By Michael Corcoran
It’s East Austin in 2003 and the slow and furious promenade rolls almost non-stop. When an SUV, spewing trunk-rattling bass, sidles up to the corner of 12th and Chicon, the intersection sounds like Vietnam, 1968.
You’ve heard the stuff — that rap music with the nuclear bass that flattens out and sustains like a heavy appliance on the fritz. You’ve heard it whether you wanted to or not.
Houston-based hip hop, slowed and manipulated to sound like a hallucinogenic flashback, is the new punk rock.
Three years after his Nov. 16, 2000, death, DJ Screw still rules the streets, wreaking havoc with his psychotic-sounding remixes. Forget the trippy delicates like PM Dawn and De La Soul; DJ Screw made rap music psychedelic. But the attendant lifestyle, which included “sippin’ lean,” codeine cough syrup, to get the full sluggishly hallucinogenic effect of the music, ended up killing him at age 29. Screw protege Big Moe dubbed Houston “The City of Syrup” with his 2000 album, but by the end of the year, the mayor of the screwheads was gone. The autopsy reported the cause of Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis Jr.’s death as an overdose of codeine, with traces of Valium and PCP also in the bloodstream.
Not since the death of Selena have so many Texas music fans grieved as when Screw died, quite simply, from trying to get too slow.
Other Houston producers, most notably Michael “5000” Watts of Swisha House, keep pumping out the slowed-down jams. But even Watts has to admit that, “Screw started the revolution. He slowed it down and chilled it out when all the other cats were trying to go faster, harder.”
The “Dirty South” sound (originally called “Down South”) was pioneered by the Geto Boys, rode dirty with UGK (Underground Kingz) in the mid-’90s and then was taken to the bank by Master P in the late ’90s. Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans joined the rumble and in December 2003, Southern hip hop accounted for six of the top ten slots on the Billboard Hot 100.
Houston was so hot it was hard to believe that in the late[KD1] ’80s, the only Texas rap acts of any note were Donald “The D.O.C.” Curry, the Dallasite who hooked up with Dr. Dre and the N.W.A. crew, and the Geto Boys, who set out to make West Coast gangstas come off like Young MC. Houston rap was inferiority’s revenge, a reign of audio terror from a town tired of everyone saying they ain’t got shit!
Where Miami was known for its heavy bass sound in the late ’80s and L.A. was the home of “gangsta” rap, Dirty South mixed those elements and slowed ’em down with a beat equally influenced by ’60s Memphis soul and New Orleans funk.
With the 1989 release of the Geto Boys’ Grip It! On That Other Level, it became apparent that the other level was to rhyme more explicitly, more violently than anybody else. Just as the Sex Pistols hijacked standard rock riffs and forced them into their rebellion, the Geto Boys pinned traditional rap formats to the wall by the sheer intensity of their anger and confusion. The group’s motto — “We’d rather be hated for what we are, than loved for what we’re not” — was not an empty pose.
Featuring a dwarf with a slasher fixation named Bushwick Bill, a suicidal poet in Brad “Scarface” Jordan, and boxer playa Willie D, fresh from a stint in prison for robbing a Texaco station, the G.B.s pushed the envelope of bad taste so far it required extra postage. Rapping about urban paranoia over an Isaac Hayes sample, the Boys had a huge hit with “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” in 1991, then became every frat boy’s favorite rap group after “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” (a resurrected forgotten single from 1993) became the nuts-swinging sound of Mike Judge’s 1999 cult hit Office Space.
The quartet, soon to be a trio with the exit of DJ Ready Red, began the ’90s in a haze of controversy. When producer Rick Rubin signed the Geto Boys to his Def American label in 1990, his distributor, Geffen, refused to release the group’s self-titled CD. The depictations of rape and mutilation, which the G.B.’s argued was a common subject of horror flicks, was too much for Geffen, which had no problem putting out Andrew Dice Clay’s sexist, homophobic comedy albums or the Satanic metal of Slayer. In an interview with Rap-A-Lot Records’ honcho James “Lil J” Smith in 1993, he implied that the G.B.’s were used by Rubin to get out of his Geffen deal and onto one with Warner Brothers that gave him more autonomy.
“Think about it,” said Smith, who now goes by J Prince. “It was a good business move on his part.” WB treated Geto Boys like a dirty diaper and after the musically powerful CD didn’t launch the trio onto the top tier of the gangsta world, they were back on Rap-A-Lot with a word to the record biz establishment: We Can’t Be Stopped.
Scarface, who wrote most of Bushwick’s rhymes and co-produced with his childhood friend Bido and a cat he met in New Orleans called N.O. Joe, had the most successful solo career of the group. The Diary (1994) and The Fix (2002) are considered masterpieces of streetwise rap.
