An Honest Conversation About Houston and Screw Music
Every day without fail, I wonder about the current legacy of screw music.
It creeps up on me like one of those terrible slasher flicks you used to sneak and watch as a teen, knowing the plot well before you even got halfway through the film: Moments of what should be perceived as horror turned into uncontrollable humor. You knew the kill was coming; you just hated that you got sucked into it.
As soon as Justin Timberlake returned with "Suit & Tie," most Houston rap heads nodded in unison and ran to their friends about the beat-flip, which uses the style that DJ Screw pioneered.
"Screw lives!" they proclaimed, almost as if a deity had risen again and again. Only Screw never really left, and we're only marveling at "Suit & Tie" because Timberlake and producer Timbaland once more found it fitting to slow down their vocal progression and add a few chops.
Trust, it's not pandering to a crowd, but it only ups the effect. Imagine if McDonald's remixed their "Fish McBites" jingle for the screwheads the same way Taco Bell has bastardized the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa" to meet its target audience. But I digress.
The constant question that revolved around All-Star Weekend from most out-of-towners regarding music in Houston wasn't the new creations by its newer guard, but rather what its older class was still up to.
Try as they might, the newbies only got in where they fit in during choice spots at local concerts and on MTV personality Sway's Sway in the Morning radio show on Sirius/XM's Shade 45. There were only hints of Screw, not full-blown elements, almost as if they were purposely avoiding it.
What Screw as a culture means to the new class of rappers in Houston is as a model for success without the need of a national voice or co-sign behind it. As a sound, however, it's almost natural that Lil Keke or ESG will find one of their numerous freestyles from yesteryear reworked into a song today. Or a chorus, if we're being all the way legit here.
That standard begs a new question: Would today's new class make Screw music? Do they even need Screw to survive? Or do they just add to its legacy by carrying the flag wherever they may roam, as Kirko Bangz has for the past year or so to keep reminding people he's from Houston?
Many members of Houston's rap class in the last decade or so got their start on Screw tapes, whether touched by Michael Watts, OG Ron C or Screw himself. The idea may seem archaic in an MP3 world and, for the most part, there hasn't been a full-blown compilation of local freestyles made exclusively for one DJ's tape.
The newer class, those who by extension of the lull in Houston rap on a national level following the balloon of 2005-07, figured that the world wanted to hear them as rappers and not torchbearers of a culture.
It's not that we as listeners in a microwavable music world don't appreciate Screw music; it's possible that our time with the genre has moved on to bigger moments. Within a week, you're going to hear Screw continue worming its way into trap music when a chopped version of Baauer's "Harlem Shake" drops.
The more sought-after tapes, slowed to a crawl and timely spliced around, come from DJs remixing already-noted tracks and albums nationally. OG Ron C's recent FADER mix is a clear example of such practice, adding freewheeling hazy fun behind Drake's "Started From the Bottom" and Joe Ski Love's "Peewee's Dance" from the Pee-wee Herman Show.
Nationally, Screw is almost second nature.
Locally, it's a slight afterthought.
The conversation raged on Twitter, home of banter and arguments that seemingly go nowhere outside of general ego-stroking and humor. Houston's new class doesn't need Screw to finally break through the clutches of radio -- it simply wants to rap and create the sort of rider music that lasts more than six months.
Radio might ask them to write and push tracks incorporating the sound, which would be basically asking for six different Kirko Bangz tracks to come around as opposed to, say, six individual tracks from six different rappers. Imitation might be a bigger slap in the face than the actual homage-paying.
Quite possibly, we're in a realm of Houston rap where the outliers outweigh the traditionalists -- where RiFF RaFF can gain top billing and be known nationally, but locally almost be an oft-missed trivia question. Conversely, DeLorean or Killa Kyleon are far bigger local homegrown talents, but break through nationally with shows once every blue moon in New York.
Screw music does have a place in the history of Houston rap, much like boom-bap or synthesized rider music does in the genealogy and growth of the sounds of New York and Los Angeles.
But like those waves before, it's not a necessary instrument in making it big. It may funnel the conversation, but the conversations of yesteryear about hearing a group of guys on one tape are close to buried and gone.
The ghost of Screw still lingers around, but it's touching much more than Houston these days.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.