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Music

Rapping is a way for David Banner to reflect on roots

'Dirty Water' is a portrait of hard life in the South

By Rashod D. Ollison

Sun Pop Music Critic

January 15, 2004

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That's not an easy place to discuss. It harbors many ghosts, and the pain from certain events that took place there hasn't necessarily lessened with time. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the Union, with low employment, poor schools, shabby social services.

And its past is dark and rich.

Back in '55, Emmett Till, the hazel-eyed Chicago boy who had come down to visit his uncle that summer, floated to the top of the Tallahatchie River without a face. He had been beaten beyond recognition and shot for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Years before Till, black men were snatched from their beds late in the night; they hung from trees as the sun crept up. Slavery thrived in the Magnolia State. The blues, America's most genuine music, sprang from its cotton fields.

Generations later, Mississippi is proudly represented in hip-hop - a great-grandchild of the blues - by a fierce, college-educated rapper born and raised in Jackson. His mother named him Lavell Crump, but we know him as David Banner.

"I feel like I deserve Mississippi," says the artist, who's calling from his cell phone in D.C. during a promotional tour. "My blood is invested in that state. My people hung from trees in Mississippi; my people were murdered there. As I say in one of my raps, 'I'm the son of a dead slave/hope my daddy didn't hang in vain.' "

His latest album, the follow-up to his Top 10 smash Mississippi: The Album, is MTA2 - Baptized in Dirty Water. The CD, like its predecessor, is distinctly Southern-fried; the tracks and rhymes retain a bluesy feel, a definite bounce. They're crunk (steeped in "crazy funk," for those who aren't hip to Southern rap terminology). As he delivered on his solo debut, Banner mixes violent thug anthems and misogynistic club jams with intelligent, stark portraits of life in Southern ghettos.

"Life is a contradiction," Banner says. "I've made a lot of money as a rapper. But I'm still pulled over, like, six times out of the week. I'm marketing to those in the 'hood who don't have. They've been let down so many times. They've got to know that I come from their same ranks, too, so they can trust the messages I'm putting out there."

His style is furious, syncopated and visceral. Right now, he's the only one in hip-hop representing the deepest part of the Delta. (The man has all 11, capital letters of his home state tattooed across his back.) But for the last decade or so, Southern rap, which tends to be more flexible and less tense than New York rap, has been on the rise. Thanks to such Atlanta-based groups as OutKast and Goodie Mob, smart, organic Southern hip-hop has gained critical respect. And OutKast has certainly shown how adventurous and commercially viable it is.

In between the booty-shaking cuts and the hedonistic club joints, Banner hopes to make you think deeply about what goes down around you. He also hopes to contribute something vital and fresh to the aesthetic. But the dude, who holds a business degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge, is fully aware of , well, the business aspect of rap.

"New York rappers were telling us it's about culture and keepin' it real and keepin' it underground," says Banner, 28. "But it's about the money, too. That's keepin' it real. I mean, those same people talkin' about keepin' it real and keepin' it underground couldn't wait to hop on a track with Mariah Carey. It's a business, this rap game. The South and the West Coast have been saying that all along."

Banner has been spittin' rhymes since high school. While at Southern, he was part of the group Crooked Lettaz. After college graduation, he produced tracks on albums by Trick Daddy and Lil' Flip. But in 2000, he decided to postpone his masters in education ("I'm a thesis and a semester away from getting it," he says. "I probably won't, though.") to devote himself to rap full-time. That year, he self-financed a project that featured him as a part of Them Firewater Boyz. Banner pushed the record around Jackson, where it sold 15,000. He eventually caught the attention of Universal Records, and the rapper inked a five-album, $10 million deal with the company.

His first smash as a solo artist, "Like a Pimp," exploded in the clubs this summer. (Here's the drawling chorus: Real girls get down on the flo' on the flo' ... ) Baptized in Dirty Water features a fresher remix of the cut with Twista and Busta Rhymes.

As for the album title, Banner says, "I looked at it from the standpoint of people coming from the neighborhoods I grew up in. We all grew up around the crackheads, and most of them were good people. It's, like, people never take into consideration the waters, the neighborhoods they came from," the rapper says. "Those places, some of 'em, weren't conducive to making better situations for those people. Before you judge somebody, look at the waters he was baptized in. That's all I'm saying."

Banner is using his influence to promote education. With the release of the new album, the artist has set up a "Crank It Up" contest (named after his latest single), which will give five fans the opportunity to win a $10,000 scholarship. Five tokens will be randomly placed in the first 300,000 copies of MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water, and the recipients will each win a scholarship that can go toward any post-high-school education - trade or vocational school, graduate school or college.

"I think of myself as a male Harriet Tubman," Banner says. "She was real about what she was doing. She wanted to help her people. She went North, but she went back to the gutter to reach her people and brought them with her. I think of myself in that way lyrically."