Today, 13 years ago, Robert Earl "DJ Screw" Davis, Jr., died of a codeine overdose inside his Houston recording studio. He was only 29, and his impact on the world of hip-hop and pop music was just beginning. His catalog of releases—slowed mixes of popular rap songs and freestyles, typically distributed by cassette—spread first regionally, then throughout the world. The music he made would go on to inspire generations of artists and, fairly, play a big part in shaping the sound of popular music as we know it today. You've heard the production style that earned him the nickname "The Originator." It's called "chopped and screwed."
The nature of DJ Screw's tapes—thousands produced between the early 1990s and his death in 2000, and hundreds released commercially—makes documentation and evaluation a hard task.
The tapes function as something closer to a radio broadcast than an album: a rotating cast of characters join in on the creation: UGK's Bun B and Pimp C, Southside Houston Screwtape celebrities like Fat Pat and Lil Keke, but also folks like Screw's barber, Jut. Dozens of guests, from nationally-known stars to promethazined wannabes—everybody just having a good time at Screw's house.
The Screw corpus rewards deep and broad listening, familiarity with the crew and local events and places. This is a list of ten tapes that stand up as dope singular documents, but should also be a starting point for more extensive listening.
Written by Dylan King.
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10. DJ Screw Southside Holding (1997)
"Screw, we gonna dedicate this to Pat Lemmon, man. Everyone here, mourning ya." A friend of Screw and Fat Pat, known for cracking trunk in his Lincoln with "SOUTHSIDE HOLDIN" in the neons, Pat Lemmon was in the house for the making of a lot of the early tapes. So Screw and Fat Pat flipped the neon slogan for the title of this first RIP tape. (A second, All About Pat, came out a few months later).
This tape is a whole other thing from the full-house freestyle sessions—the slowed-down funk capturing a sad, mournful tone that would come to run through much of Screw's music. Pat delivers a eulogy for Lemmon, while Screw rolls out 'Pac and Above the Law, UGK's "One Day," Richie Rich's "Do G'z Get 2 Go 2 Heaven," Born 2wice's "Heaven 4 a G."
"We still pull the Lincoln down."
"Got to, baby."
"Trunk wide open."
"We love you, baby."
And Spice 1's voice scratched under them: "I know I won't live forever."
9. DJ Screw Blue 22 (1999)
There was never a lot of crossover between Rap-a-Lot-type Houston rap, early '90s old-school blue-collar Street Military-type Houston rap, and the Screwed Up Click (SUC). They shared some connections, though, and one of the few artists that unites all three schools is Z-Ro, a meeting point for regional hitmakers like Scarface or Big Mello, grimy, thoughtful South Park Coalition cats, and deliberate, thuggish, West Coast-influenced SUC rappers like Pokey and E.S.G.
Z-Ro pops up on the tapes late in the game. (G Love from '98 is his first appearance.) And while a lot of dudes that you hear with Screw are in jail or dead—a fucking depressing number of RIP tapes and shoutouts add to the melancholy of listening to a cat like Moe going crazy on a hook and remembering that he is dead and everyone else on the track is dead and the guy that's cutting up the record is dead. (R.I.P. to the players DJ Screw, Big Moe, Big Steve, H.A.W.K., Fat Pat, D-Drew, and on and on and on.) Or they never managed to weather the changes in the industry or break out of regional bullshit. But Z-Ro went on to another decade of success, doing his own thing.
Blue 22 is a personal birthday tape for Ro. But it's a subdued one. Apart from some Whodini and "Hard Knock Life," he just wanted to hear some Cube, 'Face, Street Military, Fat Pat, and one of his own tracks where he reminisces about seeing visions of his own casket. Ro comes harder on his other appearances, but the tossed off flow after Screw announces they're pulling an all-nighter makes this a sentimental favorite. He rolls into one verse, "Never slippin/Dippin' on alligator, Glock grippin'/Ready for plex, I done already put the clip in—" before cutting it short and bullshitting with Screw over "Major Players."
