A Tribute to DJ Screw: Six of the Best Tapes from the Screwston Legend

Go see "Don't Screw Up: A Screw Retrospective," this Friday night at LA's Handbag Factory. Ft. Lil Keke, William Hutson of clipping & More.
By    November 10, 2015

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William Hutson is one/third of the band, clipping. He owns more Murder Dogs than you. 

I’m intensely suspicious of artists who don’t make rap, but nonetheless cite DJ Screw as an influence. It’s especially so when the homage comes from somebody ostensibly “avant-garde.” About five years ago, when journalists were still enthralled by a series of increasingly fashionable internet music genres—Hypnagogic Pop, Chillwave, Witch House, Vaporwave—mentions of Screw began appearing regularly in articles about musicians who’d likely never heard a South Circle track played at normal speed. (1)

The name-dropping contained a subliminally offensive implication: that Screw’s method of slowing down rap songs somehow elevated those rap songs—themselves crass, disposable products—into the realm of high art. This interpretation of Screw argued that, for example, Botany Boys were terrible. (2) However, when played at ninety five percent of its original speed, “Smokin’ N’ Lean’n” was like the Marlboro Man to Screw’s Richard Prince. Screw tapes were presented as if they were completely separate from the gangsta rap community that Screw was a part of — allowing “intelligent” and “educated” people to listen to and appreciate them while retaining the privilege that accompanies “good taste.”

His mixes were deemed post-modern commentary instead of documents of the underground scene that Screw participated in. But DJ Screw wasn’t Girl Talk, and the processing he applied to rap songs wasn’t a filter signifying ironic distance. He was an innovator who had a unique voice, distinct style, and he expressed that vision from within gangster rap, not outside of it.

 

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Worse were the music journalists who treated Screw as accidentally experimental—as if he weren’t conscious of what he was doing and that it took the discerning ears of critics to bestow the stamp of “outsider genius” upon him. This scenario is common in the Poptimist era of rap coverage in mainstream music writing—Lil Wayne, Lil B, Gucci Mane, and now, Young Thug have all been victims of it. (3)

This method of criticism insists that rappers don’t know when they are operating on an artistic cutting-edge. Therefore any writer who labels it thus, constitutes it as such. In this sense, the writer gets to fantasize he has somehow jointly authored the art, because its status as avant-garde is his doing. It’s an impulse shared with the gallery curator who spots the secretly-brilliant homeless painter on the street corner and makes him a star. This maneuver also enforces an image of the artist as a rare genius surrounded by mediocrity.

It insists that the writer has painstakingly sifted through thousands of unworthy rap artists to pick-out and “save” one true gem. But Screw wasn’t just a diamond-in-the-rough. The scene he was a part of was overflowing with brilliant activity—something the rest of the world witnessed a few years after his death with the increased success of UGK, Slim Thug, and Chamillionaire. Nor was Screw clueless about what he was doing. He was a technician of significant craftsmanship, whose music spoke directly to the community he aimed it toward: those people buying grey cassette tapes through the grate on the front door of his south side Houston home. Bestowing the label of “experimental” and drawing connections to examples of slowness in other twentieth century musics (including drone, doom metal, and minimalism)—artistic lineages that have little to no influence on Screw, and whose similarities are superficial and coincidental—is patronizing and ahistorical.

 

Salem: Never Forget
Salem: Never Forget

Because of this, I’ve always kept my appreciation for DJ Screw somewhat private. As somebody who plays experimental music and also writes about it, I didn’t want the cliché to apply to me. (4) But five years after that particular explosion of Screw tributes, I will be participating in a Screw-related event: Don’t Screw Up, on November 14th at the Handbag Factory in downtown LA. Despite what I’ve just written, this show seeks to reject the treatment of Screw that’s troubled me before.

I’m convinced of this because one of Screw’s most talented collaborators (and an important figure in Houston rap music in his own right), Lil’ Keke, will headline and field audience questions about his life and career. Keke’s participation in the concert emphasizes Screw’s embeddedness in a community of artists, and shows that the event’s organizers also value those artists’ contribution to Screw’s music and culture. They don’t just see Screw as an accidental avant-gardist.

In anticipation of this show, I’m sharing a personal list of my favorite Screw tapes. Before I get to the list, however, I want to address the aspects of Screw’s music that I’m most interested in — partly as a corrective to the things many other writers have focused on. The drug culture of Houston’s rap scene is, I believe, often over-emphasized.

