November 25, 2000 found a small, historical Baptist church in Smithville, Texas filled far past capacity, with an entire community mourning the loss of a man affectionately and accurately referred to as “The Originator.” A gunmetal casket sat in the middle of the tiny church, right next to a photo of a man in the center of what seemed to be a million dollar bill. Both sat surrounded by family and friends from all walks of life imaginable. They were all there for him, DJ Screw, a legend. The tears flowing freely as many wondered where they would go from there. During his short lifetime he managed to innovate the entire music industry, changing the very way in which the world viewed Houston.
Long before he was DJ Screw, the sweltering summer heat in the small town of Bastrop, Texas welcomed him as Robert Earl Davis, Jr., born to Ida M. Deary Davis (Mama Screw) and Robert Earl Davis, Sr. on July 20, 1971. Early family matters within the Davis clan led to Mama Screw and the children being shifted around the country; Houston then e Angeles, back to Houston and ultimately back to Smithville in 1980. As a child, DJ Screw looked up to his father, a truck driver based out of Houston, even stating that he wished to follow in his footsteps one day. In the end long roads and big rigs wouldn’t be in the cards for him, his mother’s records were. Little did the Davis family, or the young DJ Screw know, that his adoration for those records would lead him to alter the landscape of southern music as we know it, forever.
A man of few words, even after he rose to new heights in Houston’s booming music industry, a majority of facts about DJ Screw’s life are unknown or left to be filled in by, sometimes conflicting, accounts of the people who were close to him. In his short life, the deejay participated in only a handful of interviews, becoming widely known for his low-key demeanor. But what can be confirmed as fact, is that DJ Screw possessed one of the most unique appreciations for music that anyone has ever seen. While he developed an intense love for hip-hop, DJ Screw was also well versed in classical music and an apt piano player. Still, deejaying remained DJ Screw’s strongest passion. Using his mother’s turntable to experiment, spinning classics from legends like Johnnie Taylor and B.B. King, and slowing them down to a velvety tempo before speeding them up again. Once DJ Screw began his own record collection, he would spin for hours as his cousin Trey Adkins rapped. Adkins recounts this time in their life and claims that if DJ Screw came across a record that he did not care for, he would take a screw to it, defacing it. Because of this, Adkins says he began referring to Robert Earl Davis, Jr. as “DJ Screw.” Little did he know just how big, or how far, that name would go.
In the beginning it was Mama Screw that laid down the blueprint, holding down multiple jobs as she cultivated tapes to sell from her own extensive record collection. It would be this undying hustle that would inspire DJ Screw’s passion for music and of course, his own steady work ethic. In time it would become clear that the less than 4 square mile city of Smithville was no place for the larger than life aspirations that he just couldn’t seem to shake. Already on the road frequently between Texas and Louisiana, Robert Earl Davis, Sr. would later insist that his teenage son move with him to Houston, over 120 miles away from the shaky job market facing African-Americans in Smithville and light years away from the idea of anything “small.” Although his son had dropped out of Sterling High School sophomore year, the senior Earl knew that DJ Screw was far from a “trouble-maker”, he was simply consumed by a passion for music. And so it was settled, as the Southside of Houston, Texas, South Park to be exact, would soon become DJ Screw’s playground. Later, it would be something of a ground zero for the epicenter of Houston hip-hop, a planet unto itself with shimmering candy painted cars and modified slabs with screens, alpine kits and the hardest stereo systems available at the time. At just 17, DJ Screw secured his first deejaying gig at the popular Almeda Skating Rink. Soon after, he could be found at some of the most popular clubs in Houston as he showcased his one-of-a-kind turntable skills, relishing in the reactions he received from club-goers, as he brought back a hook or a line in a song.
From there DJ Screw hit the ground running, deejaying at clubs and working in local grocery stores to help foot the bills while he spent countless hours honing his craft. As heavy as DJ Screw was in the Houston club scene, the real magic happened in the various apartments he found himself inhabiting. Aside from tirelessly studying the techniques of New York deejays, DJ Screw created mix tapes wherein he strung together his favorite tracks and took plenty of artistic liberties with scratching and rewinding certain parts, eventually sharing the tapes he created with his friends. As large as Houston is, word of the greatness brewing on the Southside soon spread quickly. In 1989, DJ Screw accidentally hit his turntable’s pitch button, instantly slowing the entire record down. According to Charles Washington (DJ Screw’s first manager), DJ Screw loved it. At that very moment someone offered him $10 to purchase a slowed down mix tape. Soon after, friends and friends of friends came pouring in with requests for these slowed down mixtapes. By 1990, the first Screw Tape came to be.
These slowed down tapes would become a definitive game changer, causing DJ Screw to quickly grow into a superstar in Houston and many other parts of the south. Screw Tapes were something to marvel at; as it truly seemed that this young, quiet, unassuming genius had found a way to wind down time. As demand increased for the slowed down tapes, fans showed up in droves at DJ Screw’s Southside apartment, leading housing management and local officials to believe that he was selling drugs. Technically, he was. Screw Tapes became an addiction for listeners, with some loyal fans driving hours just to get their fix. Looking to expand, eventually DJ Screw moved into his own home, allowing him to set up business hours when anyone and everyone could show up at his door, hold a conversation with him and get their very own Screw Tape. DJ Screw’s resonating voice could be heard shouting out neighborhoods, lost friends, living friends and sometimes even ranting or freestyling, from car speakers all over Houston. The gray Maxwell cassettes adorned with DJ Screw’s own handwritten titles became something of a city seal, recognizable all over the south.
