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The Screw Tapes

The signature sounds of Houston’s DJ Screw

DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution by Lance Scott Walker. University of Texas Press, 312 pages.

Call it chopped and screwed or slowed and throwed—it’s a sound that got its start in the small town of Smithville, Texas, and can now be heard on tracks by Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and the Justin Timberlake/Timberland/Three 6 Mafia collaboration “Chop Me Up,” which against my better judgment I actually listened to for this article. The chopping is the cutting up of distinct elements of a song, which are mixed back into it in a different order—the chorus may loop around, chorus and verse may mix, verses may be cut so abstractly that they become more music than words. Screwing means slowing the song down until it sounds, for those who can remember this, like a tape recorder when the batteries are running down. (Some cite a mythical night listening to tapes slowed in this way as the origin of the screwed sound.) DJs have chopped music since the origin of hip-hop, and more than one has claimed to be the originator of the slowed sound, but chopped and screwed as a genre is indelibly associated with Houston DJ Robert Earl Davis Jr. (1971–2000), popularly known as DJ Screw.

Screw was born in Smithville, Texas, a former railroad town, to a family of modest means. His mother was an R&B and soul fan, and had a side hustle selling eight-track mixes of her favorite songs to friends. Screw showed strong musical inclinations from early on but was uninspired by the piano lessons his mother purchased for him or the drums set up in the living room. Instead, he would spend the evenings listening to faint radio signals from Austin playing the New York hip-hop that was just going national: Run DMC, Whodini, Kurtis Blow, UTFO. Screw was fascinated with scratching, and set to teaching himself, ruining many of his mothers’ records in the process. He was a tinkerer: he taped loose change to the arm of his turntable to keep it from skipping and rigged a jukebox AM/FM tuner into a fader.

Prominence isn’t the same as significance, and you’d have an erroneous impression of Houston rap if you judged it by its biggest figures.

There are a few stories about how Robert Davis got his moniker in his early teenage years. By his account, it came from his habit of running a screw across the face of LPs he didn’t like. Allegedly his friend Shorty Mac asked him, “Who you think you is, DJ Screw?”, and the name stuck. Around this time, he met two men who helped change the course of his life: a DJ named D.W. Sound and a power plant employee named Daryal Butts. D.W. Sound introduced Screw to the music of early Houston rappers like Wickett Crickett. Butts, who had bought professional-quality sound equipment during his years overseas in the Air Force, allowed Screw to improvise with his turn tables and tape decks, making the first mixes he would play with a group of friends called Z Force Crew.

In 1986, Screw’s mother, by now divorced, offered her ex-husband, who had moved to Houston and was working as a truck driver, a choice: either pay his child support or take care of his son himself. “Poppa Screw,” as he would later be known, chose the second. By then, Bayou City had a small but energetic rap scene. Steve Fournier, a hip-hop lover originally from Chicago, was staging rap battles at a club called Rhinestone Wrangler, in the belief that competition was what was needed to help Houston make the transition from consuming rap music to producing it; groups of MCs, some still teenagers, were battling each other on the city’s south side; and a car dealer by the name of J. Prince had started Rap-A-Lot Records, the label that would soon take Houston rap national with its marquee group, the Geto Boys.

At Sterling High School in the South Park neighborhood, Screw would meet rappers like Klondike Kat, Point Blank, later Screwed Up Click stalwart Al-D, and K-Rino, whom connoisseurs still consider the best pure lyricist Houston has produced. Screw frequented Blast Records and Tapes, owned by DJ Darryl Scott, generally credited as being the first Houston DJ to slow down his mixes, and continued refining his technique in his father’s apartment in the Quail Meadows complex. By 1991, he was performing live at a skating rink and selling mixtapes with his phone number on them for ten dollars a pop.

Rap wasn’t integral to Screw’s sound at first. His first mixes had a heavy emphasis on funk and R&B. The early vocals were mainly shoutouts from the DJ himself and the friends he would invite to his father’s apartment to hang out during recording sessions. Word of the tapes spread largely through street guys riding slabs—short for slow, loud, and bangin’, candy-painted vintage cars on spoked rims with deafening sound systems. People would stop drivers and ask them what they were listening to, and if they were lucky, they got an address where they could get a Screw tape of their own.

A paradox of the Screw sound is its coarseness, a sign of its reliance on analog media just as the crispness of digital sound via CDs in the consumer market and DATs and digital mixing consoles in the studio were about to kill off older media. For most of his career, Screw didn’t have his tapes produced in batches; he and his girlfriend would record them on their tape deck at home, and people who knew him speak of sighting him frequently at Sam’s Club buying hundred packs of blank cassettes. Scratches and pops from vinyl, static from tape, the muffling produced by multiple dubs, are as much Screw’s trademark as double-tapping or slurred vocals, and the popularity of his music made tape decks compulsory in Houstonians’ cars long after the six- or twelve-disk changer in the trunk had become a status symbol elsewhere.

Another inevitable aspect of Screw music, and Houston rap in general, is the drugs. Screw himself insisted, and many of his friends seconded him, that you didn’t need to be fucked up to appreciate his work—but it doesn’t hurt. Though Lance Scott Walker, author of DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, writes that Screw’s real drug of choice was fry, ant, sherm—all names for cigarettes or joints dipped in PCP and/or embalming fluid—screwed and chopped is almost a byword for drank, promethazine and codeine cough syrup mixed with sugary soda and maybe a Jolly Rancher. You can’t really stereotype the high from PCP: you might find it relaxing, or be entertained by the bizarre thoughts it evokes, or you might cut your dick off and jump out a window like rapper Christ Bearer did in 2014. Drank is more consistent, a little like alcohol, but velvetier, and the buzz it produces is perfect for listening to an hour-plus of languid, chunky bass and endless boasts about money stacks, Dayton rims, wood steering wheels, diamonds, drugs, and whoever happened to be in the house when a given mix was being made.

