“I wanted to take the bullshit out of the holiday,” David Banner says, speaking from his home base in Atlanta. The MC and producer is explaining why “The Christmas Song,” which he released in December 2003 to promote his MTA2: Baptized In Dirty Water album, is not your typical hip-hop holiday track. Normally, these songs are light-hearted affairs: Run-DMC’s classic “Christmas In Hollis” stars the trio finding Santa’s lost wallet and supping egg nog with Jack Frost; Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin’ Xmas” features the gangsta rap pioneer dashing through the snow in a candy red low rider; DMX’s “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” is a bizarre mash up of thug rap flows and a jolly beat glistening with jingle bells. These songs are fun and unabashedly silly, and they represent the sentimental way the season is sold to us. But the gnarly-voiced Banner’s gritty spin on the holiday was all about “representing the realities of an Atlanta Christmas during that time.”
“The Christmas Song” comes good on Banner’s promise. It sounds more like a bleak Dickens fable relocated to the trap than anything to make you want to canoodle under the mistletoe. The track begins with a child’s voice: “Daddy, why don’t I have any presents like the other kids? I’m hungry.” It erupts into a dark and beastly tale that features a furious Banner stalking around town, robbing people to provide for his kid’s basic needs. Thunderous bass tones and eerie sleigh bells conjure a cutthroat vibe, which is topped by a hook that turns the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into a plea to rob and steal – “‘Cause it’s Christmas time and we’re broke again, broke again.” Banner ultimately exits the track having gifted his kid a bunch of presents, but with blood splattered all over his shirt.
“We paint this euphoric picture of Christmas when a lot of times it’s very stressful, and we do an injustice to our children by not telling them the whole truth about things,” Banner says. “I’ve found statistics that robbing goes up around Christmas, first because people are buying a lot of stuff, so they have a lot of stuff to steal, and secondly because people are trying to steal stuff for their kids. So I wanted to paint a picture that we knew about.”
While writing “The Christmas Song,” Banner was making weekly trips back and forth between his home state of Mississippi and the city of Atlanta, while recovering from an unsuccessful label deal with Penalty Recordings as one half of the duo Crooked Lettaz. In Atlanta, Banner struck up a bond with another upcoming MC in a similar situation, Bone Crusher, who’d originally been signed to Tommy Boy as part of the group Lyrical Giants and had yet to make his solo breakthrough with the monstrous “Never Scared.” The two bonded over real-world struggles that inspired scenes in “The Christmas Song.”
“When the girl says ‘Daddy, I’m hungry,’ I remember a time when Bone Crusher’s daughter told him that,” Banner says. “Bone Crusher was like, ‘I’ve gotta go get it right now, you know what I’m saying?’ Those were the days before we were signed – I just wanted to tell a more realistic Christmas. We paint these pictures of ourselves and these holidays that are, in some cases, a lie: There is no fat white man coming down your chimney. But in order to keep the Christmas trees selling and making money off a lie in America, a lot of humans want to keep the lie going.”
There’s a visceral feeling of violence and anger running through “The Christmas Song.” It’s an atmosphere that also peppers MTA2, which Banner calls “definitely my most aggressive album.” “Talk To Me” features Banner and Lil’ Flip going back and forth over a wantonly atonal beat based around the sort of screeching tone old dial-up modems produce, a remix of “Like A Pimp” showcases Twista and Busta Rhymes spitting boisterously and at warp speed, while “Mamma’s House” pairs horror movie piano stabs with Banner in ultra-violence mode: “Bullets fly through the air, tell them crackers to die / I’m the trillest, clack-up, peel it / Dumping slugs ’til you feel us.” (Just like “The Christmas Song,” the album’s other lead single, “Crank It Up,” is angry and brooding and more likely to start a ruckus in the club than prompt a celebration.)
Banner looks back on a lot of 2003 as being “some really hard times.” But he also remembers how the year was “paramount for the South” and a legitimate breakthrough time for the region. The influence of Lil Jon’s “Get Low” was continuing to bubble through the mainstream, Bone Crusher had clubs on lock with “Never Scared,” and Ludacris consolidated his status as a bona fide star with a run of punchline-packed singles from Chicken-n-Beer that included “Stand Up” and “Splash Waterfalls.” Banner’s own Mississippi: The Album, which was released in May that year via Steve Rifkind’s SRC label, was also spreading his reputation thanks to the success of tracks like the cocky, swaggering club hit “Like A Pimp” and the redemptive, acoustic guitar-laden “Cadillacs On 22s.”
Beyond the hits and Platinum plaques, the south also asserted its creative streak in 2003. “I personally believe we were doing things musically during that time that was way before its time, especially sonically, like with the instruments me and Lil Jon were using,” Banner says. “I don’t think Southerners get credit for the things we were doing and the fact we weren’t sampling in most cases: They were real instruments, and we didn’t take credit for other peoples’ artwork – we came up with our own art.”
One rapper to benefit from Banner’s production art was T.I., the Atlanta MC who was bouncing back from an unfruitful spell at Arista Records and readying the release of Trap Muzik – an album that sailed to Platinum status off the back of “Rubber Band Man,” which was based around an infectious ballpark organ beat crafted by Banner. “If I knew ‘Rubber Band Man’ was that dope, I would have kept it for myself,” Banner says with a laugh. “I have to give credit to T.I. for that – he knew what it was. It’s funny, we’ve been tied to each other in some kind of way, whether it’s the politics now or the music then, there’s always been some kinda connection between me and TI.”
“I remember, T.I. told me at the time [of ‘Rubber Band Man’] how he was in a similar situation to me stepping away from the deal he had with I’m Serious [released on Arista in 2001]. He was like, ‘I’m starting over, can I give you 25 hundred for this track? If you give it to me, I’m gonna change your life with it.’ And we did. That song is what made me a Platinum producer.”
Along with many rappers from the south, 2003 changed Banner’s life in a dramatic way. Looking back, he says, “I went from homeless to being a millionaire in two weeks.” But despite adding extra zeros to his bank balance, the quick ascent and success also came with stresses he wasn’t prepared for. “Going from sleeping in your van to being a millionaire, and in that same year having only a small cross-section of people knowing you to people knowing you all over the world, and having the pressure of the streets, the pressure of taxes, the pressure of family, plus keeping up that level of success where you’ve never had to keep it up constantly before… Those times are really cloudy and very stressful.” As if channeling the lesson of “The Christmas Song,” Banner adds, “But I’d rather have money stress than broke stress.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018.