop. The genre was in trouble, so he played its superhero.

When — in the aftermath of Don Imus' name-calling — the powers-that-be scolded rappers for their misogyny and gutter language, Banner scolded them back.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton put heat on the recording industry to censor the words "nigger," "bitch" and "ho" from rap recordings, Banner attacked his elder with fighting words.

When Illinois Congressman (and former Black Panther) Bobby Rush called a hearing to question whether rap music was too exploitative, Banner was the only active artist bold — or crazy — enough to take the stand in the genre's defense.

"I can admit that there are some problems in hip-hop," he testified in September 2007. "But it is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick."

The irony is that Banner is more than a vengeful superhero. In real life, he's the rare breed of rapper who wants all his songs to have a socially uplifting message. But he's learned the hard way that positivity doesn't pay the bills, and passion will only take you so far on the charts. So over the past five years the SRC/Universal artist, who got his first big breaks in Atlanta, has vacillated between giving the record-buying public what it wants – which often equates to a bit of thuggery and misogyny – and what he feels it needs.

Banner's fifth album, The Greatest Story Ever Told, which is hitting store shelves this week, serves up a bit of both. He fulfills the "wants" with syrupy vocal samples, risqué rhymes and plenty of high-profile featured artists (Akon, Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Lil Wayne).

But he meets the "needs" by issuing a challenge to hip-hop at-large — a genre and a generation he believes is being victimized by its own rampant, self-inflicting gangsterism. It's an interesting stance coming from the same guy who for the past year has, for better or worse, vehemently defended rap.

"Everybody's taking shots at the young, successful people and ain't nobody saying nothing. I'm tired," he told CL last year. "We're gonna let these folks ruin it for us. They're trying to take it from us because of our power."

Before a crowd last month at Lenox Square, Banner turns on his Southern charm.

"Let me tell y'all a little quick story," he says in his front-porch accent. "About four years ago, I moved to Atlanta homeless. I didn't have no money, I ain't have no car, I didn't have nothing, and ATL supported me so much. That's why I love y'all so much. Everybody knew I was from Mississippi, and Atlanta loved me just like I was one of their own."

Today, an Apple Store sales counter serves as Banner's soapbox. With the charisma of a politician on the stump, he removes the security barrier separating him from the audience, jumps on top of the counter and invites a racially mixed crowd of young fans and parents, media and mystified customers to pile in closer.

For the next 30 minutes, Banner — who wears a fitted white T-shirt with "Gangstas For Peace" printed in big letters on the front — works his mojo and runs through staples from his song catalogue, including "Like a Pimp," "Cadillac on 22s," and such new cuts as the single "Get Like Me."

Every now and then, he cues his DJ to stop the song so he can address the crowd: "Don't y'all act like just 'cause we in the Apple Store we don't know how to get crunk!" he says before grabbing a young boy off his father's shoulders and rapping while holding the boy in his arms.

If some of the middle-aged dads at the Apple Store were really familiar with Banner's edgier lyrics, they might have been hesitant to let their children near him (or their wives for that matter). But, as Banner says during a phone conversation a week later, "I've always had a way with kids."

He taught high school as a long-term substitute in Baton Rouge, where he earned his undergrad degree from Southern University. And he came within a semester of obtaining a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland.

That was before hip-hop became his bread and butter.

Shortly before the rapper born Levell Crump graduated from Southern, he met another Jacksonville, Miss., native, who called himself Kamikaze. By the time the duo known as Crooked Lettaz debuted with Grey Skies on Tommy Boy Records in 1999, they were being touted for putting Mississippi on hip-hop's expanding map.

Similar to Soul Food, the 1995 debut from Atlanta's Goodie Mob, Grey Skies was both streetwise and spiritual. But sales didn't add up fast enough. The two amicably split, and Banner packed his MPC beat machine, a keyboard and a gun into an old, maroon Chevy Astrovan. Then he drove to Atlanta and started hustling beats to up-and-coming rappers.

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