“I never wanted to be a producer.”
The speaker? David Banner, platinum-selling rapper/producer, mere minutes into our conversation. “Being from Mississippi, there wasn’t a thriving music scene with an abundance of producers. I couldn’t get the beats I wanted, and if I did find a producer with a beat I wanted, I didn’t have the money to pay for it. Even when I did have the money to pay for a few beats, I found that the producers would generally keep the best music for their own artists.”
So the next logical step: doing it your damn self.
Banner, frustrated with the lack of available producer tutors, learned his way around the recording studio under the tutelage of a gospel musician who, despite playing piano in the church every Sunday, had developed an interest in hip-hop music. “He said if you teach me about hip-hop music, I’ll teach you how to produce. So when I was a teenager, I started going to the studio at night and learning how to work the board and produce music.”
After spending a few years muscling up his production chops, David went on to become a member of the Mississippi rap duo Crooked Lettaz, which included fellow rapper Kamikaze. The duo released the album Grey Skies in 1999, before Banner dropped his first solo album Them Firewater Boys Vol. 1 a year later. After a bidding war to rival the Civil War, Banner exploded on the scene in 2003 with the release of Mississippi: The Album (SRC Records), which featured the mega-hit “Like A Pimp.”
Currently traveling around the country on a bus promoting his new album Certified, David is keen on bringing the ability to record and produce music with him wherever he goes. “We’ve got Pharrell from The Neptunes on the bus, along with a mixing board, a recording booth . . . we have everything we have in the studio on the bus with us.” Although his favorite piece of equipment is the old-school Roland SR-10 sampler, David currently uses a MPC2000XL sampler (inscribed with the words “God first”) and Motif ES6 and Korg Triton Extreme 61 synthesizers, because “it’s just too hard to try and find parts to maintain the SR-10.”
Although using samplers like these to build loops and melodies for a track is common practice in hip-hop and dance music, using samples is still as much of a drag as it’s ever been because of the legal licensing minefield. “I learned how to play keyboards out of necessity, because dealing with the logistics of using samples is so hard. I had 40 percent of my publishing credit taken away from me for using an eight-second sample on a song one time. Which is ridiculous. Non-musical people have no business trying to judge how big of an impact a sample has on a song. The government passes laws about sampling, but doesn’t understand the difference between sampling an entire melody and sampling a soundbyte for an intro. It stunts the creative process dramatically because you’re always worried that you may not get the samples cleared or they will be too expensive to use.”
It was this frustration with using samples, however, that led to one of David’s most successful production credits. “Rubber Band Man,” which David produced for fellow southern rapper T.I., features an infectious melody line played on an organ and mirrored by synthesizer horns and a chorus of vocals. The song went on to become one of the biggest hits of the winter of 2003-2004, was played incessantly during NBA games, and made Banner one of the most sought after producers in hip-hop.
Of course being one of hip-hop’s hottest producers has its downside as well. “Once I made ‘Rubber Band Man’ for T.I., people started wanting tracks that sounded like that. Which is true throughout the music industry. It doesn’t matter how progressive and experimental your beats are, the A&Rs always want a track like the one that’s on the radio. Rather than having something that is truly musically inclined, they [A&R] always want that microwaved, right now, quick shit.”
Banner mentions that one way he likes to stay focused on making consistently great music is to have people with him in the studio that aren’t necessarily musicians or producers. “I used to hate to have a lot of people in the studio with me while I was recording. However, recently I’ve learned from Jazze Pha that it’s good to have people with you in the studio to see how they react. If I do something and they all go “oh yeah,” then I keep it. Usually, I like to have a cat that is straight off the block in the studio with me. Some one who just hangs out and drinks. Because he doesn’t have any aspirations about being involved in the music business, he is going to be the most honest about how things sound. He is not going to kiss my ass. If he’s not feeling the beat he’s going to be like, ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘that’s jammin.’ They’re almost like [a more authentic version] of your own A&R.”
When I ask Banner if he follows a particular formula when he’s producing music, he informs me that his formula changes every time he creates a new track. “I never try and follow a set formula. I wait for things to happen spontaneously and let my creativity flow. I think that’s why there’s such a difference in the way my songs sound. I remember before I did ‘Cadillac on 22’s,’ one of my mentors said, ‘you don’t have any songs about God on your record.’ And when I wrote that song, I never sat down and tried to consciously write a song about God. It just happened.
And having traveled to New York in the late ’90s to “make it” in the music business, Banner is inherently skeptical of the recent money-stinking surge of interest in Southern hip-hop. Unlike the more traditional break beat influenced hip-hop from New York, Southern and West Coast hip-hop is created with the mindset that the music will be played outdoors. Whether it is played in cars or in parks, the drumbeat’s kick drum generally has more bass and less punch. David says this is because of the Roland TR-808 that is often used in Southern hip-hop. “One of the reasons that Southern hip-hop isn’t as popular in New York is because headphones don’t register the low-end kick drums of an 808. So what I do is layer my beats with an 808, as well as a more traditional high-end kick.” This allows the drumbeats to sound good no matter where the song is being played: in the car or in the club.
Differences in kick drums aside, however, music from the “Dirty South” is the hottest subgenre of hip-hop at the moment. With more than half of the Billboard Top 20 hip-hop singles chart being comprised of artists from the south, and radio playlists filled to the gills with songs that feature the word “crunk”, labels are clamoring to sign artists from the region. Even New York hip-hop record mogul Diddy got into the act by signing Atlanta rap group “Boyz N The Hood” to his Bad Boy imprint. Though, when I ask Banner about the “southern sound,” he shrugs off the suggestion that a “defining sound” exists for the region. “’Like A Pimp’ was successful because it had a little bit of everything. It was considered Crunk music, but it also had some Atlanta Swing and some New Orleans Bounce, as well as an aggressive beat like New York hip-hop.”
However, according to David Banner, the key element to Southern hip-hop (and all Southern music for that matter) is not a particular drum sound or production style, it’s the raw emotion of Southern people and the hardships they’ve endured that make it “Southern.” “Regardless of the sound of a song, whether it features an 808 drum sound or not, the only thing that makes a Southern hip-hop record Southern is that the people making it are from the south.”