When people think about the late Houston legend DJ Screw, they often marvel at his ability to transform songs into something new and unexpected by slowing them down to an intoxicating crawl. From the very beginning of his career, he had the unabashed confidence to play music at a pace few people would have dared, whether his audience understood his vision or not. And his vision never wavered — even when people complained. “Every once in a while you have people coming in wanting faster music to dance,” he said when asked about the reaction of patrons during his club DJ sets in a 1995 Rap Pages interview. “I tell them they can come on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but Thursday is DJ Screw night.”
The most memorable example of Screw’s ability to flip any song on its head might be the epic 35-minute “June 27th” freestyle from his Chapter: 012: June 27th mixtape, where he took Kris Kross’ overlooked “Da Streets Ain’t Right” beat and turned it into the canvas for the most memorable Houston freestyle of all time. Recorded almost 23 years ago on June 27, 1996, the song shows no signs of waining in popularity — the YouTube upload currently has 7,000,000 views and counting. Meanwhile, Chapter: 012: June 27th remains one of Screw’s highest selling tapes ever released.
Hearing Screw’s reimagined version of “Da Streets Ain’t Right” beat side by side with the Jermaine Dupri-produced original forces the listener to fully appreciate the artistry and skill he had, especially when considering how outside the box his methods were at the time he was building up his career. Yes, DJs like Houston’s Daryl Scott had already experimented with slowing down records quite a bit before Screw, but he evolved the method into an art form and built his slowed down sound into an empire.
“I tell them they can come on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but Thursday is DJ Screw night.” — DJ Screw
In addition to building surreal, hypnotic soundscapes, Screw was also noted for his business acumen. According to a 2015 DJ Vlad interview with Screwed Up Click rapper Lil’ Flip, he sometimes sold 10–15,000 tapes at a single car show. Adding further to his legendary sales figures, fellow Screwed Up Click rapper Z-Ro noted that Screw would sell $15,000 worth of tapes per day at his peak in a 2016 Noisey interview.
Although Screw has received some well-deserved credit for several innovative aspects of his career, people tend to overlook his role in fostering a greater appreciation for rappers from different coasts and respect for lyricism within his fanbase. In a fascinating 2013 Devin The Dude interview with HipHopDX by Justin Hunte, Devin examined how the slowed down sounds of Screw tapes made people within Houston pause and appreciate what the rappers were actually saying. “He slowed it down, so that communication could be understood so we can really understand each other from whatever coast that we’re from — especially in Houston,” he told HipHopDX.
According to Devin, at the time of Screw’s meteoric rise, many people who listened to his early tapes weren’t overly concerned with the words of the songs. Instead, they appreciated the slowed down beats and hard-hitting bass he provided. But Screw’s willingness to play lyrical rappers from all regions like Spice-1, Twista, and Redman at reduced speeds helped his core customers develop a deeper appreciation for the content and meaning of songs. “When Redman really flipped it, you’d hear it slowly, and everybody is like, ‘Oh!’ It made us come together even closer to the people that he was letting us hear, because a lot of them were songs that you didn’t really hear as far as being commercialized,” Devin told HipHopDX.
“It was just the underground stuff that he wanted people to hear, and they probably couldn’t hear it. They probably wouldn’t be able to understand it if they played it any other way.” — Devin The Dude
Devin goes on to explain that Screw also helped expose people in Houston to deep album cuts that they likely would have never heard otherwise in an era well before streaming and easy online ordering of CDs, records, and tapes. This decision to pass on hot records of the day and play whatever he wanted to is another fascinating part of Screw’s legacy. Many successful mixtape DJs in the 90s and early 2000s often focused on popular records of the moment, exclusives, and/or blends and remixes of radio hits. To just say fuck it and play unknown album cuts at much-reduced speeds was certainly a risk. But ultimately, it was one that paid off. And even if it hadn’t, it seems like Screw was concerned with sharing the music he loved above all else. “These were album cuts from these cats,” Devin told HipHopDX. “It was just the underground stuff that he wanted people to hear, and they probably couldn’t hear it. They probably wouldn’t be able to understand it if they played it any other way.”
Devin’s words certainly ring true for this writer when I think back to my experience hearing a rip of Screw’s excellent Players Choppin’ Game (Chapter 97) sometime around 2010. Going through an extended exploration of Screw’s catalog at the time, I started to understand how listening to a chopped and screwed version of a track could add depth to your appreciation and understanding of the song.
In the case of Players Choppin’ Game, this was especially true when listening to 8Ball and MJG’s “Daylight.” For starters, Screw really sets the tone by extending producer T. Mix’s hauntingly beautiful production for a full two minutes before he brings in 8Ball’s leadoff verse, letting the music breathe and doing some slowed down shoutouts in the process. When he finally mixes in 8Ball saying, “The name of the game is to get no sleep/Mash on n****s and always roll deep/Non-stop hustle means all profits double/Young n**** tryin’ to see rocks like Barney Rubble,” he doubles up and repeats the verse, adding to the effect.
“It made us come together even closer to the people that he was letting us hear, because a lot of them were songs that you didn’t really hear as far as being commercialized.” — Devin The Dude
The glacial speed that the song moves at helps the listener fully appreciate the bleak, depressing, and self-reflective nature of 8Ball’s words with verses like, “Vampire, circulate when the moon rise/Do dirt when most people got closed eyes/Rollin, livin’ off garbage and scraps/N***** wouldn’t even fuck with me if I didn’t rap.” The end result is an engrossing, haunting listening experience laid out perfectly by the deft hands of DJ Screw.
Dig deeper into Screw’s catalog and you’ll also see that he wasn’t afraid to throw quirkier, more offbeat selections into the mix. For example, on his Chapter 207: Goin’ All Out tape, Screw decides to lead off the affair with De La Soul’s pause tape production debut single “Plug Tunin’” before moving into selections by Tupac, Da Brat, and Ice Cube.
After listening to Screw furiously cut up “Plug Tunin’” doubles, it’s very evident that he really understood his records and the way songs were produced. He catches the beat at just the right parts with flawless accuracy, bringing it back to the beginning of the “Plug One, Plug Two” chants from De La Soul again and again without getting overly repetitive. Instead, he varies the way he doubles up and repeats the song. Screw really flexes his skills on the track, showing that his abilities extended well beyond merely slowing down other people’s music. And if you didn’t already appreciate De La’s clever lyricism and wordplay, listening to “Plug Tunin’” pitched way down will certainly help with that problem.
In the end, Screw’s contributions to rap music are almost too numerous to count. Through his relentless output and 300-plus releases, he inspired the ever popular chopped and screwed chorus, made people realize that rap music sounded good when played at abnormally slow speeds, and proved that a DJ could find financial success without a label. But as the 2013 Devin The Dude interview with HipHopDX proves, he also enhanced the way an entire city listened to rap music and helped break many artists to his Texas audience who would have otherwise been invisible.
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