Robert Earl Davis Jr., July 20, 1971 – November 16, 2000, better known as DJ Screw.[dropcap]A[/dropcap]lthough there are many who’ve probably never heard of him, especially because he wasn’t a rapper or even a producer, none can contest that Robert Earl Davis, Jr. was a significant contributor to the Houston hip-hop industry. He was nicknamed “The Originator,” the pioneer who brought world-wide attention to the musical genre of “Screw.” He started with humble beginnings, growing up in the rural town of Bastrop, Texas. He later moved to south Houston, where he lived with his father. There, he was introduced to Daryl Scott, a local DeeJay and record store owner, who would sow the seeds in slowing the music down, which Davis would then explore and nurture into his own style.
Scott would play up-tempo, 12 inch dance records, made for playback at 45rpm and mix it in with songs that played at regular speed, 33rpm. The result was subtle; however, the slight change in tempo had a hypnotic effect and was easily accepted by those who heard it. Most impressed were Davis and another aspiring DeeJay, Michael Price, who was later stabbed to death. Nonetheless, Davis continued, undeterred by his partner’s killing, stating in a 1995 interview with Rap Pages that along with marijuana use, his inspiration ultimately came from a desire to hear the lyrics clearly. “When you smoking weed, listening to music, you can’t bob your head to nothing fast,” he taunts. As such, the dawn of DJ Screw’s ethereal “grey tapes” began and quickly grew into a local sensation.
They were called grey tapes because he distributed them on grey Maxell tape cassettes. It was said that when you first played a DJ Screw tape, its sound would make you think that the tape player was eating the tape, creating the urge to rush and stop it to avoid damage. Davis’ family and friends were some of his first supporters. He was mainly commissioned to make mix tapes for them to play at parties and give away as gifts. In a 2001 article from the Texas Monthly, his cousin Donald Davis, one of the many attendees at the beloved deejay’s funeral, states that he was one of the first people that Davis told of using the pseudonym–DJ Screw. “I said, DJ Screw, what kind of name is that? But he made it, and I was so proud of him,” he recalls.
It didn’t take long for Davis’ trademark technique of taking basic tracks and converting them into a syrupy, musical dream to become popular. DJ Screw fans raved that slowing down the song created an effect similar to that of using a popular drink known in Houston slang as “purple drank” or “lean,” a mixture of Codeine cough syrup and soda. Although the combination can be lethal, especially when ingested in large doses, it was considered as fuel to DJ Screw and a host of young adult Texans in the urban subculture. The trippy partnership between the “purple drank” and the “chopped and screwed” appeared to be a perfect concoction, soon earning both a permanent place in the gritty, Texan hip-hop underground clique. In fact, DJ Screw and his ultraslow sound became so popular that it wasn’t unusual to hear of people traveling from out of state to get their official version of his 100 minute mix tapes, which could be bought for ten dollars apiece.
So how exactly did he make a song “chopped and screwed?” Scientifically, anyone who can play a 45rpm single at 33rpm can somewhat replicate the effect; however, to accomplish a sound similar to DJ Screw requires insight, and through dedication and diligence Davis mastered the process. By adding scratches, EQ, and various effects to create the perfect pitched down sound, interlaced with augmented demonic sounding voiceover, he elevated the process from what could have easily been thought of as a mistake or a joke, into a respected musical art form. Unlike the majority of people in the music industry, striving for worldwide recognition, Davis appeared to be more focused on the pulse of the underground, namely the Houston hip hop South Park Coalition. In the early 90’s, it was common for him to invite many of Houston’s local artists to freestyle on his mix tapes, forming the Screwed Up Click (SUC). This not only help their careers, as some of them secured record deals from their cameo appearances, but secured Davis’ place as a central figure in the Houston hip-hop community. Everyone knew that it wouldn’t be long before the record labels would come looking for Davis himself.
In 1995, he was noticed by Houston’s Big Tyme, the first record label to put a pair of Davis’ grey tapes into stores, a 2-CD compilation, 3 N’ tha Mornin Vol. 1 & 2, featuring artist UGK from the SUC. The rap group Three 6 Mafia also brought National attention to the Chopped and Screwed movement with the release of their hit song “Sippin’ on Some Sizzurp.” Not to mention his usage of emerging online file-sharing services like Napster, which offered the opportunity to extend his market internationally, many believed that Davis was on the verge of a major breakthrough in his career. Unfortunately, similar to other musical greats such as Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and Easy E, DJ Screw’s life was cut short by an untimely death. On November 16, 2000, DJ Screw died from what medical examiners report as an overdose of codeine; he was only 29 years old.
Now, nearly fifteen years after his death, DJ Screw continues to inspire. Although new names in which we refer to the slowed down sound have sprouted, many bands pay homage, siting him as a significant influence. Even computer programers like Paul Octavian Nasca, the creator of Paul’s Extreme Sound Stretch, aide in keeping the “Screwed” technique alive. So while the truth remains that the world will never know the true magnitude of his talents and where they would have lead, what is known is that his legacy thrives, and it remains as inspiration for generations to come. Get your own copy of of the original Chopped and Screwed at Screweduprecords.com or at 7717 Cullen Blvd., Unit C Houston, TX 77051.