Saturday, April 20, 2024

Rolling Thunder: How Low Can You Go?


When Bradley Bohac comes and goes from his house near Ramsey Park, his neighbors know. His Ford Mustang may look modest, but it packs a pair of 18-inch sub-woofers in the trunk, powered by a $2,000 amplifier to announce his arrival and departure in no uncertain terms. His windshield shimmers from a sonic overload that could blow out a match.

“If you want to swang and bang with the big boys, you’ve gotta have the system,” Bohac says, gently swerving his ride to the beat of a “screwed and chopped” CD from Houston’s Devin the Dude. You’ve probably heard the stuff — that rap music with the nuclear bass that flattens out and sustains, sounding more like a heavy appliance on the fritz than anything musical. You’ve heard it whether you wanted to or not.

“Me and my boys sometimes like to drive through the ritzy neighborhoods, like over by Mount Bonnell,” the 21-year-old says with a laugh. “We like to (tick) off the rich folks.” Houston-based hip-hop, slowed and manipulated to sound like a phantasmic flashback, is the new punk rock. Noise annoys — “and we don’t ca-a-a-a-re!”

Over in East Austin, meanwhile, the slow and furious promenade rolls almost nonstop. When a couple of SUVs sidle up to each other at the intersection of East 12th and Chicon streets and crank up the music in impromptu competition, it sounds like Vietnam, 1968.

A few houses away, longtime East Austin resident Scottie Ivory dials 311. “I hate to be a pest, but sometimes I call to complain about the noise 10 times a day,” she says. “My walls are shaking so hard that I can’t even watch TV. What am I supposed to do?”

But the booming SUVs are gone before the dispatcher gets an address. The thunder rolls down dark blocks, announcing to those inside their homes: “Here we come. We’re bad! Can you deal with this?” Sometime during their cruise they’ll end up at Givens Park off East 12th Street or at the Tiger Mart on Ed Bluestein Boulevard, favorite hangouts of “screwheads,” so tagged for their adherence to a style created by a guy from Smithville, who helped make Houston a hip-hop Mecca.

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; it’s DJ Screw who made rap music psychedelic. But the attendant lifestyle he advocated, which included “sippin’ lean” (drinking 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 sound was gone. The autopsy reported the cause of Screw’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.

An accidental revolution

Other Houston producers, most notably Michael “5000” Watts of Swisha House, keep pumping out the lumbering, cut-and-paste jams. But even Watts has to admit that he’s just following his former rival’s blueprint. “Screw started the revolution,” Watts says. “He slowed it down and chilled it out when all the other cats were trying to go faster, harder.”

One can debate what was the first rap record, who invented house music or whether punk rock started with the Stooges or the Ramones, but there’s no denying that Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis originated the bottom-heavy remix sensation that still reverberates today. He’s been given a producer’s highest honor: his name has become a verb. It doesn’t matter who’s at the board these days — to slow the tempo down is to screw.

Working as a Houston DJ in the late ’80s, Davis accidentally hit the pitch button while a record was playing, slowing everything down. Then Davis turned up the bass. There’s your big bang. Named after his penchant for damaging records he deemed “whack” by scratching them with a screw, Davis became DJ Screw, and the subgenre he invented was called “screwed and chopped.” Chopped refers to the old-school technique of repeating and rearranging lines.

“When you get hooked on screw, you can’t listen to anything else,” says Ahneris LaPicca, who co-owns Non-Stop Music on Springdale Road. “The radio sounds too fast, like Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

A customer asks to sample the new Lil’ O CD, but rather than play it 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 inside 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 call his place a “screw shop,” not a record store, and estimates that 90 percent of his sales are screwed and chopped CDs from Houston. The day the Ja Rule album came out and blew up the charts, Non-Stop Music sold exactly one copy. The big sellers here are decelerated remixes of albums by such Houston heavies as Z-Ro, Slim Thug, Lil’ Flip and the Boss Hog Outlawz. LaPicca estimates that there are about four or five “screw shops” in Austin, including Backstage Music on East Cesar Chavez Street and 3rd Coast on South First Street. But there are also several makeshift entrepreneurs who sell bootlegged DJ Screw CDs out of their houses and at flea markets. “It’s

really hard to get the legit stuff,” says LaPicca, who’s been out of Screw stock for two weeks. “I keep callin’ my boy Shorty Mac (DJ Screw’s cousin and distributor), but he’s hard to get ahold of.”

Scoring dope tracks

In the beginning, you had to buy DJ Screw’s music as if you were buying drugs. You had to go to his house in South Houston and wait for the security gate to swing open at 8 p.m. Then you had to line up outside his back door, with your pocket full of twenties and fifties. Because his recordings contained unlicensed material — remixes of national acts like N.W.A., 2Pac and Above the Law — Screw didn’t go through normal distribution channels. Plus, he liked the instant gratification, knowing that an album he’d been up all night recording was already on its way to Dallas or Memphis or New Orleans, where his fans had often driven from. Sometimes working around the clock for three days straight, with a crew of up to 15 rappers, Screw produced hundreds of albums, which he sold for $10 a tape. (In the early years, rather than CDs, he chose to sell his music on tapes he bought in bulk from Sam’s Club.)

Eventually, he opened Screwed Up Records & Tapes on Cullen Boulevard in South Houston, where you shoved your money in a sliding tray to a clerk behind a Plexiglas window.

When his music first became widely available on CD in 1998, thieves who broke into Austin’s hip-hop Mecca Musicmania one night took nothing but DJ Screw CDs.

