The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw

He was one of the most influential cultural figures in Texas——a generous godfather to a generation of rappers, an entrepreneur of Houston's mean streets, the master of a scene fueled by codeine cough syrup and hip-hop beats.

At the deejay’s funeral in Smithville, they sang gospel songs. Most of the singing came from his family and the older folks, dressed in their Sunday best and sitting in the center of the packed church, one of those small, tidy, weathered white buildings you see in the country. Jammed along the walls and in the corners was a much larger crowd of younger people wearing leather jackets, gold chains, new basketball shoes, and extra-large T-shirts. Some had tattoos on their legs, forearms, and necks. They didn’t sing along much with the hymns. Most of them, I thought as I watched them shyly look for places to squeeze into, had never been to Smithville before; they probably didn’t spend much time in church either. Next to the deejay’s gunmetal-gray coffin at Mount Pilgrim church was a large sign that looked remarkably like a giant $1 million bill, with a picture of the deceased in the center.

A dozen people got up and spoke. Members of his family, who called him Robert Earl, talked about his childhood in Smithville. Some of them talked about the name by which several million people knew him as an adult. “I was one of the first people he told he was going to be named DJ Screw,” said his first cousin Donald Davis. “I said, ‘ DJ Screw, what kind of a name is that?’ But he made it, and I was so proud of him.” The deejay’s rap- music buddies from Houston, where he died, spoke too. “He gave me a skill when I didn’t have one,” said DJ Chill. Another, named Mike D, said, “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for DJ Screw. He put a lot of life, a lot of spark into a lot of people’s lives.”

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...