DJ Screw: from cough syrup to full-blown fever

When he died, 10 years ago next week, DJ Screw's druggy, ultra-slow sound was a regional craze. Two decades on and his influence can be felt from chart hip-hop to Swedish electronica.

Sometime around 1990, a young hip-hop DJ named Robert Earl Davis, Jr decided music was just too fast for his liking. Using the pitch controls on his turntables, he began slowing records to preternaturally slow speeds, augmenting his mixes with smooth cuts and slurred commentary that sounded as if delivered from beyond the grave. Davis, better known as DJ Screw, wasn't the first DJ or producer to purposely pitch down music for effect, but he preserved the glacial pace throughout his 100-minute mixtapes, developing a uniquely psychedelic, ethereal sound that would come to be known as chopped and screwed, or, simply, Screw music.

Screw's emergence in his native Houston, Texas coincided with a surge there in the popularity of drank (otherwise known as "lean," "syrup" or "barre"), a mixture of prescription-strength cough syrup and soda that can create a feeling of sedated euphoria when taken in large quantities. He and the Screwed Up Click (SUC), the loose-knit collective of Houston rappers who freestyled on his mixtapes, referenced the purple-hued concoction so often that their music and their drug of choice become as closely associated with one another as acid rock and LSD. When Screw, just 29 at the time, died on November 16, 2000, from what medical examiners said was an overdose of codeine – drank's active ingredient – that connection was forged for good.

"The first thing [people] think of when they hear Screw's name, or Screw music in general, is the syrup sippin'," says Cedric "ESG" Hill, a Houston rapper affiliated with the Screwed Up Click. "That's just the culture down here and a way of life. It's not that everyone who listened to Screw sipped syrup."

Davis was confined to regional success in his lifetime, but today his influence has spread more widely. It can be heard in the R&B/hip-hop hybrids of T-Pain (see 2008's cheeky homage Chopped and Screwed) and Drake (whose Nov 18 is an update of Screw's June 27 [Freestyle]) and in the arty, haunted sounds of so-called "witch house" acts such as the ascendant Michigan trio Salem. Sweden's Karin Dreijer Andersson, of the Knife fame, cited chopped-and-screwed mixes as an inspiration for her recent solo project, Fever Ray. Like a G6, a No 1 song in the US by LA pop rappers Far East Movement, contains a reference to "sippin' sizzurp".

Despite the growing interest in his music, Davis himself remains something of an enigma. He gave few interviews, and many biographical details – the source of his nickname, for instance – remain sketchy and subject to conflicting accounts. His life began in the appropriately sleepy rural town of Smithville, Texas (or, according to some reports, neighboring Bastrop), two hours west of Houston. After a brief spell living in California, he moved to Houston's hardscrabble south side to live with his father. There, he encountered Daryl Scott, a local DJ and record store owner who would play uptempo dance records at reduced speed to blend them more seamlessly with hip-hop and R&B's slower tempos.

"I would take [Laid Back's] White Horse and [Mantronix's] Fresh Is the Word – 12in singles that were on 45rpm – and play those at 33rpm, and mix them in with regular songs at regular speed, and it blew a lot of people's minds," Scott says. Among those with blown minds were Davis and another young DJ named Michael Price, and the pair soon developed their own music-slowing methods. But Price was stabbed to death shortly thereafter, leaving Screw to explore the sound's possbilities on his own.

"He had a multitracker, which allowed you to really slow that pitch down," Scott says. "I thought it was a little bit too much. The first time I popped a tape of his in the deck, I tried to push stop because I thought it was being chewed up."

Although it is often presumed that Screw music's slow pace is meant to simulate the drowsing effects of drank, Davis said in a 1995 interview with Rap Pages magazine that it was marijuana, and a desire to hear lyrics more clearly, that inspired his process. "When you smoking weed listening to music, you can't bob your head to nothing fast," he explained.

