Ed. Note: To go along with this week's feature on Mike Jones, Mike Giglio takes a look at the origins of Houston rap's once and future calling card, "screw music."
Wearing corn rows, a wife beater and green courdoroys, and holding a bottle of windex, Bird washes the glass doors at the Missouri City's massive Kingdom Builders church. "Your hair looks nice today," he says to a woman in a dress and high heels, as he holds open the door. "Real nice." Back in the day, when Bird first started rapping on his friend DJ Screw's legendary mix-tapes, he wore a flattop. And at the height of the craze surrounding the sub-genre of music that Screw created, he sometimes held an AK-47. "That shit got scary," he says. By the mid-'90s, Screw's tapes were attracting so much money and attention that he and his friends started getting nervous. Every night at 8 p.m., hundreds of people would pile into his driveway to buy the music. By the time Screw passed away from respiratory failure in 2000, he had laid the groundwork for a thriving Houston rap scene - by both pioneering its uniquely warped and slowed-down sound and inspiring local fans to look to Houston music first. "Even to this day, people are still coming by to pick up his music," Bird says.
In the back room at Screwed Up Records & Tapes, the tiny shop on Cullen Blvd. that Screw founded when the buzz got too big to accommodate at home, sits a pair of Technics turntables with the pitch levers pushed way down and a box of old vinyl records littered with stickies. Screw had been spinning records since he was a kid (and doing almost nothing but that), and he could scratch and mix with the best around. But he became a one-man craze by doing something new - taking his mixes and slowing them way down. "The pitch control only goes so far," says Randy, the resident DJ at the record shop, adding that Screw's mixes were recorded at regular speed and slowed down afterward (he won't say how) to create the mesmerizing, molasses-like pace that has become a signature sound of Houston rap. Much of Screw's music was extremely informal; records might be named for the date they were made (such as "June 27," which features Bird along with Big Pokey and Lil' Keke), or a memorable phrase from a verse. They stretch on without interuption for the length of a tape; many were made as friends played Sega or pool nearby, and occasionally jumped on the mike. Screw shied away from written verses - one rapper was expected to pick up from the last word of the other. The first screw tapes were passed around among friends. Then people began placing written lists of tracks they wanted on their own personalized tapes face down on the crate next to Screw's turntables. And after that, people were requesting the specific mixes that were becoming famous among Houston rap fans. Screw tapes were such an obsession that getting on one could start a local rapper's career. "Screw was coming in and plugging in the mike and giving it to the local homey," Randy says. "He let people pick which tape they wanted to hear. He let the streets decide that." Jut, who was the barber for Screw and his crew (known as the SUC, for Screwed Up Click or Soldiers United with Cash), says he never needed a business card: "He would just scream my name on the tapes, and that was my business card."
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SUC rappers such as Lil' Keke, Fat Pat, E.S.G., Big Moe, Big Pokey and Lil' Flip ended up finding local fame thanks in large part to regular appearances on the screw tapes, and some even went on to land record deals. "He taught other artists in the area how to be entrepreneurs, you know what I'm saying?" says Big Bubb, Screw's cousin. "A lot of them made it, a lot of them didn't, but at least they put themselves into it." Screw stayed non-commercial, even turning down a record deal at one point, preferring instead to make music and help his friends put out theirs. But even after his death, Houston's screwed mix-tape movement would continue to grow, until in 2005 it finally burst into the mainstream with the Mike Jones song "Still Tippin'." As Roni Sarig puts it in Third Coast, his comprehensive history of Southern rap:
"What brought screw music to the mainstream was neither DJ Screw nor the Screwed Up Click, but rather Screw's more media-savvy, crosstown rival-turned-successor, Michael "5000" Watts. Because of screw music's immense local popularity, other DJs [sic] inevitably tried it. But Watts was the only one who came close to rivaling Screw himself. And Watts' success helped preserve the music and legend of Screw for people who didn't catch on to slowed-down music until after Screw's death."