That's Incredible!

Truth be told, Mississippi's Lavell Crump is both Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby, though he looked to Bixby's Dr. David Bruce Banner character from The Incredible Hulk when selecting a stage name, a moniker appropriate for describing a combination of larger-than-life bombast and quietly measured intelligence he shares with the green monster/scientist.

Banner is both a full-fledged MC and a noted producer, something that, despite the recent success of Kanye West, is still fairly uncommon in hip-hop. He hopes to add actor and director to that list. He has spent the better part of a year traveling to Los Angeles to study acting, and recently directed his first music video -- the clip for his new single "I Ain't Got Nothin'."

If Banner's life were to be played out on early Eighties TV, however, it would be more That's Incredible! than The Incredible Hulk. A graduate of Southern University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in finance, Banner entered the music industry as one-half of the duo Crooked Lettaz in the late Nineties. They were signed and ultimately mishandled by Tommy Boy Records, with only one album, Grey Skies, to show for their struggles. Shortly before receiving a five-album, $10 million solo deal from SRC/Columbia Records in late 2002, Banner was living in his van -- which was eventually stolen, but not before the thieves inexplicably and mercifully threw the box with his demo tapes out in the parking lot.

Although Banner is still a fresh face to the rest of America, busting out through crunk's energy wave via the 2003 albums Mississippi and MTA2: Baptized in Dirty Water, he has paid plenty of dues. "Most of the successful rappers from the South put out three, four, five, six, seven albums before they even got on," he says by phone from Atlanta. "I always think of the Southern people that, by the time we get in the race, by the time we get to the starting line and they pull the trigger on the starting gun, shit, we tired! We already done been through the career of most New York rappers.

"Perfect example is with me being a producer. I never wanted to be a producer; I became one because I had to be. I didn't have money. I couldn't afford to buy beats from the people who had the music that was tight. I had to learn on my own." He has taken that self-taught skill and banked off of it, producing his own songs as well as those of his colleagues. In fact, before Mississippi: The Album, he scored a hit via Trick Daddy's "Thug Holiday" and also produced Nelly's "Tip Drill," T.I.'s "Rubberband Man," and Lil Flip's "Game Over."

Banner says hip-hop fans and artists in the South were force-fed everyone else's music for so long -- even the stuff they liked -- that the region ended up with a more well-rounded sonic outlook than most.

"I think if you want to look at what all has happened in hip-hop, look at Southern rappers," explains Banner. "Because we had to go through the MTV stage when all we could ever see was a-ha, Peter Gabriel, and the Police. When New York was happening, we didn't have no choice but to listen to A Tribe Called Quest, Mantronix, all this stuff. We had no choice. What else could we listen to? When the West Coast was poppin', we didn't have no choice. We had to go through the NWA stage whether we liked it or not."

Banner is hurtling toward the July 19 release of his next album, the yet-to-be-completed Certified. The title signifies how he'd like to see the album perform. Gold and platinum honors have so far eluded him, and in an unforgiving music industry, platinum is what he needs at this stage of the game. Falling short of that goal would make it more difficult to transcend crunk's trenches of Hennessy-soaked headbussers, not only as a musician but also as a fledgling thespian tentatively exploring the Hollywood landscape. There are more eyes on him now, which is why he's taking full advantage of the time remaining before the album's release to fine-tune and tinker with a few secret wild cards -- which reportedly include some rock and roll experiments -- that may garner him a higher profile once the public hears them. So far the Certified cache includes collaborations with Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Jadakiss, and Twista, as well as productions from Mannie Fresh, Jazze Pha, Lil Jon, Alchemist, and, of course, himself.

Meanwhile Banner has dropped two "tasters" in "Gangsta Walk," which features a first-time collaboration among Memphis rap legends Three 6 Mafia, 8 Ball, and MJG; and "I Ain't Got Nothin'," which features Lil Boosie and Magic and boasts a video already in rotation on BET. The new joints, which sound richer and more musical than his past work, make clear that Banner has stepped up his game as a producer.

To the delight of some and the dismay of others, Southern hip-hoppers aren't looking to give up their stranglehold on the rap industry anytime soon. New York hipsters and haters desperate to allow crunk (which Banner has likened to the Holy Ghost in the black church) nothing more than fifteen minutes of fame don't realize that the South cannot be defined or contained by crunk.

Neither can David Banner. Already a powerful man in mind, body, and spirit, Banner treats his star power responsibly. And, as he gains strength, he says he will be careful to treat people the way he wants to be treated.

"What I don't wanna do is turn around and do to other people what New York did to us," he asserts. "That's why I always have to catch myself from being arrogant and being mean. What I have to do is take my time and show people what they should have done."

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Tamara Palmer