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Screw’s slowed down music is too frequently equated with his alleged indulgence in prescription strength downers. I find people’s fascination with this aspect prurient and invasive. Plus, the slowness of Screw’s music is not what I love most about it. Many of the tracks he mixes are things I listen to much more frequently at their normal speeds. Screw was a canny selector, one whose taste was occasionally unpredictable—he played more Kriss Kross than anybody would have guessed—but always spot-on.

Not every blend was clean, and his scratching was merely competent, (6) but Screw had an ear for deep cuts and for what would sound good slowed down. He’d drag out an under-appreciated song, one that might never stand out in the context of whatever album it came from, and make you listen to it until you agreed with him that it was a work of genius. It was through listening to Screw tapes that I overcame my dislike for Tupac (a blasphemous position to take while I was growing up in the Bay Area) and it was on those tapes that I discovered rappers who now rank among my all-time favorites.

Ultimately, I believe that Screw’s major contribution was providing a focal point around which a community of incredible rappers coalesced. The various members of the S.U.C. (Screwed Up Click) produced great music before and after Screw’s untimely passing. His mixtapes feel like home movies—like DVD extras alongside the full-length albums of Lil’ Keke, Big Moe, Fat Pat, H.A.W.K., Z-Ro, E.S.G., C-Note, Lil’ O, Yungstar, Big Pokey, and Lil Flip. They’re unpolished, often hilarious, behind-the-scenes glimpses at a group of rappers operating at the absolute pinnacle of their talents under the watchful eye of a charismatic leader. Not since seeing A Hard Day’s Night as a little kid have I wanted so badly to hang out with a specific group of guys. They always sounded like they were having such a good time.

I can’t claim to be an authority on DJ Screw’s many, many mixtapes. It seems he made about one per week for six or seven years. There are literally hundreds of them. Each time I check one out that I haven’t heard before, I discover fascinating new dimensions to Screw’s music. Below I have listed six tapes, out of the dozens I’ve heard, for which I have a particular affection.

Chapter 180: 3 ’N The Mornin’ Pt. 2 (1996)

Growing up, my best friend Jonathan lived across the country in South Carolina and would spend each summer with me and my family in California. I learned about southern rap music from him. In the summer of 1999—the first after he’d received his driver’s license and talked his father into buying him a car—Jonathan drove from Charleston to Berkeley, bringing with him a small stack of unlabeled CD-Rs of DJ Screw mixtapes.

I can recall the evolution of my response to the music: first I thought that slowing down perfectly good songs was a stupid gimmick, then I decided that there might actually be some aesthetic value to it, then I desperately needed to hear more. But this was pre-Napster, and the only way I knew how to access new music was by going to record stores. I remember going to the drive-thru CD shop off of San Pablo in Oakland (7)—it was covered in posters advertising upcoming No Limit releases—and asking for anything by DJ Screw. 3 ’N The Mornin’ Pt. 2 had been reissued commercially and was therefore the only thing by him I could buy, but they also sold me the Swishahouse compilation, The Day Hell Broke Loose.

Because of this, I have probably heard this CD more than any other Screw tape. E.S.G.’s intro conjures strong sense-memories of driving around Berkeley, trying to see out of Jonathan’s illegally tinted car windows while splitting Phillies’ with my thumbnails on stolen Taco Bell trays. (8) Nobody needs me to recommend 3 ’N The Mornin’ Pt. 2—it is still one of the easiest Screw tapes to hear through Spotify and iTunes—but its importance to my personal listening history means I can’t leave it off this list.

Chapter 57: Wineberry Over Gold (1995)

One of the first things that struck me when discovering Screw was the range of regions his mixes drew from. In compiling this list, I tried to figure out which tapes had been included in that original clutch of CD-Rs I heard, but I was unsuccessful. However, one strong memory I recall was how surprised I was to hear E-40 —my favorite rapper ever—appearing on mixes I understood to be specifically representative of Houston. (9)

I learned that Screw spun all kinds of different records from all over the place. Wineberry Over Gold showcases Screw’s affection for classic West Coast rap music, featuring tracks by Ant Banks, Spice 1, Ice Cube, and of course E-40. (10)

In particular, 2Pac’s soul-searching, reluctant gangster anthems always sound more sincere to me when Screw plays them. Something about the lowered pitch gives ‘Pac’s sensibility more weight. On his own, I have often found him too calculating—not dishonest, but too aware of how attractive his performance of sensitivity made him. However, slowed down on tracks like “It Ain’t Easy” and “Lord Knows,” I can feel ‘Pac’s artifice and acting skills melt away, and can appreciate his lyrical craft and talent for storytelling. But Screw’s techniques were always equally suited to breezier, lighter tracks. DJ Quik’s “Something 4 Tha Mood,” which is a summery backyard barbecue of G-Funk, in Screw’s hands takes on the warmth and haziness of two-too-many snifters of cognac.

