Chopped and Screwed
Chopped and Screwed
- Langston Collin Wilkins
“Chopped and screwed” is a term that refers to both a remixing technique and a production style and has it origins deejaying technique developed by Houston-based artist DJ Screw in the early 1990s. The first part of the technique, “screwing,” involves the use of a turntable or other device to slow the tempo of a record. Chopping results from the use two copies of the same record, with the second copy playing a beat behind the first. DJs then crossfade the mixer to shift between the two tracks, creating a doubling effect a half second a part. Chops are essentially repeated phrases used in a rhythmic fashion. As a production style, the aesthetic of screw music derives from the sound of DJ Screw’s mixtapes. Screw-based instrumentals feature slower tempos ranging between 60–70 beats per minute. These tempos are much slower than the music produced in other southern centers such as Atlanta and New Orleans, which can be between 100–140 bpms. In addition to the slowed tempos, screwed music features rich extended basslines and ambient sounds that create a psychedelic and atmospheric brand of hip-hop music.
DJ Screw was born Robert Earl Davis Jr. in Smithville, Texas, a small town some forty miles southeast of Austin. After seeing the b-boy film Breakin’ in 1984, young Robert Earl became enamored with hip-hop culture and was particularly attracted to deejaying. He first used his mother’s consumer turntable to mix and scratch her blues recordings and then rigged up his own system. Childhood friend Shorty Mac gave Robert Earl his deejay moniker, DJ Screw, because he used a screw to destroy records he did not like. Young Screw eventually moved to Houston, where his father was working as a truck driver.
Houston-based DJ Darryl Scott argues that DJ Screw embraced the chopped and screwed sound after partnering with another young local DJ, Michael Price. The two produced slowed-down mixtapes and brought them to Scott for his assessment. Screw’s friend and initial manager Charles Washington has a very different story. He recalls a night in 1989 where DJ Screw was mixing for his friends. His arming accidentally hit the pitch control button on the turntable, which slowed the music down. Screw liked the way it sounded, as did his associates, who offered him ten dollars for slowed-down tapes. For Washington, the screw style was born that night.
In the early 1990s DJ Screw began selling custom slowed-down mixes to his neighborhoods in the Southside, a collective of predominately African American neighborhoods south of downtown Houston. Buyers would give screw a list of twenty songs that he would mix together using a variety of deejay practices including his trademark chopping. He would then employ a four-track recorder to slow the mixes down and transfer them to ninety-minute cassette tapes. These early tapes primarily featured local artists such as Underground Kingz (UGK) and the Geto Boys along with west coast gangsta artists like Tupac, and Screw’s personal favorite artist, C-Bo. DJ Screw also mixed in east coast artists such as Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. along with old school R&B.
As the tapes grew in popularity, DJ Screw began to invite friends and customers to perform vocally on his mixtapes. These vocal performances came in the form of spoken introductions, shout-outs, and most often impromptu rap performances, known as freestyles within hip-hop culture. The earliest Screwtape freestylers did not dream of becoming professional rap artists. These burgeoning MCs, such as C-Note, Fat Pat, Lil’ Keke, were Southside youth who simply desired to represent themselves and their community though rap. Eventually these MCs coalesced into a loose-knit, but formal, group called the Screwed Up Click with DJ Screw as its head.
The Screwed Up Click’s freestyled lyrics often featured references to two significant cultural practices that emerged alongside chopped and screwed music: slab and lean. Slab is a vernacular car culture that began to develop in the Southside in the mid-1980s. Along with donks, boxes, and bubbles it is one of several customized car cultures that emerged in the American South in the early 1980s. A typical slab is an outmoded, large-bodied American sedan with various types of modification. The most iconic component of slab, and the element that distinguishes it from other car cultures, are the cone-shaped, thirty-spoke chrome wheels that are called “swangas” or “elbows” within the local community. Slabs are also marked by their vivacious paint jobs, commonly called “candy paint.” Slab paint jobs use iridescent paint that give the cars a very “wet” appearance when hit by light. Slabs are also outfitted with explosive sound systems that are powered by several speakers and twelve- to fifteen-inch subwoofers. Slab culture has an inextricable relationship with screwed and chopped music, often in the subject of the lyrical content.
Lean rivals chopped and screwed music as the dominant icon of Houston hip-hop culture. Also known as “syrup,” “barre,” or “oil,” lean is essentially a prescription-strength codeine-based cough syrup concoction that became popular on the streets of Houston in the late 1980s. Lean users often combine small amounts of cough syrup with either a soft drink, liquor, or candy and drink the muddy concoction out of double Styrofoam cups, a single cup being too weak to contain the heavy liquid. The effect of the drug is a woozy state, where all senses are greatly slowed. Users experience a heightened sense of elation and a loss of equilibrium that causes them to lean over, which is why this altered state produced by the drug is known as “leanin’.” The recreational use of cough syrup predates Houston hip-hop culture, but the drug rose to prominence in the early 1990s among drug dealers who could afford to buy the relatively expensive drug through bogus prescriptions or on the black market.
In the Southside chopped and screwed music, slabs, and lean held a reciprocal relationship with each other. Slab riding and lean’ “sipping” influenced the sonic style and appeal of chopped and screwed music. The trio formed a cultural unit that would eventually come to define local hip-hop culture both within the city and around the world.
