DJ Screw

Robert Earl Davis Jr., better known to the world as DJ Screw, passed away nearly 20 years ago in the year 2000, but his legacy and the diaspora of his musical trademarks remain as strong as ever. One of the most influential exponents of Houston rap during his lifetime, Screw and his crew of MCs banded together under the Screwed Up Clique (or S.U.C.) moniker, and pumped out a neverending stream of home-dubbed cassette tapes that captured an untold number of freestyle cyphers and reworks of underground Houston jams. Screw’s work extends far beyond the boundaries of Houston, however, to encompass a catalog of music sourced from major-label pop, R&B, and hip hop, all of which Screw remixed in his trademark chopped and screwed style.

In the most simple terms, Screw’s chopping and screwing resulted in edits that were, well, slow as hell, melted into molasses, and played back so the vocals and the production hit us at a lower pitch, weighted heavy with boosted bass. But Screw’s artistry was more than merely slowing down tracks. As a DJ operating his decks, Screw’s live input looped and re-structured tracks into his own new permutations, often chopping samples of a given song and playing them back in stuttered repeating phrases – the classic “Screw technique.” Above all, Screw’s art shined through in his network of collaborators and his ace sense for curation and sequencing, as featured on the roughly 350 individual tapes and mixes, each marked with a “Chapter” number, that constitute his catalog.

While Screw’s influence has been deeply saturated into hip hop, R&B, and even fringe styles such as Vaporwave (a genre built on the slowing-down and re-structuring of music in a fashion analogous to Screw’s work), his shadow looms heavy over this time of year thanks to one of his milestone recordings: the June 27 freestyle. Recorded on June 27, 1996, in honor of S.U.C. rapper DeMo’s birthday, Screw’s most popular tape represents a true holiday marked on the calendar for Houston hip-hop heads. This year’s June 27 came weighed down with extra significance in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police in late May. Starting in 1994, Floyd was an MC in the ranks of the Screwed Up Clique, recording under the name Big Floyd. His freestyles form an essential chapter of the S.U.C. legacy. And Big Floyd's death was one of many tragedies that have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few months, drawing international attention to the systemic racism that affects Black Americans and the cruelty that Black citizens of the world in general face on a daily basis.

In honor of George Floyd and the recent celebration of June 27, I've selected ten key tracks from Screw’s virtually bottomless catalog that define, in some small part, the classic Screwed Up sound.

DJ Screw

1) DJ Screw – “June 27”

A 35-minute freestyle odyssey recorded in Screw’s living room at a party to celebrate rapper DeMo’s birthday, “June 27” captures so much of what has made Screw and Houston hip hop in general resonate with so many listeners for over two decades. The lineup for the track includes Houston MCs Key-C, Yungstar, Big Pokey, DeMo, Haircut Joe, and Kay-Luv, along with the inimitable Big Moe (rest in peace) serving as the de facto hook man, providing interludes and introductions between each rapper. Screw created the beat for the “June 27” cypher from a fragment of the Kriss Kross track “Da Streets Ain’t Right,” which has Notorious B.I.G.’s voice from “Warning” threaded into the fabric of the beat (“It’s the one’s that smoke blunts with ya / see ya picture / now they wanna grab they guns and come and get ya”). Screw’s beat rumbles at its typically low BPM thump, with plenty of space between each hi-hat click and kick-drum beat, as the whistling G-funk-esque synths rise through the seams. As soon as you hit play, Big Moe’s loose, half-crooned vocal style introduces the proceedings as he lets us know who each MC is that steps up to the mic. The Houston cypher idiom is on full display here, with each MC approaching the freestyle as a chance to coast and lumber over the beat, tossing off flows and loose rhyme schemes for minutes on end, feeling the groove and keeping the momentum rolling. When any given MC falters for a moment and decides to dip out, Big Moe steps in to ease the transition to the next man. While every verse has its share of highlights, it’s impossible to ignore the unbelievable verses that then-17-year-old champion Yungstar contributes to the session. For the last four minutes or so of “June 27,” Yungstar absolutely tears into the beat, exuding a sense of raw power as his rhymes compound and complicate, getting faster and more intricate as Screw’s beat rolls on: “Elite, I practice what I preach / Watch me drop the top marble blue at the beach,” or, “TV/VCR, we renting that car no destination / we come thru on incarceration / I’m fresh off playing Playstation.”

