Every area has their own music legend, but I doubt many have one quite like the one Southern USA has in DJ Screw. Self promoted and for most of his career just selling his tapes from his house in Houston, Texas, he doesn’t quite seem to fit on the same bill as the other Hip Hop giants of that time. But don’t dare say he didn’t have as much of an impact.
“I ain’t gunna say nothing, I’m gunna let my hands do the talking”
Dubbed ‘The Originator’ for his innovative DJ techniques, DJ Screw wasn’t the guy on the mic blaring out lines and rousing out a reception. In fact, he wasn’t that active at all. Content with chopping and screwing his records in the backdrop as others freestyled over – this enigmatic, and in many ways reclusive, man never tried to pave his way to the glittering promised land of widespread fame even when many who had rode off of him were finding their successes. Uneasy with a corporate industry and detachment from his familiar life, these characteristics go far in explaining why he was such a well-known local phenomenon during the 90s but was not seen on the national radar until the mid 2000s.
Rappers would come from all round for a chance of a freestyle on one of his infamous “Screw Tapes”, for one good verse or mention could catapult them to the limelight of this underground scene on the Southside of Houston. Likened to a local radio, DJ Screw would be the source of the new innovative music from around the country, all available to listen to of course after being mixed down to fit his style, and his tapes could be heard throughout Houston and beyond. As his name grew, he invited established MCs from nearby parts to perform on his mixes and through that the Screwed Up Click, a group of 50+ members, was born, hailing him as their leader. These members all had recurring presences on his tapes and many like Fat Pat, Big Moe and Big Hawk can credit their achievements to their recordings at his house.
The vast amount that he produced, estimated at over 1000, is a difficult figure to match and is one that separates him from other influential figures. This immense quantity helps to shed light on his relatively unknown life and provides us with a look into this underground and largely undocumented scene. Although not all of his releases could quite be described as high quality, the number of gems that can be found are immeasurable. You could spend days trawling through his albums and never be disappointed as one after another you become enlightened by a new hypnotizing beat.
As might be expected given his character, his music style wasn’t brash or loud. A master at mixing, records would be swallowed up and slowed to a beat nearly unrecognisable from that of the original song. You need look only at his remix of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Bonita Applebum’ to see an example of a bouncy rhythm reduced to a thick fog of bass and sluggishness. The slowing down became synonymous with his name and as such a whole genre spawned under it.
The style all starts to make sense though when you hear that “syrup” (a codeine based drug popular not just for its cough relieving abilities) had gone hand in hand with most, if not all, his music. Know for its drowsy and dissociative effects, you really start to wonder just how much of it must have been flowing through those dreamlike hands as he churned out tape after tape. Cited out many times in his mixes and tapes, Codeine Fiend” being one of the less subtle ones, his attachment to it was no secret and is likely to have been at least the cement to the scene built around his name.
However, It’d be a huge discredit to put the reason for his successes down to him just smothering records into a syrupy swirl. Skilled at the piano long before he heard the call of the turntables and with a natural ear for timing, one would’ve bet he’d master them long before he began. His uncanny sense for the rhythm was what enabled him to be able to manipulate records as he did and his extensive knowledge of music meant that he always had a new track to transform.
Tragically though, what had been so entwined with his life ultimately ended up being the death of him too. He was pronounced dead on the 16th November 2000, with codeine being declared the cause. The Houston rap scene was a hazardous one, with many of the rappers most involved in their clique falling to early demises from drugs or shootings too and his death embodied the end of a scene that was just taking off. Now only speculation is left to decide on what would’ve happened if he had come to central attention, but I firmly believe that he will always be a heralded figure in Southern Hip-Hop’s history.
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.