David Banner is a complex man. In addition to being a pillar of the Southern rap sound, thanks in part to his production work for T.I., Nelly, and others, he also holds his Masters of Education from the University of Maryland (he apparently graduated in the top five of his class), served for three years with the fire department in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, and was lauded by the National Black Caucus of State Legislature for his relief work after Hurricane Katrina. Music is weaved through those accomplishments, from his 1999 Crooked Lettaz release, Grey Skies, to The Greatest Story Ever Told, his first solo work since 2005’s Certified.
What’s the vision behind The Greatest Story Ever Told?
My vision is to be able to tell a story. I see a lot of artists, musicians, and people on TV who really put up a façade. It’s all make believe, and kids never actually get to see the culmination of their process to success. They go from the streets straight to ballin’. That’s not the truth. I wanted this album to tie together David Banner.
One thing I didn’t do well on my previous albums was to give my fans an opportunity to get to know me. They only got to see one side, and for a while it was cool, but in order to truly have fans, something I think our generation is losing, you need to give them an opportunity to feel like they are a part of you. I want people to feel me and to understand that there is a process to becoming a star. It’s not just that rappers got so much money and they are so amazing. There’s a lot more to it.
How do you accomplish this bond with your fans?
In several ways. There is a new technology on my MySpace page called KiteTV. It goes straight from my telephone to my page so people can travel with me and see my every day life, my struggle. It’s not scripted. If I wake up in the morning, I’m still wiping my eyes and somebody’s baby momma might be in the background, well, you get to see that. You just hope it’s not your baby momma! [laughs] I also try to be very honest in my music. If I’m scared, I’ll say I’m scared. If I’m brave, I’ll say I’m brave. And if I’m tired, I’ll say I’m tired.
In the process of recording, what kind of balance do you create between your plans and improvisation?
I leave my whole life open. Plans are only guidelines and roads in our travels. If you truly believe in God and that He is omnipotent, then there is no set way. You go in the direction He sets for you. If I’m going somewhere I’m not suppose to, then those guidelines will put me back on the road and in tune with Him so I can keep progressing.
How did the collaborations on your album come about?
On this one I have Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Akon, T.I., Chris Brown, Akon, UGK, Chamillionaire, Jim Jones. I dealt with people I like and that I have relationships with. Snoop Dogg is one of my mentors. Pimp C was one of my mentors. I gave Lil Wayne four tracks for Tha Carter III, so we have a relationship.
What about the production on the album?
I did most of it, because I’m great [laughs]. But I got help from Cool & Dre, Akon, Get Cool 3000. Nitti gave me two beats for the album, straight hits. The problem I had with previous records is that I was trying to be the rapper, producer, A&R, everything. I’m always going to have ideas and different roles while telling people what I think, but most of the time now I’ll let them do what they do.
How did you walk the line between being a rapper and a producer?
It was hard. I just eventually grew enough into a man that I knew when to step back and when to step in. I used to want to do everything–do the beat and write the rhyme the same day–but I would overextend myself. I started as a rapper. I never really wanted to do beats, but I did it because nobody in my community at the time was making anything.
You have two other albums in the works, including one for your Adult Swim show, That Crook’d Sip.
It’s called The Return of Freaknik. I did whatever I wanted on this album–all kinds of make-believe shit, because it’s for the Cartoon Network. That shit is so stupid. It’s funny, you know. I sing on it. I got a song called “Acid Trip.” I’ve never done acid, but I have several friends who have, so I took all their stories and did the song over a beat I had originally done for Outkast. It’s crazy, dude.
You’ve also been working on an album called 13.
This is going to be a strange album. I honestly put my nuts on the line with this album. Imagine Outkast’s beats and production now with the way they were rapping on their first albums. It’s going to be the same David Banner content, but the beats are elevated. Me and Ed Kowalczyk, the lead singer from the rock group Live, are doing a lot of shit together on this record. My career is either going to be done or I’m going to win a Grammy off of 13. They’re not gonna know what to do with that shit up here [at Universal].
I almost scrapped The Greatest Story Ever Told to put out 13, but then I sobered up. All I can say is that it’s never been done before and no one has ever heard anything like it. It felt good doing this album, dude. It’s either gonna be a new start or it’s gonna be the end. I’m putting all the chips on the table. I always think in those terms: doom or heaven. It’s usually not purgatory.
How does it feel to record an album like 13 as opposed to your usual work?
I’m not gonna lie: I don’t really smoke weed, but I was so high when I did 13, I don’t remember much of it. I wanted to allow myself to totally be an artist, so I was high as a kite. But I like to take my time now. I’ll step into a session, and if it doesn’t feel right, I leave. If I’m tired, I go to sleep. Sometimes you have to push through but most times I just like to take my time. I wait for that spirit to grace me. Another thing that inspired me to do 13 was when Pharell heard my beats. He said: “You’re one of the best producers out there. I’ve never heard shit like this before. But you’re gonna have to show people how to use your music.” So that’s what I did.
What is your reaction to the Sean Bell verdict?
I think it’s some bullshit. America is really showing poor people where they stand. They play us with racism, but really it’s about poor people. They’re taking our rights away. Our First Amendment rights are basically dried up, because if you speak your mind they’ll get you with “inciting a riot.” They’ll shoot Diallo 41 times, turn around and shoot Sean Bell 51 times and say, “Fuck you. What you gonna about it?” So what are you gonna do? That’s the question I ask people. Gangster rappers are only gangster toward themselves. They’re not gangster toward cops, toward pedophiles, toward anybody but themselves. I don’t want to talk, and I don’t want to march. If we’re gonna march, then let’s walk to these cops’ houses and do something then.
Do you have a favorite presidential candidate?
Obama, and I’ll tell you why. McCain wants to keep the war going. And if he wants, he’ll reinstate the draft. We’re fucking with these people, but they’ve been fighting themselves for thousands of years. If we keep it up, they’ll be bombing our kids’ kids’ kids. So McCain is out. Hillary’s platform was “change.” How is it change when you start with Bush’s daddy, then you go to your husband Bill Clinton, then the son for another eight years, and now you? Bill Clinton and Bush Sr. have a non-profit organization together, so their families are really tight. That ain’t change! They play the race card, the female card, every different card that they possibly can. Obama is telling the most truth. He might be a part of the system, too, but I don’t know.
You spoke in front of Congress last year. How did that come about?
I was invited to speak about stereotypes of black culture. It was one of the highlights of my career to be able to speak for black people, poor people, our generation, hip-hop, and to do it well. I saw the surprise in their eyes that a young black man who is a rapper can be so articulate and so dashing. I had a $5,000 suit on, damn it!
Did it make you reconsider your music and your message?
Nah. Let me tell you this: They’ve been fighting dogs for as long as they’ve been fighting black people. In Mississippi, white people have been fighting dogs right in the street and in the woods even before I was born, but when Michael Vick does it, it’s the be-all and end-all of dog fighting. People have been pimping and hoeing since back in England, but when Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are pimping, that’s some bullshit. The Latin Kings, the Crips, the Bloods were around before rap music, but now we are the reason all these problems are there.
I’m a study of history. I’m a study of people. This country was built on lies. They don’t want to clean up what is happening in the streets; they just want us to shut up about it.
What are your thoughts on Nas’ new album title, Nigger?
I respect it. But we shouldn’t be the ones addressing these issues. Anybody who is surprised that Nas has something either spiritual or intellectual behind his work is a fool. You know Nas has something behind it. When has he not had something dope, twisted, intellectual, and well thought out behind a record he has done? Nas couldn’t be stupid if he wanted to. It’s gotta be more.