It’s 7 o’clock in the evening on Slab Sunday on Martin Luther King Boulevard on the south side of Houston, Texas, two years before the turn of the century. Hundreds of slabs are swanging and banging down the boulevard in the South Park neighborhood. Slabs are tricked-out old-school cars with candy paint, leather seats known as “buck”, woodgrain steering wheels, poked-out rims called swangas, trunks that pop open at the flick of a switch to broadcast neighborhoods and phrases in neon lights, with a fifth-wheel on back and chrome grill and woman-replica emblem on the front. Any old-school car can be transformed into a slab, but the best slabs usually are classic Cadillacs, Chevy Impala’s, and Oldsmobiles.
Traffic on MLK Boulevard is moving at school zone speed as the drivers show off their slabs, swanging up the block with meticulous speed. Swanging is when the slab-riders drive as slow as possible, alternating lanes while moving in a half-clockwise motion, making sure all bystanders get a full view and hear every sound banging out of the pimped-out car.
Banging is the boisterous sounds booming from the slab trunks. It isn’t a slab unless there isn’t a speaker system residing in the back that could rattle the streets and knock picture frames off nearby walls. Slab-riders competed with each other to see whose system could bang the loudest.
The slabs parade up and down MLK while each driver sips a large white cup of lean. Lean is an alcoholic mixture originated in Houston consisting of an active ingredient (promethazine with codeine cough syrup), a mixing ingredient (a Sprite soda) and a flavor additive (Jolly rancher candy). The lean is primarily drank out of two large, white styrofoam cups — two cups to keep the muddy beverage from seeping through and ruining the slab’s interior — and indulged while listening to a slowed down grey tape. The lean blended the slab-rider with the downtempo of the grey tape, with each word and mix on the screwed track being consumed at a heightened level. A hit of marijuana only enhanced the listening experience.
A different grey tape bangs out of every slab on MLK. The most prevalent grey tape heard is 1996’s classic 3 ’n The Mornin’, Pt. 2, which features the anthemic “Pimpin’ Tha Pen”, a freestyle by rapper Lil’ Keke that captured so much of what those slabs were doing on that Sunday. Drivers, riders and onlookers alike sing along with Keke as he proclaims that he’s “draped up and dripped out, know what I’m talking ‘bout” with his “hand on the woodgrain” and “ass on the tight white”. One line, however, tells of the man responsible for Slab Sundays and the lean and the sound that ultimately inspired it all: “My lyrics go together like a pair of socks and shoes, my flow is slow because it’s bolted down by DJ Screw”.
Over the course of a decade, DJ Screw originated a sound that would change and define the city, and would later become a staple in hip-hop nationally. DJ Screw almost singlehandedly pioneered a culture that would, for better or worse, would spearhead Houston rap’s uprising and ultimately lead to his downfall.
“Glass ’84’s, gleaming under my ride/A summertime vibe, it’s 1995/Back when, back when DJ Screw had the city slowed down/’3 n’ da mornin’, drank was pourin out” – Scarface, “Swangin” (2013)
In 1995, it all came together. Cars carrying customers from all over the Southern United States — Austin and Dallas, Louisiana, Arkansas, as far as South Carolina — would line up on the street containing DJ Screw’s home on Greystone Street in the northeast corner of Houston’s South Park neighborhood at all times of the day to get their grey tapes. A grey tape was the nickname given to the cloudy-colored cassette tapes featuring popular rap songs and improvised freestyles DJ Screw would slow down to a sluggish speed.
Screw would run instrumentals on his turntables and have members of his collective rap group, the Screwed Up Click, come over and freestyle on those instrumentals live in his house. Screw would record them onto a four-track tape, then take that tape and make a copy of it on the four-track recorder, slowing down the tape speed onto which he was recording, using 100-minute tapes to get the most recording space.
Screw would ten chop (scratch) the records up and add his signature shout-outs to friends he had met in various south side neighborhoods, his syrupy voice so inviting it felt like Screw was riding in the passenger seat. This process was all done live, and patrons would wait all day to get the real thing. It wasn’t enough to purchase a Screw tape from a bootlegger or copy a previously-bought version using computer technology; if you were going to jam a Screw tape, it had to be a grey tape.
