History, Screwed and Chopped

Ever since Julie Grob can remember, she wanted to be a gangster.

Grob isn't a gangster in the literal sense — far from it. She is the polite, kind-eyed, abundantly intelligent Coordinator for Digital Products and Instruction for the University of Houston Libraries.

Among other things, her job includes providing general planning and oversight for digital collections and rare materials, and curating the literature and World War II archival collections.

And last spring, she began building another archive — the works of late Houston rap legend DJ Screw, founder of the meditative "Screwed and Chopped" genre and the famed Screwed Up Click rap collective.

Despite being one of Houston's most beloved musical icons, Screw has largely had his influence on Southern rap and its surrounding culture ignored by traditional academia. That's precisely the reason that Grob felt a proper collection documenting his legacy was so necessary.

"I was kind of inspired by learning about Cornell's hip-hop collection," she says. "I didn't know too much about Southern rap or where to start. I was interested in DJ Screw because I knew he was a famous guy and had been influential outside of Houston.

"It was something people really associated with Houston," Grob adds. "I just thought it would be a nice way to pull a lot of things together."

Grob is standing at the entrance of the preservation stacks in the main U of H library. There are a few historical artifacts in the room. Five paces to her right is an 18th-century altarpiece of Ethiopian origin. Two steps before that is a platinum plaque the RIAA awarded to Lil' Troy of "Wanna Be a Baller" fame.

Grob smiles and types in a code on a keypad that unlocks a door, which opens onto a hallway that leads to a bunch of important documents in boxes. Everything of import in the discreet, climate-controlled room is kept in compact shelving, basically bookshelves that electronically slide together and apart.

She calls forth a particular shelf and makes small talk about her work at the library, where she's been since 1995, as it hums forward. When it opens, there are plain cardboard boxes filled with old concert flyers and rap CDs. A couple of rows down is a first-edition King James Bible, published in 1611.

"Come over here," she says. "We have some things laid out already."

She walks into a back room where approximately 15 boxes sit on the floor, most with the tops off. All are full of vinyl records.

"These are from DJ Screw's personal collection, the ones he used to make his tapes," Grob says.

In March of next year, UH Libraries, in conjunction with the H.E.R.E. (Houston Enriches Rice Education) Project, UH's African-American Studies department and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, will open "DJ Screw and the Rise of Houston Hip-Hop" to the public. The exhibit catalogs Screw's imprint on Southern rap culture, as well as the effect of Southern rap culture in general.

Grob mentions how well the impending exhibit has already been received, saying even reclusive rapper Z-Ro popped in to see what was going down. In one YouTube video, the Mo City Don and Grob stand shoulder to shoulder, talking about the growing collection. Neither of them looks especially comfortable, but they both look pleased.

"I ain't gon' lie, something historic goin' down right," Ro grumbles to the camera. Meanwhile, Grob wears a bright green sweater and matching earrings.

"These were actually donated by DJ Screw's father, Papa Screw," she says of the records.

A cursory glance reveals a test pressing of E.S.G.'s Swangin' and Bangin', Rappin 4-Tay's Playaz Club, Royal Flush's 976-DOPE, Ganksta NIP's Psychotic Genius and Scarface's Homies and Thuggs.

Grob's own musical pedigree can be traced back to her time as manager and booking agent for the defunct punk/metal venue The Axiom. She wasn't a Screw fan originally; she knew about his work, but did not actively pursue it.

Once she began to investigate the DJ's catalog, though, it immediately appealed to her intellectual interests.

"I think it [Screw's music] does an amazing job of documenting," explains Grob, who has a Masters in Library Science from the University of North Texas.

"The neighborhoods where a lot of guys [like Screw] come from are places that are not documented the way historically African-American neighborhoods like Fifth Ward or Third Ward are," she says, "because it's marginalized people and reveals a lot around or about street culture and drug culture.

"They didn't have a more mainstream platform to put forward what they felt or were experiencing," Grob continues. "The Screw Tapes really captured that. It didn't come out of how record executives wanted to portray a sound. They were making the tapes for each other, about each other.

"It's just this really genuine communication, and I came to realize that this music is so important to people because it really feels like it represents them."

The parallels between a Screw tape and, say, a handwritten World War II journal are perhaps more profound than even Screw intended. Grob opens a separate box and places a black spiral notebook with black pages down on the table.

"You can see this."

The spiral wire has been withdrawn, and the front and back covers and all the pages placed in protective plastic sleeves.

"This belonged to Big H.A.W.K."

H.A.W.K. was supposed to be one of the S.U.C.'s first breakout stars.

"It was donated by his wife."

He was murdered in 2006.

"It's one of his rhyme books."

In the notebook, ideas for verses are scribbled down. Whole pages are filled with words that rhyme with each other. Some pages have names, some have phone numbers, and some have scorekeeping tallies from domino games.

There are other, more substantial parts of the exhibit, Grob mentions, but "those will be saved for the exhibit. We're very excited."

Robert Earl Davis Sr., Papa Screw, still lives in Houston. He is fresher and more eager in discussions than his age would imply, and his enthusiasm for the archive project is almost palpable.

All talk about what the archive will mean for his son's legacy eventually boils down to simple anecdotes, tiny moments where he gets to relive parts of Screw's life that nobody else does.

Papa Screw talks about how DJ Screw would take every bit of money he had and buy records, to the point that he didn't have a bed in his room because it wouldn't fit. Sometimes he'd lie on the floor and sleep right between those crates, he says.

He talks about how the family was evicted from four separate apartments because of the music, how he was told that there was too much traffic going in and out. The landlords always thought it was because of drugs. It never was.

"Screw used to always tell me he wanted to be famous," says his dad. "He used to say that he wanted to make an impact on music. I knew he was gonna do it. All he ever did was music. Julie is a real nice lady. I guess he did."

DJ Screw is a legitimate music legend. He passed more than a decade ago, but is as prevalent in Houston's rap identity as any living person. This exhibit, the preservation of his stylings, is entirely deserved. If anything, it moved a little slow getting here.

That probably makes sense, though.

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Shea Serrano