Houston Music

The Chopstars' Purple Moonlight Mixtape Is Utterly Brilliant

The Chopstars' Purple Moonlight Mixtape Is Utterly Brilliant
Last Sunday, the film Moonlight won Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. That is a an amazing achievement for a film made on the anti-Hollywood fiscal budget of $1.5 million. It’s another amazing achievement because it’s the first film with an entirely African-American cast that won the most coveted prize in all of film. It’s a trifecta of amazing when you realize that the film’s director, Barry Jenkins, is an absolute advocate of screwed and chopped music.

As an art form, this music is the most consistent analog to Southern hip-hop that can be found. Prevalent in bass guitar, 808 drums and more, it’s a sound and force that is so wholly Houston that it has now become synonymous with the city. The two don't just coexist; they thrive off one another. Regarding the score for Moonlight, Jenkins spoke to Pitchfork last November, just as the film was beginning to move beyond select cities and into nationwide release and further acclaim. His usage of screwed and chopped music resided in the emotion of it all, how the sunken gravity of formerly high-BPM records added new meaning to them. “When you slow things down, there’s this emotion, this yearning. I think in some ways, in Moonlight, we’re doing the same thing,” he said. “I listen to chopped and screwed every day. It annoys the shit out of people. But I think there’s something about me that I just want to actually just live in this stuff. I’m listening to fucking Tame Impala chopped and screwed right now, and even that shit is dope.”

As far back as December of 2014, Jenkins had operated not as a director but as a fan of Slim K’s mixes. The first mix the Moonlight director asked of Slim K was a slowdown of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album. Slim joked in regards to his response. “Didn’t that just drop 30 minutes ago?” Nevertheless, Jenkins continued to ask and continued to listen. A child of Miami, chopped and screwed reverberated off that city's streets in the same fashion that Miami bass did. Whatever benefited trunks and speaker systems became the sounds of the city. So baroque, slowed-down crawls of expansive music became the norm to Jenkins. His love of the style popularized by the late-yet-prophetic DJ Screw wasn’t lost on him. It didn’t matter who had picked up the style or found his niche in the creation of “screwed and chopped,” “chopped not slopped” or “slowdown” records. Jenkins coveted any syrupy, hallucinogenic mix that came to his ears. To him, it slowed the world down and gave it even more color.

In late 2015, Jenkins found himself smitten with OG Ron C’s mix of Drake and Future’s What a Time to Be Alive album. He even made a year-end list of records he was listening to, asked that the Chopstars produce a chopped not slopped version of Tame Impala’s Currents, and swore by the Chopstars mixes. Until he got hip to DJ Auditory.

Back in October, Jenkins tweeted about A Seat at the Table screwed and chopped by Auditory, arguably his third-most-popular mix following 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade. It took Jenkins two days to fully digest Solange’s wails slowed down a considerable number of pitches and intonations, which made them even more raw and honest. He couldn’t stop listening to Tory’s work. Tory, a Northside DJ who has since become one of the lead DJs and more at Prospect Park, was operating on the same digitalized assembly line that others had run with. Tory had mostly built his core audience via college parties, mixes for The Hive Society and more. It didn’t matter to Jenkins; he wanted the screwed and chopped sound wherever he went.

Jenkins’s acknowledgement of the sound of Houston, of its drowsy yet euphoric nature, is now a victory for the city. Days before Moonlight took home three Academy Awards, the others for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, Jenkins contacted OG Ron C and the Chopstars. He had one more request to make, a large one.

“When life moving too fast, let The Chopstars slow it down for you.”

Through the power of Twitter, a few direct messages and exchanged phone numbers, the Chopstars were commissioned to take on the Moonlight score, where the sentiment that Jidenna’s “Classic Man” is screwed and chopped be part of the soundtrack and giving it their chop-not-slop appeal. Jenkins’s fandom had stretched to the point where even the fluttering operatics of Nicholas Britell's orchestrations can get slowed into a thick audio molasses and work for a wide audience.

The larger concept of a chopped not slopped tape boils down to its creator, OG Ron C, and how he navigates a song or a freestyle. Ron C doesn’t worry whether the chops are in inadequate spots or not. He slaves over the music, figuring out the best moments to either peel a song back or ramp it back up. There’s a musicology to what he has imparted to both Candlestick and Slim K. Slim, who pushed out tapes and requests with the same frantic pace of the early-'00s Swishahouse, had maneuvered from simple slowdowns of records to even more masterful organization of the actual songs he was touching. It’s how Purple Moonlight, the official Chopstars stamp on the Moonlight score, works. For every original, there's a sample to backdoor it. If there's the “this is your brain on drugs” paranoia of Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy,” there’s an old Lil Keke freestyle that admonishes the idea of smoking fry and leaves us one really great headstone quote: “Gots to be a G 'til the day that I die.”

Boris Gardner’s “Every Nigger Is a Star” wasn’t thought of during the initial drafts of the Moonlight soundtrack. In post-production, it became the opening piece of color added to the movie. How OG and company pivot the track is a technique reiterated throughout. Purple Moonlight registers Gardner’s original behind Kendrick Lamar’s “Wesley Theory” and the opening conversation between Juan (Mahershala Ali) and one of his dealers. Latest record, original sample, rarity interpolated from the sample. The outside pieces found on Purple Moonlight are fun minor Easter eggs. There’s Curren$y and Lloyd’s “Purple Haze,” where the one rapper in rap whose life seems easily obtainable is in his absolute bag. The scatting of Michael Jackson’s 1979 track “I Can’t Help It” buried underneath Animé’s surprising right-brain “Caroline” hit. Only a record as effective as Sampha’s “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” could be double-downed with Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” the audio signifier that all of Chiron’s love for Kevin still exists despite years of separation.

The tough aspect of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” remix with Kendrick Lamar is how Jenkins viewed the adult version of Chiron. The liberties The Chopstars take with Purple Moonlight to reinforce this are found near the very end of the tape. Devin The Dude’s “Anythang” is stretched into a heartbroken, rubbery mess; by sheer manipulation, all the sorrow doled out by Devin replaced by uplift and joy. Jay Z and Beyoncé’s “Shining” with DJ Khaled is one of the newer records found on Purple Moonlight, though none more apropos for celebration while sneering behind icy veneers than Future's "I'm So Groovy.” Sunday night in Los Angeles, the filmmakers and cast of Moonlight danced in the land of uneasy joy before finally exhaling and deflating into embrace. Their victory was a victory for everyone, the Chopstars included.

It’s how “I’m So Groovy” became the perfect closer for Purple Moonlight. Even if the film leaves us with an open-ended finale, reality happened to find something worth a bounce in a heartless kind of way. Chiron had to harden himself out of protection from the world in general. Future did the same, albeit in a lovable-scumbag type of way. Isn’t that how the world has viewed some of the archetypes that got destroyed in Moonlight to begin with? How perfect that Houston helped give the Best Picture an even thicker layer of complexity and emotion.
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell