There is no one truth as to why Screw started slowing records down, or exactly when—though his cousin Big Bubb was there for one of the earliest instances. There are lots of stories, and lots of influences. The only sure thing is that it was Screw who took his mixes in that direction through experimentation. He was using the pitch control, he was letting his finger drag against the wheel of the turntable, he was on his way to figuring out how to slow it down in the tape deck, and he was getting more and more of a feel for the pace of records and how different songs would blend together. Slowing things down opened up his ears, and he wasn’t the only one.
Screw knew Houston DJ Darryl Scott’s late-’80s tape 33 1⁄2, on which he slowed down Laid Back and Mantronix, and 8 on the Double, where he was doubling (or tapping). He might have even heard Lester “Sir” Pace dropping 45s down to 33 on Kidz Jamm in that same era. Slowing down records was not something new. Eight hours away in Monterrey, Mexico, a new movement called cumbia rebajada was then in its formative stage. Colombian cumbia records were popular in Monterrey, and Gabriel “Sonido” Dueñez—having discovered his own city’s thirst for down-tempo music—was slowing down records at parties. Screw’s tapes were making their way around Houston before Sonido started releasing tapes in 1992, but a thousand miles away across the Gulf of Mexico, slow tapes had been in the streets of South Florida for a decade. Miami is known for its bass, but predating Luther Campbell and 2 Live Crew and even the legendary Florida DJ crew Jam Pony Express (who were slowing down their music as well), there was Disco Dave, making slowed recordings of his own in the late 1970s. He called them drag tapes.
A party DJ from Third Ward, Michael Price was also an enthusiast of slowed-down music, only through another route. He did drop the pitch on the records he played at parties, but vinyl wasn’t even really his thing. Price was into cassettes, which meant going about things differently when he was inspired to slow the music down. And the modification he came up with had him calling what he was doing “screwin’” the music, too.
Darryl Scott “Michael [Price] used to come up there and he started workin’ out with me, and with him workin’ out with me, he would always buy the lil mixtapes. Same thing, Screw used to buy the mixtapes, take ’em home to study, try to figure out what I was doin’ and would give me a call every once in a while and try to figure out, How do you do this? How did you do that? But it wasn’t until—and there’s still a lot of controversy behind this, but Michael and them was out and they was on the cut—that was the story where the batteries had went down and they was listenin’ to one of my mixtapes, and I only had about three songs that were screwed, and from that point I didn’t…that wasn’t one of my things, that I wanted to screw everything. I just, you know, slowed down a couple of things as a favor for a couple of people. But when they was out there on Calumet and the batteries went down, everything started soundin’ good, and then they was all smoked out, and that’s when Mike decided he wanted to come up with the idea of just screwin’ everything.”
Mike-D (Southside Playaz) “Mike [Price] started deejayin’ and he start doin’ house parties, and when we was ’bout fifteen, sixteen, his signature would be slowin’ the party down. Darryl Scott—he had talked about how we used to come over there and see Mike there with the radio or whatever—that’s true, but he was already doin’ it with them parties. He would take the song and he would slow it down at the party. That was his signature, so when you all fucked up it be soundin’ weird, know what I mean? What he did—you could slow the record down from 45 to 33 or whatever, the knob on the side that you could turn it down—it wouldn’t be as slow as a Screw tape, but you know, the record player, the turntable slow. The pitch would be all the way down. That would be his signature, so he was the first one slowin’ it up. We didn’t even notice what he was doin’. That’s Michael Price sound.”
Darryl Scott “He had the radio that had a screw in it that would slow the motor down. He would turn that screw in that motor to slow the motor down, to screw everything with it bein’ plugged in. Not just batteries. And when he would grind it down a little bit further, he’d turn that screw in a little bit further. And that’s where the term ‘screw’ came from. But people look at me like I’m crazy when I’m talkin’ about the term ‘screw.’ It was created by him. Him and Screw were friends with each other, but that’s when he was sayin’ they wanna screw everything. Like, what are you talkin’ about, you wanna screw everything? And he said, The way it was when I had that screw in that radio that would slow everything down. When you tried to show me how to slow it down. And I did, I tried to show him how to slow it down with the voltage regulator that was on there. It slowed it down but it didn’t slow it down to, you know, his pace. They wanted it down slower than that. So instead of a sixteenth, it was eight. They wanted it at a sixteenth, but all I could do was slow it down to an eighth. And that was based on the little CD players that I had and then also the lil four-track that I had. I would slow it down with that. And when I slowed it down like that, that wasn’t slow enough for ’em!”
