November 27, 2005

History Of Chopped And Screwed Music

There's nothing to distinguish Screwed Up Records & Tapes on Cullen Boulevard in south Houston from any other dilapidated building in this industrial neighborhood just off of the city's main highway. The beige exterior has peeled off in large patches, the blinds that shade the small store's windows don't work, and water leaks onto the worn-through linoleum floor during this sweltering city's frequent rainstorms.

And yet, this small, nondescript building is home to one of the most important — and surreal — musical movements to emerge in the last two decades: screwed and chopped (or chopped and screwed — either is correct).

As the success of Mike Jones, Paul Wall and Slim Thug's ubiquitous single, "Still Tippin'," has brought the spotlight to Houston, the city's indigenous sound has begun to creep out of the Southern shadows. Screwed and chopped music is the antithesis of the relentless, ballistic bounce of Atlanta's crunk: Hip-hop records are literally slowed down to a molasses-like pace, and beats and lyrics ooze lazily out of the speakers. The result is a heavy, drowsy groove that, over the last 14 years, has exerted a major influence on Southern hip-hop culture.

"It's the sound of Texas," boasts Jones. "People all over the world are starting to embrace it, and it's our time to shine."
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Screwed Up Records & Tapes is the store that keeps alive the memory of Robert Earl Davis Jr., a.k.a. DJ Screw, the local hip-hop DJ who was the inventor and namesake of screwed music. No one knows for sure how or exactly when Screw created the slowed-down sound, but members of his south Houston crew, the Screwed Up Click, say that Screw was playing around with his turntables in 1991 and serendipitously discovered that dramatically reducing the pitch of a record yielded a mellow, heavy sound that resonated with the slowed-down pace of H-Town.

"One day he picked up a Mantronix album — that's the first thing I heard [slowed down]," remembers Big Bub, Screw's cousin and the man who runs Screwed Up Records & Tapes, which sells many of DJ Screw's old cassettes. "He played it at a slow pitch and really liked the way it sounded. He kept messing with it, messing with it, and about a year later, he made a [whole] tape all slowed down."

"He slowed it down so the bang would be a little harder and deeper," says longtime Houston rapper and songwriter Devin the Dude. "When the music was like that, you could just creep and ride around all night."

While the sound has a similar feel to West Coast hip-hop like Dr. Dre and DJ Quik (Screw's personal favorite was C-Bo), its pace is a unique reflection of the South. "In the South, we chill a little bit more," says Jackson, Mississippi-based rapper David Banner, who remembers first hearing Screw in 1994. "It ain't fast and loud and all that — it's laid-back riding music."

Screw soon made mixtapes broadcasting his new style to his south Houston neighborhood. "When you say, 'screwed music,' you have to realize that for years, it was what it was without getting labeled," explains Bun B, one half of the veteran Texas rap group UGK. "It wasn't called 'screwed and chopped' when he was doing it, it was just a 'Screw Tape' — and you always wanted to get that Screw Tape." "Screw Tapes was just like having a pair of bad Air Force Ones [sneakers] is today," says longtime Screw affiliate and Houston rapper E.S.G. "If you didn't have a Screw Tape in your deck, you wasn't hip to what was going on." DJ Screw's tapes (also referred to as "Gray Tapes" because of the gray cassettes they were recorded on) were often organized by themes — a mixtape featuring songs about cruising in cars, for example. Screw also made customized tapes for people in his 'hood. "You could get a tape for like $10," remembers Bun B. "Then, for $15, you could give him a list [of songs] you wanted and he'd shout you out on the tape. For a little more, you could actually come to Screw's house and shout out people yourself."

Shout-outs led to freestyles, which led to an entire crew of MCs built around Screw's DJ technique. That crew, the Screwed Up Click, includes MCs like E.S.G., Lil' Keke, Big Pokey and Big Hawk, who have since become local legends — with careers built entirely on slowed-down rhymes. Rapper Lil' Flip, though not part of the Screwed Up Click, also launched his career off of Screw tapes. He recorded two tapes with Screw — Freestyle King and Southside Still Holdin' — that created a name for him locally. "Those tapes still sell today," says Big Bub. Flip took to Screw's sound and, instead of just trafficking in the standard mixtape game — with songs delivered at normal speed — Flip would also record a screwed version of that same mixtape. These "double" releases of a single mixtape helped make him the scene's first local star.

"What Screw did for so many people out here is he gave us all careers," says Hawk. "Each and every individual in this click will represent Screw for the rest of our lives because of that, straight up."

Up until the mid-1990s, the sleepy Screw sound was still limited to H-Town's south side. Soon, though, the sound traveled to north Houston, where a veteran hip-hop DJ named Michael "5000" Watts would adopt the technique and represent for his neighborhood. "Everything Screw was doing was representing for the south side," says Watts. "Since I was making regular mixtapes over here, the guys on my side were like, 'You need to do this representing for us.' "

Watts estimates that he began slowing down his music in 1996. He started Swisha House Records, which, on the strength of his mixtapes, quickly grew into one of Houston's biggest labels, developing its own roster of artists, including today's stars Mike Jones and Paul Wall. Though a rivalry developed between the north and south sides, between the originators and the adopters, Watts is careful to pay homage to the style's inventor by calling the music screwed and chopped.

"It was created by DJ Screw, first and always," he says.

"People thought, 'Y'all trying to be like Screw,' but it wasn't like that," offers O.G. Ron C., currently one of the biggest DJs doing screwed and chopped in Houston. Ron was a Houston radio personality in the mid-1990s and was also a member of the first wave of Swisha House artists before falling out with Watts in 1999. "We wanted to hear our streets being shouted out and people from our neighborhood talking about the stuff we did on our side of town."

