http://abaddonawaits.com/2015/07/21/all-i-wanna-do-is-bang-screw/

http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/slow-life-and-fast-death-dj-screw?fullpage=1

You may never have heard of him, but Robert Earl Davis, Jr.—a.k.a. DJ Screw—was one of the most influential musical figures to come out of Texas in the past decade. He wasn’t a musician or even a rapper; he was a guy behind the turntables mixing other people’s music and raps together. He built his career on a strange, brilliant idea: slow down the music, like taking a 45 record and playing it at 33 rpm. Then he put it on tape and sold it. His tapes became an underground sensation, so popular that people would drive hundreds of miles to his Houston home to buy them. No one knows how many tapes he recorded in his short life—probably more than a thousand—or how many copies are out there. Probably millions. They were dubbed endlessly and passed around neighborhoods and schools like keys to a secret underworld. And the rappers on the tapes, whom Screw had nurtured in his little studio, eventually became famous in their own right. He was a mysterious outlaw hero: artist, entrepreneur, and benevolent godfather in the most vital music scene in Texas.

In truth, this isn’t just Screw’s story. It’s also that of the gritty urban subculture around him, one in which young black men struggle daily with the pathologies of drugs and violence. But here on the south side of Houston, you’ll also find astonishing creativity, powerful dreams, and an unrelenting capitalistic spirit that fits right in with the city’s long wildcatting tradition. Screw, more than anyone, set the tone you’ll hear these days in H-town.

Still and all, he’s dead. Screw’s story, like that of so many brilliant modern music pioneers, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, ended badly and early. While Screw was slowing down the music, he was slowing himself down with various substances, especially codeine. It finally killed him, on November 16, 2000, at the age of 29…

More than three hundred rap albums were released here last year, including several featuring Hawk, Lil-O, Clay-Doe, Mike D, and 3-2, and the musicians enjoy huge local support. There are studios, mastering plants, design companies, CD and tape manufacturers, viable labels, fanzines, distributors, and promo companies. There’s a radio station—97.9 FM, the Boxx—that plays a lot of local rap. And there’s a club circuit with supportive fans that extends from Houston through the South, from Austin to Atlanta. Indeed, Houston is a focal point of the Down South, or Southern rap scene, and local rappers are huge in cities like Little Rock and New Orleans…

Ellis compares the Houston scene to the punk rock revolution of the late seventies, when everybody, it seemed, was starting bands. “The cultural difference is that in Houston, it’s not bad to make money,” he says. “The goal is not to lose your middle-classness but to achieve it.” … Although there is plenty of rapping about street violence, guns, and the like, most of the songs concern the vagaries of leisure: ballin’ (partying), being a player (one who excels at partying), making money, and hanging out with your buddies in H-town. They rap in detail about the outrageously colorful, candy-coated slabs (cars) with screens (TVs) mounted on the visors, twenty-inch blades (wheels), and wood (wood-grained steering wheels). They sing about swangin’ and bangin’ (slowly and artfully swerving while cruising and listening to music) and taking drugs, which include marijuana (sometimes dipped in formaldehyde and PCP and called “wet” or “fry”) and, especially, codeine cough syrup, which is usually mixed with soda pop or lemonade and poured over ice into a large Styrofoam cup. It’s also called lean, because when you drink enough of it you begin to, well, lean. There’s a lot of leaning going on in Houston these days…

There were no jobs for black teenagers in Smithville, and Screw needed an urban environment to perfect his urban art form. He went right to work on it. “When I’d leave home,” his father told me, “I wouldn’t worry about him being on the street. I knew he’d be up in his room playing his music.” Robert Senior was driving for a chemical company and went all over Texas and Louisiana, and during that time father and son lived in a hard-edged black working-class neighborhood near Hobby Airport. Screw dropped out of Sterling High School when he was a sophomore. All the low-key teen cared about was music, he told his skeptical father, and he was going to make it big one day…

Everybody wanted Screw tapes. One reason was that you could understand the words, and the rappers Screw chose were all good with words. Another was that Screw picked great songs, usually West Coast gangsta raps that he liked and not whatever was a hit. Plus, he was a homeboy, from their very own south side. Maybe best of all, Screw had found a way to slow down time—he had found another world. So many people were coming to his apartment to buy tapes that the building manager thought he was a drug dealer. The police kicked in his door a couple of times looking for drugs. He moved to a home near Gulfgate Mall and fans followed, knocking on his door at all hours…