Apart from having one of the greatest titles imaginable—how can something called Wineberry Over Gold not be amazing? (11)—the tape also features a particularly strong twelve minute freestyle from Fat Pat. Internet-based discussion of Screw often devolves into arguments about who was the best freestyle rapper to appear on a tape: Pat or Keke, Flip or E.S.G., and so on. While I am not above fighting over GOATs in conversations about rap music, Screw-related or otherwise, I find it heartwarming to know that among the rappers themselves, the rivalries were mostly friendly. (12)

On his freestyle, Pat spits the following lines: “Nothing but south side / What’s up Keke / I miss you on this flow / Yeah, you and me.” Even though Keke wasn’t in the house that night to trade bars with him, Pat lets him know that the tape would have profited from his rapping on it. A lovely sentiment.

Chapter 13: Leanin’ on a Switch (1996)

Screw tapes can be broadly divided into three categories: the mixes of preexisting songs that Screw would record and then slow down, the freestyle tapes where Screw would spin instrumentals while his friends would jump on the microphone to rap, and the tapes that featured some combination of both.

Most tapes fall into the third category, but in my mind, the best material can be found on the sessions that mostly feature freestyles. It’s on these tapes that Houston’s vast community of rappers take center stage. Screw’s process of pitching down his recordings after they had been taped slows the in-house freestyles down as well. (13) They become even more impressive because at the speed at which we hear them, the lightning fast creativity of their authors is undoubtedly impressive. However, knowing that when the recordings were made, these artists were rapping even faster, makes the freestyles astonishing.

Leanin’ on a Switch is one of the strongest all-freestyle tapes in Screw’s catalogue and features a marathon of off-the-dome rapping from Lil’ Keke, Big Pokey, and, on a couple of tracks, Mike D. Keke and Pokey’s interpretations of DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” (the original of which also features a verse by Keke) and Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” are solid, but the duo’s freestyle over Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” is legendary. (14)

After about five minutes of trading verses, Pokey stumbles over his words and steps away from the mic laughing. As Screw fades the beat down, Keke jumps back in and continues spitting, picking up on Pokey’s last line. At this point, Screw tries to bring the instrumental back on beat under Keke’s flow, but messes up a few times before he gets it right. Keke meanwhile remains unphased by Screw’s rhythmic struggling, keeping his own beat with metronomic regularity. The track ends with Pokey hopping back on the mic to brilliantly rhyme “Got them hoes sprung” with “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” and claiming to have a “Ph.D. in buying bricks.” It’s maybe my favorite single example of the looseness and fun that characterizes Screw’s best tapes, showcasing both the laid back atmosphere of the session and the casualness with which his rappers could generate incredible material. (15)

Chapter 172: Straight Wreckin’ (1994/1995)

The chapter numbers associated with Screw tapes signify that a tape is an official entry in the Diary of the Originator series of reissues that were put together by Screwed Up Records and Tapes in Houston. The thing about these reissues, though, is that they were not collected until after Screw’s death in 2000. As a result, they are in no particular order and many of them repeat tracks from tape to tape.

Straight Wreckin’ is somewhat flawed: the A-side documents what seems to be a single session featuring Fat Pat, Lil’ Keke, and Stick 1. The trio were especially sloppy that night, falling off their freestyles in the middle of lines, their voices drenched in slap-back delay. The B-side is an illogical collection of tracks, cobbled together from a number of different sessions, some of which I’ve heard on other tapes. I mention it in part because it highlights the DIY nature of Screw’s mixes, and the way they disturb the archival impulse that surrounds the work an artistic “genius” leaves behind. In their time, Screw’s tapes had a specific function: for Screw, each dub earned him ten dollars; for his customers, they served as a constantly-updated soundtrack of Houston life, as heard playing from car windows. Nobody was worried about precise documentation or posterity. (16)

That said, this tape is still full of wonderful moments. Fat Pat does a lot of singing throughout this one, and on one of the two (yes, two) freestyles over the “Juicy” instrumental, Pat improvises hilarious new lyrics to Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” hook. (17) The second side opens with Pat singing about codeine over U.G.K.’s “It’s Supposed to Bubble (Remix),” drawing the word “lean” out into a blurry smear, while E.S.G. raps over the top, sounding barely slowed down at all. (18) Of all of Screw’s usual freestylers, those two were the most musical, in the sense that they could both compose hooks on the fly and actually repeat them in between verses, as if they had been written.