8. DJ Screw Leanin' On A Switch (1996)
"Slam the ass and raise it up on three/Here come Keke with the Big Pokey." A hundred twenty minutes of Keke, Pokey, and the underrated Mike D over classic beats. Other SUC members, such as Fat Pat, sounded more at home on dense West Coast music. But Keke and Pokey are made for this golden age NYC stuff, reconciling good-times Bronx-park-jam-toasting and hopeless Houston-working-class Geto Boys-isms.
Pokey and Keke over Eric B. and Rakim is 20 minutes of straight flowing: Keke sounding focused and pissed off, rapping about drug-game bullshit, police hassles, and bumper kits. And Pokey rolling around the Beltway, vacillating between diamond-grilling girls in parking lots and stirring up Northside-Southside rivalry, reviving the Daytons versus 84s debate. The session closes with Pokey picking up after a weakening Keke and tearing apart the Grandmaster Flash-jacking "Check Yo Self"—a victory lap with trunk popped: "It's the Poyo," he exclaims. "Known for movin' the crack..." And then the closing credits, rolling over D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar" slowed to syrup-thick bass and nothing else.
7. DJ Screw No Drank (1995)
"Drank been dry for about a week or two now..."
Off the codeine, razorblading Swishers at Screw house, Pat and Keke with Dave and Boo doing backup offers a general lesson on the aesthetic of the Screw tape freestyle, the formula of routines and constructions: The "I'm comin' down" shit, the North-South rivalry, the yellowbones-in-Yellowstone, the starchy clothes and sipping pints, dropping tops, rolling out on 84s.
But listening deeper, the formal constraints force guys like Pat to come up with a new way to flip a certain line, a new way to say "I was chopping down the boulevard looking fresh," and you get perfection of a relatively narrow method. The limited content leads a microscopic approach to the Southside quotidian, trying to approach precision in description, ever looking for a new detail to note. Not just mentioning the purr of a Cadillac motor, but noting displacement and timbre, not just sitting on chrome but sitting on 84s with custom vogues, going on to describe the poke and the spokes, a sensual experience, where you can feel the Styrofoam beading condensation and smell the sweet Swisher smoke.
No Drank is vintage mid-period Screw, when the gang was still healthy and hungry and everyone sounds indefatigable and smartass. (Perhaps due, at least in part, to the lack of prescription depressants).
6. DJ Screw Wineberry Over Gold (1995)
In the days before all the commercially-released Screw mixes were floating around the internet, hearing a lot of this music involved a phone call and a money order mailed to Houston. A tape called Wineberry Over Gold had to be dope.
"Keepin' it real... A nigga gotta keep it real in this '9-5, knowmsayin'... Ups and downs; smiles and frowns... It's real, knowmsayin'? What's up Stick Boy? '9-5..." That's Screw opening a favorite, Pac's "It Ain't Easy," for a personal tape for Stick 1. Delving into his West Coast catalogue, he brought forth classic records that were still mostly news in most parts of the country: "Dusted and Disgusted," Ant Banks' "2 the Head," Too Short's "Coming Up Short." Pat's freestyle was focused as fuck, nothing like he'd sound later on, with the ebullient hosting duties he'd assume on other tapes.
Fifteen minutes of spitting fire on some North-South Houston rivalry, Pat calls out Homestead car-jackers, promising to repatriate every red car, bumper kit and set of 84s by armed force: "It ain't just a game/I hope they hear this tape..." Flowing off-the-dome militancy, Pat proves he's the greatest that ever got on a Screw tape. The legends of the tapes, Pokey, Keke, even guys like Grace, Mike D, Flip, they were hard as fuck on everything they touched. But Pat's style is untouchable, effortless with wordplay, never struggling to flip a line, never sounding anything but flawless.
5. DJ Screw Pussy, Weed, and Alcohol (1998)
Screw set up with his tables and sounds like nobody else was in the place, playing whatever comes to mind. 'Pac's "When I Get Free," for example, giving it a close reading, chopping up the hook but bringing it back for all the key lines. Scraping the record back on, "All them niggas that was frontin' while I sat up in the cell," then cutting into 8Ball's all time greatest storytelling rap, "Time," over lazy shoutouts, singing along with Big on "Victory" ("used to call me fatso...") and confirming the Puffy line, "My songs bump in Houston like Scarface produced 'em."
