After boasting about living "Like A Pimp" in 2003 and taunting people to "Get Like Me" in 2008, David Banner decide to rejuvenate himself as both a rapper and grown man with the release of his seventh studio album The God Box last spring -- arguably his most solid work to date.
The Mississippi native explored several heavy topics on the set, including racism, the ongoing whitewashing in rap and police brutality, all of which reflected his more conscious thinking. And as his lyricism has gotten deeper, his production has become tighter, weaving through influences of rock, synth-pop, soul, futuristic rap and more. "It’s easy to produce for other people because you don’t have time -- you just have to get it done," Banner tells Billboard. "But for myself, I’m always going back and catching stuff. But usually the right thing is what I did the first time. With The God Box, I had separation anxiety because I wanted it to be so perfect."
Along with being a veteran rapper (he has nearly two decades of experience under his belt), Banner has made a name for himself as one of hip-hop's more experimental producers. Aside from his own work, he's put his stamp on songs for T.I., Jill Scott, Chris Brown, Maroon 5, Lil Wayne, Ne-Yo and more.
"My favorite record I’ve ever done was on my first album, Mississippi: The Album, and it was called 'My Shawty.' And of course 'Like A Pimp' because that changed my life," Banner continues. "I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t include T.I.’s 'Rubber Band Man' [on a list of my favorites]. I think that song did what 'Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check' did for Busta Rhymes. Music was in such a dark place, and 'Rubber Band Man' changed the texture of music during that time."
Below, Banner catches up with Billboard on what's currently lacking in hip-hop, his frustration with the use of the N-word and why he's fed up with streaming services.
Many of the artists you've produced for are from the south (T.I., Lecrae, Ludacris, etc.) Is that intentional, or is that just the sound you gravitate towards?
I think it’s just the people that I have relationships with, because I’m here. Those are my peers, and that’s who I’m around everyday. When I was on the West Coast, I mostly worked with west coast artists. I was living in Los Angeles and that’s when I did Snoop [Dogg], Tha Dogg Pound and Chris Brown records.
As a producer, one of the things that maybe hindered me was that every time I made a beat, I tried to make something different and be innovative, instead of [repeating] a hit song like [T.I.’s] “Rubber Band Man” and keeping that sound. Most successful producers, when they get a wave, they keep it for a year. I never did that. I always tried as hard as I could to make every beat sound different, to show my dexterity, because that’s the thing that keeps my interest. But in a lot of cases, it’s hard to find artists who want to push forward. It seems like music has turned into people being more comfortable with sounding similar. I like to experiment and I like to push culture forward, because the only thing that stays the same is something that dies.
And because we’re from the South, a lot of the times people don’t notice [what we're doing]. I was talking in another interview about how me and Lil Jon always used rock and acoustic guitars. And I watched R&B music for a minute evolve into 808s and acoustic guitars, but we had been doing that for seven, eight, nine years. You know what I mean? On The God Box, there’s actually a song with me, Big K.R.I.T. and UGK [called] “My Uzi” where there’s a real symphony orchestra at the end. John Debney, who scored The Passion of the Christ and Iron Man 2, actually wrote that for me.
I don’t think people give hip-hop the credit it deserves. No one would ever fathom that I would go to L.A. and get a real symphony orchestra. The God Box didn’t have a sample on it -- everything was original sound with instruments.
Speaking of The God Box, I thought that was such a shift for you, with how it dabbles in rock and soul. Did you have any nerves about going in a different direction sonically?
It wasn’t really a shift -- and a lot of people say that only because there was more of a consistent level of consciousness on the album. If you go back to listen to most of my records, they were always live instruments. But I think we’re such a singles-based society now, so everything sounds like a single. There’s not much music that actually blows up that’s close to your heart, that’s not about a popular topic. So production-wise, that’s always been me, so I wasn’t nervous about that.
What I was more nervous about was -- a lot of the topics on my album felt like they were advanced. A lot of music is from a kindergarten to a third-grade level, in most cases. This was 12th grade, college, doctoral music from a lyric perspective. So I started "The God Box Lecture Series" and just about every one [of them] was sold out. I lectured, so people couldn’t say that I didn’t go out and try to teach.
A lot of times, [artists] who do gospel or conscious music, they think that people are supposed to understand. They don’t! If you want to rap to them about something new, you gotta show it to them. One of the reasons why the West Coast music was so popular because Menace II Society, Boyz In Da Hood, Colors all came out around the same time [as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Eazy E]. So we may not have understood what ‘64s were [otherwise], but the movies painted a clear picture of it.