December 26, 1990—On the day after Christmas, Screw is arrested for the first time in his life. Al-D and his brother Marvin “Bird” Driver took him out that night to show him how to hotwire a car, and Screw was the one who ended up in jail. It was a big shock for Screw, even if he wasn’t completely staying out of trouble himself.
Lil’ Sock (producer, DSD1) “Screw, he was still doin’ bad when he was in Quail Meadows! Quail Meadows was the come-up spot. He was a DJ at the Almeda Skatin’ Rink, you know, he was young, man! Screw was cuttin’ hair, sellin’ weed, and deejayin’ when I met him. He was cuttin’ hair, sellin’ lil dime bags of weed, and deejayin’.”
Shorty Mac “Me, him, and Larry, we all went to jail the same week. We was in different places, though. I went to jail in La Grange, Screw went to jail in Houston, and Larry went to jail in Smithville, and they was all different kinda charges. I got caught with some dope. Him and a potnah was stealin’ cars, and they got caught by a security guard.”
Al-D “He didn’t do it. My brother did. My brother Bird bust the window to the car and stuck a screwdriver in the neck and was crankin’ the car, and the fuckin’ security guard came. Everybody started runnin’, but he caught Screw. I was gonna shoot the security guard that day. He had Screw, man. Me and Screw and my brother was together when Screw went to jail for the first time. He had never been in trouble. Screw just wanted to see my brother crank a fuckin’ car. We wasn’t into auto theft, but my brother and them was, and Screw wanted to see how. We were at Gulfgate Mall at the cinema—it’s not there anymore, the movie theater—and then you had a bridge that crosses over the freeway to Gulfgate Mall. Screw, that’s where he went to jail at, at that fuckin’ theater, behind the theater where all the cars are parked. We walked there and my brother just hit the window—bam! He was fast. Screw wanted to see how fast he used to crank a car in like six seconds. It took him six seconds to be takin’ off in your car. He’ll fall through the window and already be at the dash, jump in, gone! And when he did that, the security guard had already been lookin’ at us and followin’ us.”
In court, Screw pleaded guilty to burglary of a motor vehicle and was convicted of a third-degree felony and sentenced to three months. He was released after serving sixty days, and following that he put all of himself into his work. That’s when the music changed.
March 8, 1991—After Screw gets out, Shorty Mac drives down from Waco to visit him during spring break of his first year in college. By then, Screw was loaded up on cheap gear from RadioShack and making it work for him, eventually purchasing a four-track recorder with a pitch-control function and rigging up a rudimentary microphone so he could talk over what he was recording. That added a new dimension. Screw was making some beats, he had a couple of different recording projects under his belt, and now he was starting to make a different kind of tape.
Shorty Mac “I rode down to Houston and that’s when he gave me 3-N-Da Morning, in ’91. He gave me 3-N-Da Morning, to where I’m on my way back home—and we didn’t have cell phones—all we had were beepers. I’m playin’ the tape and I was like, Man, I think he gave me a bad tape. So when I got home, I called him, and he start laughin’. He say, Aw, that’s supposed to sound like that. I said, Oh, okay! Then I put it back in, and then I said, Alright, I see what you’re sayin’.”
DJ Screw (as told to Bilal Allah) “In the crib mixing, you know, getting high. When you smoke weed, you don’t really be doing a whole lot of ripping and running. I started messing with the pitch adjusters on the turntables and slowed it all the way down. I thought the music sounded better like that. It stuck with me, because you smoking weed listening to music, you can’t bob your head to nothing fast.”
Bernard Barnes “Poppy would invite some of the real well-known guys in South Park, Come get you a tape made. Y’all get y’all tape made. And they see what’s goin’ on, and they go back to the neighborhood with that tape. Man, who’s that? … Well, that’s Screw over there in Quail Meadows got this goin’ on. My other potnah Toe, you know, Toe knew a lot of people in Third Ward, Yellowstone and all that, and he would invite them over, Get you a tape made. And it just started blossoming from there.”
Al-D “It was a bunch of dope dealers, a bunch of hustlers pushin’ Screw’s music in their fuckin’ cars. When Screw started slowin’ the music down, them niggas was jammin’ that shit. All of them had bangers, slabs with swangers and candy paint, comin’ down. They were the first ones. Everybody say, What the fuck are they jammin’? All these white cars with white insides. That is owed to them.”
