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DJ Screw, the godfather of Houston’s slowed-down sound, gets the book treatment

New biography showcases the history of the ‘chopped and screwed’ genre and the influence of syrup

Syrup — or purple drank — didn’t kill DJ Screw, says Lance Scott Walker, an expert on Houston’s hip-hop culture. Although police said Screw died of an overdose of the prescription cough medicine, Walker argues it was just one factor among many that led to his death at 29.

Walker’s new book, DJ Screw: Life in Slow Revolution, is the first to be written about DJ Screw (whose real name was Robert Earl Davis Jr.), the influential Houston DJ who popularized the “chopped and screwed” sound, a method of slowing down records to a crawl. The music went hand in hand with a local drug culture centered on “syrup,” a mixture of codeine cough medicine and soda.

Walker grew up in Galveston, Texas, and his trips to Houston and eventual relocation there immersed him in the city’s hip-hop culture. Screw, who died in 2000, was both prolific and influential, and his mixtapes and music were an integral part of putting Houston on the national radar.

Walker spoke with Andscape about DJ Screw’s life, the common misconceptions about him, and the positive and negative aspects of syrup on the Houston hip-hop sound.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You opened the book with DJ Screw at the Justo Mixtape Awards ceremony in New York City in 1999 and mentioned that it was his first time on an airplane. It seems like DJ Screw shunned the spotlight and was a recluse.

I don’t think there was a spotlight to shun. It’s not like the media was chasing him down. We think of him as a recluse because he was underground, but there were always people at his house. That may have been less in the later years of his life when he moved further outside the city on the southwest side. He did that to maintain an element of privacy. He stayed underground. He never signed with a label. You weren’t going to reach DJ Screw by email, and there wasn’t a PR person to reach out to.

You refer in your book to Lester “Sir” Pace, an ’80s Houston radio DJ who accidentally slowed down a record on-air, which resulted in people fiending for the sound in clubs before the influx of syrup use. Is it fair to say there is a common misconception that the “chopped and screwed” sound originated out of drug culture? That’s not really where it came from.

It really is not. Screw was slowing down music before codeine came into the picture. Codeine was in the picture in the sense that people in Houston had been drinking it forever. The ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, way back. But Screw was several years into his career before codeine ever came into the picture for him. I did want to make that point clear. [Houston rapper] Paul Wall said it’s like having wine with steak, and it enhances the music for a lot of people. But I wanted to clarify that Screw’s music did not arise from that.

You write that DJ Screw started by practicing techniques, routines and tricks modeled after the early hip-hop DJs in New York City. How do you think his path might have been different had he remained a hip-hop DJ in the traditional sense?

He was a fantastic DJ. He had great hands. If he was still making mixtapes and had people coming by to do freestyles, and he wasn’t doing the chopped and screwed thing, I still think you would have seen a giant cultural shift in Houston as a result of his efforts. You’ve got to remember he did everything at regular speed. A lot of times, doing it without headphones, just doing it on-site. That’s where he got his name, by marking up records with a screw so he could see where stuff was on there.

DJ Chill says in the book that DJ Screw essentially worked himself to death. The grind is part of hip-hop culture. What do you think are the most important lessons from his death?

Many people say Screw worked himself to death, but I think the important thing to remember is that it wasn’t for the grind, the hustle or the money for him. Screw had plenty of money, and he made lots of money in cash. He did not live extravagantly. He was happy to be able to buy a house at one point and take care of his mother, other members of his family and his circle of friends. His passion for the music pulled him into that vortex of work that he got lost in many times over the years. It wasn’t about the money, and he still worked himself to death. It’s a tragedy that we lost him, but it should also serve to show that music is deep, deeper than you even realize at first. 

Would Screw’s whole musical path have happened without his drug use?

If you go back, he started maybe smoking some weed, drinking 40s, but he was on his path before codeine promethazine. We can talk about drugs in a broader sense. Would Jimi Hendrix have made great records without marijuana? Maybe. He was an incredible musician. He certainly didn’t need that. But would have all those ideas come to him? I don’t know. It’s impossible to say. Anytime something is part of somebody’s creative arsenal, and they have the work to show for it, it’s hard to criticize. Codeine promethazine didn’t kill DJ Screw. A lot of different factors did. It was one of the factors, but it wasn’t what exactly killed him.

You mention in the book that as the buzz around DJ Screw and the chopped and screwed sound started to grow, doctors loosened their grip on prescriptions of codeine promethazine. How likely is it that DJ Screw and his popularity influenced them?

It’s something that people were talking about on the tapes. In the same way, the tapes popularized candy paint and rims. This all goes into folklore around Screw and his influence. There were plenty of places you could go to get codeine, and the laws got a lot tighter after DJ Screw died. People talk about the ’90s as a ‘golden era’ when it was much easier to get your hands on it.

How easy was it to find DJ Screw tapes during the peak of his success?

Before the store location [Screwed Up Records & Tapes], there were lots of Screw tapes around, but you would have to know where his house was, or you would have had to go into a record store where they had them for resale. One of the reasons you hear people clamoring for tapes is that if you look at the Screw shop, they’ve taken old Screw tapes, cleaned them up in Pro Tools and put them on CDs. They’re approaching 400 different tapes. Those are just the ones they’ve been able to track down. There are hundreds more, maybe thousands of Screw tapes out there that didn’t survive. DJ Screw’s house wasn’t in a superaccessible neighborhood either. It was right next to a freeway. His sister told us this story at South by Southwest about how one night she got lost on this freeway exit. She ended up driving around this neighborhood and saw a ‘for rent’ sign on this house and thought that’s perfect for Screw, and that’s how he ended up living there.

What do you think is the most iconic Screw tape?

Oh, it’s June 27th. No doubt. That’s the most famous by far. It’s a 30-minute-plus freestyle, and you’ve got Big Moe singing. You’ve got Yungstar. That’s his debut. The tape was released on July 4 weekend in 1996. There was a big celebration down in Galveston, and everybody was driving around listening to that tape.

Adam Aziz is a writer and consultant living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @brokencool.