One of the more visible practices within freestyle rapping is battle rapping. During one of his freestyles on this tape, Pat accidentally lobs a homophobic diss at Stick 1, but it’s obvious he only did it because it rhymed. Everybody in the room immediately starts laughing, Pat included. He barely keeps it together through the giggles but he continues, managing to backpedal away from the accusation and assuring everybody that Stick is his homie. The moment provides an interesting contrast to the self-seriousness of the battle rap world, and its acceptance as “true” Hip-Hop. Honestly, I’d much rather listen to three congenial guys who, when they specifically mention other rappers in their verses, usually do it in order to complement a friend. (19)

E.S.G. Tape (1993 or 1994)   (20)

This tape has an interesting history. It is not part of the Diary of the Originator series because it was only released to the public in 2010, and only one copy of the original ever existed. Big DeMo—the S.U.C. member whose birthday party yielded Chapter 12: June 27th —had this cassette in his possession for more than fifteen years and eventually gave it to a Houston-based online radio station to release it digitally. (21) The tape documents a session featuring freestyles by E.S.G. and a few lesser-known S.U.C. satellites like Lil T, Lil C, Big Pimp, and Big Ken.

In an interview with Lance Scott Walker, DeMo described the recording of the E.S.G. Tape. “You know and everybody just used to flow on the end of a Screw tape. And this tape here, this was the first tape that I know of, of anybody just … doing the whole tape, and this tape here he done, I think he had three or four guys with him, and on each song, just about every song, one of ‘em fell off, you know? Until it was all E.S.G., which didn’t take long.” (22)

Apparently, DeMo was so impressed that he commissioned another tape. Chapter 298: Together Forever is labelled “Big DeMo’s Personal” and is composed of a hundred more straight minutes of E.S.G. freestyling, with brief appearances by Big T and Goldy. To my ears, Together Forever is more polished than the E.S.G. Tape, but it doesn’t come with the same exciting tale of archival discovery. Stories like that are the kind of thing Screw fans live for. The man’s catalogue was deep, and it’s likely that there are still lost tapes out there waiting to be dug up and scrutinized. The scene lends itself so well to mythologizing and an obsession over dates and details. For me, Screw tapes are like Beatles outtakes or Dylan bootlegs.

Chapter 214: Old School (1994) 

During the aforementioned 2010 Screw renaissance, many people seemed to think it would be funny and ironic to apply Screw’s slowing and chopping techniques to non-rap songs. Isn’t it cute and quirky to slow down the Cranberries? Not really. But I am including this tape in my list to point out that Screw himself wasn’t necessarily immune to this impulse. Old School is an oddity in Screw’s oeuvre, compiling mostly soul and funk tracks from the 1970s and ‘80s, including songs by Rick James, Cameo, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince.

The strangest thing on the tape, though, is identified on the official rerelease as a remix of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” but is actually a record a comedy skits performed by impressionist Rich Little. “President’s Rap” features Ronald and Nancy Reagan mistaking Hervé Villechaize for a young boy on a White House tour, and the president’s meeting with SNL’s clay casualty Mr. Bill, all recorded over a toothless cover of Tom Tom Club’s original tune. One wonders why the record exists in the first place and Screw’s use of it only adds to the confusion.

Listening to this softens my disdain for the artists and critics with whom I began this article. Not only does it make me feel that I should take all of this less seriously than I do, and simply be happy that Screw’s memory and influence has grown to reach outside of the subculture that fostered it, but it suggests to me that Screw himself wasn’t sanctimonious about his music. He probably thought that slowing down a bad comedy record—one whose topical content rendered it twelve years out-of-date in 1994—was ironic and amusing. I can’t imagine that he thought that Rich Little was actually funny. This might be the only example of Screw utilizing his methods in the way most people seem to think he did, by treating records as “found objects”—the raw material for a winking post-modern collage.