Bun B says over time, as the screwed and chopped sound started to grow, the distinction between leader and follower was lost. "As generations change, the younger kids come in, they don't care who's making it," Bun B says. "So Watts was able to establish himself for what he was doing up there [on the north side]."

While Screw was the inventor, Watts is credited with popularizing the sound beyond Houston's borders. He broadcast a specialty screwed and chopped mix-show on local commercial radio, and extended Swisha House's mixtape sales throughout the South. Watts also helped champion the "chop" technique. Drawing on his background as a party DJ, Watts would cut between two copies of the same record, creating a double-time beat that brought an extra jolt of rhythm to the mixes. That syncopation is a typical DJ convention that took on unique representation in the land of slowed-down beats, adding a textured feel reminiscent of Jamaican dub music.

For Watts, the screwed and chopped remix technique represented the kind of artistic innovation he always sought in music. "There's an art to it, and the people who listen to it feel the art of it," he says. "Once you get what it is, you can really feel it."

Of course, it wasn't just the slower pace of Southern life that was simpatico with chopped and screwed music. It was also the drug culture springing up in Houston at the time — specifically, the one centering on the consumption of the prescription cough syrup Promethazine, which includes codeine. The elixir goes by a number of names — syrup, drank, Texas tea — and its depressant qualities were the catalyst to an illicit subculture built around its abuse and the lethargic beats of chopped and screwed.

"Everybody seems to go through their own thing, you know, little methods of feeling better when they congregate," says Devin the Dude. "But [syrup] ain't nothing to play with."

"Drank has been around — the old-schoolers were drinking it back in the day," Hawk says, referring to a generation of locals in the 1960s and '70s. "But around '91 or '92, it really hit hard around here and everyone wanted to try it or get on it."

A cautionary tale for the entire Houston hip-hop community came on the morning of November 16, 2000, when DJ Screw was found dead at his home. Though doctors found codeine in his system — presumably from the syrup his crew said he liked to indulge in — his death was ultimately ruled to be from undetermined causes. Big Bub, Screw's cousin, notes that Screw had been previously diagnosed with heart problems.

Still, Bun B says, "It made people really take stock in their behavior. Including myself — I won't lie. think what people realized is that even though DJ Screw had passed, this city has its own sound." - Bun B

By the time DJ Screw had passed away, the entire screwed and chopped style had begun to infiltrate the rest of the South: The sound could be heard on mixtapes in Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami. Groups like Three 6 Mafia in Memphis, Tennessee, were having their albums screwed and chopped; in 2000, they would have a minor hit with a song called "Sippin' on Some Syrup" that extolled the virtue of both drank and screwed music.

After Screw's death, the sound seemed to take off, as if in homage to his memory. "I think what people realized is that even though DJ Screw had passed, what couldn't be denied was the fact that this city has a personality; this city has its own sound," says Bun B. Soon, the sound cultivated a community of syrupy stars, rappers like Slim Thug, whose first three albums were released as screwed and chopped CDs. (Slim's oft-postponed major-label debut, Already Platinum, is now due in July.)

In 2003, David Banner took the Houston sound mainstream by becoming the first artist to release a screwed and chopped version of an album (his major-label debut, Mississippi: The Album) on a major label, just months after the regular version was released in stores.

"I'm from Mississippi, we're just around the way from Texas," says Banner. "But I always want people to know that this came from Texas. You have to give props due to DJ Screw and Texas. I just want people to know it's part of Texas culture."

Banner hired Watts to do the remix, since Watts became the preeminent ambassador of the screwed and chopped sound after DJ Screw's death. Mississippi: The Screwed and Chopped Album would sell roughly 50,000 copies throughout the South, as well as less likely places such as St. Louis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Soon, Banner's label, Universal Records, would issue screwed and chopped remix versions of albums from their entire roster of Southern rap artists, including the Cash Money Records crew. Recently, artists like T.I., UGK and Mystikal released official screwed and chopped remixes of their albums, opening up an entirely new fanbase outside of H-Town.

"Our sales [on screwed and chopped CDs] grow by the month. We can't keep anything in stock," says Danny Blaq, who runs Baylo Entertainment, a national hip-hop CD distributor. "Wisconsin, Seattle, Illinois, even international. We sell to a lot of guys in the military."

The slowed-down sound of screwed and chopped has also started to ooze into the mainstream. The lethargic pace of "Still Tippin' " — which borrows its hook from a Slim Thug screwed and chopped freestyle — belies the big beats of most other hip-hop, instead mimicking the slower rhythms often found in screwed remixes of hip-hop songs. Subsequent singles from Jones, Wall and the rest of Houston's new generation of rap stars follow a similar template.

The sound even seems to be influencing artists outside of hip-hop. Ciara's hit "Oh," with its creeping bassline and pulsing reverberations, moves at a dramatically slower pace than most contemporary R&B songs, a style its producers, Dre & Vidal, readily admit was influenced by the screwed and chopped sound. "When I first heard [screwed] music, I was like, 'What is this? Is this a mistake?,' " laughs Dre. "We kind of ran with it and put our little twist on it for the Ciara record."

Still, no matter how big the sound of Houston gets and how far across the globe it reaches, screwed and chopped music will always be a part of the city's identity — and that of its namesake, DJ Screw.

"Screw music is important to the culture — it's what holds the culture together here in Texas," says Paul Wall. "So when we say the word 'screwed,' it's a lot deeper than just the music being slowed down. It's upholding a legacy."

"That's the one thing," Bun B says. "No matter what happens: If I stop, the Geto Boys stop, and nobody else writes a rhyme, in the history books [it will say], 'Screw music: Houston, Texas.' They can't take that away."


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