The crowds grew so large that Screw had to install a large gate around his house (along with a .45 pistol) and keep a very large pit bull outside to keep prospective customers off the front lawn. Screw also had to set up a specified time for business hours. Tapes would only would be sold between seven p.m. and 10 p.m. At $10 a pop, Screw would pull in around $40,000 a month through his front gate from the mixtapes he manufactured himself in his home studio, with no middle man involved. Screw was independent in the truest sense. An artist’s artist, he cared only for the music and getting it out to as many people as possible. In January 1998, Screw moved his operation to a mom-and-pop style building located at 7717 Cullen Boulevard in South Park, by Houston’s 610 Loop. Screwed Up Records and Tapes satisfied Screw’s business side, giving his customer base a one-stop shop for all S.U.C. records. The new shop served a higher purpose: keeping the Houston police out of Screw’s hair. The lines around Screw’s house were getting so outrageous that local cops began to suspect something illegal was going on inside the large, gated home. Police entered Screw’s home looking for drugs on more than one occasion and one time kicked in the door.
But while the shop legitimatized Screw as a businessman, his heart resided in the studio.
In 1995, DJ Screw released over 50 mixtapes, including Volume II: All Screwed Up, his first legit release, on BigTyme Records. 3 ’n the Mornin’, Pt. 2, also released on BigTyme, would enter into Houston rap lore, along with the next year’s June 27th tape, which featured the classic freestyle title track.
“June 27th” became DJ Screw’s most famous song. During an impromptu celebration of a friend’s birthday at Screw’s house, the deejay sampled the teen duo Kris Kross’ “Da Streets Ain’t Right” into a 27-minute freestyle by several S.U.C. members that took the B-side of the tape. As a result of the track’s success, June 27th became an unofficial hip-hop holiday in Houston.
The Screwed Up Click’s slowed down music went from a niche style circulated around Houston to a full-on hip-hop genre on a national level. Port Arthur rap group UGK shouted Screw on “3 in the Morning” — off their certified-gold album Ridin’ Dirty — which took the name of Screw’s famous tape. Memphis rapper Eightball, of Eightball and MJG fame, joined Lil Keke on the remix to his Houston anthem “Southside”, a local hit record that was accompanied by an infectious dance. Several Screwed Up Click members appeared on Lil’ Troy’s 1999 smash single “Wanna Be a Baller”, Houston’s biggest crossover rap record since The Geto Boys released “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” eight years earlier.
By the turn of the century, Screw and other local artists dominated Houston music, thanks to a support system that allowed them to control how and when their music got released. Local FM station 97.9 The Box kept the growing number of Texas rappers in heavy rotation, devoting an hour of evening radio to a mix of assorted screwed songs. Southwest Wholesale, at the time one of the largest hip-hop music distributors in the country, helped Houston artists sell over one million albums in 2000, with a large majority of those coming from Screw’s coalition of South Side emcees. With no major label standing in the way of profits, the Screwed Up Click felt no pressure to compromise their music to make a living. That independent mindset and homegrown distribution system made it possible for many rappers to sell as little as 19,000 albums, often from the trunks of their cars, and make over $100,000. Big Moe, a rapper/singer from the Third Ward neighborhood and a popular Screwed Up Click member, sold over 100,000 units of his independently-distributed City of Syrup album.
Screw music would become larger than life in the coming years, transitioning from a provincial genre to a full-on cultural lifestyle. However, the music began to take a backseat to other aspects of the “screwed up” culture. It was no longer sufficient to just pop a Screw tape into the tape deck. The car you were jamming Screw in had to be a slab. The slab had to be candy-painted — red for Southsiders, blue for Northsiders. The rims had to be swangas, ’83’s or ’84’s to be exact. ’83’s and ’84’s are 30 spoke wire wheels that were a chosen upgrade option available on 1983 and 1984 Cadillac Eldorados. The grill had to be chrome-plated and the trunk had to be ready to be popped high to show the trailing car or any bystander what hood the driver was representing.
