Deeper Read: How DJ Screw Changed the Sound of Hip Hop

13 March 2019
DJ Screw

By Tom Martin, who’s presenting a Max Headroom special on DJ Screw

DJ Screw was born Robert Earl Davis Jr. in the small town of Smithville, Texas in 1971, but is more strongly associated with the city of Houston – the most populous city in the state of Texas. He started DJing at 13, and claims he started using his slowed down, chopped and screwed technique by the age of 17.

If the name is new to you, DJ Screw is primarily associated with his slowed down, syrupy style of mixing – so much so that the ‘chopped and screwed’ tag has been adopted (or appropriated) by others mimicking his sound.

He sold personalised cassette tapes from his driveway, and, in the process, built a large following, community and name for himself – all based around his love and passion for all sorts of music.

Getting Drank Out of the Way

Screw’s style is slow and cerebral, with the ability to get you into a very unique headspace. Without a doubt, his sound is certainly associated with drug use – weed and codeine (or ‘purple drank’) – but to pay too much credit to the influence of drugs is to cheapen Screw’s incredible creativity. Furthermore, it’s not something he himself personally focused on or glamourised.

Louisiana rapper and Screw associate E.S.G. (Everyday Street Gangsta, not to be confused with the New York band) spoke about the scene’s association with ‘sippin’ and smokin’’ at a conference in Houston in 2012, explaining that it was part of the South Houston culture prior to Screw: ‘People would have still been sipping if it wasn’t for DJ Screw.’ They even went so far as to say, ‘Sipping had nothing to do with the music.’ Essentially, weed and drank were a socially acceptable form of drug use, and the recreational use of codeine cough syrup wasn’t something new to South Houston.

As Lil’ Keke explained during the same conference: ‘What people don’t know is my uncle and them, and all the people before us, they swear we weren’t doing anything that they hadn’t done before us. We already was doin’ that. We was drinking it straight out of the bottle, ya’ll ain’t doin’ that.’

Drug use can often overshadow the far more interesting aspects of Screw’s story and legacy. Focusing on drug use, and reducing people to any drugs they may have used is a bit boring, but people do unfortunately always mention drugs when discussing the untimely deaths of those associated with the scene. DJ Screw, Big Moe and Pimp C, who all who died before their time, had pre-existing health complications that contributed to their deaths, which were unrelated to drug use.

It’s easy to stigmatise and glamourise these things, but ultimately it’s but a fraction of what Screw’s music was about.

Influences, Technique & Style

A major influence on Screw’s style is the DJ Darryl Scott. He’s often cited in articles on Screw, and despite being a popular DJ in the late ’70s and ’80s, it’s hard to find any recordings of his. Outside of DJing, Scott would also hustle mixtapes, and, as Lance Scott Walker states in his excellent longform profile, ‘would sometimes release them to a certain few before running off copies to sell at the car wash and MacGregor Park.

‘Scott’s mixes 8 On The Double and 33½ included the two basic elements for what would become screwed and chopped music: doubled beats and records slowed from 45 to 33. The earliest cuts he slowed in the clubs were Mantronix’s “Fresh Is The Word” (1985) and Laid Back’s “White Horse” (1983) – accidentally at first, and then intentionally when he saw the crowd was feeling it. He put those slowed tracks on one tape, and the doubling (chopping) on another, but not combined.’

Screw’s mixes were all analogue, and his work was created right at the cusp of the digital revolution of the 2000s. His process involved a number of steps involving pitch shifting records on the turntable, but more importantly using the pitch-shift built into most tape decks to slow down and pitch shift the actual tapes. Screwtapes were all longform, generally on a 100 to 120 minute Maxell XLII gray tape (Nosnitsky, 2013).

In addition to messing with the aspects of sound, tone and speed of tracks, Screw also utilised a lot of chopping – again quoting from Walker’s 2015 profile on Screw:

‘Screw would have two copies of the same record spinning on the turntables, one playing just behind the other, and he’d “chop” back and forth between them with his crossfader at moments he wanted to bring out; scratching and running records back to repeat phrases and double up beats, sometimes dragging a finger alongside the wheel to give it a warble. He had his fader set to Hamster style, the reverse of most turntable setups, so that he could make quicker stabs between the discs.’

