Jaap van der Doelen is a classic man.
You could argue that the work of Stephen Bruner—better known as Thundercat, one of the most technically proficient and renowned bass players in the entire world—doesn’t need to be remixed. Along with his own warm but impossible to pin down compositions, he can be heard playing with everyone from Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, to Herbie Hancock and Suicidal Tendencies. As long as he can let loose his inimitable bass playing, there’s barely any adventure in music he’s unwilling to undertake.
Yet, even one as imaginative as he is can be completely taken by surprise, and by a reworking of his own music, nonetheless. When Bruner first heard what DJ Candlestick, a veteran of Houston’s ‘chopped & screwed’ subculture and a member of OG Ron C & The Chopstars, did to his own album Drunk, he immediately became convinced it’s “the way this album was meant to be heard.”
On a recent episode of Red Bull Radio’s Bruh, he passionately extolled the virtues of the ‘chopped not slopped’ version of his album. “I remember hearing it and I just wanted it to be the original. Even with the lyrical content and the stuff that’s happening already in the album, it’s this thing where it’s like—it just made it better…I don’t wanna listen to the album the normal way anymore.”
It’s a sensation he’s willing to share with as much people as possible, as evidenced by Brainfeeder’s official release of the remix album. Drank unceremoniously debuted last year as an Audiomack download, but is now available on all streaming channels as well as on CD and appropriately purple vinyl. The way that eventually happened is a story of pride and passion. This is how Drunk became Drank.
“I love being a good ambassador for my city and for Texas,” says Sama’an Ashrawi, who’s credited as a co-producer on Drank, and was the catalyst for the project. As a college student in Austin, he met legendary rapper Bun B through a local hiphop TV show he produced. Actually befriending him over the following years surprised him as much as anybody else. “It’s so ridiculous he wants to hang out with me by choice,” Ashrawi says laughing. With his mop of black hair, slim frame, and joyously youthful appearance, a starker contrast to Bun B’s natural authority as a rap elder statesman would indeed be hard to find. “We should be in a buddy cop movie,” he jokes.
At the inaugural edition of Houston’s Day For Night festival, Ashrawi was hanging out with his famous buddy when he met Flying Lotus—friend and frequent collaborator of Thundercat, and founder of Brainfeeder—and pitched him an idea. “I’d been thinking for a while that some of his songs on You’re Dead would sound so good chopped & screwed, and I was already friends with Candlestick and OG Ron C. I wanted to get Flying Lotus’ stuff chopped by them, but I didn’t want it to be random. I wanted it to have his blessing,” he says.
It lead to a chopped & screwed version of “Dead Man’s Tetris” that stayed somewhat under the radar. After moving to LA however, Ashrawi became roommates with Brainfeeder’s label manager Adam Stover, and wasn’t willing to let the idea of chopped & screwed Brainfeeder stuff go just yet. “When Thundercat put out Drunk, I listened to it and—pffooow,” he motions his mind being blown. “I was like ‘dude, if y’all put this out as a chopped & screwed thing, people are gonna lose their minds.’ He said, ‘Alright man, if they do it, send it to me.’”
Despite their initial openness to the idea, a chopped & screwed version of Drunk still didn’t prove an easy sell to his LA compatriots. But Ashrawi, who drops a Texan ‘y’all’ into his speech pattern with the same ease as he does a Californian ‘like,’ had been living with its appeal for most of his life. “Growing up in Houston it was a totally regular thing,” he says. “You’d get an album and it’d be a two-disc release; on one disc you’d have the regular speed and the other you’d get the chopped & screwed version. It was normal for every album.”
DJ Candlestick agrees: “There’d be screwed hooks on the radio 24/7. It was just a part of the culture. You couldn’t live in Houston without listening to screw.” The veteran of the scene, whose father is from Guyana and whose mother is Jamaican, was raised in Houston as well. “I was introduced to it in eighth or seventh grade when I was about eleven, twelve,” he says in a deep, unmistakably Houston drawl. Candlestick formulates his sentences at a clear, leisurely pace, in a baritone that makes it sound closely akin to the style he loves so much. The man is chopped & screwed.
“There’s two groups that were the leaders of the screwed movement in Houston. There was Swishahouse, with OG Ron C and Michael Watts on the north side of Houston, and on the south side was DJ Screw. They were called Screwed Up Click,” Candlestick reminisces. “It had its mainstream run when a couple artists from Houston went national, like Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Lil Flip, and Chamillionaire of course. After that movement kinda died, a lot of people ’round here went ‘screwed’s dead, no one listens to it’ and the movement stopped. That’s what motivated OG Ron C and The Chopstars to pump some new life into it.”