And there was the lean. There was no Screw without the lean.
DJ Screw had been drinking “lean” since the early ‘90s, mixing codeine cough syrup with an alcoholic or fruit (or both) beverage of choice, all while smoking marijuana and mixing and listening to his tapes. Screw found that lean enhanced the listening experience of the slowed down music he was making. The phenomenon began to spread throughout the city and seep into the music. On “Sippin’ Codeine”, off the 3 ’n the Mornin’, Pt. 2 album, Big Moe sang about how codeine “makes a South Side playa lean”.
On the City of Syrup album cover, Moe pours a cup of purple codeine over the Houston skyline, symbolizing the imprint of the screwed up culture, and all that came with it, would have on the city.
That culture would go on to transcend Houston, as well as the South As hip-hop abandoned the regionalism that defined the first couple of decades of its existence, artists from different parts of the country, including a half-black, half-Jewish child-actor-turned-rapper from Toronto, Canada (Drake) to an MC from the fast-paced birthplace of hip-hop (A$AP Rocky) began to assimilate themselves into Houston’s slowed-down culture. Cities that once abhorred Houston rap and its slow pace began using the slang originated by acts such as the Screwed Up Click and UGK, wearing gold grills (detachable gold teeth worn as jewelry) similar to those down South, slowing down the tempo of their songs, screwing the choruses, and rapping about slabs and candy paint. Chopped and screwed versions accompanying standard versions of released major label albums became the norm in hip-hop, though DJ Screw would not live to see his work become a national staple.
As the Screw sound began to take off in the late ‘90s, the deejay saw many opportunities to capitalize off his style’s growing popularity. Many of the artists affiliated with his Screwed Up Click brand were ready to take the next step in their careers. Screwed Up Records and Tapes had been open a year to overwhelming success. But Screw’s passion was never the money he could make. Screw lived for helping others, getting young men off the streets of Houston to come hang out with him at his house, smoke weed and sip lean with him and rap on his tapes. Others would come and go from the studio at all times of the night, and there would be Screw, high off marijuana and prescription pills to stay awake and keep cranking out tapes. Screw would fall asleep in the middle of a mix while under the influence of weed and codeine and wake up from his temporary slumber, right on cue, and pick up where he left off. Never missing a beat.
DJ Screw had conquered the big city, infected it with slowed down music and lean that made it even slower. He had ingrained himself into Houston lore through his charitable personality and a prodigious talent that was fostered over 25 years earlier in a small town in Texas most had never heard of.
Robert Earl Davis, Jr. was born in Smithville, Texas, a town two hours from Houston with a population of less than 4,000, on July 20, 1971 to Robert, Sr. and Ida May Davis. After Robert Earl was born, his mother moved him and his sister to Houston to live with his father. When Robert Earl was nine, after his parents separated, he, his mother and his sister moved from Houston, doing a two-year stint in Los Angeles, California, before briefly moving back to Houston and finally settling back in Smithville.
At ten years old, Robert Earl caught an ear for music. He initially started off playing the piano. Though not formally trained, Robert Earl would learn to play by ear. After the breakdancing film Breakin’ was released, Robert Earl began playing with turntables. He loved rummaging through his mother’s record collection, spinning her old R&B records and exploring the different sounds. After learning of Robert Earl’s new hobby, Robert, Sr. bought his son his first turntable set from Smithville’s Western Auto Store. Robert Earl soon started saving up enough money to buy records of his own to mix in his room. While Robert Earl was in his room, practicing his mixes until late at night, his mother was working two, sometimes three jobs to support two children.
With few job opportunities for young black men in rural Smithville, Robert, Sr. moved his 14-year-old son in with him in Houston. The bigger city offered Robert Earl much more opportunities to hone his deejaying skills than Smithville, a one-club town where everything closed at 11 p.m. By the time Robert Earl was 15, his life revolved around the turntables. Nothing else mattered. He dropped out of Sterling High School as a sophomore, selling drugs on the side for cash. “Just hustlin’. Tryin’ to make ends meet,” said Robert Earl, in a 1999 interview. “Feed our families. Studio time.”
