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 News Archive: DJ Screw

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 'It's the sound of Texas. People all over the world are starting to embrace it' ...

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 'We wanted to hear our streets being shouted out' ...

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 'When we say the word 'screwed,' it's upholding a legacy' ...

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Screwed Up Click
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.

Lil' Flip
"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]."

  Michael Watts and friends photos
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. But around '91 or '92, it really hit hard around here" — Hawk
"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."

NEXT: 'No matter what happens, the history books will say, 'Screw music: Houston, Texas' ...
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