It’s like he knew what you were going through by the way he was playing.” Patrick Lewis, head of Jam Down Entertainment, told me he thinks Screw’s music had a lot to do with the decrease in Houston gang violence in the mid-nineties. “He was all about slowing down, chilling out, smoking a little weed. No more hating. Screw became a part of life.” …

Besides being a launching pad to fame, Screw’s home studio was a place to hang out. And it was a lab for aspiring artists. “We were all growing, feeling ourselves out,” said Hawk. C-Note told me, “Without Screw, I’d probably be on the streets or in jail or dead.” Instead, he became a local hero…

Screw had achieved true fame, some of it spread by the bootleggers: His name had become a verb and an adjective. To “screw” a tape meant to slow it down, and a “screwed” tape was one that had been slowed…

True, but Screw was stubborn and, for all his complaining, happy with his life. He certainly made plenty of money—no one knows how much, but it was surely more than a million (Tosin estimates that Screw could take in $3,000 on a good night of tape sales). Screw was a traditionalist: a diligent analog guy in a digital world, a deejay who worked with vinyl when others had graduated to computers, a believer in cassettes when others had left them behind. He took his time with projects, working long and hard, sometimes two or three days straight…  Screw dressed for work in comfortable Dickies pants and Fubu (“For Us By Us”) shirts, and he would wear his shoes until his feet came out of the sides.

He didn’t care about his shoes. He cared about the music. And keeping the rappers, his friends, happy. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” Hawk said. “As our careers were blossoming, he never wanted any credit.” He was generous in other ways too. “He had guys calling him from prison,” remembered his mother. “He would send them money. I’d say something to him and he’d say, ‘Mom, they just want to talk.’ He never said no to nobody.” Wannabe rappers would approach him on the street and start rapping at him. Screw would listen, no matter how awful they were, and sometimes give them his phone number…

Codeine was taking its toll. “Screw was really a small person, but the drug made him bigger.” More accurately, it was his lifestyle: the long hours sitting in the studio, the fried chicken Screw loved (Popeye’s, Church’s, and his favorite, Hartz Chicken in Missouri City), and the lethargic, slowed-down world of codeine cough syrup that had caused his body to balloon to more than two hundred pounds…

Two and a half weeks later he was dead on the floor of a toilet stall at his studio, an ice cream wrapper clutched in his hand. The news threw young people all over Houston into despair…

The autopsy report, released in January, confirmed what Screw’s close friends already suspected: He died of a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication.” He had “toxic levels” of codeine—an opiate, like heroin—in his blood, as well as Valium and PCP. Like many users, Screw would blend drugs to enhance the high. There was no mention of heart disease, though he did have an enlarged heart. Yes, Screw did drugs (according to one old friend, he had sipped syrup every day for the past decade); he was also, in his cousin’s words, a great young man. If the history of popular music shows us anything, it’s that the two are not irreconcilable.

Of course, music and drugs have always gone together, from jazz and heroin to psychedelic rock and LSD to raves and Ecstasy…

Screw did, and Washington, his former manager and a recovering crack addict, admitted what Screw’s family couldn’t: “His lifestyle killed him. Syrup, pills. He probably needed help but didn’t know where to turn.” The truth is, Screw was surrounded by others living the same life he was, one that he himself had put to music. What might have seemed troubling to normal folks—from his obesity to the tape buyers, high on codeine, crashing into the fence around his house—would not have seemed out of the ordinary or dangerous to the king of the underground…

It should be obvious by now that screwed music is no gimmick. It is so popular in Houston now—among blacks as well as Latinos and white kids—that every local label releases two versions of every rap CD: a regular and a screwed version. If the label doesn’t screw it, someone else will...

(Photo taken 7/14/2015.)

4 thoughts on “(April 2001) The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I think Screw had a story to tell, when he was alive. But, maybe, dying was the most important story he ever told. Mr. Robert Earl Davis may have passed on, but DJ Screw will live forever. Good, bad or otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. anyone could slow down and sample beats from music. he really had a knack for choosing those heartfelt, painful down to earth songs I could feel even though I never lived anything close to the lives of those artists he sampled. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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