Ashrawi is glad they did: “To me, because of having that experience growing up, whenever a new album comes out, I feel I need to hear it chopped & screwed, just to know what it’s sounds like.” With that mindset, he approached Candlestick and Ron C with the idea. “I was trying to explain Thundercat to them: ‘He has his own lane and does stuff that’s familiar but new at the same time. Chop this album. Please.’ So Candlestick said ‘Okay, can you get me the files?’ So I sent them over to him, he chopped it up and listening back to it like, ‘This is what I wanted to hear. This is exactly it.’”
Though Candlestick mostly remixes rap releases, he was open to stepping outside of his comfort zone. “I remember hearing Thundercat on Kendrick Lamar’s album and a couple of other projects and he’s very talented. I’m a fan of doing left field music now, I believe that will drive the screwed movement further than people would ever think…I think it fits into a time where people are just more open minded and looking for something different. Even though it’s not different, but it’s like a new wave. A new movement of screwed music coming forth. And it’s not just rap; we chop up reggae, rock and roll, bands like Little Dragon. It’s limitless. Screwed music is beautiful by itself, it’s an acquired taste.”
Says Ashrawi, “I read a couple reviews from people that don’t really get chopped and screwed music that said ‘Oh, this is just slowed down, there’s nothing new here,’ but no. On some of the songs, the way that Candlestick does his scratches, it’s like—I’ve listened to a lot of his mixes and this is some of his best work…At the end of ‘Tokyo’, there’s this two-minute interlude of Candlestick doing his scratches over it, and it’s… It’s beautiful.”
It’s also one of the songs that exemplifies why Thundercat’s intricate bass lines lend itself so well to the slowed down chopped & screwed groove. “The first time I heard ‘Tokyo’, it was overstimulating. In regular speed, it sounds like a mushroom trip; it’s super fast and crazy,” Ashrawi says. “But slowed down, it’s a jam. You can dance to it.”
Candlestick love revealing those hidden layers. “That’s another element of screwed music that I was attracted to, ‘cause I’m a person of detail too. You get to appreciate the music longer, and you get to relax and it puts you in kind of a trance sometimes. If you’ve had a long day and you just wanna mellow out, sip something, drank some or smoke, whatever you do, it puts you in that perfect element.”
Despite the mesmerizing quality of the remix, the Brainfeeder offices initially didn’t respond much to it. After Candlestick uploaded it to the web however, it was the appreciation of one of his most prominent fans that made them turn their heads: Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. The Oscar-winning director has been a supporter of the genre in his own work, and featured a chopped & screwed remix of Jidenna’s ‘Classic Man’ made specifically for the film. He also collaborated with Candlestick on the ‘chopped not slopped’ edit of the film’s soundtrack.
Having the acclaimed director publicly praise Drank meant a lot for its forward momentum, according to Ashrawi: “When I showed that to Adam [Stover], that’s when it started to click. A few days later, Thundercat tweeted out that Drank sounded how the album is supposed to sound.”
Thundercat’s enthusiasm after hearing it spearheaded the remix’s official rerelease on the label, but Flying Lotus was equally impressed. The label founder touted the rearranged tracklist, with “Drink Dat” featuring Wiz Khalifa in front, as a stroke of genius. “I considered if someone wasn’t into screwed music, I considered if someone wasn’t into Thundercat, you’re trying to put something that’s appealing to everybody in the front,” Candlestick explains. “And it goes with the flow of Drank; having a rapper in the front. To start the take with that tone and go from there.”
The word ‘take’ is key here, because after staking out their case like heist experts, Candlestick and OG Ron C usually dive right in and create their remix versions in one fluid motion. “I takes three hours at most. We do it live,” Candlestick says. “It’s second nature when we get in the zone,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s what we do man. It’s what sets us apart from the other guys. It’s what the phrase ‘chopped not slopped’ means; neatly and not sloppy.”
That being said, he’s far from done with the project after delivering it. After all, it’s Drunk’s slowed down and chopped up rendition as Drank that allows for every nuance in melody and every little corner of its universe to be fully explored. Says Candlestick, “Every time I listen to it, it’s like a new experience. I’ll catch something else I didn’t hear the first time.”
It’s like the voice-over in the middle of “Inferno” rightfully says: “Ya ain’t never heard no shit like this befo’.”