If you've heard only one song mixed by DJ Screw, Houston's most legendary icon of underground hip-hop, chances are good that it's the freestyle rap from his 1996 mixtape, Chapter 012: June 27th. Clocking in at an all-too-brief 35 minutes and 45 seconds, the song features the ad-lib talents of some of the city's most beloved Southside rappers, including Big Moe, Yungstar, Big Pokey and others.
That freestyle, shared by seven MCs over a sample of Kris Kross's "Da Streets Ain't Right," codified the Screwed Up sound for all time. It made June 27th the best-selling mixtape of the late DJ's too-short career, spawning enough local love to make June 27 something of an unofficial holiday in Houston.
But one local man has been celebrating June 27 longer than anybody else. You probably don't know who he is or what he's about, but he was one of the rappers on that legendary freestyle. In fact, he inspired it. His name is DeMo Sherman, and June 27 is his birthday.
"It was just a magical night," Sherman says wistfully, remembering how he and the other rappers formed up a circle inside Screw's crowded home 18 years ago today. "We knew. We knew that that tape was going to be special."
"Special" is how a lot of people who knew DJ Screw describe the man; Big DeMo knew him better than most. He met Screw in 1991, when his sister asked him to drive over to Screw's house to pick up a custom mixtape she'd purchased. She'd been trying to introduce her brother the hip-hop fanatic to the hot new DJ in the neighborhood for months.
"We met at the edge of his driveway," DeMo recalls. "He said, 'Man, so you're DeMo. You're Tashia's brother! Man, she won't shut up about you.' I said, 'Man, she won't shut up about you!' and we both laughed.
"We just started talking, right then and there," he continues. "We just talked for hours, standing right there on the curb at the end of the driveway. We talked about everything. We talked about where the rap music comes from and where it's going, as far as the Houston scene. Screw had a special talent of making you feel like you were the most important thing, his best friend or whatever. That was kind of his personality, his aura."
Soon, the pair became fast friends. DeMo, who'd been working on his rap and DJ skills since he first heard the Sugar Hill Gang, began hanging out at Screw's house every day, often long into the night. For the next five years, he watched the legend-in-the-making work, creating the Screw tapes that would be his legacy. Enthralled by the music, DeMo would help out however he could, with a rhyme here or a ride there.
"I saw a lot of people's tapes being made," Big DeMo says. "A lot of people say they knew Screw or that that hung with Screw. I really hung with Screw. Screw didn't have a car. I was his car. He'd get rides from anybody, but I was always there. I'd take him to get tapes sometimes, or to take care of business if some equipment broke down."
What's more, DeMo commissioned many mixtapes and rapped on plenty, too. June 27th was born after DeMo accidentally slept through the creation of a tape he was particularly excited to get made: a collection called Dancing Candy that he says featured the first instance of Big Moe singing on a Screw tape.
Seeing how his drank-sipping partner was crushed at missing out on the recording, Screw agreed to reassemble the same group of rappers the following week -- on June 27. This time, DeMo wouldn't miss his mark. He became the focal point of the most epic freestyle in Houston history.
Hey, as birthday gifts go, the tape was pretty goddamned decent. No one, however, was quite prepared for the phenomenon that followed.
"Screw made so many copies of it that we didn't get it back until the 3rd [of July]," Big DeMo says. "It was crazy, because the next morning, July 4, everybody hit the sand. Everybody was at the beach. When we hit the beach, the first thing we heard was Big Moe.
"We was like, 'Man, somebody's already jammin' it!'" he continues. "The next car we passed, they was jammin' it, and the next car, and the next car. Everybody on the beach was jammin' that tape, and I'm not exaggerating."
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Even more incredibly, they never stopped jammin' it. For guys like Big Pokey and Yungstar, the tape was a career-maker. Hip-hop was never a vocation for Big DeMo; in those days, he traveled the country making good money cleaning up spilled hazardous materials. Because June 27 was an underground mixtape with no liner notes and because DeMo wasn't out doing shows and selling CDs, he was largely forgotten as the legends of DJ Screw and Big Moe grew.
"Somebody actually came up to me and told me June 27 was Big Moe's birthday," DeMo says. "They didn't know who I was! There were contests on the radio about whose birthday it was. It's like I was deleted from existence!
"Some of that's my fault, because not everyone wants to be out there like that," he added. "You can keep the fame, just give me the money for it. I'm not the guy who wants to show out."
To this day, as rap promoters hold big events around town commemorating June 27, Big DeMo doesn't get a call. He continues to create music, however, with his group Tha Vetranz. This year, he'll be celebrating the big day at Avani Lounge on Hillcroft, where he'll probably be the most famous person in the room.
In recent years, though, thanks in large part to the efforts of Optimo Radio founder Optimo Ram and Houston Rap Tapes author Lance Scott Walker, hardcore Screwheads are rediscovering Big DeMo online from as far away as Germany and Poland. All of them who seek him out on Facebook are hoping to unravel the mystery of Mr. June 27.
"The small group of followers I do have, they are loyal," DeMo says. "It's crazy, but most of the record sales I get are from overseas. All that's off June 27th.
"We're talking about a mixtape here," he continues. "It's crazy to me that someone who's 18 will come up and tell me how much he loves June 27th. They're still listening to it! Why? 'Cause it's still jammin'.
Couldn't have said it better. Happy June 27, Big DeMo.
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