When he was 18, Robert Earl got his first deejaying gig at Almeda Skating Rink, on the city’s south side. He had moved into the home of another young deejay named DJ Chill that he had met while spinning at Club Boomerang, where Robert Earl had been deejaying full-time. One night, while spinning and mixing records with his cousin, Robert Earl began taking the screw out of the record player when he didn’t like a certain record or he couldn’t get the mix exactly the way he wanted. As a result, the record began slowing all the way down to a halt, the voice and the tempo on the record taking on a snail-like pitch.
Robert Earl’s cousin, with a sarcastic tone, asked him, “Who do you think you are, DJ Screw?”
The name stuck. He was DJ Screw now. The sound stuck as well. A friend, who heard about the new, slowed down sound Screw stumbled upon in his room, asked the deejay to personally “screw” a list of songs to put on a tape for him. Word of mouth spread and hundreds of people were knocking at Screw’s door, with lists of songs that needed DJ Screw’s personal touch.
But although DJ Screw originated his own specialized version of the slowed-down sound and took it to a level no one before or after him would reach, he was not the first to experiment with slowing down the tempo on records. DJ Darryl Scott was the first Houston deejay to rise to prominence in the 1980’s. Scott released a mixtape with a couple slowed down songs in the late 1980’s as a result of his audience’s enthusiasm when he accidentally slowed a song down during one of his live sets. Screw, along with Scott protégé Michael Price, adapted the sound to their own styles after hearing and liking it.
Screw had been making tapes for a few years, developing a trademark for shouting out on the tapes guys from different neighborhoods around the South Side that he had kicked it with, guys he went school with, guys who were locked up in prison. Some guys were rappers. Some were not. Screw would invite guys to his house to hang out, smoke weed and sip lean with him. Some began to rap on Screw’s tapes; in 1992, rapper C-Note of the South Park group, The Botany Boyz, was the first. Fellow South Park rapper Fat Pat — who knew Screw from their days at Sterling High — became the next, and so set off a pattern of South Side rappers from various hoods meeting Screw and appearing on his Screw tapes. They freestyled over well-known beats about random subjects — the cars they were or were not driving, how much marijuana they were smoking, how potent the cup of lean they were drinking, what kind of slab they were coming down in — until the freestyles became more refined and the collective became more of a fraternal brotherhood.
Screw named them the Screwed Up Click.
In ten years, the Screwed Up Click released more than 250 mixtapes, making Houston synonymous in the hip-hop world with “screwed up”. Screw was responsible for over 1000 mixtapes in just one decade. In 1998, Screw released more than 100 tapes, at a rate of about two a week. Screw was putting out material at a break-neck pace, while running Screwed Up Records and Tapes, working on new mixes for his next mixtape or official album to satisfy the demands of his persistent fan base and traveling across the South as the deejay for his Screwed Up Click artists. Screw was staying up in his studio at all times with little sleep, if he slept at all. “With Screw,” one producer said in a 2001 Texas Monthly interview, “your days turned into nights and nights turned into days.”
Screw started taking prescription drugs, along with his usual consumption of lean and marijuana. To keep pace with his heavy work load, Screw also began adding various other drugs, like Valium and PCP, to the codeine he was drinking. The lean, which began as a complement to the slowed down music he was making, became an addictive substance that started to consume his lifestyle.
By 1999, those around Screw could see the toll his drug-heavy lifestyle was causing him. His output that year was lower compared to previous year. Screw only released a dozen mixtapes, a considerable decline from the 100 tapes he released the year prior. He weighed over 230 pounds, a result of the drugs and alcohol he consumed, as well as the large amounts of fried chicken he ate on a daily basis (Screw liked Hartz Chicken in Missouri City) and lack of rest. In early 2000, while deejaying a show with fellow Screwed Up Click members, Screw suffered a seizure on the side of the stage. The show had to be cancelled and Screw was rushed to a nearby hospital.
