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 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. The New York Times noted his significance in a lengthy obituary, but here in Smithville they didn’t need to be told. “This guy was a giant,” said Screw’s cousin Bobby Jerman at Mount Pilgrim church. “All over Houston you hear folks bangin’ that music—bangin’ that Screw. Even when I come to Smithville, I hear it— boom pa, boom pa, boom pa, boom. That was Screw—bangin’ that Screw.” As I left the church, walking past the clutter of cars and mourners, I passed some kids who didn’t get in, bangin’ that Screw through the open doors of a Delta 88. It was loud and slow and sounded like the deck was eating the tape. A couple of cars down, another young man opened his car door and started blasting a Screw tape too. It seemed, on this bright Saturday morning, entirely at odds with the regular-speed world of the grieving. They were outsiders, defiantly doing it on their own, just like Screw.

The fact that i’m a 43-year-old white guy doesn’t keep me from liking rap. Just the opposite. Like all my favorite modern pop music, rap is all about rhyme, rhythm, and riff—the playfulness of words, the violence of sounds. Rap is impish like Snoop Dogg, harsh like Ice Cube, smart like De La Soul, stoopid like Eminem, yearning like Tupac, ironic like the Beastie Boys. Rap is the aural equivalent of a series of perfect fast breaks—street poetry in motion, the rhythm of aggression, the inevitable pounding of beat and image, dance and sex.This most certainly is not what DJ Screw’s music is all about. Screw became famous for derailing these flights of beat fancy. Listening to Screw music is like being in a fever dream. At first it sounds like something is wrong—like the tape will be spitting out of the deck at any second or maybe the batteries are so low the machine is about to die. Everything seems to be dying—voice, beat, scratches, melodies. It’s like a retreat into a whole new world.

When I first heard a Screw tape, I just didn’t get it. These days, as rap music is shooting to new heights of sophistication, Screw sounded like an annoying gimmick. I found it hard to make it through a song, much less a whole tape.

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