“There’s only one originator.”
There are creators of subgenres in Black music and then there are originators. Philly has a distinct level of soul, vocalists are akin to the sirens which hailed the Greeks on their travels to and from battle. Atlanta has trap, a combination of corner boy drug talk and production where a certain speaker in your car is required to make the record truly pristine and feel honest. But Houston? Houston has a slowed concoction of taking something which already exists and mutating it into something totally different. New sound, new emotions, new feelings.
No proper conversation about screwed and chopped music or its many offspring can begin without mentioning Robert Earl Davis Jr, otherwise known as DJ Screw. Many have come after Screw’s tragic death in 2000 from a codeine overdose. Many have taken to turntables and decided to drag the record down to around 70 beats per minute and jump the crossfader at impromptu moments. But in the hands of DJ Screw, a record was improvised like jazz breaks. Before Screw, there was Darryl Scott, a Houston DJ who slowed down funk records over rap in various clubs in the city between the ‘70s and ‘80s. By the 1990s, the baton had been passed to Screw and Michael Price, another disciple of Scott who loved the slowed-down sound. Sadly, Price was murdered long before Screw elevated the genre to new cultural heights.
Screw’s vision for the sound and in effect the brand was about authenticity. The idea of a “screw tape” couldn’t possibly exist unless his hands were involved in its creation. “It’s not a Screw tape unless I Screw it,” he told Rap Pages in November of 1995. As he mixed together tapes, the songs became autobiographical and tied to various moments in time. He didn’t hide his love for C-Bo, the Sacramento hard head, or Ice Cube but his tastes ranged from all over the hip-hop spectrum. On a tape where you could find OutKast and Spice 1, you’d also hear MC Eiht, 2Pac, and local favorites such as Street Military and UGK. A screwtape served as the radio in Houston, where regional acts could create their own fan bases and constantly have a home to tour.
“I make my tapes so everyone can feel them,” Screw told Rap Pages. “Some people may think that I make my tapes for fryheads or something. My tapes are for everybody.”
The sound helped buoyed by its uniqueness and the dependency of having sound in a car-driven city like Houston, exploded. After years of selling gray Maxell tapes from his front door, Screw invested into having a brick and mortar shop. At the same time, other DJs in Houston, namely on the cities’ Northside had not only sponged off Screw, they were making names of their own. In the late 1990s, DJs Michael Watts and OG Ron C founded the Swishahouse, built in a similar mentality as Screw’s Screwed Up Click. Would-be rappers would evolve into neighborhood stars within both cliques and traveling through Texas, whether it be to Galveston for the Texas Beach Party or to Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and more would stretch the richness of the sound but made legends out of the artists on those tapes.
DJ Screw’s sound would outlive him. Due to a number of heart issues brought on by bad eating habits, stress, a lack of sleep, and codeine consumption, he died in the bathroom of his Southwest Houston recording studio in November 2000. He was 29 years old.
The death of Screw didn’t stop the evolution of the sound. Rather, thanks to digital consumption, Screw took on a new life. Armchair DJs would take to Virtual DJ and more electronic variations of DJing in attempts to replicate Screw but it wasn’t truly DJ Screw. Watts and Swishahouse grew with the shift in music consumption. Although Screw tapes were synonymous with the Southside DJ, newer projects being burned to CDs made Swishahouse gain even more traction. Even as things shifted and OG Ron C was no longer a member, Watts and company were able to push the sound even further as Houston stood on the mainstream, thanks to solo acts in Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Lil Flip, and beloved first-generation Houston rap stars like Scarface and the Geto Boys.
By 2011, more than a decade after Screw had passed, the sound became not only synonymous with Houston but a common part of hip-hop culture. OG Ron C had established a new outfit, The Chopstars, as the new generation of DJs carrying on the traditional sound of Screw. Whereas Screw operated via vinyl and feel, OG Ron C’s camp was more precise in their chops, remixing the name of chopped and screwed into “chopped not slopped.” Among their breakthrough mixes? Chop Care, a remix version of Drake’s 2011 album Take Care. Soon, any new album released in mainstream hip-hop would eventually get remixed, whether it be the Chopstars or other Houston-based DJs such as DJ AudiTory. The moves not only indebted the longtime creator of the “F*ck Action” series to new fans, it helped establish relationships in Hollywood as well.
In 2016, director Barry Jenkins had already been bathed in the sounds of chopped and screwed music. A Florida boy to the core, Jenkins had utilized the sound along with composer Nicholas Britell for Jenkins’ film Moonlight. Tying together car culture and the freedom which chopped and screwed music presents, the sound added color to an already incredible scene. The film would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year and The Chopstars have released two vinyls in companion with Jenkins’ last two films, Purple Moonlight and If Beale Street Was Chopped.
The growth of chopped and screwed, screwed and chopped, chopped not slopped or any nickname it takes on continues worldwide. Even as YouTube creators slow songs down without any chops for “slow and reverb” mixes, all homage has to be paid to the originator, DJ Screw. Screw’s firm belief in changing the world with his music had occurred, a prophecy fulfilled. Now, chopped and screwed is synonymous with Southern hip-hop and a producer who wanted everyone to see the world at the same speed.
For The Culture Podcast: Slow It Down – A History of Chopped & Screwed Music was originally published on blackamericaweb.com