Over the years, June 27 has become a day of remembrance for DJ Screw.
Screw, whose name was Robert Earl Davis Jr., is a hip-hop legend in Houston and across the South for pioneering the chopped and screwed sound that inspired generations of rappers. This sound has caught on in New York, Toronto (thanks to Drake) and all over the world. In 2022, you cannot escape its influence. He did what he wanted to do: screw up the world. He just wouldn’t be there to see it.
Screw has only been with us for 29 years, but his legacy is felt in contemporary hip-hop and continues to grow as Houston’s prominence as a hip-hop capital blossoms. However, there’s a lot to learn about the man behind the groundbreaking music that changed the world.
Last month, the University of Texas Press published A life in slow revolution, author and journalist Lance Scott Walker’s exploration of Davis’ life. It is told through the voices of those who knew it. Davis’ family and close friends present a first-person look at the legend who, in his true self, was a man who loved music.
“June 27” was recorded on rapper DeMo’s birthday and became one of the most popular freestyles in rap music history. At 6 p.m. tonight, the Texas Theater will host Screwed Up members Click Bird, DeMo and Stick 1. Podcaster Donnie Houston will record a live interview with Bird and DeMo before Walker wraps up the night by chatting with Stick 1. They will screen the film DJ Screw: The Untold Story. The artists will set up shop in the lobby and DJ Glockedup 225 will follow Walker’s chat with a jam session. (Head here for ticket information.)
After the book was released last month, I spoke with Walker at Deep Vellum about the research behind A life in slow revolution, the link of the book with the previous work of the journalist Houston Rap Tapes, and the influence of women in Screw’s life. Get a taste of tonight’s event with a transcript from our chat.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In the foreword to A life in slow revolution, you mentioned that DJ Screw appeared several times in your interviews for Houston Rap Tapes. What was the transition from the first text, a timeline of how hip-hop came to Houston and evolved over time, to DJ Screw’s biography?[It was a] very, very slow transition. In 2004, photographer Peter Beste started Houston Rap Tapes all alone. He and I go back to 1996. I was playing in punk bands. It was a little boy, in front with a ponytail, taking pictures. He was studying photography and was on his way to becoming a world-class photographer. When he moved, we kept in touch. I went to visit him in Chicago, New York, London and wherever he lived. After making a few trips to Houston from New York, where he was living at the time, he percolated the idea for a book about gangsta rap in Houston.
At the time, I was writing for Houston Chronicle. He said [to me] , “You know, you’re a writer. You must come on board with me while I go to take pictures of people. Pictures are one thing, but stories are absent from pictures. I boarded with him because I’m from Galveston, but you know, I’ve lived in Houston since 1992.
I loved Houston. I was in love with Houston. I obviously dedicated my life to it, so I started interviewing everyone in Houston that we could. Swishahouse, Screwed Up Click, Geto Boys, South Park Coalition. After working on it for a year or two, I was obviously interviewing people about Screw, but it was the way people were talking about him that made me go “wow, he’s really special”.
Yes, we knew that. But like, he’s a special human being. That’s what got me thinking about doing a book about him, around 2006. In 2008, I started circulating the idea to some people in the Screwed Up Click, but I didn’t announce it. for years. The first time I talked to an editor about it and wrote a real manuscript was in 2014-2015.
I love hearing music journalists talk about their reporting process. How was this process for you? You were the first [journalist] to get those stories that people have held in their hearts for so long. I think we forget that they were people’s relatives. You have stories of his childhood friends in Smithville, him playing records from the military base. These are memories that someone trusts you with. How was this relationship building process for you? I guess it took a while.
It took time and cosigns. You know as a journalist, when you ask questions of someone you know or don’t know, your questions tell them everything about you. How you perceive the world, how you filter the world, how you process things, whatever. By interviewing someone, yes, you get to know them, but they get to know you in the process.
