Underground King: H-town's DJ Screw
Props to the man who chopped and screwed the game.
By Brandon K. Scott November 14, 2012, 11:10 PM EST
Your favorite radio station probably played more Swishahouse than Screwed Up Click when the rise of the Houston rap scene was at its peak. Both crews are instrumental in the cultural reverb around the nation and even worldwide. S.U.C. – of course led by the influence of DJ Screw and his innovative sound along with acts like Fat Pat, Lil Keke and the Botany Boys – turned into a local phenomenon in the '90s. In some areas, owning a collection of Screw cassette tapes lent credibility if you weren’t street certified already.
Swishahouse is more popular amongst the young generation because of its timing. In the early and mid- 2000s, dudes like Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Mike Jones put faces to the Houston rap< landscape that Main Street came to know.
But what the world seems to have picked up on over the years is the genius of one DJ Screw. For anyone who grew up or kicked it on the South Side of Houston, and eventually all over the city, chopped and screwed music was in the background of every urban experience – from the school dance to when you’re old enough for Wednesday night at sexy penthouse nightclub Scott Gertner’s.
For the rest of the world, he’s an underappreciated pioneer in the game.
The 12th anniversary of DJ Screw’s death is approaching, so he hasn’t been around to tell us what he makes of the way the world has embraced him. Here’s Screw in a 1999 interview on how it all started:
“Niggas used to sit around my living room watching me just go off on the turntables, doing all type of shit. At the time I slowed the pitch down, the shit sounded good to me. My partner said, ‘Man, I’ll pay you $10 if you record what you’re doing right now.’ So shit, I made him a tape, he gave me the $10. The next day, niggas knockin’ on the door. He rode around, lettin’ niggas hear the shit. Niggas was like ‘what the fu*k is that?’ He’d tell them ‘it’s my partner Screw, he made me this tape for me’ and ever since then, more and more people knockin’ on my door, wanting them tapes, slowed down.”
The actual music, well, it’s kind of a Houston thing. Not that you have to be from Houston to feel it, but the lyrics, and country boy style of the flow is unique and Houston-specific.
“Swishahouse appealed to the younger crowd,” said my homie D from Houston’s 3rd Ward by of South Park.”It was a lot of youngsters listening to Swishahouse, even in South Park. And when Paul [Wall] hit the block we was getting them damn CDs for free. They flooded the streets. With Screw, it was more of a hood thing. You kind of didn’t understand what they was talkin’ ‘bout unless you stayed on the South Side, or on the North Side because that’s who they’d talk about a lot of times. But that shit was more of a hood thing.”
If you never buy a Screw tape, you can get a chopped and screwed playlist if you know the right DJ, or learn how to do it yourself on the Internet. It’s no longer the experiment it was back when Screw was mixing in the '90s. You can even hear the hints of it in Kendrick Lamar and Drake’s “Poetic Justice”, a track that’s dying to be “screwed up.”
“Back then, Screw tapes was really like a promotional team without legs that was able to make it where legs couldn’t go.” – Z-Ro
Perhaps the most compelling part of the DJ Screw story is how anti-capitalistic it is in nature. Screw was interested in making money off his tapes, but not necessarily monopolizing the brand as much as the music. Instead of having to reach out to the public, the public reached out to him. You can’t keep it too much more playa than that.
He opened the Screw Tapes and Records store when the traffic at his house for tapes drew the police’s attention. Screw wanted to be legit, pay taxes and everything. In doing this, he did a beautiful thing in making the words “hood” and “legitimate” synonymous. Southern rap definitely had a chip on its shoulder at that time, but the dudes on these tapes were the ultimate underdogs.
Julie Grob is the founder and curator of hip-hop collections at the University of Houston library, where there was a DJ Screw exhibit from March to September. The university just happens to be located in the 3rd Ward area, as well. Grob, who started collecting Houston hip-hop with a focus on Screw in 2010, called him “incredibly innovative” and said she admired the underground movement. Screw wasn’t a corporate, A&R man. The music was sold directly to like-minded folks and from there it spread like wildfire.
The U of H library collects a lot of rare material that documents different aspects of culture in Houston – literature, performing arts, and architecture. Grob said she didn’t feel like they were getting the whole picture of Houston’s culture if they weren’t collecting hip-hop.
“Houston’s really known as a special place for hip-hop,” Grob said. “I think there should be more direct connections beyond just a student who listens to the music, then comes to school and it’s not a part of the environment.
“If you think about forms like jazz and blues, they weren’t always collected around the time the music was made so a lot of the material was lost. So I think a lot of archivists are looking at hip-hop and saying this really tells a lot about our culture and it’s important that it doesn’t get lost. And I think the underground aspect of DJ Screw was part of the appeal for me because I’m not just interested in documenting who had the most hits on Billboard. I’m interested in who’s actually reflecting the community and the way people were living and maybe people who aren’t documented in other collections.”
Screw tapes are $14.99 at the new stores and the Southside Smokeshop, but it’s mainly CDs now. That change came with the times. Nothing would be more frustrating than when the tapes would pop out of the deck, and the way Screw tapes were made, it was hard to rig them.
“See, niggas would borrow them hoes…they would pop, you know what I’m sayin’? The writing would scratch off of it, you don’t know what the fu*k it is and end up throwing it away on accident,” D said. “But when a nigga had a Screw tape, it wasn’t a question when you listened to it.
“You know how you be in a nigga car and be like ‘play this or play that’ but man, with a Screw tape on? Ain’t nobody fuc*in’ with that.”