But ultimately, this reaches classic status on the one-two closing punch of "Pussy, Weed and Alcohol" and Erykah Badu's "Otherside of the Game." Screw mumbling through the 5th Ward Boyz obscene hymn to "bitches that dig pussy" and "getting your dick sucked on the freeway," Devin's comedic tone on the hook undercutting the sentiment, even while Willie D notes that he doesn't mind "bitches that shoot up." Which then makes "Otherside of the Game" the perfect closer. Erykah Badu's slowed-to-Nina-Simone huskiness, depth, "What you gonna do when they come for you," and Screw answers back, "Don't worry about a nigga like me.... Gotta put that question on your mind, though..." And he lets it ride out uncut.
4. DJ Screw June 27 (1996)
"It's that Big Moe in here with that boy D-Mo on his b-day..." Another tape that catches the atmosphere at Screw's place. Judging by the mid-tape roll call, those in attendance included Big Moe, D-Mo, Haircut Joe, Key-C, Big Pokey, Yungstar, Mike D, Clay Doe, Pooh. And the list of shouts that goes out to people "on lock" runs to a dozen and includes Keke and ESG. Everyone's crammed in, passing the mic while Screw chops records. The thirty-eight minute freestyle is a classic, a loose bull session hosted by Big Moe, who hooksangs introductions for everyone as they step up. All the players shine, but the track is a showcase for Big Pokey and Yungstar's wildly different styles.
One of the hardest that ever picked up a mic at Screw's house, Pokey has a deliberate, declamatory flow, no hesitation. So even if it's off the dome, there's no hint of seams or awkward transitions as he runs through routines. Running "trunk-waved and corner-paid" to "fucking hoes" in his room. With the transition of the Paul Wall-sample: "Sitting sideways, boys in a daze/On a Sunday night I might bang me some Maze/Maybe O'Jays, hoes be goin crazy."
And Yungstar destroys it like Flip would do a couple years later on Southside Still Holdin, rolling his weedy voice around in the mix, sometimes laying back into the beat and going straightforward and sometimes singing against the beat, bringing a rare goofy humor to his flow that fits in with the vibe of the tape.
Apart from the freestyle, the tape features "Crossroads" slowed to a blurry, moaning mess. And Botany Boys' rock-hard "Survivin' the Game," straight Street Military-style realness that sounds like it was made specifically for Screw to manipulate, and a Steel Pulse track slowed to sick lovers-rock tempo, chopped mercilessly and slid into a Pac's "High 'Til I Die."
3. DJ Screw Codeine Fien (1995)
This isn't grimy Keke freestyles or Screw devotedly chopping up Pac. Just a personal tape for Screw's boy Randy, who was down from 1992. A classic for the atmosphere, Screw's diligent mixing (of a sort that would go missing on later tapes). You can picture Bird and Mike D leaning over the tables. You can picture Screw letting the beat ride on "Swangin and Bangin," lifting a fat hand off the record to wipe sweat off his forehead, pausing to let Randy give shoutouts, "All these boys got their Nikes on. This ain't the flea market shit. We all real up in here."
And the ESG hook comes in, "And now you know what my real Gs do/Sip syrup, swang and bang/Jam nothin' but that Screw, fool." Twelve minutes riding out to ESG, perfect as it gets, Screw bringing it back, cutting it down, synth wounds opening up and bleeding across the hook, the drums broken down to tin cans rattling across pavement. A freestyle break for Mike D to take the mic over Domino's "Tales from the Hood." But this tape, more than others, is about Screw's mix and just digging on another way to listen to a track, the dopeness of slowed-down music. E-40's "It's All Bad," the creepiness and sadness fuller and enhanced. The way that "Groovin' on a Sunday"'s sunshine and murder and West Coast chilled-ness just sounds more correct at half speed.
2. DJ Screw Southside Still Holdin' (1999)
"I been hurtin' in my heart since they took that Fat Pat..." This is a tribute to Pat, who was shot to death in February, 1998. And also—epitomizing the way that Screw tapes could so effectively mix joy and sadness, pleasure and pain—a personal tape for Big Snoop's birthday.
