Jam Nothin’ But That Screw

By  |  December 1, 2014
"DJ Screw in Heaven," acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. Painting by El Franco Lee II "DJ Screw in Heaven," acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches. Painting by El Franco Lee II

The preferred mode of transport in south-central Houston is a gigantic American car, ideally from the late 1970s or early 1980s, known colloquially as a slab. Slabs feature certain aftermarket upgrades: ornamental flourishes like chrome rims, hydraulics, wood-grain steering wheels, and candy-colored paint. The term is technically an acronym—Slow Loud And Bangin’—but it feels almost literal, given the heft involved.

Slabs, it should be noted, are usually driven at around four miles per hour. I’m not kidding. It’s really the only way for anyone to behold their strange lumbering beauty—those luminous mammoths, flashing in the midday sun, inching down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as if in defiance of time itself. When they have been fitted with particularly radical extremities (like swangers, rims that extend outward six inches or more), they nearly resemble prehistoric beetles.

In this corner of Houston, customization is paramount. Young men shrink inside enormous t-shirts featuring airbrushed designs, some incorporating their own likenesses, some showcasing faces of the loved and lost. Grills, the often-diamond-encrusted teeth coverings that inspired a tornado of groans elsewhere in America, are still common, peddled by Johnny “TV Johnny” Dang, a jeweler who operates out of the Galleria mall uptown and specializes in bespoke pieces. There is an impressive section of his website dedicated to “Jesus faces,” but the real innovation can be witnessed in the gallery of custom designs—like, for example, a gold and black diamond pendant featuring the words “Mask Kracked Musick” alongside a warped skull wearing headphones and smoking a cigarette. You can tell the cigarette is lit because a trio of rubies have been embedded in its tip.

By early summer, Houston is so muggy that all the edges blur. Temperatures slink into the low 90s and stay there. In certain neighborhoods, the smell of weed lingers, lending the air a permanent tang. Slabs, creeping slowly down the street, broadcast a sound indigenous to the city, a sluggish hazy rhythm that couldn’t have been born in any other town.

 

Beginning around 1990, a Houston deejay named DJ Screw developed and honed a style of production known as “chopped and screwed”: tempos are manipulated and decelerated to near-farcical rates, between 60 and 70 quarter-note beats per minute. By comparison, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” a spry, danceable jam, contains almost 130 beats per minute. Screw also liked the repetition of vocal phrases or other sonic ephemera, which he achieved by spinning the same record on two turntables, one a beat behind the other, and toggling a crossfader so that the tempo remained unchanged but whatever little bit of sound had caught his ear could repeat, endlessly, on top.

The results of all this are songs and remixes that seep, leisurely, into a room. There are times, listening to one of Screw’s tapes, in which I think I have been temporarily ensconced in an aboveground swimming pool filled with Jell-O. Everything softens; the world takes on a kind of neon glaze. It’s possible I am applying the aesthetics of the genre’s founding pharmaceutical—lean, a purplish mix of codeine and promethazine-laden cough syrup and Sprite or Mountain Dew, also called purple drank or sizzurp—to my experience, but it’s all there, coded into the production: a proud, defiant sluggishness. A musical reconstitution of the heat and the narcotics and the general pace of traffic.

In part because a screwed beat is so plodding, vocals are more pronounced than in other regional hip-hop strains, and the work becomes more narrative; lyrics range from mournful to boasting to contentedly banal. Sometimes they are so slow as to be distorted, but mostly they are loud and unmistakable—thick, loping proclamations, dispatches from someplace hotter and more deliberate. The pace does not allow for monkeying around, or for fudging the rhythm, and the drawling that happens here can feel like a direct response to the frantic hamster-wheel barking sometimes practiced by East Coast MCs. It is at least a counterpoint, if not the declaration of an ethos.

Slowness, as a comprehensive aesthetic, was eventually incorporated into hip-hop outside of Houston (the rap videos of my youth all seemed to feature at least one shot of a handsome lady grinding in slow motion, a practice which reached some kind of pinnacle a decade later with Juvenile’s 2004 hit “Slow Motion”), but it likely started here. There is a base pleasantness to all this. Most of these songs move at roughly the same pace as an overinflated inner tube drifting lazily downriver, but the timbre can easily slide into menace and even despair. “If you’ve ever wondered what dying might sound like, screw music is a good guess,” Jon Caramanica wrote in Spin in 2005. These tapes contain, at least, the sound of something dying: boom box batteries, brain cells, daylight, that joint.

