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Funny that the only strain of hip-hop that truly qualifies as Da Next Big Thing would make Russell Simmons wanna join Creed as the management flunky who shaves Scott Whatshisname’s concave chest. It’s called screwed music, or just plain “screw,” after the legendary and deceased Texas turntablist DJ Screw who made a living that allowed for much Fubu togging and heavy donations to Houston-area churches, all by slowing down other people’s music—mostly underground rap but some copyrighted, mainstream stuff too, from Dr. Dre to Led Zep to Phil Collins—and selling mix tapes of his handiwork for $10 a pop out of his Houston house. Perhaps he was moved by the resourceful spirit of the South Bronx (circa 1977) to say, if Def Jam/Interscope/rope-a-dope/whoever isn’t gonna produce any kickin’ new music, I’m-a do it myself. Slower than my chubby buddy Sven in snowshoes, subaqueous and evocative of a 78 platter being spun at 33 speed, screw flips the script on pop’s predictable shtick: The sound draws its strength inversely from mainly overpolished, overproduced monstrosities, like how X-Woman Rogue sucks up a bad guy’s superpowers only to use them against him. “Shake ya ass! Watch ya-self!” sounds even more unintentionally wack screwed; “In the Air Tonight“ actually comes off sinister; and “Let Me Ride” even less like “Aerosmiff.”
Word is that DJ Screw cut more than 1000 original tapes—and that’s a stingy estimate. Emulators have since grown the sound into an industry: Mom-and-pop record retailers in the Dirty South are building boom box cum mixing studios, typically ” ’round back” of their stores, where you get your spankin’ new Strokes or Andrea Bocelli CD screwed on site for a couple bucks. Music Mania in Austin has dedicated an entire shelf to screw-related product, just like “country” or regular, jejune “rap”; in Houston, Screwed-Up Records and Tapes, one of two stores DJ Screw had opened in Texas under his handle and one of a handful of “chop shops“ around H-town, miraculously thrives as a side-of-the-road, single-story, single-room shanty with zero inventory inside and a booth where an employee takes screwing requests from behind bulletproof glass. And the past few months alone have seen the release of literally hundreds of indie screw records—hundreds. So you just know the Church of Univirgin Bros. can’t be happy seeing all this money being exchanged for the most distinctly urban art form to rise up from Inner City, U.S.A., since rap itself, and none of it is advancing hip-hop conscientiousness—a core screw value is that the music sets the appropriate mood for bibulous listeners to get they “lean” on to. Sample titles: City of Syrup by Big Moe, “Hold Up, I Got Too Much Lean in My Cup” by R.P. Cola, Screwston Vol. 2: Pink Soda by South Park Mexican.
Cornel West is welcome to figure out which came first, the screw or the syrup; all that matters is that kinfolk love it. Michael Watts, northside Houston’s answer to the southside’s DJ Screw, had picked up on the method in the early 1990s, when it first seeped out of DJ Screw’s fingertips, and has built Swishahouse, his own indie label, into a Totem of Slowdom. Watts, using chiefly local hitters, goes for the big hooks, steely and sharp, that accentuate any likenesses between rappers and HAL the 2001 computer on his descent into mainframe hell. Like DJ Screw, Watts finds great joy in cutting up the deliveries of his rappers (a technique called “chopping”; see “chop shops” above), stuttering them like M-M-M-Max Headroom. One of the things so many Screwheads love about Watts’ style is that the lyrics in his songs (typical hardcore, of course; nothing you haven’t heard before) take a front seat to everything else, coming off limpid and unobstructed by cheeky effects or dog-a-muffin tongues. No bugging out over royalties or sample clearances here, either: Rappers beg Watts to appear on his CDs. Like with the originator, who folks say was so “street” the City of Houston tried installing a parking meter on his back, getting chopped by Watts is an honor.
The clique and label Beltway 8 have even fewer pretensions at art or authenticity; they righteously, chiefly just wanna make wassailing you look large pimpin’ in your tricked-out Neon. The beats come cold correct in medium, Hot 97-approved tempo while only the vocals are slowed, and Pollie Pop, Beltway 8’s resident screwdriver, lets entire songs play out—unlike Watts or DJ Screw, who can’t seem to let a single tune roll for longer than a minute. Pop’s style wasn’t necessarily a learned skill; the boys at Beltway 8 went around asking Screw fans what they liked best about slowed-down music, what they liked worst, and arrived at what you hear on the clique’s discs. The crazy 8, for some weird reason, wanna attract as many addressees as possible, not just the leaners. Ditto for South Park Mexican, easily the region’s biggest-selling indie rap act, who created the Screwston subsidiary last year under his Dope House Records label. It’s on its Screwston Vol. 3 already, and SPM’s molassesy stuff is as close to radio-friendly as the genus can get.
So. Just when you thought every conceivable musical style was being dutifully turned into a Billboard chart, something like slowed-down music comes along. From one man’s failure to get the pitch knob on his turntables working right into a science we can all dig (screwed-up on syrup or not), screw is more than just another descriptive label that takes seven rock critics to explain in 10 different magazines; it’s a new way of producing music that announces itself the second it is played. Egalitarian (anyone with a tape deck and some old batteries can do it), downright disrespectful of authority, quirky, postmodern (or whatever), and always, always on time. At its sweet ol’ pace.