On October 28, 2000, Screw sat down to film an interview for an upcoming DVD titled Soldiers United for Cash, which chronicled the history of DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click. A segment of the interview showed the deejay reclined on a sofa, wearing a brown and white checkered shirt, sporting a bald fade with his trademark side part, and a large gold chain with a black and gold emblem swinging from it — DJ Screw in the middle, SCREWED UP CLICK surrounding it. Screw looked into the camera with the slow regard of a man with nothing but time on his hands, with a drawl that combined small-town Smithville and syrupy-slow Houston.
“What’s up TV world? Most of y’all out there don’t know me. I’ve been in y’all tape decks for years. My name DJ Screw. You know’m sayin. DJ Screw. Screwed Up Click for life. S.U.C. Soldiers United for the Cash. Year 2000. We just some young ghetto superstars, representing Houston, rapping what we do, our lifestyle. Cars we drive. Press record and put this out on the streets, you know’m saying?”
Two and a half weeks later. DJ Screw was dead.
On the morning of November 16, 2000, DJ Screw was found on the floor next to a toilet stall at his home studio. Two months later, an autopsy confirmed that Screw died of a codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication. Valium and PCP were also found in his system.
The funeral for DJ Screw was held nine days after his death in Smithville. Over 500 people filled into Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church to pay their respects to the deejay. Attendees included his parents, members of the Screwed Up Click, older folks who knew him as a youngster in Smithville, and many people there simply because they were touched by his music and the impact he had.
As Screw’s casket sat in the middle of the church, one sign on sign of him read, “No Hating”. Another sign on the other side of him featured a giant $1 bill, with a picture of Screw in the middle. As Pastor L.K. Williams officiated the ceremony, a convoy of parked candy slabs gathered outside the church, banging Screw tapes. Each car playing a different tape.
The legend of DJ Screw has produced both positive and negative results in the 12 years since his death. Slowed down music is no longer a novelty act, an acquired taste enjoyed only by those from the South. Screw’s style is entrenched in the mainstream, with a new generation of hip-hop stars like Drake and Kendrick Lamar showing appreciation for DJ Screw and the Screw culture. Fellow Houston deejay Michael “DJ Michael 5000” Watts took the formula Screw set with his South Side Screwed Up Click outfit and slowed down sound and applied it to his North Side Swishahouse imprint, taking advantage of the same business opportunities Screw passed on years earlier. Watts inked a multimillion dollar deal for his Swishahouse label through national label Asylum Records in 2004, which served as a base for rapper Mike Jones’ platinum-selling album Who is Mike Jones? in 2005, which featured the national hit, “Still Tippin’”.
Though Screw is touted as the originator of Screw music, his passing allowed for Watts to take the sound to a national level. Houston is now filled with many chopped-and-screwed deejays ready to assume the mantle DJ Screw held before his death.
Coincidentally, the lean that Screw popularized would cause a few of his disciples to suffer the same fate as him. On October 14, 2007, Big Moe died at age thirty-three after suffering a heart attack as a result of heavy codeine use. Almost two months later, on December 4, rapper Pimp C of UGK — who were affiliates of the Screwed Up Click — died of an overdose of promethazine and codeine.
Screw’s impact on Houston rap has become apparent through the years. In his absence, a city that became so dependent on DJ Screw’s sound has struggled to find a new musical sound distinct from the Screw sound that so many artists capitalized on. “Houston hip-hop will never recover from Screw’s death,” says JaMorcus Trayham, a long-time listener of Screw’s music. “Countless Screw tape samples have been used on hooks and everyone with some sense will reference and pay homage to Screw in their music.”
Ultimately, DJ Screw’s influence on music lies in the measure of his work ethic and heart. Screw brought together men from different neighborhoods to make music that united the city of Houston. While The Geto Boys were pioneers in Houston rap, DJ Screw put Houston on the hip-hop map.
When others think of Houston hip-hop, after the candy-painted slabs, swangas poking out the side of old-school cars, gold grills, and purple drank, there will still be DJ Screw. One man. Two turntables. One sound.