Screw Tapes changed the music industry and most certainly DJ Screw’s career, almost instantly; as screwed music became its own genre, named after the man himself. Not only did people love to hear their favorite songs slowed down and mixed to perfection, DJ Screw featured many of his friends rapping over the best suited beats imaginable. Much more than a deejay, he became a conductor. Fairly unknown, underground Houston rappers would gather around DJ Screw’s turntables, giving them a platform that too often was scarce in the city. Still just a teenager, the low-key DJ Screw can be credited with bringing together artists that may have forever gone unnoticed, giving them inspiration, pride in themselves and a place in history. Being featured on a Screw Tape is one of the highest accolades an artist from that era could have hoped to attain. First-hand accounts from artists that worked with DJ Screw paint the picture of a man who considered music the most important faction of life, a man wise beyond his years who had little interest in material things, a larger than life presence in the industry that brought artists together and catapulted Screw music to an international level. Fellow Houston artists such as Mike D., E.S.G., Lil’ O, Big Pokey, Lil’ Keke, Trae, Z-Ro, Yungstar or Lil’ Flip, Big HAWK, Fat Pat, Big Moe and more were brought to fame due to DJ Screw’s famed Screw Tapes.
What fans heard from the rappers were specific, instantly accessible things. The cars they drove, the neighborhoods they were from, the locations they ate at. Things and places that virtually everyone could relate to. And the slowed down tempo left listeners relaxed, it seemed. The sound, the diction, the dialect, all of it was warm and new. All of it hissed and banged and curved around every corner getting loud as possible. Trunks waved with neon glow, television sets that sat in the headrests playing the hottest shows of the times. DJ Screw’s music, the rappers on it and the cars they drove, had created the blueprint for not just the Screwed Up Click but for Houston culture as a whole.
At a time when gang activity was a cause for concern in the city, DJ Screw’s heyday marked a time of significant decrease in violence. These rappers, who all were under the leadership of DJ Screw despite never signing a single contract to him, became known as The Screwed Up Click. Their mere appearance on a Screw tape had made them into neighborhood legends, mythical figures who could own blocks of space all over the South Side. Dead End, Sunnyside, Herschelwood, South Acres, Hiram Clarke, Long Drive, Yellowstone; all places that have since become synonymous with producing the legends of Houston rap. In 1995, DJ Screw gave the world All Screwed Up, his first official release. At the time DJ Screw was big, insanely big. Expansion was not only needed, it was necessary.
Screwed Up Tapes and Records on Cullen Blvd. was established as a store-front for DJ Screw’s ever growing mix tape business in 1998. By this time, bootleggers and business owners not privy to a close relationship with DJ Screw were duping their own versions of his Screw Tapes and selling them any and everywhere. The internet was coming to the forefront of media accessibility and there was little the old-school minded DJ Screw or his business partners could do to stop the unauthorized copying, seeing as DJ Screw was technically a bootlegger himself. With no rights to most of the music on his Screw Tapes, others took full advantage of the opportunity, allowing plenty of people other than DJ Screw to profit from CD and digital sales of the tapes. Still, the traditionalist deejay stuck to his guns and continued business as he always had, choosing to do little complaining because, according to associates, he was bringing in more than enough on his own to stay happy.
The 1990’s in Houston were all about DJ Screw and The Screwed Up Click. Revered city wide, no one else could compare to DJ Screw’s raw talent on the turntables or the sheer amount of hours he and his friends put into the craft. To put it numerically, there was a time that DJ Screw was releasing over 100 mixtapes a year. Let that sink in. His catalog is something to sit in awe of; filled with thousands of tracks, each meticulously created by DJ Screw himself. But by 1999, it seemed that things had literally slowed down, partially due to DJ Screw’s reported dependency on codeine cough syrup, also known as “lean” or “drank,” among other things. It’s a drug that has now become synonymous with DJ Screw and the city of Houston, for better or for worse. That year, DJ Screw released only 12 mixtapes. But business was still booming, and the sound and ideas that DJ Screw originated were making their way around the world. This time period also found DJ screw shifting focus to more business dealings rather than constantly creating mixtapes, leading him to open a second shop in Beaumont, with plans to open many more.
Friends and industry associates began buzzing about their concern over DJ Screw’s codeine use in the late 1990’s, some said that the projects he was releasing were becoming few and far between, seemed to be uninspired and that his conversation was often scattered and incoherent. The man that had become a legend so quickly was looking for new ways to slow time down. There was an entire style of music bearing his name, an entire city of people falling at his feet and an entire genre of rappers praising him yet, it was as if DJ Screw just wanted the world to move slowly again. November 16, 2000 is often referred to as the day that music died in Houston. Robert Earl Davis, Jr. aka DJ Screw was found dead in his studio, only two weeks after what people were saying was the best interview of his life, wherein he looked healthier than he had in a while and spoke clearly and purposefully. DJ Screw’s death sent the city of Houston and surrounding areas as well as parts of the music industry into a tizzy that some still have not recovered from.
A comprehensive biography of DJ Screw’s life could be in excess of 10,000 words. We could fill libraries with odes to the person that DJ Screw was and the influence he had on music. All in all, this average size man with a soft spoken demeanor from a tiny town in Texas became larger than life because he lived for the betterment of the music he loved. DJ Screw influenced music all over the world, sold hundreds of thousands of mix tapes hand to hand, brought together one of the biggest cities in the world and yet, never looked away when someone was in need. Not only did DJ Screw originate and popularize an entirely new style of music, he never missed an opportunity to uplift a friend. Fellow artists say that he would give you the shirt off of his back.
While the world reflects on what could have been, many are left simply celebrating what was. The true beauty in DJ Screw’s life is that he never made himself bigger than the vision that came to him while spinning B.B. King records on his mother’s turntables in Smithville, Texas. And for that, we thank you.