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There are certain neighborhoods in Houston where, late at night and into the early hours of the morning, well-groomed cars with large speakers bolted into their trunks thrum along back streets, sound waves vibrating the galvanized steel above carports and, occasionally, the car that pulls up alongside. Behind the tinted windows hangs the distinctive blue cloud of marijuana smoke, a serious sound system and a driver who is schooled in a subculture particular to Houston -- Screw.
To be considered a serious player in the world of Screw, you must have a minimum of 18-inch woofers bolted into the floor of your trunk, and a full-size amplifier installed, most often, under the passenger seat. While the music, a brand of rap that carries the name of its creator, DJ Screw, has enough bass to blow out a candle, it also has a languid, eerie quality -- a sound that encourages that innate desire to nod one's head in time with the hypnotic rhythm of the backbeat. Screwed rap is crafted to put its listeners in a meditative trance, a state that's often enhanced by several rounds of gin-and-juice cocktails and tokes off of a blunt -- a marijuana cigarette that's been wrapped in a Swisher Sweets cigar paper.
A Houston rapper and mixer whose presence on the rap scene reached a peak last year with the release of his third CD, 3 N' the Mornin', DJ Screw began his musical career at 13, scratching up his mother's records with a screw in the privacy of his bedroom. He later turned his talents to mixing the sounds of local rappers at his house and selling the resulting tapes to his friends and whoever dropped by with them. It wasn't long before Screw had quite a following among young African-American and Hispanic men who came from different neighborhoods all over the city to buy his tapes, slide them into their massively powered car stereos and demonstrate their reverence for the man and his music with some stylishly executed driving.
To announce their arrival and departure, or just to pay homage, young drivers would "swang and bang" (a term that originated in a song by E.S.G., a rapper Screw helped push into the local limelight) in front of Screw's house -- the swangin' a gentle "S" movement in time to the music, and the bangin' a more violent back and forth swerve with the steering wheel that shakes the car, and its passengers, at hard angles. In the very early hours of morning in the right neighborhood, it's not unusual to see a whole train of swangin' and bangin' cars, circling intersections one after another and swaying down the street at various speeds, the trunks and back seats pulsing with the slightly distorted sound.
The cars, distant cousins of low riders, are clean and sleek. The model isn't as important as the vehicle's overall look and its sound system.
"You can have looks and size," says Mike Gutierrez, a young Screw devotee discussing the importance of one's car, "and then you have style."
In fact, style is at the core of the swangin' and bangin' ethos. From the clothing -- ranging from Ralph Lauren sportswear to tailored suits -- to the carefully styled hair and liberally applied designer cologne, every mannered detail is designed to draw the attention of other swangers, and, of course, women. There is a confluence of Southern gentleman and official bad boy in Screw culture, the bad boy end of the equation displaying considerably more polish than a typical Compton gangsta. Still, there are many members of this club who have spent time in prison and are on parole, who tote handguns along with their CD cases and occasionally maintain a brisk drug business on the side.
As anyone connected with this homegrown subculture will tell you, Screw isn't just about the music, or the driving, or attracting women -- it's the new laid-back art of hanging out, one that emphasizes brotherhood and the distant dream of making it big. There is, in nearly every carful of swangers, at least one aspiring rapper or producer who takes it on faith that he will one day score a multimillion-dollar record deal, a mansion with bikini-clad women around the swimming pool, and plenty of time for play.
The South Park neighborhood where DJ Screw sells his tapes brings together, as Screw himself puts it on 3 N' the Mornin', "all the races around the world who support rap music." There are Asian-owned liquor stores, tiny street-side taquerias and plenty of soul food restaurants. It's not much of a surprise, then, that the driving culture of Screw music worked its way into the community of Hispanic teenagers, all the way to Lamar High School near River Oaks.
Sean Guzman, a surprisingly mature looking 16-year-old who plays football at Lamar, remembers hearing rap music growing up and later seeing bangers around his neighborhood in the Heights. Guzman and his friend Mike Gutierrez, who graduated from Lamar last year, ride together on Saturday nights to the accompaniment of tapes Gutierrez mixes with Screw and other rap, especially the West Coast sounds of Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac Shakur and L.L. Cool J.