The Houston rapper Bun B (who, with Pimp C, formed half of the beloved duo UGK) has said that Southern rap, unlike New York rap, is neither indebted to nor a descendent of disco. It borrows, instead, from gospel and blues. And while gospel and blues also developed and thrived in cities, both genres remain primarily aligned with rural areas: the backwoods juke joints shaking on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the one-room Pentecostal churches that quake every Sunday morning at ten. There is a sense, in those hollers and hills, of both context and history, of music acting as a kind of default rallying point, a place of literal communion, a way of declaring solidarity with a landscape. In Turn the Beat Around, a history of disco, Peter Shapiro notes that nascent New York hip-hop and disco shared more of an urban outlier mentality. Shapiro says that, like hip-hop, disco “was originally a sort of naming ritual: the declaration of the existence, rights, and pleasures of a group of pariahs.” It was an announcement of exclusion rather than inclusion—a reaction to a place rather than a reflection of it. In Houston, hip-hop functions differently. It doesn’t fight against itself.

 

Screw was born in 1971 in Smithville, Texas, as Robert Earl Davis Jr. His father was a long-haul trucker and his mother worked assorted odd jobs. They divorced when Screw was still young. He got into records and started trying to emulate the scratching he saw in the movie Breakin’. As legend goes, if he didn’t like a record, he’d deface it with a screw.

By all accounts, DJ Screw inspired a specific admiration in Houston. He was the type of dude who made you want to be better. Like, if he came by and saw you being stupid, acting crazy, you might feel something akin to shame. People say the crime rate in Houston dropped 20 percent around Screw.

The music he was making had social repercussions, too. One of his oldest friends, the Smithville rapper Shorty Mac, told Houston Rap Tapes author Lance Scott Walker that Screw “was serious, man. That dude had power like I don’t know. I can’t even put a name on it. . . . And I mean, you seein’ gangstas cry and I say ‘Man, this dude was very effective on people’s lives, man!’ And not even that—this dude changed a lot of people’s lives. By listenin’ to his tapes.” Mike D., a member of the famed ensemble Southside Playaz, told Walker he believes Screw’s influence is indelible. “This shit is gonna be forever,” he said. “What I have seen is that this shit has changed the culture of Houston.”

Screw ran with a crew, a loose collective of producers and MCs known as the Screwed Up Click. Screw would make a tape—a chopped and screwed version of a West Coast gangster hit or a local track—and someone from the Click would freestyle over it, extemporaneously narrating the concerns of the day: intra-crew tiffs, girl trouble, the un-generosity of police officers, weed antics, choice items from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. My favorite of the Click MCs is ESG, who was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, as Cedric Hill, though he adopted ESG (Everyday Street Gangster) shortly after relocating to Houston in his late teens. ESG is a louche, insouciant presence, and when he really gets going—when he’s loose on the mic—his vocals swing back and forth like a pendulum. Sometimes, if he’s really excited, his voice cracks and goes feral, nasal, wiggly. Mostly, though, he is steady and inexhaustible, hitting then returning these perfect vocal volleys. ESG had one moderate hit, “Swangin’ and Bangin’,” in 1995. About two and a half minutes in, the tempo drops, and his Houston forebears come into full focus: “And now you know what my real G’s do,” ESG announces. “Sip syrup, swang and bang, jam nothin’ but that Screw, fool.”

The Screwed Up Click operated out of Screw’s home (known as “Screw House”) in the South Park neighborhood of Houston, a mostly African-American enclave just below the 610 Interstate loop. In the Eighties and Nineties, especially, South Park was a grim and perilous place, plagued by car jackings, drive-by shootings, and other violent crimes. In a 1993 L.A. Times article about a police homicide (a nineteen-year-old South Park native named Ronald Ray Howard shot and killed an officer who’d pulled him over for driving a stolen car; Howard was eventually convicted of capital murder and executed via lethal injection in 2005, although he tried to moderate his sentence by claiming rap music made him do it) reporter Chuck Philips describes South Park as “a tough Houston ghetto dominated by drug-dealing, prostitution and gang warfare—where automatic rifles can be purchased almost as easily as rap cassettes.”

Screw House, though, was a haven of sorts. Shorty Mac told Walker that “it was a totally different feelin’ when [Screw] was around because we always knew things was . . . everything was gonna be good. You don’t get that feelin’ dealing with people now.” The gist is: there were solid vibes. People wanted to make art there. The police were perplexed by the endless traffic in and out of the house, and frequently stormed the grounds in search of contraband. “They tore that gate off, and they knocked the front door down and came on in,” Shorty Mac said. “And then they messed up a couple of his tapes, too. They crushed maybe about 40 or 50 tapes. Because they was pissed off. Wasn’t no drugs in there. It was records and tapes.”

What was being sold at Screw House was a steady supply of Maxell 100-minute cassettes (called “grays” because of their opaque casing), usually handed off for around $10 each. From eight to ten p.m.—selling hours—folks lined up, cash in hand, to get new tapes to jam in their cars. Screw held court at the door with his dog and a pistol. Screw’s tapes made good use of unlicensed material, and it is impossible to say how many were sold this way, although, per the mythology, demand was endless. People were copying and reselling them on the street.

