Often referred to as the “Golden Age” of hip-hop, the 90s saw the rise of lyrical giants and helped usher in a new wave for the still fledgling genre. At the time, the West Coast was ripe with bangers, while cities like Atlanta and New Orleans were pumping out dance tempos that left you no option but to dance. Texas has always done things a little different though, producing familiar greats like the Geto Boyz and UGK, while staying true to its own sound, its own style.
Once known for being home to one of NASA’s crowning achievements and championships caliber sports teams, the 90s would also shift the focus to one of Houston’s greatest claims to fame, a unique sound of music affectionately referred to as “chopped and screwed.” Known for marching to its own beat, while the world sped up Houston slowed down, courtesy of an entirely new genre of music created by the prolific, and of course legendary, DJ Screw.
Out of the trenches of the funk and disco infused 70s and 80s emerged heavy hitters like Cameo, Freedom & The Gap Band and sounds that would become prevalent in Los Angeles’ G-Funk sound of the early 90s. From this, DJ Screw would begin experimenting with all of these elements, slowing down the pace of records as crowds wildly embraced it. Starting in 1991, DJ Screw would begin perfecting his sound, resulting in his wildly popular Screw Tapes. What started out as just personal mixes made for friends, would later transform into an entire movement, as fans throughout the city clamored for more.
Also referred to as “The Originator” of chopped and screwed music, through experimentation and a keen ear for music, DJ Screw honed his craft by slowing down the very tempo of the music, dropping it to 60-70 quarter note beats per minute in order to deliver a completely fresh new sound. Using techniques that included record scratching, skipping beats, stop-time and more, DJ Screw took a seemingly simple concept and transformed it into an entirely new strain of music, inspiring copy cats and admirers alike.
Despite being deeply rooted in hip-hop, no genre has been skipped when it comes to the deejaying technique that DJ Screw invented. Raised on legends like B.B. King, DJ Screw’s greatest gift laid in his ability to incorporate an array of genres in his music. Once sold exclusively out of his own apartment, the sound that DJ Screw created has since floated across the globe, putting Houston on the map as the true source for all that is screwed.
Though others have since followed in his steps, when it comes to chopped and screwed music all roads will forever lead to DJ Screw. While others have adapted a copy and paste method in order to emulate the slow, syrupy sound, it was DJ Screw who laid down the foundation. For many, especially in Houston, if it didn’t come from DJ Screw it isn’t “real.” And who could blame them? It’s a technique that takes true technical skill and dedication. Once panned as a “regional fad” in just 20 years it has since kicked the door down to mainstream America, as everyone from Biggie, to Jay Z, Aerosmith and even Justin Bieber have incorporated elements of Houston’s now signature sound into their own records. That smooth, slow banging sound has officially concreted its place in music history.
Despite his relatively short life, from his classic mixtapes to the countless artists that he both inspired and helped bring to the forefront, the legacy of DJ Screw lives on.
Considering the countless hours of music created by DJ Screw, trying to identify his greatest tracks is quite a task. But for true Screwheads that have taken the time to comb through his impressive catalogue, there are a few that should automatically be on the list. Here’s a proper introduction, or a reminder of, the slowed down greatness of Screw.
June 27th Freestyle – Arguably one of the greatest freestyles to come out of Texas, “June 27th” has morphed into one of Houston’s unofficial anthems. To clear things up, it’s the birthdate of D-Mo, a frequent SUC collaborator. Using a Kriss Kross sample called “Da Streets Ain’t Right,” DJ Screw put together a hard-hitting lineup that included Yungstar, Big Pokey and Big Moe. Easily one of Screw’s most recognizable songs, it’s since made its way around the globe. Not to mention, it’s the track that Drake used for his own birthday homage, “November 18th.”
Pimp Tha Pen – If you’re in a Texas club and hear “I’m draped up and dripped out. Know what I’m talkin bout…” just know that it’s about to go down. Instantly recognizable, it’s a line that anyone who knows or loves Houston music can finish. Though DJ Screw and Lil Keke created plenty of bangers together, this is easily one of their most famous freestyles. Pairing Too $hort’s “Cocktales” with UGK’s “Pocket Full of Stones,” Keke’s oh-so-southern drawl makes for an unforgettable, genuine H-Town, screwed up experience.
25 Lighters Freestyle – The term “25 Lighters” has come to be a staple in Houston lingo. Yes sir. In 1996 Lil Keke and Big Pokey teamed up with DJ Screw for the “25 Lighters Freestyle,” perfectly embodying Houston’s slow drippin’ culture. There’s no mistaking the influence that early Screw tapes carried, this being one of the best examples. Whether “Coming dine, coming through, know what I’m sayin,” there’s nothing quite like a Houston freestyle. This freestyle serves as an introduction to everything Screwston and with a sample from Keith Sweat, what’s not to like?
Peepin’ In My Window Freestyle – Aside from how ridiculously good this beat sounds screwed up, Lil Keke showcased his freestyle skills, all up and down this track. The back and forth between Keke and Big Pokey when he falls off the beat is something to marvel at, as fun as it is competitive. It’s hard to keep track of how many times its been sampled, but it’s reach can be heard across the globe. Simply put, it’s one of those tracks that makes you want to find the nearest mic and freestyle your damn self.
City of Syrup – Alternately titled “Bang Screw,” this is easily one of the most enjoyable songs to ever come out of Houston. The beat feels good, the music feels good and with Big Moe singing on the track, you can’t help but feel it. All we want to do, is bang screw; and nothing and nobody will stop that. Z-Ro even breaks his usual standoffish demeanor to celebrate the greatness that is Screw music. If you’re ever having a bad day, turn this track on and watch life get better instantly – specifically Moe’s verse, followed by the hook.