The earliest Screw tapes were made specifically for friends, who would commission him to make mixes for special occasions such as birthdays or funerals. Typically, he remixed new hip-hop tracks – he loved west coast gangster rap such as Too Short and Spice 1 – but he'd also throw in the odd throwback, such as Mama Used to Say, the early 80s hit by UK funk singer Junior, or Love TKO by Teddy Prendergrass. Eventually Screw's "grey tapes" – they were distributed on grey Maxell cassettes, not CDs – grew to include freestyles by local rappers and, sometimes, whoever happened to be at his studio when he was making a mix. As his legend grew, first in Houston and then neighboring areas of Texas and the Gulf Coast, customers began travelling to his house to purchase their own copies of his tapes, which he sold for $10 apiece.

"We would just ride up to the man's house, and when the gate would come open, that would mean he's open for business," says Screwed Up Click rapper Joseph "Z-Ro" McVey. "You could come get a Screw tape." (Davis later opened a shop, Screwed Up Records & Tapes, to handle demand; it's still in business, along with six satellite stores).

Record labels soon came calling. Houston's Big Tyme rereleased a pair of grey tapes on CD as 3'N tha Mornin' Pt 1 and Pt 2 in 1995, bringing Screw music into stores across the US for the first time. But working within the traditional music industry never particularly interested Screw. He deflected the attention to SUC rappers such as Lil' Keke, Big Pokey, Big Moe and the late Fat Pat (Houston's answer to the Notorious BIG was killed just as his first album, Ghetto Dreams, was due to be released), helping them secure record deals of their own.

Screw appeared on the verge of a major breakthrough at the time of his death in 2000. Three 6 Mafia had just scored a hit with Sippin' on Some Sizzurp, an homage to Houston's drug and music culture featuring Screw associates UGK. Online file-sharing services such as Napster were bringing Screw tapes to markets they had never before reached.

Davis's friends insist it was his restless, workaholic lifestyle – he made as many as 1,000 mixtapes, according to some estimates – and poor health habits that contributed to his heart attack, just as much as drank.

"We lived a hard lifestyle," says SUC rapper Ore "Lil' O" Magnus-Lawson. "We were staying up all night, sometimes going three days with no sleep, chain-smoking tobacco and weed. It was a lifestyle that anyone who wasn't on drank might fall victim to a heart attack because of."

Screw was not the only member of his coterie to die under similar circumstances. Big Moe, SUC's answer to Cee Lo with his hybrid of singing and rapping, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 33 in 2007. UGK's Pimp C, also 33, died in his sleep after consuming large amounts of codeine.

Meanwhile, copycats and acolytes had begun making their own chopped-and-screwed mixtapes. The most notable of these were Michael "5000" Watts and Ronald "OG Ron C" Coleman, DJs from Houston's north side who decided to make their own slow mixes after hearing SUC rappers diss their part of town on Screw tapes. Their record label Swisha House was the first to release chopped-and-screwed versions of entire albums, and the launching pad for Paul Wall, Slim Thug and Mike Jones, artists who rose to prominence in the mid-noughties with records that layered screwed-up samples over standard-speed beats. "Screw helped everybody in Houston with their career, regardless of if it was hands-on or not," says Houston rapper Frazier "Trae" Thompson "He was our form of radio. He was responsible for the whole sound our city became known for."

Drake is an unlikely champion for that sound. The cleancut Canada native's lyrical themes, mostly about romance and heartbreak, don't overlap much with the nihilistic car and drug raps found on Screw tape freestyles. But rap's newest superstar, whose performances in Houston have included tributes to Screw and cameos from SUC's Z-Ro and Lil Keke, points out that it's the dream-like feel of Screw's mixtapes that speaks to him and others from outside their milieu.

"Sometimes I feel guilty for how much I love Screw and the SUC," Drake says via email. "I feel like Houston must look at me as someone who is just latching on to a movement. But I just can't express how that shit makes me feel. That brand of music is just everything to me. It's hip-hop, it's sexy, it's relaxing. I live for those emotions."

Jesse Serwer

The GuardianTramp

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