Similarly, C-Note of the Botany Boys describes the process during the recording of Screw’s first record for a label ‘3 In the Morning’:

‘He had got like a bunch of tape decks and he would have probably about six beats playing together at one time and they was all mixed together if you listened to it. That was because he had multiple double tape decks and everything was just playing. It took him a while to make it, it was a time consuming thing.’ (Sonzala, 2017)

This slowed down and warped music fit the culture and climate of Houston. People would cruise around in the humid and heavy Houston heat playing tapes loud from their cars. Houston being the fourth most populous city in America means that cars are a major aspect of getting around, and there certainly wasn’t public transport infrastructure in a lot of areas. So the mixes were meant to be played with this in mind – you weren’t listening to tapes on a bus or train in your headphones, you were listening to it driving around in a Slab (a showy car with bright ‘candy’ paint and big rims).

Without getting to bogged down in intellectualising, driving disrupts the flow of time – you’re in stasis as everything moves fast around you – and music obviously reflects environment and culture to a certain degree, so it’s easy to see where Screw’s slowed down and heavy sound fit in this specific Houston culture.

Screw House & the S.U.C.

The group of rappers and artists surround the Screw house was known collectively as the ‘Screwed Up Click’ (S.U.C.). C-Note from Botany Boyz is recognised as being the first to freestyle over a Screw mix, and through hearing what C-Note did, rappers like Big Hawk & Fat Pat (who were brothers; Fat Pat attending high school with Screw) heard it and wanted to get involved with what was going. This created a word of mouth hype that grew and grew from 1990 onwards, culminating to the point where a lot of the stuff people were hearing was only through Screw’s mixes, the closest thing to radio that South Houston had. The tapes were a touchstone and reflected the people in the community and amplified their voices.

Mixtapes, especially in this context, acted like public radio, giving people access to new release music from across the country, a selection of local rappers and a curation of both celebrated and unknown classic tracks. With no public infrastructure to support this, Screw went about pumping his sound through easy-to-produce and distribute cassette tapes.

By the age of 23, Screw had created an industry. In his retrospective story, Scott Lance Walker describes how this industry was sustaining ‘current and former hustlers’; Screw was ‘going to keep them out of the streets if he could’. Screw was making thousands of dollars a night from his driveway.

In a 2017 interview, Lil Keke describes this hustle as follows:

‘He was doing 1,000 cassettes at $10 tow or three times a week, and setting up booths doing 1,500 of them, 700 of them, and I don’t buy nothing but Dickies and T-shirts? Low bills, his overhead was ridiculous. And he didn’t really even go outside much. He wasn't tripping off nothing. He was making $40,000 a week keeping $38,000 of it.’

Working with Screw

Screw started out doing these chopped and screwed mixes, people would come to him with a list of songs and he’d give them his treatment (NEONS #3). He’d add in some freestyles occasionally; the process of creating a mix took all night. You wouldn’t just pop by do your thing and get going; you’d be in it for the whole haul – going from early evening one day until midday the next day. As anyone who has worked 12-hour long days will attest to, this messes with your sense of time.

Over the sessions, Screw would be running his mixes, and there would be spots where people would do their flows and he’d mix it over the music – it was a whole process. Lil’ Keke describes how it was the equivalent of releasing an album, the amount of work that went into these mixtapes.

This social aspect to Screw’s music is an integral part of understanding the whole thing. It was a social thing, and there was a prestige associated with collaborating with Screw; participating in a Screw mix was a privilege. You had to know someone at the house to get involved, you couldn’t just show up and expect to get in. You had to be someone to be there. Of course, not everyone was a rapper; people would come for the music. But if you were going to freestyle on a mix, you were going to take it seriously. Walker (2015) describes this process in the following passage:

‘A microphone would be passed around the room while Screw stood at the turntables facing a wall full of posters, running instrumentals all night long while the rappers freestyled over the beats. Every once in a while, the mic would make it around to the turntables, and Screw would take it and walk you back through the room, telling you who was there with him, even if they weren’t rapping – the Screwed Up Click was always made up of more than just rappers. There were people there for the music who were just there for the music.’

Talking in 2012, Lil’ Keke explains how nervous he was after the barber he shared with Screw gave him an in to the Screw House, how he’d practice and prepare before going over making sure he had everything together. E.S.G. explains how everyone rapping over these mixes was putting in work, the people who came through rapping on mixes didn’t just become famous due to being on the tape; the ones that made it, made it through hard work and dedication to the craft.

While getting in on a Screw mix was a privilege, a lot of people were on those tapes (upwards of 200 according to E.S.G.) and it was as much about making it as it was a thing people did for fun, passion for the music, the social lifestyle and the artform of freestyle rapping.