Bernard Barnes “It started happenin’ in apartment 100. He wanted us to talk on the mic because early in the game when he started gettin’ out, people were dubbin’ his tapes and sayin’ they did it. So he’d be like, Man, if I’m bringin’ in a song or somethin’, you know, just speak on it. Speak on there. Say somethin’ on the tape. You know, say it’s a Screw tape or whatnot. To protect his material.”
Toe “Since he knew us, you know he would like just say stuff like, I bet y’all ain’t high right now! Whatch’all think? You know, like, What up, Toe? What up Fool, what up D, what up Poppy? We was his friends, so that’s where the whole, Lemme talk to ’em, came from. Darryl Scott wasn’t talkin’ to people. He wasn’t talkin’ to you while he was ridin’ with you, so that was the whole thing that made Screw … he would talk to you while you was in the car with him. That was what was so special. Some people at first, you know, they kinda didn’t understand it or whatever. Like, Who is this talkin’? … Well, you know, that’s my homeboy Screw. It was different. Nobody had ever heard that. So that was a whole thing that he started, was talkin’ to his friends while they ridin’ listenin’ to his tape, you know?”
Ray Holmes III “He would come on and he would be like, Man, y’all ain’t gettin’ high! It was just like little certain little things you could see him sayin’ around to his potnahs that’s in the room while he’s doin’ these tapes, man. At the time, I was just gettin’ to high school, and I was really just kinda gettin’ my hands on some of these tapes. But it was a whole different vibe back then, man. Before he met up with the S.U.C., Screw was already known amongst a certain group of street cats as that DJ that you wanted while you was comin’ down in your slab, chillin’, whatever—you would have a Screw tape in there.”
Lil’ Sock “Lil’ T took me over there to see Toe. They was fresh from TYC [Texas Youth Commission, juvenile corrections]. Screw had just now crunk up the movement. And it wasn’t … everybody didn’t know nothin’ about Screw. We actually promoted Screw, Listen to this tape! Me and Lil’ T and this guy Tyrone from Herschelwood [Houston].”
Duke (Herschelwood Hardheadz) “I grew up listening to Darryl Scott. I never met him but I’ve been in his shop and bought tapes, and like that same guy that I was tellin’ you was fuckin’ with Screw … Tyrone, he met Darryl Scott and that was his boy. That’s how OG—he older than us and shit. That’s what the world need to hear. That nigga—he the beginning beginning.”
Tyrone “I met [Screw] through my homeboy Toe when he had just moved over there. That nigga was just deejayin’ but didn’t nobody know that nigga. He was just a nigga that was in some apartments, but that nigga was grindin’, and that nigga was just a music player and a nigga start just standin’ in front of that nigga house, you know, listenin’ to the music and shit, you know, trappin’ in front of that nigga house. He’d be grindin’ back then. Nigga wasn’t makin’ no tapes. He was just a DJ. That nigga was just a nigga that moved to Quail Meadows and was playin’ music. You know, niggas would be grindin’ back there.”
Tyrone puts forth for the record that he was the one who got Screw to up the price of his mixtapes. Tyrone bet Screw that people would buy the tapes for ten dollars and said he would bring people over there himself to buy them if he would get half the cost of every tape. When Tyrone brought Quincy [QDOGG] over there, and Quincy bought ten cassettes, Screw handed over fifty dollars to Tyrone. But that was the only time. From there, Screw moved on, as people started coming in from all over to buy his tapes, and Tyrone admits he’s still mad about it.
Tyrone “I’m supposed to be rich off that nigga! I get half of every tape he ever sold from the time I’m talkin’ about until now! You know how many tapes that nigga done sold?”
Knock (Herschelwood Hardheadz) “When Tyrone tellin’ the story, you got to know who he is, too. Like, if his mama owe him five dollars, he gonna go crazy and not speak to her for life. And that’s him for real.”
Toe “Tyrone had a lot to do, too, with Screw makin’ you know, whenever he pushed the lil … and make it go rrrrrrr. You know, how you—he was playin’ like this, rrrrrrr, ‘Chk-chicken rice.’ So, Tyrone got a lot to do with him doin’ a lot of that. You know, he wanted him to do a lot of that on his tape, you know what I mean? He was like hands-on, wanna keep on bringin’ it back and choppin’. He got Screw on doin’ a lot of that stuff because that’s what he liked, so you know, he had a lot to do with it.”
DJ Chill “The scratches he was doin’ were fantastic and different, the techniques that he used were real sharp and exciting, and the timing of the scratches was unbelievable. When I say that to people, they really don’t understand the energy that I put into sayin’ that. He’d put you on another scratchin’ level when it came down to deejayin’. When I started learnin’ how to count beats, mix, I used to have a metronome. But he had an internal clock. I had to be taught to count beats. He already had the beats inside him. To count the beats? He had that inside of him already. He knew it.”
