Houston Music

Syrupy Surprises: Random Selections From DJ Screw's Personal Vinyl Collection

If you haven't taken the time to check out the "DJ Screw and the Rise of Houston Hip-Hop" exhibit on display now at UH's MD Anderson Library, do yourself a favor and go. Put on entirely by the UH Library System, the exhibit tells the story of Houston's musical evolution by way of some extremely cool items from the University's hip-hop collection.

From handwritten lyrics to family photos of Screw and his friends, this is some special stuff, much of which has never been seen by the public. The exhibit runs in the library until Sept. 21. Don't miss it.

The crown jewel of the library's collection isn't on display, however. That'd be the DJ Screw Sound Recordings -- the legend's personal vinyl collection. These are the records he used to create his signature Screwed Up sound and put together his famous mixtapes. Library interns and students are just about finished cleaning and preserving the collection.

Next comes the rigorous process of cataloguing each record. Dewey decimal-type stuff. Until that's done, no one's got a definitive list of what the collection includes.

That's not to say some cool stuff hasn't already been uncovered. Screw had a massive collection of vinyl -- more than 5,000 records, says Julie Grob, the library's Coordinator of Digital Projects & Instruction for Special Collections and the woman spearheading the preservation of this stuff.

Remarkably, Screw's vinyl was mostly left untouched after he passed away in 2000. Boxes, crates and piles of 12" singles and albums were left in storage for a decade before Grob reached out to his family. 5,000 was just too many to preserve -- plenty were damaged, duplicates or unopened. The library whittled the collection down to 1,500 essentials.

That number includes everything you'd imagine: Tons of hip-hop records from Texas, the South and the West Coast, along with the kind of dance music you need to make your living as a professional DJ. But Screw also owned (and played) some records you wouldn't necessarily expect to find.

During the preservation process, Grob and her scholarly pals have uncovered some interesting, surprising and just plain obscure selections from Screw's box. Here are 10 that stood out.

10. Richard Pryor's Greatest Hits: Not everything significant in Screw's crates was music. Richard Pryor was the hottest comedian in the world in the early to mid-'70s, the era of his career highlighted on this compilation. Pryor's slang and storytelling style were a major influence on hip-hop culture, making this record a logical candidate for study by future historians. It also happens to be funny as shit.

9. Shaquille O'Neal, "I'm Outstanding:" Was Shaq chopped and screwed by the originator? I couldn't find any evidence that this single from O'Neal's 1993 debut, Shaq Diesel, was ever included on a gray tape, but the possibility is too righteous to rule out. Though he was never considered the world's greatest lyricist, Shaq went platinum behind tunes like this one. People were actually listening to this.

Hate on his flow all you want, but Shaquille can take pride in the fact that his second single was in DJ Screw's box alongside all the legends of hip-hop. That's pretty legit. And now it'll be preserved forever at UH.

8. El Coco, "Dancin' in Paradise:" No working DJ can get by for long without some disco on standby. El Coco employed a funky, electronic "disco orchestra" sound that tore up coke-dusted dance clubs in the late'70s. Beats like the intro to this LP's title track are probably the reason a hip-hop jock like Screw would keep Dancing In Paradise in his collection, but who knows what kind of parties he presided over before he made his name?

7. Led Zeppelin, Coda: Zep's least essential album by far, Coda was released in 1982, a full two years after drummer John Bonham's death effectively ended the group's run together. A collection of studio outtakes and unused material from the band's '70s heyday, the LP basically included everything that the band still had in the can. It's a little-loved record by one of the biggest rock bands of all time, making its inclusion in Screw's collection a bit of a mystery.

Was he a Led Zep completist, or was there a specific beat on this record that caught his ear? Or was it simply accumulated as part of a big lot of vinyl that made it into Screw's 5,000-strong collection over the years?

6. Laid Back, "Sunshine Reggae:" Laid Back was a Danish duo that's probably best remembered today for its 1983 club hit "White Horse," a funky, druggy little synth number. "Sunshine Reggae," though, from the same year, is exactly what it purports to be -- sunny reggae. Could it be a relic of Screw's days spinning riddims at the Caribana?

5. Johnny "Guitar" Watson, : Native Houstonian Johnny "Guitar" Watson was a pretty massively influential musician and songwriter across two genres. After pioneering the use of feedback and reverb on his 1950s jump-blues records, Watson moved right into soul and funk in the '60s and '70s.

"What the Hell is This" is a massive slab of funky rock, rife with the kinds of riffs and beats that were used to cobble together early hip-hop tracks. It's the perfect soundtrack to the block party you wish your neighborhood would throw.

4. Nirvana, Nevermind Limited Edition: It was a cool surprise to run across this album among Screw's massive collection of hip-hop, funk and dance records, but it makes sense. Nevermind was one of the biggest smashes of the '90s, the grunge masterpiece that practically everybody owned.

Julie Grob says that one of Screw's loved ones told her that the legendary DJ was a confirmed Nirvana fan. If that's true, he didn't fall in love with the band listening to this particular disc -- it was still sealed in its packaging. A collector's item, perhaps?

3. Jefferson Ink, "You Should Be Dancin:'" This supremely funky local record was put out on Houston International in 1978. It's heavy-duty dance-floor material, with a bouncy handclap-style backbeat that clearly anticipates the rise of hip-hop. These days it's a fairly rare collector's item among funk obsessives.

Don't let anybody tell you that Houstonians weren't on the cutting edge of the hip-hop sound from the very beginning -- you can check out the proof at the UH Library's archive.

2. Milli Vanilli, "Girl You Know it's True:" Today, Milli Vanilli is remembered as one of the recording industry's cruelest jokes, but in 1988, nobody was laughing. "Girl You Know It's True" was a massive smash, peaking at No. 2 on the U.S. chart on its way to becoming the faux group's first platinum single.

By the time the duo was tabbed as "Best New Artist" at the 1990 Grammys, their lip-synching ruse was destined to be exposed. But until then, people were diggin' it. The thought of DJ Screw bumping a slowed-down version of this tune at a party or a club is pretty fucking great.

1. Kris Kross, "Da Bomb:" Kris Kross was pretty gimmicky even by the standards of early-'90s rap. But hey, the gimmick worked. The teen duo was discovered in an Atlanta shopping mall by an also-teenaged Jermaine Dupri, who coached Kris Kross to hitting the quadruple platinum mark with their debut album, Totally Krossed Out.

By the time Da Bomb was released in '93, the phenomenon was all but over. Still, Kris Kross were a major mainstream breakthrough for Southern hip-hop, and it's altogether fitting that their music be preserved as part of one of the world's most definitive collections of 20th Century Dirty South recordings.

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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith