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Few American cities are as musically intertwined as Houston and Memphis. Think back to Duke-Peacock Records -- a label founded in Memphis and moved to Houston that featured Memphis singers Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland singing the songs of Houston guys like Joe Medwick, Johnny Copeland and Texas Johnny Brown and backed by the masterful arrangements of Houstonian Joe Scott and the playing of other locals such as Teddy Reynolds, Pete Mayes and Clarence Hollimon. B.B. King's bands have always featured a few H-town cats -- notably trumpeter Calvin Owens, who served as his bandleader for years. And that symbiosis continued through the soul years and right on up to rap. Memphis guys like Eightball and MJG, for example, have always considered Houston a second home.
After all, the cities aren't that different -- sultry Southern inland ports that reek of barbecue, albeit pork in Memphis and beef in Houston. And it continues today with the North Mississippi Allstars' new Electric Blue Watermelon chopped and screwed EP, one of the first of a growing number of rock and roll testaments to the late DJ Screw.
I caught up with the trio in the Meridian's green room just before their packed show here last week. Drummer-electric washboard shredder Cody Dickinson had the idea for the project, and in talking to him and his guitar-playing, singing brother Luther and bassist Chris Chew, one thing becomes real clear real fast: Of all the rock bands I've talked to over the years, only the Drive By Truckers have anything close to the level of knowledge of H-town rap these guys have. Not many rock bands send out props to Swishahouse's Michael Watts, for example. "Michael Watts is technically one of the best DJs I've ever heard," Cody says. "Screwed stuff aside, even on just normal speed. Just the way he manipulates records is bad."
Cody says he's been bangin' the screw for a couple of years now. "I first got into chopped and screwed music through Three Six Mafia's [2003 release] Da Unbreakables," he says, while picking over a mixed grill from nearby District 7 restaurant. "I just thought it was so innovative, 'cause I like psychedelic rock -- the idea of Hendrix taking acid and writing Electric Ladyland appealed to me, and this is similar. The whole codeine cough syrup and DJs thing And it's so new and fresh-sounding. So my partner Rhollo and I had the idea to do the Allstars."
This was in the summer of 2004. Cody had just recorded a few of the songs for the Electric Blue Watermelon LP, and he had a day off here thanks to the fact that Hurricane Ivan had forced the cancellation of their show in Baton Rouge. His Mississippi buddy Rhollo had a few connections in Houston, so he was able to hook Cody up with the real deal: DJ Jimmy D of the Labb, a recording studio off Mykawa in deep South Park. For Cody, this was quite an eye-opening experience. As he put it in the liner notes to the EP, "I couldn't believe the scene before my eyes. I had never seen more gold grills, platinum afro picks, and all around bling bling shazaam in all my life. I was glad I had a 12-pack of Budweiser and five Honey Buns, because I needed to make some friends. Fast."
"The vibe there was intense, man," he says now. "It really reminded me of Memphis."
After hanging out at the Labb for a few hours, sippin' syrup and killing time, Cody was starting to get frustrated. As he put in the notes, "I was totally impressed but growing weary My syrup cocktail was starting to kick in, and I had no screwed songs. That's when DJ Jimmy D showed up. I'm telling you when he walked in he parted all the wannabes and hangers-on like a river Jimbo is the Kobe Bryant of the turntable, the Michael Jordan of screwed and chopped."
Hyperbole? After a listen to the EP, I would say definitely not. From the eerie opening wa-wa guitar licks to the kick-ass closer, this little 24-minute sucker is awesome. It's chopped in all the right spots, and Luther's voice is deepened to a Muddy Waters rumble. What's more, you can hear every nuance of his sizzling Mississippi Fred McDowell-style guitar licks. The same goes for the guests: "Robert Randolph is on one of the cuts, and you can finally hear what the fuck he was playing," Cody says with a laugh, referring to "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down," the EP's closing cut. And, I might add, his steel sounds really cool screwed -- there are whole new realms of sonic texture in there to be heard.
The Allstars were already innovating on the regular-speed LP -- it's one of the first blues-based rock albums to weave in scratching and Dirty South raps (courtesy of Al Kapone of Hustle & Flow fame), and this is the next step. On playing it for Kapone for the first time back in Memphis at historic Ardent Studios, Cody had this to say: "Al is a man of few words, but he couldn't say enough about what we were doing. 'Revolutionary' was one of the words he used."
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