The album does have a more mature theme to it. What were you going through at the time during the recording process?
We rappers always say that we’re keeping it a hunnid. But right now our people are struggling and are going through a social shift. And I believe Donald Trump has a lot to do with it. We’re now forced to be more conscious. A lot of the things people have been talking about socially, we thought it was over! Because of the way this president acts, it put [these issues] back in the face of the world.
Black people knew what was happening everyday in the hood, we knew cops were beating the shit out of us. That was nothing new. But for the other people who washed their miseries of white supremacy away by moving away from the situation, it never changed for the average black person. It used to be our job [as rappers] to be the CNN for the hood -- to tell our side of the story to the world, because CNN and FOX isn’t doing so. Now rappers are pandering to brands and labels, and not accurately telling what’s going on in the streets.
And the other thing is, if you are what you listen to, and all we ever hear is “n---a” and “bitch,” how can we expect our kids to be anything more than what we put in our ear? I didn’t believe it was any other rappers’ responsibility [to change that], God put that on me.
We have certain experiences that we feel other people know, but maybe that’s your experience. Maybe it’s up to you to teach. And I’m a grown man now -- some of these rappers are young enough to be my kids. I see a lot of rappers who are my age, and some who are much older than me, still doing teenage music. How are they gon’ grow if they don’t get knowledge from the elders? I’m not saying I don’t like having fun or that I don’t kick it, but there’s enough of that. We as black people have to be careful to not turn into a caricature. There’s more to our culture. So I just felt it was my responsibility as a man.
The thing that bothers me sometimes is that different magazines and websites always criticize rappers for not doing better. But when someone does do it, they don’t put in the same effort that they put behind when our lives are in jeopardy or when we’re tearing each other down. It took Charlamagne [Tha God] to say The God Box was one of the best albums of the year. I heard that from smaller, more white-based sites. This was a conscious, revolutionary album. But one of my elders told me it’s gonna take a while for others to catch up and to just be patient.
We actually created a “god box” for the album. I took a lot of the things that helped me become conscious: the Hidden Colors 3 DVD that I did with Nas, the Black Friday DVD that was about finance, the book that introduced me to consciousness when I was in 11th grade called The Browder Files, a chopped-and-screwed version of the album, a version of the Black Liberation flag that I created. One magazine said it was one of the dopest marketing schemes that they ever seen. But I [said] that the reason why I think the boxes did so well was because it wasn’t a marketing scheme. I wanted to help people get to where I am now just a little bit quicker.
A lot of critics have called The God Box your best work to date. Do you feel pressure for your next album as a result?
I think people don’t realize that we practice. I practice writing, reciting my rhymes...we make kids feel like it’s just about talent. I think the best example is [Golden State Warriors basketball star] Steph Curry. He’s short and is not your typical point guard. He worked his ass off to be great -- he didn’t necessarily have the natural talent. And that’s what I did. So I’m only getting better.
But I don’t want people to put me in that consciousness box, that was just a part of my life. I think what’s wrong with hip-hop is a lack of balance. There was a time where it was too happy and N.W.A. came out with “Fuck The Police.” Rap became too dark and Busta Rhymes came out with "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check." Rap then latched on to one wave and then Kendrick Lamar and BIG K.R.I.T. came out.
What do you think would make that balance more stabilized?
Just a little bit more truth. Everybody ain’t selling dope. I’m sure it’s less than 10 percent of our people. You love somebody: your grandmother, your daughter. Talk about that! Talk about more than the stereotypical things that white people think about us. ‘Cause really what we’re doing is pandering to white people. That’s one of the reasons why I was so happy that Rapsody came out because it seemed like it got to the point where our women couldn’t be nothing more than a version of Lil Kim. There’s nothing wrong with that, but every woman isn’t like her. So we need balance, you feel me? We don’t want to broadcast to the world that black people are just one way.
I always tell people that I don't believe the words “n---a” and “bitch” should be cast out of our language. It’s a description of a type of person, but it’s not a description of black people. N----s and bitches may make up 15 percent of our culture as a whole, but we spend 90 percent of our time talking about ‘em. That’s not balance. And I can’t criticize other rappers until I do better.
The topic surrounding the N-word recently came up when a white girl kept using it when she tried to rap Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d city” on stage. But many white people still don’t understand why they can’t say the word.
