David Banner: Mississippi: The Screwed and Chopped Album

David Morris

David Banner

Mississippi: the Screwed and Chopped Album

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2003-09-09
UK Release Date: 2003-07-01

To those who haven't experienced one firsthand, the appeal of a screwtape is a little tough to convey. The screw remix was pioneered by Houston's DJ Screw, and basically involves the remixer taking the original track and -- wait for it -- slowing it waaaaaay down. The technique was largely inspired by the effects of lean, the Houston rap scene's signature drug, more officially known as codeine. Mixed with soda or juice, or just sipped solo, it's both a cough suppressant and a fruity, psychedelic party accessory. It does essentially the same thing to a user's perception as Screw did to tracks (before his lean-related death in 2000) -- the world begins to move at a snail's pace, while at the same time becoming vaguely psychedelic and even sinister. There's a bit more to this kind of remix than just slowing things down -- as the title indicates, David Banner's Mississippi has been both screwed and chopped by Michael Watts, one of DJ Screw's Swisha House successors. The chopping sounds as simple as the screwing when you describe it on paper -- the DJ simply uses two copies of the track's vocal to perform some very simple cuts, most commonly doubling the first words of lines, or, alternately, looping a bar several times.

Despite the simplicity of the Screw-style remix, the outcome can be truly surprising, and occasionally powerful. The Texas rap that has been the most frequent recipient of the treatment can generally be described as being persistent and intense rather than funky, itself seemingly the product of a few too many tweaked-out studio sessions. But with the Screw laid on, the rhythms take on a nearly Zen quality in their unvarying repetition, not entirely dissimilar to the time loss offered by electronic trance music. The spare melodies are often dropped into minor keys, if they didn't start out there, and what was once aggressive and braggadocious becomes melancholy. The best example of this on Mississippi is "Choose Me", which echoes Screw's classic "Better Way" with its firmly gospel-rooted lament. Screwing can also take things in a decidedly different direction, transforming high-octane party tracks into menacing, nightmarish horror shows of surreally deep vocals, lurching vinyl drags, and beats slower than the other shoe dropping. "Might Getcha", featuring Lil' Jon, takes this route, and it's easily the best track on the album. Even at full speed, Lil' Jon's demonic roar encompasses most of the sub-bass frequency, but the Screw treatment makes him sound like Damian with a two-pack-a-day habit. Watts goes this one better by setting his phasers on "psycho", drenching the chorus in wavy, stereo-spanning dust.

"Might Getcha" also benefits from two or three of the only halfway-decent lines Banner delivers for the entire album. His limitations as a lyricist are put on (unintentionally?) hilarious display in a couple of soliloquies and intros. On "Whoremonger", he bids for respect from those who would put him on for less than eighty g's: "Fuck you and yo' money, you ol' ho-ass, fuck-ass, dick-suckin' ass, hide behind your gold and platinum ass, muthafuckin' . . . weak . . . ooh, you son of a bitch! Aargh!" He may take his name from the Absorbing Man, but Banner expresses himself with about as much sophistication as that much bigger, greener member of the Banner clan. Still, lyrics aren't really the point of any screwed album -- it's all about the voice, and Banner comes with the requisite brutal force. To paraphrase one of Screw's best tracks, this shit is made to knock pictures off the wall.

Another nice track is "Fuck 'Em", featuring Pastor Troy. Bold, broad horns mimic a Grambling field routine, the chops are high-octane, and Watts interpolates the creepy woodblock line from Banner's hit, "Like a Pimp". "Pimp" itself doesn't gain much from the screw -- in fact it's already screwed in its most widely-heard single form, and its inclusion here, just a little bit slower, is totally superfluous. The balance of the album is solid and impressively diverse in tone, from the contemplative and delicate "My Shawty", to the doom-metal blowback of "Really Don't Wanna Go", to the Simon and Garfunkel folkiness of "Cadillac On 22s". Yet, there are way too many interjections from both Banner himself and Watts, who pops up in annoying mixtape fashion to remind us that it's a "Swisha House remix, bitch!" Despite this, it's an interlude that's easily the most bracing moment on the album. In the foreground of "Phone Tap" is that terrible cliché, the answering machine message -- in this case a series of them, all well-wishers congratulating Banner on his success. But there are strange sounds in the background, and it takes a few moments to realize that Banner, while listening to this roll-call of love, is miserably sobbing, dry-heaving, and, in a gesture as grim as anything the Geto Boys ever did, playing one-man Russian Roulette.

"Phone Tap" is representative of the mix of aggression and melancholy that suffuses Mississippi, a tone that rises out of Banner's sense of having been doubly cheated, both as a black man in a racist society, and as a rapper from a marginal state in an industry that leans on geography as a branding tool. Banner's main goal, exemplified in the injustice-chronicling, six-minute title track, is to make a case for the musical relevance of states like Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, which get less recognition these days than hip-hop hotbeds like NYC, Cali, Georgia, and, um, Missouri. Though he hasn't got the lyrical chops to express this with any significant degree of subtlety, the music on Mississipi makes the case elegantly by being entertaining, creative, and truly different from anything else on rap radio.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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