The Origins of Chopped and Screwed

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Courtesy of Orian Lumpkin

by Cody Kenner

When people think of major regional hip hop scenes, the East Coast/West Coast dichotomy usually comes to mind. While both scenes have majorly influenced the genre, one regional subgenre often gets forgotten: chopped and screwed style, an innovation out of the Southern hip hop scene, specifically from the city Houston, Texas.

‘Chopped and screwed’ refers to a technique of remixing hip hop in which the beat of the song is considerably slowed down, usually to about 60-70 beats per minute. Techniques such as skipping beats, scratching (moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable), stop-time and general affecting of portions of the music lend a ‘chopped up’ feel to the music. Additionally, lowering the pitch of the record gives it a mellow, heavy sound, which emphasizes lyrics and lends itself to storytelling.

As for the ‘screwed’ part of the genre’s name, that comes from Houstonian originator Robert Earl Davis Jr.’s stage name, DJ Screw. Davis first caught a glimpse of the world of turntablism in the 1984 hit break dancing movie Breakin’. After seeing the film, Davis began to take his mother’s B.B. King and Johnnie Taylor records and scratch them.  Later on he began to buy his own records, and if he didn’t like a record he bought, he would deface it with a screw. One day, this prompted his friend Trey Adkins (AKA Shorty Mac) to ask, “Who do you think you are, DJ Screw?” Thus, Davis’s moniker was born.

DJ Screw began making his trademark slowed-down mixes in 1990 as compilations requested by friends, and soon began selling them at $10 each. As these mixes gained popularity, people from all over Texas, as far as Waco in the west and Dallas in the North, would line up at his door to obtain his recordings. During the early 1990s, DJ Screw invited emcees to rhyme over his mixes, thus forming the Screwed Up Click collective. He also opened up several record shops: Screwed Up Records and Tapes in Beaumont, Austin, and Houston, The Screw House in the South Park neighborhood of Houston, and The Screw Shop in Missouri City, Texas.

Unfortunately, the heyday of the chopped and screwed music scene came to a jittery end with the death of DJ Screw in late 2000. He had overdosed on codeine, most likely in the form of purple drank, a cough syrup and soda cocktail consumed at epidemic proportions in the chopped and screwed scene. The murder of Screwed Up Click member Fat Pat in 1998, the deaths of Big Hawk and Big Moe in 2006 and 2007, and the incarceration of other members of the collective also led to the slow decline of the subgenre.

Nonetheless, the stylings of chopped and screwed live on in the music of rappers like Bun B, Slim Thug, Lil’ Keke, Devin the Dude and UGK. DJ Screw’s music furthered the careers of these artists and more, and his 300+ tapes continue to garner hundreds of thousands of listeners. A number of documentaries have been made about the artist, including a 5-part series by Vice Magazine. Chopped and Screwed hip hop has left an indelible mark on Southern hip hop’s history and music history as a whole, making Houstonians proud to live in the great city of Screwston.

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