There are certain neighborhoods in Houston where, late at night and into the early hours of the morning, well-groomed cars with large speakers bolted into their trunks thrum along back streets, sound waves vibrating the galvanized steel above carports and, occasionally, the car that pulls up alongside. Behind the tinted windows hangs the distinctive blue cloud of marijuana smoke, a serious sound system and a driver who is schooled in a subculture particular to Houston -- Screw.
To be considered a serious player in the world of Screw, you must have a minimum of 18-inch woofers bolted into the floor of your trunk, and a full-size amplifier installed, most often, under the passenger seat. While the music, a brand of rap that carries the name of its creator, DJ Screw, has enough bass to blow out a candle, it also has a languid, eerie quality -- a sound that encourages that innate desire to nod one's head in time with the hypnotic rhythm of the backbeat. Screwed rap is crafted to put its listeners in a meditative trance, a state that's often enhanced by several rounds of gin-and-juice cocktails and tokes off of a blunt -- a marijuana cigarette that's been wrapped in a Swisher Sweets cigar paper.
A Houston rapper and mixer whose presence on the rap scene reached a peak last year with the release of his third CD, 3 N' the Mornin', DJ Screw began his musical career at 13, scratching up his mother's records with a screw in the privacy of his bedroom. He later turned his talents to mixing the sounds of local rappers at his house and selling the resulting tapes to his friends and whoever dropped by with them. It wasn't long before Screw had quite a following among young African-American and Hispanic men who came from different neighborhoods all over the city to buy his tapes, slide them into their massively powered car stereos and demonstrate their reverence for the man and his music with some stylishly executed driving.
To announce their arrival and departure, or just to pay homage, young drivers would "swang and bang" (a term that originated in a song by E.S.G., a rapper Screw helped push into the local limelight) in front of Screw's house -- the swangin' a gentle "S" movement in time to the music, and the bangin' a more violent back and forth swerve with the steering wheel that shakes the car, and its passengers, at hard angles. In the very early hours of morning in the right neighborhood, it's not unusual to see a whole train of swangin' and bangin' cars, circling intersections one after another and swaying down the street at various speeds, the trunks and back seats pulsing with the slightly distorted sound.
The cars, distant cousins of low riders, are clean and sleek. The model isn't as important as the vehicle's overall look and its sound system.
"You can have looks and size," says Mike Gutierrez, a young Screw devotee discussing the importance of one's car, "and then you have style."
In fact, style is at the core of the swangin' and bangin' ethos. From the clothing -- ranging from Ralph Lauren sportswear to tailored suits -- to the carefully styled hair and liberally applied designer cologne, every mannered detail is designed to draw the attention of other swangers, and, of course, women. There is a confluence of Southern gentleman and official bad boy in Screw culture, the bad boy end of the equation displaying considerably more polish than a typical Compton gangsta. Still, there are many members of this club who have spent time in prison and are on parole, who tote handguns along with their CD cases and occasionally maintain a brisk drug business on the side.
As anyone connected with this homegrown subculture will tell you, Screw isn't just about the music, or the driving, or attracting women -- it's the new laid-back art of hanging out, one that emphasizes brotherhood and the distant dream of making it big. There is, in nearly every carful of swangers, at least one aspiring rapper or producer who takes it on faith that he will one day score a multimillion-dollar record deal, a mansion with bikini-clad women around the swimming pool, and plenty of time for play.
The South Park neighborhood where DJ Screw sells his tapes brings together, as Screw himself puts it on 3 N' the Mornin', "all the races around the world who support rap music." There are Asian-owned liquor stores, tiny street-side taquerias and plenty of soul food restaurants. It's not much of a surprise, then, that the driving culture of Screw music worked its way into the community of Hispanic teenagers, all the way to Lamar High School near River Oaks.
Sean Guzman, a surprisingly mature looking 16-year-old who plays football at Lamar, remembers hearing rap music growing up and later seeing bangers around his neighborhood in the Heights. Guzman and his friend Mike Gutierrez, who graduated from Lamar last year, ride together on Saturday nights to the accompaniment of tapes Gutierrez mixes with Screw and other rap, especially the West Coast sounds of Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac Shakur and L.L. Cool J.
