DJ Screw: Time Stretched

How the visionary’s legacy thrives 20 years after his passing.

by
DJ Screw in his home studio in Houston, 1995. Credit: Ben DeSoto/Courtesy of SoSouth Music Distribution.

DJ Screw, born Robert Earl Davis Jr. in July of 1971, changed the sound of music. Once he had developed a signature style that became known as Chopped & Screwed, the world couldn’t help but slowly bend to his vision.

By dragging the tempo down (the Screw), he would rouse hidden qualities within songs that were not as readily apparent at the “regular” speed. But what is regular, anyway? Screw flipped the question back on the listener, inviting you to get cozy under his torpid spell. Running one record on the turntables slightly behind the other, he would loop lines or cut back and forth (the Chop), giving a jolt as you’re drifting into deep space.

The man who worked so hard he would fall asleep with both hands clamped to his decks did not live past the age of 29. He died of a heart attack on November 16, 2000, linked in part to an abundance of codeine in his blood. Despite a limited time on earth, Screw churned out a scarcely believable number of mix tapes: His posthumous Diary of the Originator series tallies well over 300 individual Chapters, with new editions still being uncovered and released to this day. 

In Houston they feel the spirit more keenly than anyone, and rightly so. Screw is woven into the city’s history, and that of Texas at large. It was Screw’s arrest on a liquor-store run alongside Pimp C that led to UGK’s ruminative 1996 classic “One Day” (which Screw later flipped on Chapter 070: Endonesia). Both Beyoncé and Solange have paid homage to the man whose likeness is scrawled on Houston’s walls. And when Travis Scott made a play to become the planet’s biggest rap star in 2018, he did so with what was essentially a personalized thank-you note.

The campaign behind Scott’s Astroworld brimmed with references to the DJ: tracks named after Screw, an SNL performance that featured video footage of Screw at home, and an Astroworld festival in Houston whose poster was a clear riff on DJ Screw’s breakthrough, 3 ’N the Mornin’ (Part Two). Consider what that album sleeve, designed by Houston graphic wizards Pen & Pixel, implies. A stop clock screwed into a skull’s socket. Time, as well as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

DJ Screw didn’t live to see these tributes or witness rap’s center of gravity shift to Houston in the mid-2000s. In his absence, the onus falls on dedicated Screwheads to keep his memory and message alive. As well as legions of fans, there is a small core of people who take on the work in a professional capacity. Rocky Rockett, a Southern hip-hop educator, is one of those. Others include Julie Grob, proprietor of the Screw Collection archives at the University of Houston; Donnie Houston, a DJ and local radio host; Isaac “Chill” Yowman, a producer and the director of the forthcoming film All Screwed Up; and Lance Scott Walker, perhaps the preeminent chronicler of Houston rap; plus Big Bubb, Will-Lean, DJ Red and a host of others who work in and orbit around the bricks-and-mortar store Screwed Up Records & Tapes (affectionately known as the Screw Shop by pretty much everybody).

Rockett’s connection to DJ Screw began when she started managing E.S.G. — one of Houston’s best-loved MCs and, on 1995’s foundational “Swangin’ and Bangin’,” the very first artist to shout out Screw on record. After she’d connected with Grob to pass along some assets, Rockett understood the importance of preserving Screw. “In big cities like New York and Atlanta you had record label staff whose job it was to pull together archival material for promotion,” she tells me over Zoom. “We didn’t necessarily have that kind of structural support. I’d get jealous seeing all the wonderful effort that goes into something like the Smithsonian showing the birth of hip-hop. It hurts sometimes. Why could we see that in other places and not our hometown?”

The Slowed and Throwed exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Credit: Emily Peacock/Courtesy of CAMH.

An answer arrived on March 9 of this year in the shape of Slowed and Throwed, an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH). Rockett was an envoy for the Screw nation, working closely with Patricia Restrepo and other CAMH curators as research advisor. On opening night, Rockett beams, “the line wrapped around the building. You had art enthusiasts blending with people who had actually pulled up to Screw’s house and bought a tape right out of his hands. CAMH did an excellent job when it came to access. The exhibition was free to all; there were people from the community stepping foot in a museum for the very first time, coming out to show their love of Screw. It was a big deal.”

The volume of Screw-related activity that Houstonians get involved with is mind-melting — from bracketed freestyle tournaments to guided meditations cannily named after one of Screw’s greatest songs, “My Mind Went Blank.” Slowed and Throwed will resume in 2021, but not before a long-awaited film about DJ Screw lands. All Screwed Up’s director, Isaac “Chill” Yowman, was just 13 when the news broke over local radio about Screw’s death, an exposition of how the next generation of creatives are stepping forward to show their dedication.

For Lance Scott Walker, every new documentary or film to emerge is, he laughs, “terrifying.” Walker has been chiseling away at a biography of DJ Screw since 2009. It’s due for publication in 2022 through the University of Houston Press, who reissued Houston Rap Tapes, a photojournal tome that Walker had worked on with photographer Peter Beste since 2004. Walker estimates he’s spoken to well over 100 people for the new biography, sometimes up to five times each.

“You’ve got to keep in mind,” says Walker, “if it weren’t for Ariel Santschi making [the 2001 doc] Soldiers United for Cash, we wouldn’t have an interview with Screw committed to tape just weeks before he passed. With All Screwed Up, you have Screw’s sister directly involved, which is very important. So really, the more the merrier. It’s a beautiful thing to have work on Screw executed with different perspectives and through different mediums. We’re all supportive of each other.” 

There are several voices missing from Walker’s biography. One, of course, is Screw. Then you have Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.) members who crawled and drawled across his gray Maxell tapes but passed on decades ago, like Fat Pat and Big Moe. Then there’s the MC who died in May, a sometime S.U.C. affiliate with a handful of bars and at least one dedication tape. He went by the name of Big Floyd, better known as George Floyd, a man on whom history pivoted. Distanced from Screwston after his move to Minneapolis, Floyd’s role only became apparent after his death had rocked the world. “Sometimes people get overlooked,” Walker sighs. “I mean, how important would that have been to have got an interview with him? The more people close to Screw we lose, the more urgent it becomes to get this history down.”

Despite never making his 30th birthday, the unique way Screw lived generated an outsize impact. “Screw’s days were simply longer than other people’s,” Walker explains. “He stayed awake many, many hours of the day — sometimes for days on end — with people passing through his orbit constantly. Even if they’re just at his gate to buy a tape, or at his house to do a session, he had more hours in the day to come across people. The world knows about Lil’ Keke and Big Pokey, but there are many whose stories remain untold. That’s my focus.” It’s easy to see Screw’s life as a Big Bang for an entirely new sound and culture, but, stresses Walker, “that Big Bang took place over a decade and involved a huge amount of people.”

Screw at Samplified Digital Recording Studios during the making of 3 ’N the Mornin’ in 1996. Credit: Collection DJ Screw Photographs and Memorabilia, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.

DJ Red is one such person. A fan of Screw’s since ninth grade — when a friend recommended he add Screw to Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped in his Walkman rotation — Red has been the Screw Shop’s in-house DJ since 2006, and a late addition to the S.U.C. as a result. Now 42 years old, he grins at the memory of being a passive observer during the recording of one of the most iconic Screwtapes, Chapter 018: Killuminati.

“Growing up on the South Side in Third Ward, Screw’s house was like our Mecca,” Red remembers. “I had been incarcerated and happened to share a cell with [S.U.C. member] Macc Grace, who would literally write some verses you can hear on Screwtapes right there, on his bunk. He promised he would take me to Screw’s house, and on my first day out, he picked me up and off we went. I smoked a little weed, sipped a little syrup and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being in the studio with JAY-Z or somebody of that caliber. He was our superhero.”

Today, those heroics are known to millions. Originally a rival of sorts, Houston’s OG Ron C and his Chopstars have chopped and slowed countless major-label releases in the past two decades — including, just last month, a twist on 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s blockbuster Savage Mode II. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins is such an avowed fan of the style he commissioned a rework of the Moonlight soundtrack and recently caused a stir by uploading his own take on Wilco, entitled Yankee Purple Foxtrot. Screw, who Walker tells me was a huge and largely undocumented fan of Nirvana’s Nevermind, might smile at that one. 

