The narcotic slide of chopped and screwed hip hop is an acquired taste, once got it’s hard to shake. But when you look at how it started, and developed, what could have been a curious, but strictly local anomaly starts to look like a textbook case study for open innovation.
The sound is slow, most of all, layered with lazy scratches and subtle effects, edits and cuts. It’s a heavy, sleepy groove setting the sensual languor of Philly soul and R&B crooners against the menace of slowed down rap verses.
Everyone who has mistakenly played a 45rpm single at 33 knows the effect, but by dedicating himself to this process Screw turned what could have been a joke into a rap subgenre, an oft-copied process (countless Southern rap records have ‘chopped & screwed’ versions), based on a technique so simple that it has philosophical heft.
That’s Jace Clayton in this month’s Frieze (it’s a typically great piece).
Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw, slowed things down in Houston sometime in the mid-late ’80s. It was hot. People took things slow. In this Rap Pages interview, he said it was all about mix tapes with songs people could relax to.
Slower tempos, to feel the music and so you can hear what the rapper is saying.
So where did the idea for this music come from?
I mean people had experimented with slowing down and speeding up records – that’s one of the basic tools of the club DJ, being able to modify the pitch to beatmix records together – but this slowed down hip hop was something different.
Was it the cough syrup everyone was drinking? That’s what this MTV feature says.
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.
Ultimately, that’s where most people say the sound came from. Three Six Mafia’s ‘Sippin on Some Syrup’ came out in 2000, months after Screw died. People had been drinking ‘drank’ since the ’60s, but it had a resurgence in 91-92, and that was definitely part of it. Before that, most southern hip hop was fast. But the cough syrup got people in the mood for something slower.
Toward the end of the ’80s, Screw was messing with his turntables, slowing his records down, just hearing how it sounded. His cousin, Big Bub, says that’s when he came up with the new sound.
One day he picked up a Mantronix album — that’s the first thing I heard [slowed down]. 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.
The mood was closer to West Coast rappers like Dr Dre and DJ Quik – although sonically very different. As Clayton says in his Frieze piece, this could easily be a joke genre. There’s more to it, but on first listen it really just does sound like a 45 on 33, and that’s a pretty basic premise for a new sound. For some reason, it works.
It must have been just ahead of the birth of (the less menacing, but still similar) trip hop sounds in the UK . I was listening to the Anglo sounds more; in retrospect, I’m surprised there wasn’t a more explicit connection. There were plenty of similarities, and even closer ties, like Portishead remixing Gravediggaz, but not much. Was it just convergent evolution?
Jace Clayton, aka DJ/Rupture, credits another big influence.
Monterrey Mexicans had been talking over and slowing down cumbia records for years before Screw came along – something he would have been likely to hear in Houston.
It grew quickly, to the point where people weren’t worrying too much about where the sound appeared. Instead of the usual music industry thing, where a sound is quickly formalised – in Houston, this was all happening on mixtapes. Bun B, half of Texas group UGK, says it didn’t even have a name for quite a while.
When you say, ‘screwed music,’ you have to realise that for years, it was what it was without getting labeled. 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.
Also called ‘gray tapes’ – the cassettes Screw bought in bulk were grey – they moved fast around Houston. Copied ’til they bled, shared, with little thought for legal issues, it was perfect for creativity. Others started playing with their own screw mixes – across town, Michael Watts was doing it, and when he started cutting between records making a double time beat, that added another stab of rhythm to the sound. That’s when people started calling it ‘chopped and screwed’. Watts’ Swishahouse record label is probably most associated with the sound.
10 years after Screw died, the sound’s seeping out in a bunch of unexpected areas.
His fingerprints are all over a new wave of slow music, from artists like White Ring, Balam Acab and oOoOO of the Internet-centric microgenre called witch house, or drag, to experimental electronic musicians like Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tom Krell, who, performing as How to Dress Well, makes spacey post-R&B. There is chopped and screwed cumbia and reggaetón, and one of this year’s strangest viral hits was the low-concept Shamantis remix of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile,” slowed down into a ghostly, oceanic 35-minute epic.
That’s from a New York Times piece on the reemergence of screw.
So it could have been nothing more than a quirky local phenomenon. It started off slow, for quite a while it didn’t even have a name, but slowly through a process of mixtape experimentation it coalesced into a sound, and as those mixtapes moved through Houston’s hip hop community, that sound developed as particular DJs added their tweaks to the aesthetic.
The result seems like a case study for how open networks can catalyse new things. And what that NYT story shows is the process continuing, picking up steam as it moves out.
Want to hear classic DJ Screw mixes? You really do. So read Government Names and get them from Bottom of the Map.