See that’s white supremacy, and white people think their kids can get away with it. No! Their kids are still living off the benefits of slavery. We didn’t come over here calling each other “n---a.” They did that, so they have to be held responsible for what they’ve done. And that’s part of our problem -- we forgive everybody! And many white people think they still own black folks. The thing is, so many black people want to be so close to white people and play with their toys where they have no love for each other.
There’s certain things I can say about my culture, but if you do that to any other society they’ll break you off! Let me tell you a quick story: I had a white friend one time and I asked him, “My dude. 10 years ago, would you have been comfortable saying the word ‘n----r’?” He said no. I asked, “Are you comfortable with saying it now?” He said, “Yes, but not in front of you.” I said, “You damn right.” I asked what made him uncomfortable 10 years ago, and he said, “I respected the struggle of black people and what they’re going through. And I was scared I was gonna get my teeth knocked out.” So I asked, “What does that mean now?” He responded, “I don’t fear black people anymore.”
That’s the problem, they don’t respect black people. They could’ve stopped saying the word 40, 50 years ago. White people brought black people over here during the transatlantic slave trade, made them work for free, kicked them out, still treated them like shit and then turned out to charge them taxes for being here. That’s the same way with the word “n----r.” You know why you shouldn’t say it. You ain’t cleaned up what you did, you didn’t pay reparations -- you just expected us to forgive you after a few years. I don’t know much much of that you can use. [laughs]
No, this is an important issue that can benefit a lot of people.
And when I say the word, I mean [the "-er" version of the word.] When I say it, I mean it the same way [as white people]. I don’t say it as a term of endearment. We [as black people] have to stop making it different, because it’s not different. You don’t see Jewish people trying to flip the swastika to make it better, right? So why do we? Why do we try to take the pain out of it?
With black people as a whole, I think we have a problem with how to tackle pain. We typically cover it up instead of trying to figure it out exactly why we’re hurting.
If you hide it, it can come back again. I learned that in therapy. One of the reasons why they try to take our history from us is so the same thing can happen again. If you’re very conscious of what happened and you keep the pain in front of you, you’ll make sure it’ll never come back because you recognize it. You see what I’m saying?
Wow, that was heavy. But I’m going to switch gears here: are you working on new music?
Yeah, I am. But I’ll be honest with you, we have allowed our music to be so disposable. I spent $100,000 of my own money -- not the record label’s -- on The God Box. It was me 100 percent.
We have taught our children that there’s no value in music. I was telling somebody this about some of the production that people do. I used the symphony orchestra [on the album] because I want to do the best. But I do so many other things: I act, I own a multimedia company with movies and video games. So I can afford to do some things that other producers can’t. But like, if our people are not gonna pay for music, then why invest that much money into it? Because it’s not gon’ come back. We think this is for free. We’ve allowed the artists to not get paid anymore -- they get paid fractions of pennies -- and we pay big corporations instead. Now we have to beg companies to pay [big streaming services] to stream our music, and then they give them the money! That’s not right!
But if you say anything about it, then you get shut out. I told a distributor one time how much I spent on my record. I didn’t ask none of y’all for help -- I did it on my own. And now you’re getting the money before I do? Where they do that at? I remember I mixed [the song] “My Uzi” 14 times. But once our music starts getting crushed into mp3s, people can’t tell the difference, and don’t care about the quality of their music anymore. But I don’t care if nobody else isn’t mixing their music, I’ll do that ‘til the day I die, because I know our music represents our culture. If it’s a mixtape, that’s different. But if you say you’re putting out an album, and you want people to pay top dollar for it, then you gotta give them the best. But only a fool would dump that money into something that’s been watered down to fractions of pennies.
What are your qualms about services like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music?
I applaud JAY-Z. He saw what wave was coming, so he created his own. He coupled with a company so that he can get top dime for his money. That’s smart. So until I can make that kind of move, I sort of have to move along or become obsolete. Prince had been talking about this problem. I just don’t get why the people who have nothing get paid the most. They don’t own anything; all they do is set up systems. And we just keep giving our music away.
And what’s crazy is that [streaming services] are slowly phasing out things that you can’t control. Us black people could get mom and pop stores [to support us], burn our own CDs and sell our own music by hand. You can barely get a CD played in the car now. I have nothing against technology, but we have to make it work for ourselves because now we’re totally dependent on people who don’t care about our culture.