Chopped and Screwed Spreads through Houston
In the mid-1990s the screw sound began to spread beyond the Southside through commercially released projects that featured chopped and screwed elements along with aspects of the larger social world that the sound represented. E.S.G.’s 1994 single “Swangin’ and Bangin’” was one of the earliest commercially released songs to incorporate the screw sound and culture. The song is a tribute to slab culture that features a chopped and screwed refrain as well as lyrical references to screw music and screw tapes. Swangin’ and Bangin’” was originally released in screwed and regular form on E.S.G.’s 1994 album Ocean of Funk on local Perrion Records. Regionally distributed through local Southwest Wholesale, Ocean of Funk went on to sell a hundred thousand copies in Houston and throughout the South. In 1995 the album was reconstructed and re-released as Sailin’ Da South with national distribution through Priority Records. “Swangin’ and Bangin’” received significant radio play and Sailin’ Da South doubled the sales of Ocean of Funk. E.S.G.’s success opened the door for other Screwed Up Click members to release commercially successful albums through local independent rap labels. Fat Pat, E.S.G., and Big Moe released albums through Wreckshop Records. Lil’ Keke recorded a series of successful albums for Jam Down Records.
By the close of the 1990s DJ Screw had recorded over one hundred mixtapes, released three critically acclaimed albums, and had facilitated the recording careers of several members of the Screwed Up Click. He also opened a storefront called Screwed Up Records and Tapes to sell his music. DJ Screw also received positive attention outside of Houston. National magazines like Rap Pages and Murder Dog published interviews with him. He also won an award at the first Justo Mixtape Awards Ceremony in New York City in 1995. DJ Screw was found dead inside a recording studio on 16 November 2000. The official coroner’s report states the cause of death as codeine overdose, likely from the lean concoction that featured so prominently in the music. While his death at twenty-nine is certainly tragic, DJ Screw maximized his years by creating the chopped and screwed sound that radically reoriented hip-hop culture and would eventually make an indelible mark on the pop cultural landscape.
Chopped and Screwed Enters the Mainstream
The screwed and chopped style was able to break through regional boundaries and enter the mainstream hip-hop landscape in the mid-2000s. The emergence of Southern hip-hop as a commercial and cultural force in the late 1990s, as well as a new interested in unique hip-hop cultures among pop audiences, helped set the stage for Houston’s rise. While local artists such as the Screwed Up Click’s Big Moe as well as the Underground Kingz introduced national hip-hop audiences to the chopped and screwed sound through major label releases at the turn of the century, chopped and screwed became a national phenomenon because of a single released by upstart Houston-based indie Swishahouse in 2004—“Still Tippin’” by rappers Paul Wall, Slim Thug, and Mike Jones. The song is essentially a briefing on Houston hip-hop culture. The three MCS ground their lyrics in icons of the scene by making numerous references to lean and slabs throughout. Producer Salih Williams’s beat is rooted in the chopped and screwed tradition. Williams employs a slowed-down sample of the William Tell overture to sonically represent the sluggishly mind-altering feeling that is said to occur when listening to screw and/or consuming lean. In addition, the title and hook, which frames the song, was taken from an old Slim Thug freestyle and chopped and screwed by DJ Michael Watts.
Between 2004 and 2007 artists such as Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Lil’ Flip, and Chamillionaire were pop culture staples thanks to their embrace of the chopped and screwed sound. Hip-hop and pop radio stations put their records in regular rotation. National hip-hop publications such as the Source, Vibe, and XXL featured them frequently. They were MTV favorites, appealing not only on hip-hop-oriented shows, but also on Total Request Live, the channel’s flagship pop program. All of this national attention resulted in number one singles and albums for Paul Wall and Mike Jones. In addition, Chamillionaire’s single “Ridin’” won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. Chamillionaire’s win proved to be the peak and cap of the Houston hip-hop scene’s time at the center of the mainstream hip-hop landscape. The same local artists who dominated the charts in 2004 and 2005 struggled to reach them by 2008. These artists re-embraced Houston’s independent and hyper-local ethos and have continued to find immense success in Houston and throughout the South. While these artists could not maintain national relevance, their time in the spotlight cemented chopped and screwed’s position in hip-hop’s sonic landscape around the country and around the world.
Chopped and Screwed Today
Since the mid 2000s chopped and screwed has held a firm place in American popular music culture. New Orleans’ Lil’ Wayne, Harlem’s A$AP Rocky, and Toronto’s Drake are among the many non-Houston-based hip-hop artists who have borrowed the sound. Chopped and screwed has also moved into non-hip-hop musical worlds. Pop vocalists such as The Weeknd, Rihanna, Solange, and Beyoncé have featured the sound. Even former boy band member and pop superstar Justin Timberlake featured chopped and screwed in his 2013 single “Suit and Tie.” Composer Nicholas Britell used chopped and screwed elements in his score to the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight (2017) and the film’s director Barry Jenkins co-produced a chopped and screwed version of the soundtrack to his Academy Award–winning film If Beale Street Could Talk. Chopped and screwed began a local hip-hop phenomenon and identity among working class African Americans in Houston, Texas, but now stands as one of the most influential hip-hop sounds in the world.
- Hall, Michael. “The Slow Life and Fast Death of DJ Screw.” Texas Monthly (2001). http://www.texasmonthly.com/story/slow-life-and-fast-death-dj-screw.
- Pearce, Sheldon. “From DJ Screw to Moonlight: the Unlikely Comeback of Chopped and Screwed.” The Guardian (2017). https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jan/24/chopped-screwed-hip-hop-dj-screw-moonlight.
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