The ripple effect of Screw dragging a finger through the fabric of time can be heard across contemporary electronic music as much as it can be felt in rap, if not more so. Ten years back, a comically slow version of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile” did the rounds as a revelation, and a spooky, screwy style called witch house briefly infatuated bloggers.

From there, a number of net genres poured forth. Across the 2010s, you might have come across reverb-drenched, slo-mo music variously termed late night lo-fi, hypnagogic, ecco, aesthetic, vaporwave or some sort of -wave suffixed derivative. Much of that music is enjoyable — and sometimes outstanding — but it also holds true that a fair chunk of it is the result of a bedroom producer cranking a big dial marked “Novelty” in a way that could rankle the originators. Even when Screw was toying with Phil Collins, he was never hiding behind a gauze of irony.

Screw’s tapes were honest snapshots of whatever was going on in his world that day, that hour or that minute. He would trap a moment and preserve it in purple amber for posterity. Take “June 27th” from the namesake tape, a freestyle so iconic the date has become one of several semiofficial Screw holidays in Houston. At one point Yungstar shouts out “Long Drive, order baked potato with chives”; at another, Key-C scuffs up a half-hour unbroken streak, laughing, “I fell off, I’m fixing to pass it/Gonna back up the flow, I’mma un-ass it.” It’s captivating and fabulously mundane in equal measure. That vérité storytelling found on Screwtapes gets lost in the digital milieu of Screw-ish facsimiles — the contributions of MCs erased and fingerprints of Houston culture smudged out.

As Paul Wall once told the University of Houston, Screw “created a lane of music, a branch of the hip-hop tree for us in Houston and Texas,” which could now be said to be multiple branches across the world, off and online. For Rockett, so long as these branches “respect the root, I feel there’s no bad way to interpret or develop it. Pay homage and then let it grow. That’s music.”

Walker is even more resolute on this: “What Screw’s music does is show you that the possibilities of what you know can be expanded. Screw wasn’t chopping up tracks because he thought he could improve them, but because he wanted to get inside what he loves, and do more with it. That manifests in different ways across disciplines, not just in sound. I guarantee you within a few years somebody will do something absolutely outrageous that you would never think had anything to do with DJ Screw. And they’ll say, ‘This was influenced and inspired by DJ Screw.’ That’s the same way that a Rothko influences people, or Tchaikovsky influences people.”

There’s just one rule though: “Don’t use his name,” Walker says. “It’s not screwed unless Screw did it.”

“Screw is not just a style of music,” DJ Red agrees. “That’s a good-hearted person who made enough of an impact that people can pay our bills just by serving his name. His name means something to somebody, so you gotta respect that as much as possible.” The emotional weight of losing their friend Robert still profoundly affects his inner circle. Red and Rockett act as community liaisons in part to protect those like Screw’s cousin Big Bubb, who has loyally held down the Screw Shop since 1998, even through a forced relocation in 2010. “All praise to Bubb,” Red marvels. “You want to talk about dedication to a job? That’s dedication to a job. Who has ingenuity in their mind to still come up with new ideas to keep interest going to something from 20 years ago? That’s crazy. That is wonderful.”

November 16 is an important day in Houston, tinged with grief but largely one of celebration. This year there will be a 14-hour livestreamed concert in dedication of DJ Screw. The CAMH will co-chair a panel featuring Isaac Yowman and Bun B, and premier All Screwed Up, which will make its way online at 11:16 p.m. precisely. Plans are already underway for the moment when Houston, one of the first major cities in the U.S. to lock down, is virus-free. Then, instead of operating a service from a distance — just as Screw did outside the gates of his home in the ’90s, owing to fame rather than contagion — the Screw Shop can open its doors anew. And candy slabs bumping Screwtapes can roll past countless block parties with impunity.

“The people who think about Screw might expand and contract around the anniversary,” says Rockett, “but this is a lifestyle for us. Even when attention outside the community fades away, we’re here. We live this every day. And we’re not going anywhere fast.”

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