Al-D “Screw had a little bitty old drum machine that had a kick drum and a snare, and there was no extended bass. It wasn’t like an 808. But what Screw would do was he would scratch the bass. He would take a record and he would scratch the 808 bass in, then stop it, and the beat would go, he would scratch the 808 bass in, and then he would stop it. That’s what Screw used to do. He scratched the bass off the fuckin’ album. He was one creative motherfucker, man.”
Toe “And he always knew how to catch it at the bass part a lot of times, too, to where it’s like double the bass. He would catch it right at the bass part and tap it at the bass. Some people didn’t know how to—you know, they’d just start tryin’ tappin’ and all that stuff, and you know, they wouldn’t do it when he did it, and that’s when you could tell it wasn’t right because it wasn’t him. He knew exactly where to make it go twice at.”
Ronnie Spencer “A lot of people didn’t like the analog sound on vinyl, and the fuzz on the needle, but that’s what created the sound. That’s what the beautiful part of it was, if the needle scratched, we loved it, because people know we are really in there. We doin’ it live. He didn’t stop. He let it keep missin’, and he’ll start talkin’, and he’ll tell you, Yeah, this shit is live in here right now. We on the air. We don’t stop just because it scratched—I’ma fuck it up some more! And he’d scratch some more until the needle jumped to another track, and then he’d blend that. And that was the beauty of it. You don’t get no needle fuzz, and it ain’t gonna scratch and skip over the record like a needle will. And you still have control of it. That’s why a lot of the guys are like, I don’t like that, I don’t feel it, because it’s not the way Screw did it. I don’t hear no fuzz, I don’t hear no analog sound. I don’t hear him fuckin’ it up, talkin’ on it like they did it. Because it was real.”
April 22, 1991—Houston radio station KFMK, which debuted in the late ’60s as the progressive rock station “Mother Radio,” abruptly changes its call sign. The channel had switched musical styles over the years—rock, Christian rock, adult contemporary—before finally changing to a format that would lead it into playing hip-hop. The call signal at 97.9 FM became KBXX, “The Box,” and one of its first employees was DJ Chill. He and Screw were still sharing equipment and picking up gigs together, but The Box opened up a new line of communication because when he was at the station, Chill was usually the one who answered the phone. So when folks called up looking for a DJ to hire for a party—which wasn’t at all a service that the station then provided—he took the liberty of booking the gig himself, bringing Screw along to work with him.
DJ Chill “We started gettin’ more parties because I would answer the phone and people would call up to the radio station and then they would say, Hey you got a DJ to do my party? And I would get the party! I’d get the parties, then me and Screw would go out and do the party together.”
The mixtapes were getting Screw’s name out there. The parties he played with Chill—plenty of homes, schools, sporting events, or random spots via The Box—were another way folks heard about him, and the skating rink was an obvious outlet for a certain age group. But it was once Screw got into the clubs that his game changed. Going into the summer, Screw was spinning with Chill at a club off Griggs and MLK called 808. Later, that place would become Infinity, as Soca Village would become Boomerang after that, and Screw was at the beginning of a run of gigs that would see him spinning at all of them, getting more exposure as a club DJ even as he focused harder on his tapes. All of it put him at the crest of the wave of what was next in Houston, as Screw would decide what was next for him.
REBEL RAP FAMILY
July 1, 1991—Geto Boys release “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the first single from We Can’t Be Stopped, which would fast turn into their breakthrough album. Kicking off the first track, “Rebel Rap Family,” was the group’s mainstay DJ Ready Red, who says in part, “A band of musical assassins, headquartered out of Houston, Texas / Will soon unleash a wrath upon the ghettos of the world.” The lines could hardly have been more prophetic, but it was about a lot more than just the Geto Boys.
Ready Red quit the group before the album’s release, to be replaced by DJ Domo, but his opening declaration had proven correct. “Assassins” referred to an older song, one that connected the old Ghetto Boys to the newer Geto Boys in that different lineups had recorded it—the first with Ready Red, Jukebox, and Prince Johnny C in 1988, and then another version by the now superstar lineup of Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill. Both the album and “Mind Playing Tricks” spent months on the charts, with the single going gold before year’s end. By the spring of 1992, We Can’t Be Stopped would be certified as the first platinum album by a Houston rap artist.