Prominence isn’t the same as significance, and you’d have an erroneous impression of Houston rap if you judged it by its biggest figures. Scarface, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Mike Jones, and Travis Scott have all gone platinum, but despite their talents (abundant in the case of southern GOAT and all-time top-five MC Scarface), they’re just the surface of something with much deeper roots. Thankfully, a sense of history and mutual gratitude among the city’s artists means no matter where you pick up, you can always trace back to the origins, and this is another of the pleasures of listening to Screw, whose music preserves the personalities and style of people foundational to Houston rap, some long-forgotten and too many deceased.

Take Fat Pat, whose vocals, half-sung and half-rapped, laid the groundwork for a style that can be heard all over Houston and that would perhaps find its ultimate expression in Missouri City native Z-Ro’s 2004 album The Life of Joseph W. McVey. After hearing another rapper, C-Note of the Botany Boys, freestyle over a Screw tape—allegedly he was the first to do so—Fat Pat, piqued, went to DJ Screw’s house and demanded to perform on a tape of his own. Pat’s brother, Big Hawk, best known for his verse on Lil’ Troy’s hit single “Wanna Be a Baller,” was another Screwed Up Click mainstay as well as a mentor to many younger rappers. George Floyd, murdered by officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in 2020, rapped on several early Screw tapes under the name Big Floyd.

Screw tapes were a paradox for major labels: the operation was underground and there were no sample clearances; for all intents and purposes, he was bootlegging.

Soon enough, Screw had put a gate up and set hours for people to buy his tapes, and cars would line up around the block, sometimes waiting for hours. Screw tapes became an ersatz radio station; when nationally known artists would drop a single, rapper E.S.G. recalls people saying that instead of buying it, they’d wait till Screw had remixed it. Aspiring rappers tried to sneak into his home to get on a tape, neighbors complained constantly about noise, and the police kicked in his door, convinced he was selling drugs. Screw tapes were a paradox for major labels: the operation was underground and there were no sample clearances; for all intents and purposes, he was bootlegging. Still, a remix on a Screw tape could boost a new artist’s career not just in Houston, but across the South. Some responded by trying to sign him, but Screw was committed to independence, and always said he was a DJ, not a producer; a few companies would bring him onboard for an album, allowing him access to the catalogue; in the early days of Cash Money Records, when its artists couldn’t get radio play, owner Bryan “Birdman” Williams instructed a shared acquaintance to pass his records to Screw, telling him, “We need the exposure!”

The late nineties brought a turn toward legitimacy with the opening of a shop, Screwed Up Records & Tapes. By then, many of the older members of the Screwed Up Click had gone their own way, and Screw was working with a new crop of artists like Trae tha Truth and the soon-to-go-platinum Lil’ Flip. The title of Screw’s final studio session, 1999’s All Work, No Play, was an appropriate one: virtually all his acquaintances concur that he was constantly behind the turntables, sometimes falling asleep standing up only to wake and hit the fader. Weed, sherm sticks, syrup, No-Doz, a lack of sleep and exercise, and a diet of fast food took their predictable toll, and he had a series of heart attacks, which he kept secret from many of his friends. He spent his last day in a new warehouse space he’d rented blasting Nevermind by Nirvana—coincidentally, Nirvana was also a favorite of Dr. Dre. He hung out with friends until the early hours of the morning, and when they woke later, they found him dead. Medical examiners diagnosed him with enlargement of the heart and found PCP, Valium, and toxic levels of codeine and promethazine in his blood. He had just turned twenty-nine a few months before.

He wasn’t the first member of the Screwed Up Click to die young, and he was far from the last. Michael Price was shot after a dice game in 1993. Fat Pat was killed in 1998, allegedly by a vengeful promoter. Pat’s brother, Big Hawk, was murdered in front of a friend’s house; his case remains unsolved. Big Moe went from a heart attack at thirty-three, Pimp C—not an S.U.C. rapper per se, but a friend, admirer, and collaborator of DJ Screw—died from a combination of sleep apnea and codeine overdose in 2007. And so on and so forth.

For the thirty-plus years since Houston rap began to make its mark, fans have had to piece together its history through magazine interviews, album liner notes, and odd videos—among them Vice’s 2007 Screwed in Houston, featuring Trace Crutchfield as a consummate straight man smoking blunts and drinking syrup in South Park in a twerpy blazer and tie. Now the University of Houston Hip Hop Research Collection hosts an archive containing, among other things, fifteen hundred albums from DJ Screw’s collection. Lance Scott Walker, who has contributed to the collection, has written about Houston’s neighborhoods and music since the early 2000s. With DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, and its companion volume, Houston Rap Tapes, he has made the story of rap in Houston accessible for those who weren’t there to experience it. In both books, Walker is discreet, taking up only as much space as necessary to put order to his narratives and leaving the rest for witnesses and participants to fill in. His work is a portrait of a time hard to remember now, even for those of us who lived it—the years before internet and cellphones, when you stayed up late to hear music on college radio stations, holding a tape recorder to the speaker, and flea markets were still the place to get knockoff copies of new music—and it deserves a place alongside such classics of American oral history as Please Kill Me, The Other Hollywood, and Meet Me in the Bathroom.