David Banner’s projects, from Mississippi: The Album to his Jackson-based organization, Heal the Hood, reflect a long-standing dedication to his home state. The son of Zeno and Carolyn Crump, Levell Crump grew up in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson. After graduating from Provine High School, Crump earned a business degree at Southern University, where he served as student government association president. He enrolled in the master of education program at the University of Maryland but left prior to graduation to focus on his music career.
Though hip-hop is one of the most prevalent popular music styles in Mississippi, rappers and producers frequently showcase their talent in informal spaces such as clubs, house parties, and impromptu gatherings and through demo recordings submitted to local radio. Crump borrowed the stage name David Banner from the Incredible Hulk comic book and embarked on a career that followed this pattern. Starting with a ten-dollar keyboard in elementary school, he began rapping at school events, experimenting with the production of beats and other musical compositions and honing his ability to translate complex social circumstance into taut lyrics. By his teenage years, Banner found selling demo recordings in the parking lot at Kroger more lucrative than his job bagging groceries inside.
In the late 1990s Banner earned regional acclaim after Jackson station WJMI began playing his songs, and in 1999 he signed a recording contract as part of the duo Crooked Lettaz. A solo album soon followed, and Banner also produced hits for several established rappers. This momentum led to a reported ten-million-dollar deal with Universal Records and the release of Mississippi: The Album in 2003.
Mississippi reached No. 1 on the Billboard R & B/hip-hop chart, establishing Banner as a leading figure in the genre. It was followed by MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water (2004), Certified (2005), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (2008). Ten years into his major-label career, Banner had accumulated more than one hundred recording credits. As performer or producer he has recorded alongside rap’s most successful artists, including Snoop Dogg, Wyclef Jean, and Lil Wayne. Banner had a role in a 2006 film, Black Snake Moan, and served as executive producer of an Old South–skewering cartoon, That Crook’d ’Sipp, for the Cartoon Network. He appeared in Ride Along in 2014 and played the character of Cecil Gaines in The Butler in 2013.
Banner’s lyrics, though at times misogynistic, violent, and acutely profane, have added to the debate about the negative impact of certain hip-hop themes. While hit songs such as “Like a Pimp” substantiate this concern, others focus on complex struggles within Mississippi’s African American community. In “Cadillac on 22’s” Banner details everyday social pressures yet also targets structural issues: the lyric “Lord, they hung Andre Jones,” for example, both memorializes an individual and references the spate of suicides of young black men in Mississippi prisons in the 1990s, a suspicious series of events that resulted in an investigation by the US Justice Department. As for the debate about violent and sexist hip-hop lyrics, Banner testified during a 2007 congressional hearing that hip-hop “is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick.”
Banner has worked to translate commercial success into community-based improvement. His Heal the Hood nonprofit organization has raised money, goods, and awareness for victims of Hurricane Katrina, provided schoolbooks and college scholarships to students in need, and hosted toy drives. Of these efforts, Banner notes, “I just thank God I have an opportunity to make kids where I’m from feel like they’re somebody.” In part because of his personal response to Katrina—suspending his career, deploying his tour buses as rescue vehicles—the National Black Caucus honored him in 2006 with a Visionary Award for humanitarian efforts.
Banner released the studio albums Death of a Pop Star in 2010, Sex, Drugs, and Video Games in 2012, and The God Box in 2017. The latter represented a return of sorts to his days of nontraditional distribution; Banner enacted what he termed a “2M1” movement, with the goal of selling two million records directly to consumers for one-dollar each via Internet download. As concept, the 2M1 model represented for Banner a grassroots opportunity to involve black consumers in black business and creative industries without corporate oversight.
Banner addresses the contradiction between his lyrics and his community-based efforts the same way many of his blues and country forebears have: by pointing out the divide between Saturday night and Sunday morning. As for his love of his home state, problems and all, he explains that he named his first album Mississippi in part to point out some frequently overlooked good points: “Every time they acknowledge me, they’re gonna have to acknowledge my state.”
- Davey D., Southern Shift website, http://www.thesouthernshift.com
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (16 June 2003)
- New York Times (21 February 1993, 15 April 1993, 26 September 2007)
- Tamara Palmer, Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip Hop (2005)