The seeds for the movement that burst with We Can’t Be Stopped had been planted years before when Raheem dropped his debut, Royal Flush released their first album, and then Born 2wice (a.k.a. B-2 Omega) dropped his single “Child 4 Freestyle” in 1990, the same year that Choice issued her debut on Rap-A-Lot and Memphis transplant Jhiame Bradshaw out of Acres Homes dropped “Doesn’t This Love (Feel Good 2 U)” on his own label. Convicts released their album the next year, O.G. Style’s debut finally arrived, and Dope E and the Terrorists were preparing their first album. Ricky Royal and his group Royal Flush kept on with a sophomore effort, 976-DOPE, which included their biggest hit, “I Never Made 20,” a biographical reflection on the turmoil of the crack era and its toll on families.
Outside of Rap-A-Lot, the South Park Coalition was coming together, Tony Draper was putting together the Suave House label, and Steven Caldwell and his Perrion imprint would soon release the first record by a Louisiana rapper named E.S.G. The Northside/Southside group Street Military was about to release records with both Keith Babin at Jeriod Records and Beatbox, the label started by former Houston Oilers cornerback Richard Johnson. Over in Third Ward the group A.N.M. (Anti Nigga Machine) was dropping their first album, Let the Message Rize. That group featured a young Mike-D, whose future would involve DJ Screw, even if he was then on his way out of the industry.
Mike-D “The rap business wasn’t too intriguing for me. I mean, I finished out the course of the record, but after that it wasn’t no more records for me. I wasn’t worried about that no more. I went back to hustlin’, and then that’s when Lil’ Troy had end up goin’ to jail, so that kinda put a stint on everything, too. Because that was back when Troy did his first bid, so you know, with the head gone the body just was lost. Everybody end up doin’ they own thing. And that’s when Screw dropped.”
Pimp C and Bun B of the Port Arthur, Texas, group Underground Kingz (UGK) walked into King’s Flea Market in South Park one afternoon in 1991 and saw a sign posted by someone looking for a record to produce. They were both living in Houston by that time, and just happened to have a record they wanted to make, so they went into BigTyme Recordz, where they were greeted by Russell Washington, who quickly realized the talent that had fallen into his hands and drew up an agreement with them. BigTyme was in the process of expanding from a record store into a label, and UGK became its first release.
It was a crucial juncture for another reason, too. Southwest Wholesale was a record subdistribution company opened in San Antonio in 1976 by Robert Guillerman and Richard Powers. They started out warehousing 45 rpm seven-inch records, but as that era faded along with the disco craze, Guillerman moved to Houston. That was in 1981, when the whole country scene was about to go Urban Cowboy. He opened a branch of Southwest Wholesale in town, and throughout the 1980s the company grew a successful distribution business servicing Houston-area record stores.
Robert Guillerman “In the early ’90s, we closed the San Antonio branch and we just had our accounts payable office there. And we were down here in Houston and we were doin’ real well. We were a pure one stop until 1991. And then the first record we really started with was ‘Tell Me Something Good,’ by UGK.”
By late ’91, Screw was spinning at Club New Jack, one of Ray Barnett’s Southside spots, with Charles Washington promoting the Thursday night gig. Screw had more money to spend on records, and was selling some mixtapes, but that also brought attention to the apartment he lived in, which at first meant changing units at Quail Meadows before eventually getting kicked out of the complex altogether—along with his dad. So just as his story was moving into another chapter, along came the group that would change things for him, and he for them. UGK’s “Tell Me Something Good” was released as a twelve-inch single and as the opening track on their debut album, Too Hard to Swallow, and their story was about to become entangled with Screw’s.
Bun B “He would come in and consign his mixtapes at the store. I got to know him through that, and he was deejayin’ over at Club New Jack, and so I would go over there at different times. So when we got the test press vinyl for ‘Tell Me Something Good,’ that was the first place I took it to. I took it to Club New Jack, and I took it to Screw. So Screw was the first person to ever play UGK.”
Charles Washington “Next thing you know, everybody—I mean, it only held like … the fire code was like 130, but we packed about 250 to 300 people would be on the inside of the club, and when he played it, wow—the crowd just went crazy. And so then when the song finished, they had wanted him to play it again! So he played it again, and then once he played it three times, back to back to back, that’s how I knew it was a hit, that’s how Russell knew it was a hit, and that’s how Screw knew it was a hit.”
Bun B (writing in Houstonia magazine) “Then, a couple months after our EP dropped, he brought me one of his new tapes. It was completely different. This mixtape played at half speed—almost. And there was a guy, just some random guy, shouting people out at the end. He wasn’t shouting out fellow rappers, but homies from the hood. I’d never heard anything like it before.”