The Legacy of DJ Screw Live Slow, Die Young

The Legacy of DJ Screw Live Slow, Die Young
The state of Texas has, over the last 20 years, played an integral (if largely unsung) role in the development of two crucial musical movements. The first of these, rave culture, was presaged in the mid-‘80s by upwardly mobile Texans, a sizeable percentage of whom indulged in the regular use of ecstasy, which was legally available in Texas nightclubs until 1987.

Where the state's proto-raves were populated by yuppies and students, the 1990s brought a new innovation, a sluggish new subgenre of hip-hop favoured by poverty-stricken African-Americans. Known widely as screw music, the form took its name from Houston's DJ Screw, who would slow down well-known rap songs to a slug's pace, distorting and distending each utterance to scarily psychotropic effect. Sounding not unlike tapes being played at half time, Screw's turntable remixes lent a melancholy air to even the glossiest of tracks, turning braggart MCs' declarations into pained expressions of fear and loathing.

Like the proto-rave movement that preceded it, the screw scene had its own drug of choice — namely codeine, the active ingredient in cough syrup. Mixed in large quantities with soda and Jolly Rancher candies, this player potion was the drink of choice for young black Texans through the latter half of the ‘90s, acting as a literal painkiller for a generation of disenfranchised youth. Celebrated in such songs as Big Moe's "Purple Stuff" and ESG's "Swangin' and Bangin'," the effects of cough syrup mirrored those of Screw's music, dulling the inherent despair of life below the poverty line.

Because Screw eventually died (in November 2000) of a codeine overdose, journalists have tended to focus on the man's troubled life, glossing over his music's stunning formal originality. Now that he's being name-checked by such disparate artists as Erykah Badu, Kid 606 and …You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Screw's oeuvre seems ripe for a serious reassessment.

The H-Town DJ is said to have to started out screwing records he hated, warping their tempos until he'd created something he could admire. In the process, Screw recast up-tempo hip-hop as slow-motion psychedelia, his sound effecting techniques reminiscent of another blues fusionist, Jimi Hendrix. As with Hendrix's work, Screw tunes like "Better Way" contemporised gospel lamentation, each musician updating the form through the intentional misuse of an instrument, whether a guitar or a set of turntables.

My favourite Screw song is "Bangen Screw" (available on The Legend, a 2001 Big Tyme Recordz compilation), a typically lachrymose meditation on the hustler's toil. Backed by a Morricone-style guitar refrain, twitchy snares and corroded synth riffs, four of Houston's most ferocious MCs harmonise the track's pseudonymous refrain to positively frightening effect. Like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on quaaludes, Screw's signature song stalks the landscape with equal parts swagger and sorrow, a repentant malefactor's anthem for troubled times.

After dubbing his mixes onto tape, Screw would sell ten dollar cassettes out the backdoor of his house, taking in as much as $3,000 a night. By the time of his death, the turntablist had recorded over 1,000 mix tapes, launching the careers of MC Lil Flip and establishing Texas (or, in Screw's words, the Third Coast) as an alternate power base in American hip-hop. (The major players in New York have finally taken note of this phenomenon, releasing screwed & chopped versions of all their recent Dirty South releases — David Banner's Mississippi and Three 6 Mafia's Da Unbreakables among the best of them.)

Since Screw's passing, his mantle has been taken up by two competing cut-up specialists, Beltway 8's Mike Moe and Swisha House's Michael Watts. The latter's biggest contribution to the movement is his versioning of popular R&B tunes, a process which masculinises even the highest-voiced of divas, turning lascivious female come-ons into queerly ambiguous camp numbers.

Such is the appeal driving this year's most notable screw job, Paul Wall's remix of Lil Flip and Lea's "Sunshine" (available on the S&C version of U Gotta Feel Me). In its original form, this crossover hit features a cringe-worthy pairing of Flip and his female counterpart, just the sort of sell out that one imagines Screw would have hated. But in Wall's hands, the track turns blackly comic, bathing the two would-be lovers in a vat of purple sludge. Somewhere, surely, DJ Screw must be smiling.