Guzman's car has been a family effort. His parents bought it for him and furnished it with a sound system that includes a 250-watt amplifier and several sets of new speakers. The next step, his father says, is a CD player that will provide more output and a crisper sound than the top-of-the-line tape deck that currently graces the Honda's center console. The large speaker that's in the shiny black car's trunk is accented by a narrow ultraviolet light and fronted with a large pane of protective Plexiglas. Sean's nine-year-old sister likes to put her hand on the pane and feel it bounce with bass.
You learn to drive, says Gutierrez, who does most of the duo's talking, by watching other people, and by meditating with the music.
"You listen to the beat, you swang easy if it's slow," he explains. Less important at this stage of the game, though it still plays a role, is attracting girls. For both young men, being seen in a sharp car with a stellar sound system is much more important than what they're wearing.
"It's like you're wearing the car," Mike says. "It's fashion with automobiles."
Indeed, true to form, Guzman drives in gangsta sprawl: seat pushed back, right wrist over the top of the steering wheel, left arm on his door and beeper clipped to the front pocket of his oversize jeans.
The end goal for the two, in the course of a Saturday night, is to meet up with fellow bangers to find a party. They spend about three hours circling at a leisurely pace the various parks, streets and known hangouts of other bangers. On the Saturday before the Super Bowl, however, a warm foggy night, the whole town -- from Montrose to Mason Park -- seems deserted, and no one on the usual route knows of any parties. Any empty street offers the opportunity to show off one's S&B moves, but wide avenues and underpasses offer attractive benefits: more room to swerve and roller-coaster-like effects through the underpass tunnel. It's possible too, Guzman points out, that other swangers are low-profiling, and may follow his lead once he starts turning corners.
While Guzman's parents are an unusual source of support for the evolving state of his car, there are limits to what they let Sean do. He wears a beeper when he goes out, and carries his mother's C-phone, in the event he gets stopped by the police (which has never happened) or is out past his curfew. Still, his mother worries. "When they pull up to a stop sign, and there's a showdown," she says, sitting at her dining room table, "there's always the possibility that's something's going to go wrong. This has to do with a lot of different guys' machismos. And look at these two guys -- I mean, your average Hispanic male is short -- so you have two six-foot-and-some-odd inches guys, where you might get a smaller guy who might be intimidated by them and his girls are looking at them or whatever. That's what worries me."
If Sean is late, his beeper goes off and his phone rings. It's his mother on the other end of the line. For the most part, though, the Guzmans are mildly amused with the S&B subculture; it reminds them of their own cruising days. "I think it gives them a time to talk about guy things. I think that it's important they do a little bonding," his dad says of the driving.
Mike, who describes his family life as "in transition," is one of the many bangers who dreams of a career in music. His nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the local rap group family tree is mesmerizing, and his litany of the strengths and weaknesses in each form is fairly complex.
"You can slow down the beat, and it slows you down," he says of Screwed rap. "The thing with DJ Screw is that he takes other rappers' voices out and raps on top of them. If you're in a slow state of mind you can make out the beat. That's why most riders are high when they're listening. It's a laid-back thing. Other rap, like East and West coast rap, is so fast you can't understand it. This is slowed down so that you can understand it."
Like many of the other young men drawn to this subculture, Mike's done some things he'd like to forget about. He used to, he remembers, subject his grandmother to swangin' maneuvers while taking her out on errands. "I don't do that anymore," he says with a slow smile. "But she still likes some of the music."
As the night before Super Sunday wears on, it's obvious that the boys aren't going to find a house party. "There's not even any girls out," says Mike, lamenting the empty street scene. The two wind their way back to Sean's house, slipping through the back streets and nodding, not bothering to talk over the music.
While the laid-back and hypnotic qualities of Screwed rap hold their appeal across the bridge to manhood, swangin' and bangin' becomes far less important as its listeners grow up. In the Yellowstone neighborhood east of Highway 288, there's a group of 20 friends who have followed Screw from the beginning. Now in their twenties and thirties, they've almost abandoned the art of driving, swangin' and bangin' style.
This predominantly black neighborhood is one of missing parents, and the men who live here, often with their mothers, are true to the surrogate family structures they've created with their friends. Screw's philosophy holds firm to this idea -- the all-male clique mentioned in his rap is a source of security as well as entertainment.
The reason why Screw still appeals, explains Cisco, a big guy who spent time in prison for an insurance scam, is the laid-back sensibility. He pulls out the liner notes from 3 N' the Mornin' and quotes one of the two basic tenets in Screw culture: "1) Get with your clique, and go to that other level by sippin' syrup, gin, etc., smoke chronic indo, cess, bud or whatever gets you to that other level."
For Cisco and his friends, Screw culture has mutated into an endless house party -- one that's occasionally interrupted by trips to the liquor store, nightclubs and on rare occasions, riding. The aim is still, he says, to achieve the altered state Screwed rap so effortlessly suggests, with an underlined imperative to pursue sex -- lots of sex, and with lots of different women. The man who's successful in such a venture is called a player. Big D, the neighborhood's baby-faced drug dealer, and a player of some note, explains the imperatives: "Go to work from tenfour, hustle from 4:30 to 7:30 and wreck until ten." Wreck is one of the many terms -- get some play, slappin' skins -- that means sex.
On one of the many modest middle-class streets in this neighborhood, the group of about 20 men gather every Saturday afternoon. On warm days, they play flag football; on others, they stand in the driveway of Cisco's house, relaxing with beers while their car stereos play at full volume. A few small children wander around the group, some of them sporting the same close-cut and patterned haircuts as their fathers.
Most of these men grew up together, around the corner and down the street, and attended (a significant term, says one, that doesn't always indicate a degree) Yates High School. There are four brothers who live in the house: Cisco, Big G, Craig and Kenneth, each of whom has a network of friends and extended family who drop by on the weekends. By the time the sun goes down, the serious drinking begins -- generally brandy mixed with a splash of Coke, and later, blunts (sometimes filled with a stronger version of marijuana, fry, that's been soaked in embalming fluid) circulate through most of the group, backgrounded by the heavy bass heartbeat of a mixed tape.
On a cool February night, there is plenty of traffic in and out the front door of the house, but most of the party's action is taking place in the family room, where Cisco is playing a videotape of his sister's birthday bash six years ago. On the video, the partygoers are dancing the Harlem Shuffle. The people standing around in Cisco's living room, overwhelmingly men, begin to dance, pulling the party's few women out onto the floor. The dancers seem to be moving in their own slow vortex, fueled by the combination of strong brandy and weed and led by the music's distorted vocals and easy rhythm.
As it gets later, more friends show up. They arrive in their work clothes -- Fed Ex, mechanics' and other industrial-type uniforms -- come in briefly to drink a beer, then reappear later in pressed trousers and double-breasted jackets or jeans and leather jackets, the appropriate attire for a player.
Of the men who live in the house, Craig, who left Yellowstone to join the Marine Corps and then worked as a prison guard for seven years, pays the closest attention to his clothes. He dons a topcoat and a pair of tailored trousers, which he'll wear for the remainder of the evening.
Big G, after washing the dinner dishes, sweeping up the kitchen and wiping down the counters, changes into a black T-shirt and jeans that highlight the black-and-white rosary given to him in prison and splashes on a liberal amount of Nicole Miller cologne, his trademark.
Cisco, whose skills in rolling a blunt are often in demand, wears a rugby shirt with bold stripes.
A friend from out of town makes a last run for beer a few minutes before midnight. The crowd of men, now showered, coifed and dressed for a night out, have gathered in the street, in no big hurry to get anywhere. The beer-run vehicle is a late model Thunderbird, the kind of big American car that rides like a cloud over the potholes and other imperfections of Houston's back streets. Instead of Screw, the music on the CD player is Tupac, another local favorite. A Ruger lies in its holster on the Thunderbird's passenger side, underneath a suede jacket.
The cars, clothes, free-flowing liquor and smoke are all the accouterments of Screw's promised privilege -- the proof that you've made the cut as a player. Stepping outside the boundaries for a moment, though, Big D offers a rare bit of insight: "You can't let money run you," he says about hustling, and about the rules of the neighborhood. "You gotta run money." He thinks about this a minute and adds: "If I'm gonna do wrong, I'm gonna do it right."
The master player himself (real name: Robert E. Davis Jr.) lives in the same worn South Park house in which he began mixing tapes four years ago. At eight o'clock almost every night, the privacy gate to DJ Screw's driveway swings open, and cars steadily fill up the street in front of his house. Teenagers and adults -- black, Hispanic and occasionally white -- line up at the back door's metal security gate to buy from the selection of $10 tapes Screw and his band of 20 in-house rappers (The Screwed Up Click) have just recorded.
Screw is a stocky five feet, six inches and looks younger than his 26 years. He answers the door and greets his public with a stern expression and a .45 in hand. You never know who will show up, he says, recalling the time last year when the police broke down his door after a neighbor alleged that Screw was dealing drugs out of his bungalow.
Each tape holds 200 minutes of Screwed rap, each song featuring a number of different voices, and a number of different messages. The music, and the celebrity thrill that comes from brief contact with the mysterious man himself, leads naturally into swangin' and bangin'.
"They'd just be riding in their cars, slowed down," Screw says of the phenomenon, "and the music gets to them so much that they've got to swang -- they throw their hands out the sunroof, too, just like at a rock concert."
The devotion shown by those who make weekly stops for Screw's tapes, and the attention they pay to the lyrical detail in his music -- the mention of Swishers, the gin cocktails, the player attitude -- causes Screw to smile.
"It feels good that they're getting into me," he says, "and I'm getting into them getting into me."
Screw's work ethic pumps into action at about the same time his driveway gate swings open. In between answering the door and stocking a Nike box full of the Maxell tapes that hold the products of his craft, he organizes about 15 rappers, who sit on milk crates composing their rap on notebook paper.
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His studio, a spare bedroom that holds 15 large crates of records, several sound boards, two turntables, posters of local rappers, a mike, a TV tray stacked with computer discs and various other recording equipment, thumps with the background sound that Screw mixes. Pivoting between his turntables and records, he flips vinyl back and forth, scratching and slowing down the beat until he's pleased with the sound. One by one, the rappers stand at the mike and record their section, everyone else watching quietly, and giving encouragement during the playback.
Working solid for two or three days at a time, Screw smokes Black Mild cigars and drinks Big Red soda or a player potion -- gin cut with grape Snapple and soda water -- to stay awake. On this night, he moves with a slow precision, methodically organizing his record bins, creating room for all the rappers to stand and finally, after the sound is laid in, coaching them through their recording. A quiet reverence seems to fill the room as people watch him work. After five hours of recording, two of the rappers fall asleep on their milk crates, while the others drift off with their drinks. Screw's girlfriend, Nikki, comes home with a box of takeout for him, stopping in the kitchen to scold him for not doing the dishes.
As it gets closer to midnight, the tape-buying traffic slows to a trickle. Some of the fans lean in close to the security gate as their orders are filled, hoping to get a glimpse of Screw's studio and the bodies attached to the voices on tape. A few times during the night, the DJ pulls a key ring from his pocket, opens the security door and steps out to talk to the people who have driven an especially long way to buy tapes -- a young black man from Beaumont who, apparently starstruck, can only smile at Screw's questions, and a white kid from Dallas who amuses the DJ by rattling off the list of substances he used on the trip down to Houston.
The studio now is empty, and the perfume of reefer is wafting in from other parts of the house. Screw sits back down at his mixing board, puts on his headphones and cues up the last section of tape. Out in the Houston night, players and would-be players are nodding to the sounds he's created and dreaming of stardom, but DJ Screw is working.