Photo by Screwed Up Tapes
In the early 1990s, somewhere deep in a basement in Houston, a bass-heavy track emanates from the cracks of the house and fills the street. Robert Earl Davis Jr., or DJ Screw, sits at his turntables, pitching down his music to a low tempo and letting the record spin slower. The song unveils a deeper layer of tone, the texture revealing itself to be rich. This codeine-fueled, blunt-wrapped, slowed-down music is a genre called chopped and screwed.
Chopped and screwed music slows a song down to around 60 to 70 beats per minute. While keeping the same song spinning on the opposite turntable, the DJ cuts back and forth, using techniques such as scratching, stop time and repetition.
Originally created by DJ Screw, this style of music typically was an instrumental or a popular rap, R&B or soul track. When Screw spun the record, he was often with friends who enjoyed rapping and would jump in on the tracks. Their voices were often pitched at a lower level as well. This type of music gave rise to many popular rappers from Texas and other southern states.
DJ Screw had no idea what he had made, but he knew he wanted to create something the listener could feel and relax to, something that allowed them to appreciate the deeper layers to the words. I like to refer to chopped and screwed music as having an oozing quality, with sounds so deep and rich it feels like a viscous liquid has been spilled and is dripping slowly on to the platter of a Technics SL-1200 (arguably the best turntable ever invented).
These deep south rhymes and codeine-laced beats found their way into the ears of locals. DJ Screw sold tapes sold for $10 a piece, and they got passed around the city of Houston like crazy. They were being bootlegged even more than a Grateful Dead live album, helping to develop the career of local Houston rappers such as Lil’ Keke, E.S.G., Big Pokey and Lil’ Flip.
Many of these people joined with DJ Screw to form the Screwed Up Click. These tapes became and still are a big deal today, although they are much harder to find. DJ Screw invented an entirely new genre of music with these tapes and paved his way to being an underground sensation. These tapes have all been reproduced, and in the mid 1990s, DJ Screw created four major album releases for Bigtyme Records.
One Chopped and Screwed music’s biggest influences ended up being its defeat of the music–taking down its pioneer as well. Codeine and Promethazine combine to create Purple Drank aka Lean, a drug mixture typically given to patients with a severe cough. The drug has a sedative effect, causing dizziness that is often referred to as a “swooning euphoria.” DJ Screw was among many notable musicians who frequently used lean.
On Nov. 16, 2000, DJ Screw was found dead in his studio at age 29 from an apparent overdose of codeine as well as other drugs.
DJ Screw’s influence lives on today. Not only did he pioneer chopped and screwed music, he was also a groundbreaking entrepreneur. Selling his tapes in a localized market was an incredibly savvy and profitable venture. This technique is still used to this day.
DJ Screw is unmatched as a pioneer of this complex sub-genre. He also put Houston on the map as the origin of this bizarre, multifaceted and deeply textured form of music. His legacy is continued by artists such as OG Ron C, Slim K, Bun B, Three 6 Mafia, Drake and many others.
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