Life in the Slow Lane

DJ Screw lived mostly for his work, as if he would have time later to celebrate his success. That time would never come.

Of course, the police took one look at a young black man making fistfuls of cash out of his trunk and his house and promptly broke down the door looking for drugs. Did that a few times, actually. All they ever found was money and a gun or two, for protection. After each raid, the police had to return Screw's pistols to him. He was 100 percent legal.

Well, maybe 99 percent. According to the letter of the law, a DJ who sells a mix tape should pay royalties to the owners of the songs. But rap labels have always viewed mix tapes as local promotional opportunities rather than competition, so unless a tape is being sold nationwide, record companies leave mix-tape DJs alone when it comes to royalties.

Eventually Screw started selling enough tapes nationwide on independent labels that royalties did become a problem. So he just amassed a crew of local artists, had them rap over unheard-of beats and kept doing his thing. "There was a time when you couldn't sell a mix tape in Houston unless it was Screw," says Russell Washington, longtime record store proprietor and owner of Big Tyme Records, which released several of Screw's albums. "Everyone would come in here to ask for his tapes, and they would remember the [freestyle] flows word for word."

Chill thinks the stress of Screw's self-imposed work ethic may have contributed to his death.
Deron Neblett
Chill thinks the stress of Screw's self-imposed work ethic may have contributed to his death.
Screw's cousin Chris Cooley: "You wouldn't even think he was in the rap game. He carried himself like he worked in a gas station."
Deron Neblett
Screw's cousin Chris Cooley: "You wouldn't even think he was in the rap game. He carried himself like he worked in a gas station."

Of course, the flows. So many Houston rappers got their start on Screw tapes. Big Moe, whose hit "Barre Baby" is saturating local airwaves, came up with the Screwed Up Click, the name for Screw's loose confederacy of MCs. Big Hawk, who appeared on Lil' Troy's smash "Wanna Be a Baller," was one of the first members of the crew. Lil' Flip, Big Pokey, Lil' Keke, Yungstar, the late Fat Pat, the Botany Boys… The list goes on, testament to Screw's greatest legacy: He gave more than he could ever receive.

Screw's tapes let local MCs build fan bases, and those who shone were signed to recording contracts by local and national labels. Radio airplay for new artists is tough to get for major labels, let alone guys with day jobs. But "one Screw tape could reach 100,000 people," says Washington. "That made names for a lot of local artists."

Screw never asked for a dime in return. For a DJ -- the profession that coined the term payola -- this was unheard of. "He was such a good-hearted person," says Shorty Mack, his distant cousin and a member of the Screwed Up Click. "His mission was to help everybody he could, get folks off the street into something legal, so they wouldn't be in and out of jail." That's what he did with Shorty Mack, who was 13 and not even thinking about being a rapper when Screw took him under his wing.

Among those closest to Screw, there's a strong feeling that many rappers whom Screw broke -- and who have gone on to sell millions of records -- haven't shown the proper gratitude and respect. No names are ever mentioned. "Screw gave everybody so much," says Tommie Langston, who runs the Texas record pool Mix Wiz and used to be a manager, and much more, for Screw. "I'm not naming no names, but every brother out there who he touched and helped, they know who's giving something back and who isn't."

"To all the rappers he made, and to all the other DJs who are slowing down their records, all I want is for them to do one tape," says Lumpkin. "Just do one tape, put all Screw's Click on there, and give something back. Because if it wasn't for Darryl Scott, there wouldn't be DJ Screw. If it wasn't for DJ Screw, there wouldn't be none of these guys gettin' money."

Not that Screw cared all that much about leeches, real or perceived. "You have to understand something about Screw," Langston says. "Every single thing that he did was about one thing: He just wanted to be the coldest DJ out there." Says Washington: "He felt like each mix had a life of its own. He said he wanted to tell his own story with [the rappers'] words."

Screw wasn't hurting for money, anyway. His prediction about club owners came true; after his tapes took off in the early '90s, clubs started paying him close to $1,500 a night. In 1994 Screw started releasing albums on independent labels like Big Tyme and Jam Down, selling a total of more than 200,000 copies through conventional record stores. He was the most popular DJ in the entire South, and Langston could get Screw almost as much for a performance as a platinum rapper. In 1996 the DJ opened his own store, Screwed Up Records and Tapes, to keep the law from bothering him at his house. It was a smash.

Through it all, Screw stayed the same humble, friendly dude from Smithfield. Chill remembers that even after his tapes started selling, Screw wore the same pair of black Nikes until the sides of his feet poked though. No Lexus or Benz for Screw -- when he died there was a Chevy Impala Super Sport in his driveway.

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