As a biopic about the legendary Houston producer is announced, Thomas Hobbs provides a guide to his mind-altering discography
“If a man does not keep pace with his contemporaries, perhaps it’s because he hears a different drummer,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1854’s Walden, one of the great books about living life at a slower pace. “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
This is a passage that echoes the ethos of the legendary Houston producer DJ Screw (real name Robert Earl Davis Jr), a musical maverick who avoided keeping pace with his hip hop contemporaries by slowing 808 drums down to a woozy dawdle and manipulating bars so they transformed into sedated yowls.
The truly original DJ (who passed away in 2000 at just 29) essentially bled the music, exposing emotions that were obscured when verses and songs were played at their regular speed. It’s a technique that resulted in volume after volume of Screw Tapes; independently released compilations where the rule-breaking producer slowed down and reformulated the instrumentals of the biggest rap and R&B songs of the 1990s, using a revolving door of freestyling emcees from the Screwed Up Click to bring his mind-altering sound crashing back down to earth and into the hoods of Texas.
And in Houston, a city where constant traffic jams and a penchant for drinking lean from double cups meant that it was fairly easy to clock people moving around in slow motion, Screw’s music found its mecca, with the producer becoming a local folklore hero and a multi-millionaire just by selling Screw Tapes out of his garage to paying members of the public.
Lovingly referenced by everyone from Beyoncé and Solange to Drake and Mica Levi, DJ Screw’s chopped-and-screwed sound has only gained in relevancy in the 22 years since his passing. It has also been announced that Houston native Travis Scott will produce a new Columbia Pictures biopic about the life of DJ Screw, something that should consolidate his legacy among new generations.
Yet with hundreds and hundreds of Screw Tapes floating around the internet, the discography of the workaholic DJ Screw isn’t exactly the easiest for newcomers to navigate. Fear not, because I’ve found five songs that perfectly illustrate why DJ Screw remains so special.
“It Ain’t Easy”
Here, DJ Screw turns a 2Pac song that originally sounded like a ghetto lullaby into something even more tragic and anguished. The optimistic whistling G-funk harmonies of the original are slowed down to sound more like eerie death rattles, and the pain of 2Pac is amplified due to Screw’s mix. Screw talks throughout, telling the listener that life in 1995’ comes with “ups and downs, smiles and frowns”. But sadness is the emotion that ultimately prevails, and the considerable slur that Screw adds to 2Pac’s once venomous vocals means his lyrics (“I take a shot of Hennessy and now I’m strong enough to face the madness”) sound far less resilient and more like they’re being crooned from a heartbroken blues singer, slumped over a guitar.
“Peepin In My Window”
This legendary freestyle from Screwed Up Click members Lil Keke and Big Pokey sees the pair exhibit a street-smart stream of consciousness flow where references to shiny grills and translucent red cadillacs are neutered by sobering recollections of racism (“my skin is my sin” spits Keke) and being unable to afford the rent. The pair can’t decide if they’re at the top of the world or languishing at the bottom. Screw flips Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy”, distorting the bass and slowing down its audacious piano line so it’s even more funky, with this song (which was later notably sampled by Travis Scott on “5% Tint”) helping rubberstamp the chopped and screw sound within mainstream popular culture.
“Ring My Bell”
The deliriously silly Anita Ward banger from 1979 is flipped on its axis by DJ Screw, proving he could improve songs from just about any era. Taking the original’s goofy bell sound effects and transforming them so they sound more like a pimp banging his cane, it’s as if Screw is re-energised by the idea of taking a song his parents used to vibe to and making its tempo less syrupy and more gutter. It’s also a great example of how vocalists become androgynous via Screw’s mix, with the high falsetto and feminine exuberance of Ward’s vocal replaced with a voice that sounds like the devil humming along to some disco.
“Inside Looking Out / My Mind Went Blank”
This combination of songs from the masterpiece All Screwed Up, Vol II, will make you feel stoned even if you’re completely sober. Very obviously trying to tap into the numbing effects of a promethazine high, Screw samples Texas duo 20-2-Life and early Aaliyah to create bass that sinks deep like quick sand. Beyond the bump-n-grind-crossed-with-ketamine-rave sonics, these songs are about resolve and Black people purging themselves of negative thoughts so that their brains can be clear and better equipped to face America’s many inequalities.
“Southside” sees Screw effortlessly mix together three songs (“Everybody Loves The Sunshine” by Roy Ayers, “Pocket Full of Stones” by UGK, and “South Side” by Mass 187) to create a jam that’s so laid back it feels like you’ve sunk into a deck chair and are unable to get back up. The way Screw extends and stretches out Ayers’ luminous synths, combining them with a doozy of a line from Pimp C about having a pocket full of drugs to sell, turns what was once an insouciant vibe into something more urgent and paranoid. This is a homage to the hustlers moving product on a sticky sunday afternoon, and hearing Screw casually shout out everybody in his community (including his friends locked down in prison), while simultaneously mixing and scratching three tonally different hissing vinyls, is testament to an artist who made the complex seem so easy.