To the uninitiated, hearing a Screw tape for the first time can be unsettling. The slow pitch, the chopped beats, the molasses-thick vocals — it sounds like something is wrong with your stereo. Even Screw’s friends and family were confused when they first put a Screw tape in a stereo. “Why it so slow?” Houston rapper Lil’ Keke recalled wondering. “The radio broke?” Screw’s cousin, Texas rapper Shorty Mac, was driving home from Houston one night when he put an early mix tape in his car deck: “I’m playin’ the tape,” Shorty Mac remembered, “and I was like, ‘Man, I think he gave me a bad tape.’ ”
But Screw’s distinctive sound soon caught fire across Houston and beyond, and demand for his mix tapes grew so large that people lined up for hours outside his home, some having driven hundreds of miles, to purchase the latest copy. More than two decades after his death, DJ Screw is now recognized as one of hip-hop’s greatest innovators, and his unique, slowed-down sound has since spread far beyond the confines of Texas, influencing hip-hop and electronic music from coast to coast.
In his new book, “DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution,” author Lance Scott Walker charts how DJ Screw — born Robert Earl Davis Jr. — developed his trademark sound and helped put the small and overlooked Houston hip-hop scene on the map. Walker spoke with nearly 150 of Screw’s friends, family members and associates, and his book is written as an oral history, letting the voices of those who knew him best take center stage. And, unlike most other tributes that have surfaced in recent years, “A Life in Slow Revolution” pays special attention to the influence of Screw’s mother, Ida Mae, on her son’s early appreciation of music and his later development as an artist. Screw’s girlfriend Nikki Williams says Ida Mae is the family member who “deserves all the praise. She’s the one who made all the sacrifices.”
“A Life in Slow Revolution” delivers the story not just of one individual but also of the birth of a culture and the rise of a movement. We get to feel the excitement of a young scene — with all its pitfalls, rivalries and triumphs — coming into its own. We can see how Houston culture informed its characteristic sound, the way every regional hip-hop sound is imbued with its local culture and dialects. The languid flows and decelerated tempos that came to define Houston hip-hop could have been created only in H-Town, with its penchant for driving slow in candy-coated slabs (custom cars) and sipping on lean (a potent beverage made from prescription-strength cough syrup and soda).
“A Life in Slow Revolution” is a deeply researched and carefully curated work, devoting as much consideration to Screw as it does to those he influenced and those who influenced him.
We’re treated to competing origin stories of Screw’s trademark “chopped and screwed” sound, as well as competing opinions as to the origin of his name: Did it come from his habit of tightening the screws in his tape deck motor to decrease the speed of the tape, as Darryl Scott — the Houston DJ and pioneer of the slowed-down sound — argues? Or did it come from his early practice of taking a screw and defacing the surface of records he didn’t like, as Shorty Mac and DJ Screw himself maintain? It’s this attention to detail that makes “A Life in Slow Revolution” stand out from other biographical treatments.
Of course, with any oral history, there are unavoidable limitations. We don’t get to hear the speakers’ cadences and manners of speech, and a certain vitality is lost in reading a transcription of a vernacular as distinctive as Houston’s. Tinkering with typography and punctuation cannot capture the richness of listening to stories told in the regional dialect and original voice of the storyteller. This presents a particular challenge for Walker, who admits to being “a white punk rocker from Galveston Island,” in Texas, now living in New York.
But Walker’s extensive knowledge of and, more important, his great respect for his subject come across on the page. Described in the introduction as a “hybrid oral history,” “A Life in Slow Revolution” includes Walker’s frequent autobiographical asides, and it’s in such moments that Walker demonstrates his skill as a writer.
His prose often has the rhythm and flow of poetry, as when he writes about the influence that Screw’s sound and the urban environs of Houston have on each other: “Bass is an idea that develops as it rides, saturates, and then evaporates. In its natural environment, the long waves of Screw’s music ricochet off thickets of trees sprinkled through industrial wilderness, the surrounding concrete factoring in as part of the Houston weather system, and its sound.”
DJ Screw didn’t live long enough to see his trademark sound enter the mainstream, influencing rappers like Drake, Travis Scott and A$AP Rocky and singers like Beyoncé and Solange. His life was cut short on Nov. 16, 2000, at age 29, from an overdose of lean.
Before he died, Screw created not only a distinctive sound and considerable body of work, he documented a moment in hip-hop history, gave a platform to young, hungry rappers, and did all he could to help his beleaguered community be heard. “Screw captured that rawness,” Walker writes, “the banter, the freestyles, the long stretches of testimony pouring from their hearts — because he made room for them to have a voice.”
With “A Life in Slow Revolution,” Walker, too, makes room for them to have a voice.
Santi Elijah Holley is a journalist, essayist and the author of “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads” and the forthcoming “An Amerikan Family.”
A Life in Slow Revolution
By Lance Scott Walker
University of Texas Press. 312 pp. $29.95
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