Sometimes you get an interview with someone where they open up right away and it’s like, ‘oh, man, I’ve been waiting my whole fucking life to tell the story.’ It was amazing because there were a lot of people who had never been interviewed. The guy who received the files from the military base, he had never been interviewed. DW Sound, the DJ who had decks borrowed by Screw at the start, had never been interviewed. So I got lucky with those guys.
Shorty Mac, Screw’s best friend and cousin, put me in touch with them. My relationship with Shorty Mac goes back 18 years. I met him very early and was able to talk to him here and again. There are definitely people I’ve become close to over the years. You can’t help it.
Earlier today I was talking about the chapter where you mention Rap-A-Lot’s J Prince and the record companies from back when they thought Screw was robbing them of meaning but local radio saw Screw as a creator disgust. It reminded me of NPR’s Louder Than A Riot episode about DJ Drama and how record labels have turned to Drama as a curator of popular music. Both of them, especially Screw, predicted all the trends to come. When you were researching, reviewing his work, and interviewing people who knew, did you find any moments that predicted he would later become this magician?
His mother was this huge influence. People associate Screw with South Houston, but the truth is that when he was a kid he lived on the North side of Houston. Which is a big shock to some people because the North Side and the South Side of Houston were like that [Walker makes clashing symbol.] Not now, but back in the 90s. It was like you were driving a red car, you weren’t taking that red car north of Houston. If you drove a blue car, you didn’t drive it on the south side of Houston.
He was growing up in North Houston and there were several record stores there, Fifth Ward, Cashmere Gardens and Third Ward. His mother was a great record lover. We’re talking 70s, folk, r&b, Roger Troutman, Tower of Power, Quiet Storm, and a variety of r&b. She was buying those records and making tapes for her friends, which is what you were doing back then.
Because she was hustling, working multiple jobs, and selling tapes was something else she could do where people would pay. Screw picked up that enthusiasm from his mother and her love for music. Obviously, these are the first records he gets his hands on. A few years later, he discovered hip-hop and turntablism in Smithville. He takes these discs and manipulates them.
He decides that if he doesn’t like the song, he’ll find a screw on the floor and scratch the song. That’s when Shorty Mac says, “What do you think you are, DJ Screw?” And he’s like, ‘yeah.’ “That’s where the name comes from. I would say his mother was a huge influence on him.
Lately I read It was all a dream: Biggie and the world that made him by Justin Tinsley. I can’t help but draw the parallel between Screw and Biggie. I think about the story of Big Mom’s migration from Jamaica to New York and how that influenced him. The same is reflected in Screw’s story. Sometimes the way hip-hop has been archived and reported has a male perspective, similar to how Diddy and his songs are marketed as the king and prince of Bad Boy. With Vis, we find this maternal influence and this maternal love. I get the feeling that when he refers to the members of Screwed Up Click as his family. He invited people to his house to sit for hours. I feel like you felt the love people had for him, which might explain why they felt protective of these stories, because to him he was not an icon, but someone who ‘they loved.
Thanks. You’re the first to notice that the book is really about the women in Screw’s life. It’s about his sister, his mother and his longtime girlfriend. This is really the heart of the book. You’re the first person who ever said that. This is true because the book is dedicated to his sister. His mother really only did one interview. I mined as much as I could because I really wanted her in there. I knew what his relationship was with his father. Every little boy admires his father in some way or another, but he hasn’t been a positive influence. His mother absolutely was.
I think it gave him that sense of family, of appreciating the people around him, and he started having a family. A few people from Smithville have pointed out to me that he grew up in the country. He spent his first nine years in Houston, was born in Bastrop and his family lived in Smithville.
And he was born, and then they moved to Houston. He kind of grew up in Houston. Once in the country, he became himself, he became himself. Being in the country, being with his family, and that opened up something in him, and it gave him his sense of family. It’s something he’s carried with him all his life and built this family around him.
Click here to purchase A life in slow revolution from University of Texas Press.
Taylor Crumpton is FrontRow’s online art editor, Magazine DThe arts and entertainment blog of . She is a proud Dallasite…