Backstage Music owner Raymond Huerta says the loyalty to Screw stems from regional pride. “He gave us our own sound; something we can be proud of.”

The major labels are starting to hire producers such as Watts to make screwed and chopped versions of albums such as “Mississippi” by David Banner. “You gotta come slow if you want to build a buzz in Texas,” Watts says.

Before Screw, Texas hip-hop meant the Geto Boys, who put Houston on the rap map with their slasher tales and Stax samples. Inspired by West Coast gangsta rap, the Geto Boys set out to make Ice Cube sound like Young MC. The G.B.’s were harder, meaner, nastier, and when their posse partied, it wasn’t on wimpy cocaine, it was on PCP or LSD or “fry,” which is a marijuana-filled cigar soaked in enbalming fluid.

When Screw took over in the mid-’90s, “screwheads” rode around sipping from large styrofoam cups of Big Red, laced with codeine cough syrup. It’s a form of mental dishevelment that’s still popular.

“Houston’s about as far away from the East Coast and West Coast as you can get,” says 19-year-old Austin rapper Cynai, part of Houston’s Street Pharmacy clique. “They’ve always done things their own way, which is why the Screw stuff fit in. Down south we like to chill, you know, it’s a laid-back vibe compared to the coasts.”

Screwed down music is a love it or hate it genre, making it even more appealing to proponents. “That’s our music,” says 22-year-old Johnnie Griffin. “If you don’t like it, (expletive).” He laughs with a mouth full of gold teeth.

Bass: How low can you go?

Griffin is over at Custom Sounds in the Delwood Center, known among screwheads as the place to go to get your system really bangin’. Listening to screw on a factory-installed system is like watching a killer whale in captivity. If you want to really free Willy, you’ve got to get a custom job. You want the bass to fry your neck hairs, to knock your fillings loose.

“Get more Bass!” proclaims the Dynomat, one of several bottom-inducing accessories carried by Custom. Unlike hard surfaces, which can distort a heavy duty bass sound, the Dynomat bounces the sound waves like a trampoline.

Griffin’s car is in the garage at the back of the shop, “gettin’ a little upgrade,” he says. “My boy just got a bigger system and I got to come up with ’em.”

Custom Sounds manager Donald McEvers is in the back putting a set of oversized subwoofers into the trunk of a blue1997 Cadillac. “Everybody wants the biggest bass sound possible,” he says. “It’s all about the status of your ride.” Besides sound systems, which can run as high as $20,000, McEvers is often asked to put TV screens into visors and headrests. Plus, the store sells flashy silver tire rims, many of which spin at stop lights.

“It’s all for attention,” McEvers says. “You can’t cut corners, you can’t have any limits to what you can add, if you want to be thought of as a major playa.”

But having a big booming system can have a price beyond the thousands it may cost to install. In the first 10 months of 2003, Austin police have written 398 tickets for noise ordinance violations from vehicles. “If we can hear your music from 30 feet away, you’re in violation,” says assistant police chief Robert Bahlstrom. Fines range anywhere from $91 to $500. “Noise from cars is one of the biggest complaints we get in neighborhoods. I’ve been in community meetings where we’re talking about noise problems and a car will come by with the bass so loud that the windows shake.”

Some bass-terrorized residents have sought out architectural advice on how to better keep the sounds out of their bedrooms and living rooms. “The first thing I’d recommend is the use of landscaping, maybe putting up an outside wall, to refract sound waves,” says architect Donovan Davis. “Much of the external sound comes in through the window panes, so thicker curtains could help soundproof. Use layers to create air spaces. Outside sound dies a little with each air space.”

In the meantime, Bahlstrom says violators are becoming more savvy about avoiding law enforcement; the number of tickets has dropped from a high of 798 citations for the first 10 months of 2001. “You can see them cut the sound or turn it down when they see a police car,” Bahlstrom says. “Then, when we’re gone, they crank it back up.”

During a recent hour spent on the patio of Sam’s BBQ, more than 30 feet from East 12th Street, the music from about one in 10 cars could easily be heard.

But LaPicca says the police just use the noise ordinance as an excuse to pull over cars and search them for drugs. “They know the screwheads smoke weed,” he says. “That’s what they’re really after.” It’s a claim Bahlstrom denies.

Meanwhile, McEvers says he’s actually had customers come into Custom Sounds with their excessive noise tickets, asking the shop to take care of them. “We tell them that it’s their responsibility to control the volume. We just put in what they pay us to.”

Custom’s Wayne Wallace says the shop often gets complaints from customers who blow out their subwoofers listening to screw CDs full blast. “That bass isn’t normal bass,” Wallace says. “Sometimes it’s so low that you can’t even hear it, even though it’s shaking your clothes. We’ve had to start warning people that if they play screwed down music real loud, they can expect to replace their subwoofers every six months or so.”

It’s a price many fans are willing to pay. “The thing about bass, over all the other sounds, is that you can physically feel it,” says Michael Watts. “It just grabs you and shakes you.” In recent years, car shows have added competitions for the loudest bass sound. Instead of decibel meters, judges use a device that measures air pressure. If sounds were the Lakers, bass would be Shaquille O’Neal.

Watts has his own measuring criteria when he’s producing. “I don’t consider myself done with a track until I play it in my car,” he says. “If the trunk ain’t rattling, I go back to square one.”

It’s all about the big bottom end, those menacing sound waves that won’t back down. It’s all about being the baddest mammal on the planet, about slinking in your ride, embracing the bass and feeling 10 feet low and bulletproof.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *