If you really wanna know how much the late Robert Earl Davis Jr. meant to the Houston rap scene or to the city's urban (read: bass-loving) culture in general, you need to head straight to the south side.
Only the young African-American men and women of that area can offer an honest assessment of the untimely passing of DJ Screw, their sonic savior who on the morning of November 16 was found dead of undetermined causes in his recording-studio bathroom. Take the young black man who, like most of his friends, heard the news over the radio while taking part in, shall we say, activities involving a substance mostly used by glaucoma patients. "The scene won't be the same, man," he says. "We ain't got no DJ, man. He was just a good DJ. Nobody could fuck up a record like he could. Nobody."
Another young brotha chimes in with his own tribute. "We gonna miss some million-dollar hands," he says. Million-dollar hands? "Meaning no one could do it like him."
The death of DJ Screw packed an ever bigger punch in the Houston rap scene, where practically every big-name MC or DJ or producer has been influenced, discovered or just impressed by the underground king. Duane Hobbs, co-CEO of Sucka Free Records and a member of Screw's Screwed-Up Click, was in Shreveport, Louisiana, that morning when friends and associates called him with the news. "Shit, man," Hobbs remembers. "It was like I lost a family member, my brother."
During this interview, Hobbs watches a tape of a happier time: an occasion at South Park Mexican's club, Hustle Town, where he and the rapper gave Screw an award for being the best DJ in Texas. Hobbs's loss is also felt among co-workers, friends and family at Sucka Free. "It's been Man, I can't even describe it," he says. "We just haven't really accepted it. It hit Flip real hard."
Hobbs is referring to Lil' Flip, co-CEO of Sucka Free and the young rap artist who was one of the many MCs -- Lil' KeKe, Big Moe and the late Fat Pat, to name a few -- who had gotten a boost after appearing on Screw's famed "screw tapes." Two years ago, when Flip's former rap partner Jason Roberson died, Screw took Flip under his wing and had the upstart rapper perform on a couple of his homemade screw-music volumes. Last St. Patrick's Day, DJ Screw gave Flip a plaque certifying him as "The FreeStyle King." Flip's been trying to get ahold of the photos of that occasion ever since. The pictures finally arrived a few days before Screw's death. "When I found out, I was shocked," Flip says of his mentor's demise. "I'll be thinking about it every day. It just lets you know that you never know what is going to happen."
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DJ Screw was perhaps the first person to make hardcore rap psychedelic. Now, you may say that artists like De La Soul and P.M. Dawn were the first to bring a creatively trippy, '60s-style mind-set to contemporary rap and hip-hop. But what they brought was a free-spirited sense of pacifistic liberation. Their music didn't really exhibit, or endorse, the hallucinogenic haziness DJ Screw created nearly out of thin air. It almost seemed like DJ Screw's mission was to make the definitive blotto music, something to pop in your tape deck and listen to as you slouch on your couch.
Just uttering DJ Screw's handle seemed like you were calling out the name of some infallible, mythological entity -- not godlike, mind you, but still held in the highest regard. He was more something than somebody. In the beginning of the '90s, he was just one cat, devising and compiling these slowed-down versions of popular rap songs and distributing them on tape for anyone who wanted to listen to them. When the decade was over, screw music became a full-blown alternative reality. DJ Screw had conceived his own brand of psychedelia, in which the music exerted an attitude of cool slumber instead of spaced-out euphoria. Today nearly every local rap release boasts at least one Screwed-up song to appease the masses.
Questions, of course, remain: Will screw music go on now that its creator is gone? Will Screw's Screwed-Up Click carry the torch for their leader, their boss, their friend? Or is this the end of screw as we know it?
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Just the thought of it has people in the business scratching their heads. "That's what I wonder: What will happen next?" Flip ponders.
It's too soon to determine how one man's death will affect a whole music scene, but the people who've known Screw, collaborated with the artist or been admirers of his sound know that his work will not be forgotten. Whether you loved or hated his music, his significance and influence as an independent artist, operating beyond the conventions of rap and creating a little underground dynasty of his own, likely will grow with time. People from other parts of the country already are inquiring about the dearly departed discman.
"When people talk about rap music in Texas," confirms Sucka Free's Hobbs, "they don't talk about Rap-A-Lot. They don't talk about Suave House. They don't talk about what's on the radio. All they wanna talk about is DJ Screw."
See Megan Halverson's feature story on DJ Screw.