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Screw World Order
I am not a DJ. Truth be told, I don’t even know how to work a turntable, especially the fancy new ones that connect to your virtualDJ program on your laptop. The best I could do was hook my laptop to my friend’s speaker system and put on a pretty decent house party/social set that everyone who showed up seemed to enjoy. The thing I learned about DJing more than anything is that it is a very exact science and it’s full of trial and error. For lack of a better term, you’re a “vibe surfer,” trying to diagnose what a party needs at precise moments. Every party, good or bad, is full of waves, and you need to know when one is happening and what kind it is. How do you know when exactly to deploy Juvenile’s “Back Dat Azz Up"? What about Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”? Can you experiment? Maybe drop something completely left field? Will your audience be receptive? At what point would they be most receptive? All of this matters, and you can kill your momentum at any moment by playing the wrong song or even the right one at the wrong moment.
The thing about DJ Screw is he was an absolute nerd about music. In death, every great artist gets swallowed up in the mythology created in their memory. It’s understandable but it’s also very flattening—all the details get lost in service to an untenable ideal. Even the musical style in which he pioneered has become one-dimensional. I like the Chopstars, and Swishahouse before them, and all the various imitators uploading their “slowed down” (“it ain’t screwed cuz Screw ain’t do it”) version of today’s records, but if you played a thousand versions of the same chopped up record, you will easily pinpoint which one Screw did and it’ll very easily be the best one in the bunch.
The thing that’s missing from everyone else’s versions—other than the warm scratchings of vinyl records and the warped, static feedbacks from years of wearing out the tape these projects were originally on—are the little idiosyncrasies that let you know there’s a real person at the helm. There’s the way Screw would intermittently talk over the record—sometimes to shout out different areas of the south side of Houston and sometimes just rap along to a record, with his deep, slowed down drawl having a hypnotizing effect. Or maybe he and the SUC, his assemblage of local Houston rappers, including H-Town legends like Big Moe, Z-ro, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and Lil Keke, would freestyle over a track instead of playing the original verses. He was also known to mesh different songs together wit, like the time he combined Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” with UGK’s “Tell Me Something Good.” It’s not that the new guys don’t also try to do this, it’s just a lot more contrived, even at its best. There’s always an awareness that they are trying to do justice to the template Screw created.
This is not meant to be a critique of anyone. Screw’s style was truly transcendent, and there will never be another one. For as much as Screw music, and Houston rap in general, came to be associated with Lean, I always felt that there was something much more psychedelic going on with that sound. Like maybe you actually needed to take a hit of LSD while listening, in order to truly float away to another world. Screw was like rap’s one-man jam band… the near 40 minute version of “June 27th” only serves to further confirm this theory.
The best Screw records feel reflective of a singular personality. His tapes are expertly curated and full of individualistic flourishes that we feel like we know him, though we never actually did. A great example is his version of “2pac’s “Dear Mama,” where he and Lil Keke provide a heartfelt introduction full of love towards the south side of Houston specifically, as well as their own mothers. When the actual song begins, it opens with Screw playing and replaying Pac’s line “I wish I could take the pain away, if you can make it through the night, there's a brighter day,” before hopping back on the mic to wistfully state: “I hope I can take the pain away some day.” There’s always something personal and earnest about every Screw tape, unabashedly a labor of love that’s obvious now in an age of hyper-branding and the corporatization of all art. The following playlist aren’t necessarily the best Screw records but they represent when Screw was at his best and what made him such a genius artist—as well as some personal favorites for me. For obvious reasons, you’re not gonna find them on streaming but that only reinforces how special and rare these records are.
Full playlist here.