2) DJ Screw featuring Big Floyd, Big Shawn, Lil' B – “Freestyle”

A classic freestyle cypher over a Screwed soul cut with a huge bassline weaving among whining synths and pads, this freestyle appears on Chapter 220 (Player Memories), made more widely available in 2004 (like virtually all of Screw’s tapes) as an entry in the Diary of the Originator series that has served as Screw’s catalog of more official reissues. Big Floyd enters the mix second with a typically massive freestyle verse, his voice dropping on the rhythm with authority in a rich baritone: “Every time sipping syrup mixed with wine / got to show these boys staying down on my grind.” While Floyd’s rhymes drape across the beat in tandem with the bass, he isn’t afraid to pause when necessary to let the beat breathe, maintaining a steady flow dripping with confidence. Every one of Big Floyd’s appearances on Screw tapes conveys a sense of warmth and power, with his voice ranking among the deeper and more deliberate in a crew full of deep-voiced MCs.

3) Point Blank – “My Mind Went Blank” (Screwed)

“My Mind Went Blank,” which appeared on the 1995 compilation Bigtyme Vol. II (All Screwed Up), serves as a perfect entry point to the DJ Screw sound. In Screw’s hands, the original track by frequent collaborator and Houston rap royal Point Blank reaches us in pure slo-mo glory, with kick drums boosted to their maximum impact, while Screw adds his own scratches to the mix. Roughly 30 seconds into the song, when the guitar, keyboard, and bass all hit the mix in a glorious rush, enriching the otherwise nearly empty spread with lush harmonies, it becomes impossible for any human being with any semblance of rhythm to not groove along. The moment sends chills down the spine. Blank’s slowed/screwed voice thunders as he tears through his rhymes: “How you gon’ say I can’t play with the big boys / when all the big boys play with all my Tonka toys?” When the chorus hits, the vocals rise to be even louder in the mix as Blank declares, as if to embody the mind-nullifying abyss of the entire Screw aesthetic in one hook, You just can't think when your mind goes blank.

4) E.S.G. – “Swangin’ and Bangin’” (Screwed)

One of the most legendary cuts from the catalog of S.U.C. member E.S.G., 1995’s “Swangin’ and Bangin’” is another classic rendered even more majestic by Screw’s editing. Anchored by an earworm flute melody and bright piano chords, the beat really thickens with the onset of the bone thick bass line – all accented with a vibraslap shaker percussion sound that you hear every rattling detail of thanks to Screw’s slow mix. E.S.G. tosses off his verses with sheer joy in his voice, running through a set of images that would continue to appear in Houston rap forevermore: candy paint dripping on the freeway, the wood-grain steering wheel, and of course, jamming Screw tapes. When E.S.G. caps off the track with a section of city shout outs, you get a sense of the directions in which the Houston sound extended: Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta, Louisiana, Detroit, Killer Cali, “can’t forget about Chi” (<3).

5) Point Blank – “High With The Blanksta” (Screwed)

Originally appearing on Point Blank’s 1997 album N-Tha-Do’, “High With The Blanksta” was immortalized as one of the central cuts on Screw’s 3 n’ the Mornin’: Part Two, an album that might stand as his most consistent and revered cycle of edits. In the original version, the beat was a low key wonder, clearly influenced by the G-funk style of Dr. Dre with its moaning keyboards and MIDI horn accents. In Screw’s hands the beat becomes more menacing and distorted, with each synth melody given more room to squiggle around in the darkness. The delay on the snare drum becomes more pronounced as it smashes into the mix and then ghosts off in a repeat afterimage. When the crooned hook hits – “I wanna get hiiiighhh with the Blanksta pleaaaseee” – the mood sinks deeper into the nighttime air, and you can feel the world slow down around you.

