Life in the Slow Lane

Time was putty in the hands of Robert Earl Davis Jr.

On the turntables, as DJ Screw, he could cut back and forth, reversing records and recuing them so swiftly you'd swear the record had been chopped by a computer. Day to day, Robert Earl maintained a leisurely pace, always running an hour or three behind, bending your will to his schedule. He was quick to fry up some chicken and whip up some mashed potatoes, though. He'd jet to the store for a frozen pizza in a minute, brew iced tea so tasty it was like candy. Robert Earl might not have gotten to church on time, or even most Sundays. But once he got there, he wouldn't hesitate to reach in his pocket, pull out a few grand for new choir robes or send a girl to Washington, D.C., to meet the president.

Above all, as Houston's most popular DJ, Screw decelerated life to a crawl for hundreds of thousands of people who loved his poured-molasses style of slowed-down music. Stretching the fabric of beats and rhymes, DJ Screw was a nationwide underground radio station all by himself. He produced and sold his tapes fast and furious -- recording up to two 100-minute tapes a week, selling so many out of his house, and later his store, that police broke down his door looking for drugs.

Time ran out for DJ Screw sometime the night of November 16. Secluded in his favorite place in the world -- his recording studio -- Screw slipped into darkness at age 29. His favorite cousin, who found Screw's body the next morning, first thought Screw was just asleep. That wouldn't have been unusual for a man who would stay in the studio for three days straight, who would go to bed with headphones on, who once proclaimed that "I'm married to my turntables, and my records are my children." Exactly what caused Screw's death is still in doubt. But there's no doubt whatsoever that he died exactly where he always wanted to be.

Robert Earl started collecting records when he was maybe five years old, living in Smithfield, Texas. He would find old-style stereos -- those cheap units with a turntable, radio and tape deck all in one console -- and play them endlessly.

School never held much of an attraction for Robert Earl. Once, in the middle of a lecture from his grandmother about the importance of studying, "He just said, 'Aw, I can't learn,' " recalls father Robert Earl Davis Sr. "He said he wanted to stay at home with his dogs. They were a bunch of mutts, Heinz 57s."

About age ten, Robert Earl moved to Houston to stay with his father, a truck driver who had recently relocated here. "I picked him up at the bus station, and his lip had been busted by a baseball," Robert Sr. said one recent afternoon at his comfortable home on the southeast side of town. "It looked like it stuck out farther than his cap. He didn't let that stop him from coming to Houston, though. He kept that spot on his lip forever."

When Robert Sr. would leave on a job in the morning, Robert Earl would be in his room with his records. You couldn't even see the room for all the records in there. Robert Sr. would come home at 4 a.m., and his son would still be in his room, listening to those records. Turns out he was hardly leaving the house, especially for school. He stopped going altogether in the eighth grade.

"He always said, 'Pops, I'm gonna be famous. You'll be proud of me,' " his father says. "When he dropped out in the eighth grade, I was scared. If he didn't make it in music, where would he go? But he was blessed, and he made it."

It took a big investment. Screw owned thousands of records when he died, most of which he paid for himself. "If he had $30 in his pocket, he'd spend $25 on records," Robert Sr. says.

"And $5 on Churchs chicken," added a laughing Andrew Hatton, better known as DJ Chill.

Chill hooked up with Screw back in 1989, when both were small-time DJs with big-time dreams. Chill was just getting started, and pretty much all he knew how to do was play hits. He could hardly mix the records at all, and couldn't scratch worth a damn. Chill wanted to learn, so his friend Al D. offered to introduce him to his older brother Screw.

Screw was a skinny cat then, with a high-top fade. He put Chill in front of two turntables, laid out two copies of Run-DMC's "Peter Piper" and kept the beat by snapping his fingers until Chill got the hang of manipulating the cross-fader. It was the first of many, many times that Screw would change the life of a relative stranger.