On 7177 Cullen Boulevard, in the heart of Houston, Texas there is a small and rather unremarkable-looking shop called Screwed Up Records & Tapes. You might think it as just a product of a by-gone era, before iTunes, before Napster, almost even before CDs, a place where broke kids and serious music lovers dug through bins of used cassettes looking for hidden aural treasures. But you'd be wrong. Houston's own hip hop pioneer lives here, piece by piece, in thousands of cassette tapes full of raw, intoxicating, and unabashedly disordered music. In only ten years, much of which he spent mixing and selling tapes out of the home he shared with his parents, DJ Screw changed the face of hip hop in the southern United Sates, and indeed of the genre at large.
Born in 1971 in Smithville, Texas and later relocating to Houston, Robert Earl Davis, Jr. came to be known as DJ Screw by friends early on, because he used to take a screw and scratch up records he didn't like until they were no longer playable. It's ironic, because that's almost exactly what he began to do with records he did like, as he began to dj in 1984 at the age of 13. Soon after, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to focus solely on his mixes.
"I'm gonna screw the world up. It's screwed up, but it ain't finished."
In 1990, DJ Screw first began to slow down his records. He combined this with scratching, skipping beats, sampling, and occasionally adding his own raps to create a deep and hypnotic sound which became known as Chopped and Screwed, its own subgenre of hip hop. To hear an example, here is part of the famous June 27th freestyle created by DJ screw, Big Moe, Yungstar, and others: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8s2C76pdon8 (accessed 4/30/09).
The Chopped and Screwed sound was created in part to mimic the effects of listening to music while under the influence of cough syrup containing a mixture of codeine and promethazine, also known as "purple drank" which, although still used today, enjoyed a brief status as the drug of choice for southern hip hop musicians. DJ Screw and the rappers he worked with used the drug extensively, though DJ Screw himself stated consistently that it is not necessary to be intoxicated to enjoy his music.
"I make my tapes so everyone can feel them. Some people may think that I make my tapes for fryheads or something. My tapes are for everybody."
With his trademark sound in full-time development, DJ Screw began to create mixtapes by the hundreds, first selling them out of his home, then creating and running Screwed Up Records & Tapes exclusively to sell his work. He created the Screwed Up Click (also S.U.C. or Soldiers United for Cash), a group of like-minded hip hop artists including the late Fat Pat and Big Moe, Lil Keke, Z-ro, Mike D, and the late Big Hawk (also H.A.W.K.), among many others. Eventually the "Click" would grow to include new talent like Yungstar and Lil Flip.
While mostly known for his mixtapes, and despite turning down a record deal by Priority Records, DJ Screw also released five more widely distributed full length albums: "All Screwed Up" and "3 'N Da Mornin' Pt. 1," both in 1995, "3 'N Da Mornin' Pt. 2 (blue)" in 1996 (featuring members of the Screwed Up Click), "3 'N Da Mornin' Pt. 2 (red)" in 1998 (featuring artists from the west coast), and "All Work No Play" in 1999. These albums earned him modest mainstream success and notoriety (for his connection with drugs and drug culture), but for the most part he remained an underground phenomenon.
"I wanna be remembered, shit, when I go... 'That's the nigga that put the south on the map,'"
On November 16th, 2000, DJ Screw was found dead in his studio of respiratory failure, which was later determined by the medical examiner to be the result of an overdose of codeine and alcohol (the aforementioned "purple drank"). His sudden and tragic death at only 30 years old understandably shocked Houston's hip hop scene, and he is still mourned today, especially by members of his Screwed Up Click.
However, his legacy is far from over. In 2001 his album "The Legend" was posthumously released with the help of longtime friend Daryl Scott. Screwed Up Records & Tapes still operates in Houston, and recently added another location in Beaumont, Texas. His unique Chopped and Screwed style is still very much a presence in southern hip hop, serving as the basis for record labels like Swishahouse who have been responsible for the rise of artists such as Mike Jones and Paul Wall. Chopped and Screwed music is so popular in fact, that many southern rappers release two versions of their albums: one mainstream album to be released across the country, and one Chopped and Screwed version to be released in the southern United States. It remains to be seen whether this unique and valuable style of hip hop will fizzle out or be taken up and improved upon by another young and talented underground artist such as DJ Screw himself was.
note: all of the following were accessed on 4/30/09
Interview by Daika Bray of Murder Dog Magazine, August 8th, 1999: http://www.murderdog.com/archives/djscrew/djscrew.html
Interview by Bilal Allah of Rap Pages, 1995: http://ifihavent.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/givin-it-to-ya-slow-dj-screw-interview-from-rappages-1995/
Biography by Michael Hall of Texas Monthly, April 2001 (requires registration):http://www.texasmonthly.com/preview/2001-04-01/feature
ABC's local Houston affiliate's video interview, broadcast in 1998: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXXTsHylvVk
Video clips from a documentary of his life and work: http://pipomixes.blogspot.com/2008/06/video-dj-screw-documentary.html
Video interview (source unknown): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIdXhY6LeyE