This was hard work though, and Screw’s own personal work ethic is something that stands out as a defining characteristic. The people he worked with wanted to live up to these standards, and a community and scene was built around music – but was certainly not limited to these areas. There were cottage industries all around Screw: people spraying cars with candy paint; fixing the tapes if they broke; people cutting hair.

‘Screw really had a village,’ said his longtime girlfriend and partner Nikki Williams (Walker 2015).

Seeping Influence & Final Few Years

It wasn’t until 1995 that Screw released an ‘official’ record on Bigtyme Recordz. This helped him get international attention, and finally gave him some proper money. Other larger labels showed interest, but Screw never signed, because the deals were focused on him solely, where he wanted everyone in his extended community to benefit; ‘he wouldn’t sign unless everybody could sign.’ (Walker, 2015)

Through the ’90s he worked with rappers from different cities, and the artists who started freestyling on his tapes were getting signed on their own. In his 2013 retrospective, Andrew Nosnitsky explains how through Screw ‘a national network of underground spread quietly. Memphis acts were blowing up Chicago, Bay Area rappers were huge in Texas, etc. The biggest of these artists […] were quietly selling hundreds of thousands of records while barely earning a footnote in The Source.’

This is part of Screw’s legacy; he helped disseminate music that didn’t fit in the East Coast/West Coast dichotomy. This was part of the culmulative effort that caused the explosion of Southern Rap into the mainstream rap scene in the 2000s with artists like Outkast, UGK, etc.

However, Screw didn’t experience a similar level of fame in his lifetime. The idea of trying to distill what he’d created over the space of a couple of records is difficult, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s why the context of how Screw made his stuff is important to understanding the music. The closest thing to a hit single Screw had was a 35-minute track, and it was self-released on mixtape made for a friend’s birthday. (Walker postulates it would likely, by 2015, have sold enough to be a platinum record.)

In 1998 Screw opened up Screwed Up Records, a proper brick-and-mortar store in South Park, Houston. However in a tragic turn of events, that same week his close friend and a major source of inspiration, Fat Pat, was killed. Fat Pat’s death hit Screw hard, and ‘most people who knew Screw say he never recovered from Pat’s death’ (Walker, 2015). This time was one of change; Screw relocated his home studio, but stayed focused. His intense non-stop work ethic stayed the same, though.

Screw’s grueling work ethic, and the prioritising of others over himself, had a noticeable effect on his health, and would eventuate in the heart attack that killed him at the age of 29 – right when he was ascending to a whole other level.

It is not worth dwelling too long on deep sadness of this loss – instead it is perhaps more beneficial to remember and celebrate Screw for the artist he was, his creative energy and passion for music, his love and dedication to the people around him, and his tireless work ethic.

Conclusion

In his relatively short life, Screw made hundreds upon hundreds of unique mixtapes which were sold from his home studio and the trunk of his car. His tapes were commissioned by friends and strangers, and were for home listening as well as for bumping while driving around Houston City. While these mixes were initially recorded directly from Screw’s decks directly to tape, Screwed Up Records (run by his cousin Big Bubb) continues to release lost mixes and personal tapes in chapters. To date there are well over 300 chapters listed in his catalogue.

It is impossible to scratch the surface of this archive in a one-hour radio show, yet alone sum up the artist and the community he was so central to. It is also important to listen to the stories of those who were there with him, as his story is one of community as well.

It should be obvious by now that this whole story is bigger than one person; the interviews with artists who worked with him reflect this better than someone like myself who has never even visited Houston, but has entered into this world simply through the amazing work Screw created. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many interviews with Screw, as the level of his success peaked after his death.

Nonetheless, I hope my short radio special (on Max Headroom, 14 March 2019) and this accompanying essay can act as an inroad to the amazing work of DJ Screw for someone who doesn’t know or has been unsure of where to start. There is a plethora of interviews and information if you dig about online, and it’s certainly well worth getting absorbed in this phenomenal body of work. In a 1999 interview Screw was asked what’s next, and he answered with ‘I’m gonna screw the world up’. Certainly he has achieved this.

Tom Martin is hosting a DJ Screw retrospective on Max Headroom this Thursday (aka 14 March 2019). Be sure to tune in from 7pm to 8pm to hear it, or stream it back via the website. Tom has hosted heaps of Graveyards and filled in a bunch of times on Teenage Hate, too. He also handles incoming phonecalls for Biggsy’s On the Blower and plays drums in local rock 'n' roll band The Faculty.