 

One of the most remarkable things about Houston rap culture circa 1995 is how self-contained its economy was; artists could thrive there without ever seeking (or earning) renown outside of their neighborhood. It was the perfect model of an independent music scene, free from corporate intervention or external meddling. Even now, when people talk about what makes certain strains of, say, pre-war vernacular music so intoxicating, they often nod to this kind of insularity and un-self-consciousness, a lack of broader cultural assimilation, the way a sense of time and place got embedded in the work. Houston, in the mid-Nineties, had all of that. It was a full and complete culture, and prodigious. Screw himself was responsible for hundreds (possibly thousands) of mixtapes, and if you were to start tallying up all the offshoot projects by members of the Click, never mind crews from northern Houston neighborhoods, you would very quickly realize you were dealing with tens of thousands of hours of music.

In 1998, Screw opened up a proper record store in a boxy, beige building in South Park, and called it Screwed Up Records and Tapes (it recently changed locations, but remains open). One ideological stance that differentiates Houston in the late Nineties, and all hip-hop, from other righteous outlier movements—like the folk revival of the Sixties, or punk in the mid-Seventies, or hardcore in the late Eighties—is that Houston rappers were (and remain) unapologetic about their desire to get rich. Making money so you could effectively transgress (and not decry) the class you were born into, that was the whole idea. I think this is a pure and elegant impulse—wanting something more than what you were handed—and also the simplest way music can become a subversive act, a weapon. Historically, this kind of performance (a singing imbued with yearning, with a deep hunger for something else) has yielded extraordinary work; that it has been so handily disparaged by decades of niche musicians maybe says something about white privilege in America, but perhaps it says more about the ingenuity of rappers.

Screw eventually made a few “proper” albums, including 1996’s 3 ‘N The Mornin’ Pt. 2, which is largely considered his masterwork, a compilation of tracks and freestyles by local rappers like Big Moe, ESG, Botany Boys, and Mack 10. With boosts from Screw, Click members were becoming local stars, and occasionally, an independently released Houston record would get repackaged by a major label and chart nationally. Screw proteges like Lil’ Keke and Yungstar signed major contracts; Lil’ Flip, supposedly declared “the freestyle king” of Houston by Screw himself, went on to release two platinum albums for Columbia, 2002’s Undaground Legend and 2004’s U Gotta Feel Me.

By 2005, screw music had reached a kind of tipping point (in this case, literally). A trio of north side rappers—Slim Thug, Paul Wall, and Mike Jones, all signed to the local Swishahouse label—collaborated on a track called “Still Tippin’,” a version of which eventually became the first single from Jones’s debut album, Who Is Mike Jones? The chorus—”Still tippin’ on four-fours / Wrapped in four vogues”—was a nod to Houston’s slab culture; tippin’ referred to the hydraulics system that allowed Jones’s car to tip to one side, four-fours was an allusion to the particular vintage of his rims (1984, in this case), and Vogue was the brand name of his tires (recognizable by the slim yellow stripe that runs along the interior diameter).

It is a wry, laconic song constructed around a two-second sample of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” an operatic composition that debuted in 1829. There is something charmingly collegial about “Still Tippin’”—perhaps because Houston rewards itself according to its own internal logic and rules, the MCs of “Still Tippin’” don’t sound like they’re trying to prove anything. “I’m crawling similar to an ant, cause I’m low to the earth,” Paul Wall announces, and while he’s almost certainly talking about his lowrider car, a humility is nonetheless implied. There is a different pitch to this boasting. “Back then, hoes didn’t want me, now I’m hot, hoes all on me,” Mike Jones says. He says it four times in a row.

Who Is Mike Jones? was certified platinum within two months of its release, and “Still Tippin’” introduced the pace of Houston to the world at large. DJ Screw, alas, was not around to survey the repercussions of his vision. On November 16, 2000, Screw, just twenty-nine years old, was found dead in his Houston recording studio. Supposedly, his body was recovered from the floor near the toilet, and, in a particularly Elvis-like twist, he was holding on to an ice cream wrapper. According to the coroner’s report, the cause of death was a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication.”

Besides drinking syrup, Screw had been smoking a lot of what’s known as “sherm” or “wet” or “fry”: a cigarette or spliff soaked in either PCP or formaldehyde. He’d also developed a taste for Valium. In an interview with Walker, ESG said Screw had been warned by his doctors to cool it. “Screw already done had three heart attacks, like two mild strokes and a heart attack,” ESG recalled. “Doctor’s orders were, ‘Screw, you need to not drink or smoke anything anymore.’ And he still went poppin’ the Valium pills, smoked the sherm, and drank the drank.”