Endnotes: 

  1. One notable example was a 2010 article about DJ Screw in the New York Times that placed large photographs of Oneohtrix Point Never and Salem above one of the man himself.
  2. They weren’t. Their first two albums are quite strong.
  3. I am not going to name names because, perhaps, I am a coward who would hope to not discourage any journalists from writing about my band. Or maybe I just don’t want to search through a bunch of websites looking for all the articles that annoyed me five years ago.
  4. On the most recent album by my group Clipping, we made a track that was partly a tribute to Screw. We didn’t want to simply slow down a beat and chop the drums on the second to last eighth note of every bar—that would have been too thievish. Plus, just ripping off his techniques would have been antithetical to Screw’s pioneering creativity. Instead, each individual drum sound that made up the beat for “Dominoes” was the sound of a record slowing to a full stop—we screwed every element separately and then constructed a track out of those sounds. Most people didn’t recognize that the song was, in part, an homage, and we were happy to keep the reference obscure
  5. Apparently everybody is really into slowed down Chipmunks records now, instead of slowed down Justin Bieber.
  6.  This is not an insult to Screw’s skill, but I grew up in the Bay Area attending Invisibl Skratch Piklz shows and I may have a skewed notion of turntable virtuosity.
  7. This store might have been in Emeryville. I can’t find any online evidence that it ever existed.
  8. Screw re-used this intro a handful of times. It appeared first on the E.S.G. Tape discussed below, as well as on Chapter 238: On The Real ’95, and probably others that I haven’t heard.
  9. A lot of rappers’ voices start to sound similar when slowed down, but E-40’s remains distinctive. Perhaps it’s because I am so familiar with his sound that there’s something particularly uncanny for me in E-40’s screwed voice.
  10. Big Moe’s freestyle over the beat to Celly Cel’s “It’s Goin’ Down” from Chapter 66: Layed Back Rollin ’96 is good example of Houston’s appreciation for the same Bay Area rap classics that I grew up listening to. (This list mostly neglects to mention Big Moe, but that’s not because I am not a huge fan of his. Purple World is a masterpiece.)
  11. For somebody who only occasionally rapped, DJ Screw had a lyrical sense of language. Some of his tape titles are like exquisite molecules of poetry. I couldn’t dream of a better phrase to describe the kinesthetic deliciousness of a car’s paint job. Considering he had to come up with one per week, I seriously think his titles should be more highly regarded among fans.
  12. I write “mostly” because Lil Flip often had beef with other rappers, and those rivalries could get rather poisonous.
  13. Allegedly, Screw would fill up a 90 minute cassette, and then, in the dubbing stage, slow it down to transfer it to a 100 minute cassette.
  14. When I asked Samur Khouja—the man who booked Don’t Screw Up at the Handbag Factory—his favorite Screw tape he answered Leanin’ on a Switch immediately. I expect this is the reason he fought so hard to book Lil’ Keke at the show.
  15. The duo of Lil’ Keke and Big Pokey appear on another excellent all-freestyle tape: the earlier and decidedly sleepier Chapter 36: Who Next Wit Plex (1995). That tape also features an under-recorded S.U.C. member, Bird, who apparently used to stand behind the front door Screw’s house holding a gun on nights when the crew sold tapes through the grate.
  16. Another great example of the looseness and party-like atmosphere of a Screw session can be found on Chapter 226: Million Dollar Hands (1995). Near the end of the B-side, Big Jut holds the microphone up to the face of a sleeping S.U.C. member as he snores loudly. Despite all the background laughter, whoever it is doesn’t wake up and the music starts back up again.
  17. What’s more, when screwed down, Pat’s vocal timbre provides a rather credible impression of Biggie’s baritone rumble.
  18. This track is actually titled “Bubble (Remix Clean – Instrumental)” on the center label of the “It’s Supposed to Bubble” 12” single. If I were the type to comment on YouTube videos, I’d jump in and identify this beat, because nobody appears to have done so anywhere online yet.
  19. This example also manages to explain why so many S.U.C. rappers were able to make great albums, and so many battle rappers have struggled with songwriting. The guys on Screw tapes weren’t freestyling as a parlor trick, they did it to hone their all-around skills as rappers. They improvised, yes, but they did so with the goal of making coherent songs. It further their craft and made them better at making rap songs. Battle rap is a skill—one that is undoubtedly impressive—but it contributes nothing to the actual work of making good rap songs. It is a completely different game. And unfortunately, I would much rather listen to an album by E.S.G. or Z-Ro than by Jin.
  20. The title of this tape is up for debate. The zip file that Optimo Radio shared is labeled “E.S.G. Tape” but online commenters have identified it under different names.
  21. This mix was the bestselling Screw tape during Screw’s lifetime and contains the most famous freestyle ever recorded by Screw—a thirty-six minute flow by Big Moe, Bird, DeMo, Key-C, Yungstar, Big Pokey, Kay-Luv, and Haircut Joe over Kriss Kross’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right.”
  22. Walker, Lance Scott. Houston Rap Tapes. Los Angeles, CA: Sinecure Books, 2013. p. 151. Emphasis and ellipses in the original.
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