DJ Screw

6) DJ Screw feat. Fat Pat, Lil Keke, Dave, Boo – “One More Chance Freestyle”

A classic cypher from front to back, DJ Screw built the beat over a sample of Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance (Remix).” Fat Pat, may he rest in peace, leads off with one of his most classic verses on record, sounding like he could continue freestyling for two hours straight if he didn’t have to pass the mic off to someone else. Pat’s voice absolutely booms over the mix, with his every breath audible in the mic, along with the shouts of approval from everyone else in the room when he gets into a particularly hot flow: Every time the beat pump / I pump harder (ahhhhhh).” Like many of his fellow S.U.C. members, Pat eases into his freestyles with some slower rhyme structures, but as soon as he gets comfortable with the beat, you can see his mind start to move faster and faster and his flows complicate. He ably dips into more sing-song cadences at times, or allows his voice to rise up and down in pitch across multiple consecutive bars. As a testament to the truly off-the-cuff freestyle nature of the S.U.C. cypher, Pat takes a break for a second when he stumbles on a certain line, but dives right back in with renewed energy.

7) DJ Screw (feat. UGK) – Chapter 182: Ridin’ Dirty

It’s impossible to pick a standout track from this Screw collection, remarkable as one of the most fully realized collabs between Screw and the Houston rap pioneers UGK. Aside from perhaps Screw himself (and Geto Boys, who laid the groundwork for all Houston hip hop), Bun B and Pimp C, may he rest in peace, stand as Houston rap’s most revered artists, rising from underground success in the early '90s to international (player’s) super-stardom. The chance to hear Bun and Pimp freestyle in their iconic vocal styles over Screwed beats is too good to be true, and yet here is roughly two hours of exactly that. Bun B’s booming bass voice as the stentorian overseer of the Houston scene sounds even more powerful at Screw-speed, while Pimp C’s typically more manic and animated delivery hits with a nice little chaser at a lower BPM.

8) 2Pac – “It Ain’t Easy” (Screwed)

The lead-off track on Wineberry Over Gold, a tape that many Screw fanatics will highlight as one of the most consistently perfect entries in his catalog, Screw’s edit of 2Pac’s immortal slow-jam “It Ain’t Easy” offers a brilliant example of his subtle remixing strategies. Aside from the fact that the original track is, of course, slower, Screw lets individual segments of the song ride for longer than the original, capturing that swooning bass solo in the intro in a two-bar loop and letting it repeat over and over as he introduces the track. Screw chops and loops parts of the track on the fly, too, letting parts stutter and recur whenever he feels like it. Showing the through-lines that stretch from the West Coast hip-hop tradition to the Houston style, Tupac’s slowed down, deeper voice here sounds right at home in the stable of S.U.C. rappers. Savor the chance to hear that killer phaser-drenched guitar line from the original beat at a slower pace, highlighted in its mid-range glory.

9) Aaliyah – “One in a Million” (Screwed) and 10) Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight” (Screwed)

Two more examples of Screw’s mastery of remixing styles outside of the hip-hop canon, his edits of both Aaliyah’s timeless “One in a Million” and Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” both demonstrate Screw’s ear for atypical curation for his remixes, along with how comfortable he was in the realm of the moody ballad. On “One in a Million,” elements that might normally get lost in the quick syncopated drum patterns of Timbaland’s original production reach us at a higher level of detail, with every rush of ambient synth beauty and every bass burst given extra space to swirl and rise through the speakers. Aaliyah’s voice sounds incredible at this speed, especially in the bridge, when her falsetto melody melts with intensified vibrato and woozy emotion. Screw’s “In the Air Tonight” edit comes loaded with intense surface noise, either from the record that he ripped it from or as an artifact from the tape deck he recorded it onto. The constant crackle is an essential part of the edit though, sending the atmosphere even further down the rabbit hole into a blown out late night reverie. The original track was already pretty stripped down, with plenty of open space between the thudding 808 drum machine hits, but in Screw’s hands, the gaps between each beat are even more pronounced. When the massive beat kicks in two-thirds of the way into the song (you know the one), it’s hard to resist the urge to air-drum the invisible toms in front of you.

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