The cover of the program passed out at his memorial service features a picture of a turntable and the words “In loving memory.”

 

Houston mourned Screw, and then it memorialized him, exhaustively. Now, nearly fifteen years after his death, Screw is still a palpable presence in Texas. The University of Houston’s Special Collections library has a sizable collection of DJ Screw (and Screw-related) ephemera; searching it from my laptop, I could browse photographs, promotional fliers, and scans of his papers, including handwritten lyric sheets and the song lists for his tapes. In person, a visitor can request to see things like “Crown Royal bag” or “Black and Mild cigar wrapper” or “Tuxedo receipt for Stick 1’s wedding, April 30, 1999.” In 2000, Screw’s father, Robert Davis Sr., donated part of his son’s record collection to the library, and now approximately 1,500 of Screw’s vinyl LPs are sitting in protective sleeves in acid-free boxes in the climate-controlled recesses of the special collections stacks.

One of my favorite pieces from the digital collection, a black-and-white photograph from 1989, features a teenage Screw wearing a customized bomber jacket (DJ SCREW is embroidered on the front, and the word intensity appears at the elbow), a lone, dangling earring, a thin mustache, and a high-top fade. He looks impossibly cool. His cheeks are puffed out, and his almond-shaped eyes are easy, kind. Even in the context of the late 1980s, he seems to be of another era. It is almost as if he existed in soft focus.

That a marginalized, contained, largely African-American micro-genre has earned this kind of institutional affirmation in its time is remarkable if not entirely unprecedented. Houston rap, and screw music in particular, might be the first modern subculture to benefit so thoroughly from academia’s newfound interest in popular music. Its history is being written—in magazines, in newspapers, in books, online—before it goes extinct, becomes romanticized, or is jumbled by memory. Whereas a genre like the country blues, ignored by the majority during its heyday, is subject to endless conjecture and projection. Nothing will be lost to time, or at least not in the ways in which we’ve grown accustomed.

That marks a beginning, and an important one, but there is also the sense of an ending here. Screw music is arguably one of the last American subgenres to develop and thrive entirely independent of the Web. These days, all the doors and windows of the house are open. That means more opportunity for cross-pollination, but less opportunity for the kind of place-specific identity-making that Screw wrought for Houston. The membranes are too permeable now.

In 2012, the University of Houston hosted a two-day symposium called “Awready!: The Houston Hip Hop Conference,” co-presented by the University of Houston Libraries, the HERE Project at Rice University, the African American Studies Department at the University of Houston, and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. It included appearances by ESG, Lil’ Keke, Paul Wall, Willie D., Z-Ro, K-Rino, and Chingo Bling, and featured panels with titles like “Slabs and Syrup.”

The conference was organized and run by a woman named Julie Grob, a special collections librarian who has dedicated a good chunk of her professional life to collecting and preserving artifacts of her city’s hip-hop culture. “As a white librarian with little knowledge of hip-hop or its surrounding culture, I had a few reservations,” she writes in the afterword to Maco L. Faniel’s Hip-Hop in Houston. “How would I be perceived by potential donors? Would the rappers be as intimidating as they appeared in their videos? Could I convince people of the worth of the project?” She was received warmly.

When I spoke to Grob on the telephone about Screw’s enduring influence in Houston, she first laughed at my suggestion that she was “plugged into the streets” (“I’m an archivist!”), and then admitted that his presence was still tangible there. She had recently been to a concert memorializing Screw’s birthday: “I would say about half the people there were either wearing a DJ Screw t-shirt or a Screwed Up Click t-shirt.”

Grob cited Houston’s never-ending sprawl—the city’s size has long fostered its car culture, and Screw music is, above all, car music—and recreational drugs as fundamental to Screw’s success, although she was careful to temper the drug thing (“I’ve been told drugs can enhance the music, although that’s true of a lot of music”) and reemphasized the role technology played. “He was a creative guy,” she said, “and he found a way to make and exploit a new sound.”

In keeping with the populist spirit of the collection, all of the panels at the Awready! conference were filmed and uploaded to YouTube. One afternoon, I watched them. While Grob introduces the day’s programming from a low stage, the camera cuts briefly to the audience, comprised mostly of young white men, probably in their late teens or early twenties, wearing stiff-brimmed caps and fussing with their mobile phones. There was something vaguely disorienting about watching a new music be publicly dissected just a couple decades into its lifespan, but it was heartening, too, to see the seriousness with which its participants regarded Screw. It did not feel obsequious, the way posthumous lionization sometimes does, in part because Screw was well-heralded during his life, but mostly because the work still stands. It still communicates something true. The music was birthed in Houston and lives in its humid air.


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Amanda Petrusich is a contributing editor to the Oxford American and the author of three books about music, including Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. She is a staff writer at the New Yorker and a professor of writing at New York University.