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Hip-hop's Delta force

David Banner proudly puts a Mississippi spin on the 'Dirty South' regional vibe that he richly exemplifies.

October 19, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

Listen carefully to the new version of "Like a Pimp," Mississippi rapper David Banner's breakout single from last summer, and it's plain that something feels wrong with the music.

It's an irresistible flow -- deliberate, hitting like a hammer, with Banner's threatening, gravel-voiced delivery adding urgency to the club sex anthem -- but the audio is wiggy. At points, the lyrics slow noticeably, then bounce back into sections that have clearly been sliced up and rearranged.

Like the rest of Banner's just-released remix album, this song has been "screwed and chopped," an innovation of the late DJ Screw, an influential hip-hop producer from a Houston crew called Swisha House. The effect, as twisted up here by Swisha House's Michael "3000" Watts, is mildly psychedelic. The producer leaves a kind of signature in the way he has modified the song, like scratching but with a much lighter and less disruptive touch.

"You don't really get to understand all the elements that's inside of [a song]," says Banner, holed up in a posh boutique hotel on Sunset Boulevard. "But when it's screwed and chopped and it's slow? You get to hear it all, all the lyrics. That even makes you respect the original form a lot more."

Banner is quick to point out that the technique is not unique to "Mississippi: The Screwed and Chopped Album," a remix of his third album, "Mississippi: The Album." Dozens of records have been produced this way, but few were ever heard beyond the clubs of Houston until Banner's album grabbed national attention early last month.

Like Atlanta's crunk style, or the unique slurring Rs of Nelly and Chingy in St. Louis, this is another regional taste that is powering widespread interest in the "Dirty South," a catchall name for the hard-core club hip-hop coming out of the Southern states. And regionalism is exactly what Banner -- now one of hip-hop's most in-demand producers -- is all about.

In fact, Banner has proof that he's put his home state of Mississippi on the hip-hop map -- literally. This is an idea that makes the huge man turn positively giddy. Pawing through a scattering of papers and CDs on his hotel bed, the 28-year-old turns up a recent copy of Entertainment Weekly and points to an illustration showing rap's biggest stars and what parts of the country they represent. Looming over Mississippi is a caricature of himself, pulling that fierce snarl he makes when he wants to look hard.

"Even in the South, Mississippi is the last state that you ever hear about," he says. "Because Mississippi has had a morbid history. We have a lot of baggage. But that's where the talent comes from. Since nobody else was talkin' about it, I had to talk about it 10 times more."

Teaching and studying

Banner had his chance to make a fast escape from the legacy of racism and stagnation that clings to the nation's poorest state. A well-spoken man who weaves a fair dose of philosophy and politics into discussion about the rap game, he attended Louisiana State University and was Student Government Assn. president at the University of Maryland. He worked as a teacher and dropped out of a master's degree program when he realized, he says, he wasn't going to get a job that could pay like hip-hop.

He formed a group in Jackson called Crooked Lettaz and in 1999 released a self-produced album, "Grey Skies," which was acclaimed in the hip-hop press. But his follow-up CD, "Them Firewater Boys Vol. 1," had the phone ringing off the hook in 2000. Banner produced the title song to Trick Daddy's platinum-selling "Thug Holiday" and songs from Lil' Flip's platinum album "Underground Legend," among many others. The new album, "Mississippi," is his triumphant hometown return.

Screwed and chopped isn't the only style masterfully exercised on the disc. "Might Getcha," a track featuring Atlanta MC Lil Jon, is a dark, majestic example of the crunk, a high-energy club music particular to that town. Artists are loath to define crunk, because the term describes a feeling more than a beat pattern or singing style; in the clubs, it is a license for total abandon, a reaction to repression and boredom in the form of wild dancing, mosh pits, and even fighting.

"The closest thing that I can [compare it to] is how young punk rock used to be," Banner says. "We gonna have to go back to work tomorrow, go back to school, back to the cops chasin' you , but right now in the club is the freest we gone ever be, bro."

Banner says that's a freedom he would die for. But right now, single, with no children, he's got work to do. He's trying to show the kids in Mississippi that they have an identity beyond whatever's validated by big rap stars in Manhattan and L.A. But battling the bling is an uphill battle -- and an obvious contradiction coming from a rapper who's just tasting real success. The lyrics from the album's just-out second single, "Cadillac on 22s," say it all: "I know the kids are listening, I know I'm here for a mission, but it's so hard to get 'em when 22 rims are glistening ... ."

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