Screw chops up Pat's classics, big voice muddled down in tape hiss and slow bass, his boys singing along with the hooks, letting everyone know the Ruger's still cocked. And the archetypal Screw tape freestyle, anchored by names that flared on the Southside but would fade after Screw's death—ice-cold Clique veterans like D-Drew and Lil O, and the debut of Lil Flip. "Wanna Be a Baller" chopping in the background and everyone passing the mic, going in, fucking up lines, shouting out Pat while people nod off with lit Backwoods in their mouths.
Lil O, who was just blowing up off a string of street singles, comes hard with pissed-off writtens on drug-game beef and Bentleys big as hippopotamuses. Tape hissing, slowed down into a jailphone Shyne, "Know I lick shots with this/If it's plex you please/Fat rat with the cheese/Nigga, it's SUC, runnin' up in boys houses/Lay 'em down for keys."
And then Flip. This is a rapper whose career now stands as a perfect what-not-to-do guide for regional superstars trying to blow up: Neglecting the local market, bad deals, anonymous singles, ill-advised beefing that begins with dissing E.S.G. and culminates with calling out Chief Keef in between fighting credit card fraud charges and hosting parking lot show-and-shines in Waco. Here, Lil Flip drops the greatest performance in rap history, uniting oldschool boasting about rapping and stoned, shy 17-year-old, cool-excitement punchlines about foreign cars and girls. The vocabulary and sentiment and day-to-day of the Screw universe, the world being described and suggested by all the tapes is whipped into a surreal panorama—a fucked-up stroll through South Houston, hitting up Whataburger, eating barbecue with Screw, watching Nickelodeon with Yungstar. Flip took all the routines and tics and quirks of what other rappers were doing on Screw tapes and stretched them to absurdity. He invented the next half-decade of Houston rap off the top of his head, condensed all the slang and sound of the city into one fifteen-minute freestyle.
(That probably sounds hyperbolic. It can be hard to dig this. Just like it can be hard to appreciate a lot of what's going on on Screw tapes—after mid-2000s goofballs like Mike Jones and Paul Wall blew up, flipping the slang and the aesthetic of rappers like Flip, and Bun B hanging out at Vice parties. But seriously, as cold as legends like Pat and Keke are on the tapes, Flip does things they couldn't do. Beyond the surreal imagery, the shape and rhythm of his flow is amazing, stretching and compressing lines, abruptly changing his cadence or rhythm, as if he's slowing and chopping his own flow in realtime. When Flip finally relinquishes the mic and the hook comes in, the next sound is a roar of approval from everyone in the room.)
1. DJ Screw It's All Good (1998)
"We interrupt this Screwed Up broadcast to bring you a very important news bulletin. Mr. Fat Pat has been in the news again today. He has been spotted on MLK and he has been hated by a hundred more motherfuckin' folks. When will this shit ever stop? We'll see if we can get an interview with Mr. Fat Pat. Mr. Fat Pat, are you taking any interviews?"
"Yeah, I'ma take a motherfuckin' interview. Boys steady talkin' down, I'ma put it in their motherfuckin' face. But I'ma let you know, 9-8, nigga, I'm in the store and we 'bout to kick in the motherfuckin' door."
Screw drops "Kick in the Door," and Pat wishes himself a final happy birthday over Premier's drums and the voice of one of the few rappers that matched him for lyrical effortlessness and creativity. (Shoutouts include: "Weasel in this bitch," to Kenneth "Weasel" Watson, a man who has been accused of setting up Pat's murder.) Then we slide out of Biggie horn blasts into Click favorites Ball and G, and Pat making his birthday shoutouts over slowed Suave House and Da Brat and 'Pac and Bad Boy. Screw grinds through "Ghetto Dope," Master P's voice distorted to growls and howls. And everything closes on a final, triumphant Pat and Keke freestyle on "Been Around the World." On greasy hits-from-the-80s Bad Boy shine, it's easy to draw the line between Sugarhill Gang goofy big-sweater rhymes and Pat's "What's my motherfuckin' name? F-A-to the T" old-school swagger, even when he's visiting "hoes" on Fondren, pistol in his lap. Last chance to hear Pat and Keke together, putting aside their usualy competitiveness, just having stupid fun jumping out of rides in Gucci shoes.