Chopped & screwed for syrupy slowness
Ten years ago this month, one of the great, lazy American geniuses died, at the age of 29, from drinking too much cough syrup. His name was Robert Earl Davis Jr., and I believe he stole the technique that made him famous from the Mexicans. Under the name DJ Screw, Davis earned a living taking other people’s rap songs and slowing them down. Like a good mixtape DJ, he would add EQ, subtle effects and scratches to heighten the impact of each song, but what made him special was his unrelenting commitment to syrupy slowness. Everyone who has mistakenly played a 45rpm single at 33 knows the effect, but by dedicating himself to this process Screw turned what could have been a joke into a rap subgenre, an oft-copied process (countless Southern rap records have ‘chopped & screwed’ versions), based on a technique so simple that it has philosophical heft.
By the 1990s Davis’ style – screw – had become a genre unto itself, and his mixes were selling like hotcakes far beyond his hometown of Houston, Texas. The selling part was important: Monterrey Mexicans had been talking over and slowing down cumbia records for years before Screw came along – something he would have been likely to hear in Houston.
Not all songs sound good screwed; the technique reveals a hidden face whose image can’t be guessed beforehand. The effect is druggy – there’s a subculture of codeine-based prescription cough syrup around screw – and occult. Once screwed, upbeat songs in a major key destabilize into eerie tonalities. Dark tunes get darker. The bass goes viscous. A screwed song urges the listener to internalize its dampened tempo, to stretch the existential qualities of the moment to match the music.
Listen to from DJ Screw’s mix of Who Dat Talkin’ Down taken from his mixtape Chapter 125 – Ooh Wee Man: