November marked the 10-year anniversary of the passing of Houston DJ and Producer Robert Earl Davis, Jr. aka DJ Screw (b. 1971, d. 2000). DJ Screw's music redefined Southern hip-hop in the 1990s and continues to influence the contemporary spectrum of music including electronica, indie rock, and avant-garde improvisation.
There are often more similarities than differences between artists, even a pair born at either end of the Atlantic. So in the spirit of our previous meditation on connections between composer John Cage and pop star Kanye West, We'd like to freestyle a bit about DJ Screw and painter, sculptor, and chess master Marcel Duchamp (b. 1887, d. 1968).
Like John Cage (with whom he played chess) Marcel Duchamp is a polarizing figure. Even those closest to him were sometimes confused by his actions and motivations. It's not an understatement to say that Duchamp's paintings and sculptures including Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2 and The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even forever changed the 20th century "retinal experience" of visual art. I won't pretend to have a complete grasp of Duchamp's output but I can point to a few of his works that resonate similarly with the innovations of DJ Screw.
Readymades Duchamp may be best known for selecting ordinary everyday objects to reposition, sign, and display as works of visual art. He called these pieces "readymades." A bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, a snow shovel, and a urinal (the infamous 1917 work Fountain) are a few examples of these works. After looking at a "readymade," your eyes might then travel to a light switch or a coat rack prompting you to ask yourself: "Well, if THAT'S art, why isn't THAT art?"
DJ Screw took the readymade a step further. He appropriated a physical object--the vinyl record--then mechanically or physically slowed down the rotations of the disc as it played on a turntable. Over top of the resulting track (usually approximately double the length of the original song) he recorded additional rhythms, sounds, and/or vocals complimenting the new tonality of the slowed down recording. He called the resulting recordings "chopped and screwed" mixes. The resulting music often resonated in ways the original artist couldn't have anticipated. And yet like Duchamp's "readymades," the original "ordinary" object was still present.
Rotoreliefs Rotoreliefs were Duchamp's designs on flat cardboard that when placed on a turntable just as one would a vinyl record, created optical illusions as they spun. In collaboration with Man Ray and Marc Allégret, Duchamp filmed early versions of the rotoreliefs for a silent 1926 film titled Anémic Cinéma. If you check it out on YouTube, you might want to jam some DJ Screw as a soundtrack.
Once again, DJ Screw took this idea in his own direction by reducing the rpm speed of a recording to create the illusion of hearing voices and sounds from another dimension. The listener is made aware of sounds that didn't exist before the "screwed" mix. We'll also say the erotic quality of Duchamp's undulating rotoreliefs reminds us of the down-home throb of the best DJ Screw slow jams.
Puns "I wanna screw the whole world." -DJ Screw July 1995 issue of The Source
Duchamp loved puns and alliteration. The titles he gave his works purposely question what it is you think you're seeing and what is actually there. Duchamp's title for the readymade he created by drawing a mustache on a postcard image of Leonardo DaVinci's painting Mona Lisa is L.H.O.O.Q which when pronounced in French letter by letter translates to: "She has a hot ass." Puns also appear in the text written on some of the rotoreliefs appearing in the aforementioned film Anémic Cinéma.
In a DJ Screw mix, individual words and entire lines are repeated, cut up into syllabic rhythms, and/or removed entirely to give a fresh spin (get it?) on the original artists' lyrics and whatever subtext existed in the pre-screwed mix. In the screwed mix of The Notorious B.I.G.'s classic Juicy, DJ Screw repeats key lines that speak not just to Biggie's (New York City) biography, but to the day-to-day struggle and dreams of those in Houston and all parts South:
"I never thought it could happen, this rappin' stuff." (repeated 2x)
"Now homies play me close like butter played toast, From the Mississippi down to the east coast." (repeated 3x!)
"Phone bill about two G's flat..." (repeated 3x then followed by: "No need to worry, my accountant handles that.")
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If Duchamp's games with language carry an air of cynicism birthed perhaps out of the horror of World War, DJ Screw's "chopping" and "screwing" of lyrics seems rooted in American blues performance with all of its subversive humor. We should note that fragmentation of lyrics has precedent in at least a few places, most obviously Jamaica and that island's pioneers of "dub" music, and that's a whole other topic.
We want to acknowledge Houston's Labotanica and its 2009 Screwed Anthologies series curated by artist Ayanna Jolivet McCloud. Her expansive take on the musical legacy of Houston is inspiring and prompted us to offer our own spin on DJ Screw.
"Had Duchamp had a closer experience of music, his work would have acquired a further dimension." -- Composer Luciano Berio on Marcel Duchamp