Between those releases came D.J. Screw, who built on the bottom to change everything. One can debate which was the first rap record, who invented house music or whether punk rock started with the New York Dolls or the Ramones, but there’s no denying that Smithville native Robert Earl Davis originated the bass-heavy remix sensation that still reverberates today. It doesn’t matter who’s at the mixing board, the slowed down stuff is still called “screw,” in deference to the originator.
Working as a Houston DJ in the late ’80s, Davis accidentally hit the pitch button while a rap record was playing, slowing everything down and accenting the bass. There’s your big swang ‘n’ bang. Named after his penchant for damaging wack records by scratching them with a screw, Davis became DJ Screw and the subgenre he invented was called “screwed and chopped.” Chopped refers to the technique of repeating and rearranging lines, first utilized in Houston by ’80s mixtape king Darryl Scott.
“When you get hooked on screw, you can’t listen to anything else,” says Ahneris LaPicca, who co-owns Non-Stop Music in Austin. “The radio sounds too fast, like Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
A customer asks to sample the new Lil’ O CD, but rather than play a bit on the store sound system, LaPicca hands it to the guy, who takes it out to his car. It’s a new twist on listening stations. “This is ridin’ music, man,” LaPicca says. After a few minutes listening to the CD in his car, the customer says he’ll take it. He drives around the parking lot, swerving to the beat (“swangin’”) and cutting the wheel sharply (“bangin’”).
LaPicca calls his place a “screw shop,” not a record store, and estimates that 90 percent of his sales are screwed and chopped CDs from Houston. LaPicca estimates that there are about four or five “screw shops” in Austin, but there are also several fly-by-night entrepeneurs who sell bootlegged DJ Screw CDs out of their houses, flea markets, and the trunks of their cars. “It’s really hard to get the legit stuff,” says LaPicca.
In the beginning, you had to buy DJ Screw’s music like you were buying drugs. After he came upon his accidental innovation of slowing down hip hop, Screw started making tapes, remixes of national acts like N.W.A. and Above the Law, and selling them for ten dollars each at his house in the South Park section of Houston. Sometimes working around the clock for three days straight, with a crew of up to 15 rappers, Screw produced hundreds of albums, which he chose to sell on tapes he bought in bulk from Sam’s Club rather than on CD. Such was the demand in the mid-’90s, that Screw had to install a security gate that stayed closed until 8 p.m. every night. When it swung open, there were usually about a dozen fans, many who drove in from Dallas, New Orleans, Memphis, and even Atlanta, ready with their crisp twenties and fifties.
Eventually, the producer opened Screwed Down Records & Tapes on Cullen Blvd. in South Houston, where you shoved your money in a sliding tray to a clerk behind a plexiglass window. When his music first became widely available on CD in 1998, Screw caused such a single-minded sensation that thieves who broke into Austin’s hip hop mecca Musicmania stole only DJ Screw CDs and didn’t touch anything else in the store. The early rumor was that the selective heist was in retaliation for the DJ’s appropriation of other rappers’ work without compensation. (In Screw’s world, a royalty statement is something the Queen might say.) But the culprits were never caught.
Chuck D of Public Enemy once said that he understood the rage of the Geto Boys and the hard-edge of H-Town, when he visited the Fifth Ward, a beat-down neighborhood with its dirt roads and shanties. In comparison, Chuck D said the ghettos in NYC were like Club Med.
Everything about the Geto Boys was harder, even their posse’s choice of drugs. When you rode with the G.B.’s you snorted PCP or smoked “fry,” a marijuana-filled cigar soaked in embalming fluid which produces psychotic thoughts.
When Screw took over in the mid-’90s, his legion of “screwheads” popularized codeine cough syrup as a new form of mental dishevelment when they rode around sipping from large styrofoam cups of spiked Big Red. In actuality, Houston’s been partying on codeine since the late ’40s, when the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club served cough syrup sodas as soft drinks after “last call.”
In Houston in the ’90s — and far beyond — skull-melting volume became its own kind of drug. Listening to screw on a factory-installed system was like watching a killer whale in captivity. If you wanted to really free Willy, you had to get a custom job. You wanted the bass to fry your neck hairs, to knock your fillings loose.
Bass is a sound that you can physically feel. It grabs you and shakes you. In recent years, car shows have added competitions for the loudest bass sound, but instead of decibel meters, judges use a device that measures air pressure. It’s a physical thing, like surviving Houston as ghetto boys and girls.
It’s all about the big bottom end, those menacing sound waves that won’t back down. It’s about being the baddest mammal on the planet, about slinking in your ride, embracing the bass and feeling ten feet low and bulletproof.