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.

Chill owned two turntables and a car. Screw had one turntable, a four-track tape recorder and no vehicle. They both loved to make people dance, to make heads bob to their rhythm. They spent so much time together that Chill's mom said he might as well live at Screw's house. So Chill moved in with Screw and his dad, sleeping on the couch because there were so many records in Screw's room. They spun at roller rinks, schools, hole-in-the-wall nightspots. They were lucky to get fifty bucks between them for a gig.

"No one knew about either of us," says Chill, who has since made a name for himself breaking records at Houston's biggest clubs. "We used to sit up there in his dad's kitchen, dreaming of how big we wanted to be, mapping out what we wanted to do."

Screw's specialty at that time was "personal" tapes -- you'd name 20 or so of your favorite songs, and he'd mix them up on a tape for you. Chill remembers when Screw would get a page at his house, head to a nearby pay phone to return the call, and scribble down the requests on a scrap of paper. Screw would much rather do this than play at a club for peanuts. "Screw wouldn't take the money," Chill says. "He just wouldn't do the show, period. He said one day the club owners would have to come to him."

Screw spent hours analyzing records by the top DJs of the time -- Jazzy Jeff, Mr. Mixx, Eric B -- to duplicate their scratching techniques. Over time, Screw's skills developed to the point where the turntable became his instrument, producing sounds and patterns that only he could create. But he had something else, too, something that would make him famous.

As far back as anyone can remember, Screw played his music slow. The DJ turntable of choice, the Technics 1200 MK2, has pitch control, which can adjust the speed of the record. Normally this is used to match the pace of one record to another, creating a smooth transition. Screw used it to give his tapes the sound of an underwater radio low on batteries. People loved it. Especially on those Texas nights when the heat slows everything to a crawl. And particularly when they were drinking or smoking a lil' something.

Screw is almost unanimously credited with inventing this style. As Chill says, "There was no need to ask where he got it, because he just always did it that way." Says Screw's father: "He always told me he got his name because he would take two records and screw them together." But Houston's first superstar DJ, Darryl Scott, has a story about the slowed-down style.

Scott had a protégé named Michael Price whom he was teaching how to DJ. One day the batteries on the tape deck ran down, and the music started dragging. "Man, that sounds good!" Scott recalls Price saying. Soon, Scott says, Price had rigged a tape deck with a special screw. Turning the screw would slow down the speed. "Man, you can't slow down everything," Scott told him. But Price dug the sound that much. Price later hooked up with Screw, Scott says, and they did some parties together before Price was stabbed to death while gambling. Scott says arguments still rage in jails across Texas about who invented "screw" music.

Still, if it weren't for Screw, no one would be listening to slowed-down music. It didn't hurt that in the early '90s, when Screw was developing his style, a huge supply of cheap weed flooded Houston. In 1992 Dr. Dre released one of the greatest rap records of all time, The Chronic, which was largely inspired by herb. Marijuana use among teenagers nationwide exploded in the early '90s, so it became a popular hip-hop accessory. And to be blunt, weed just made Screw's slow-drag tapes sound that much better.

What's more, in the early '90s local superstars the Geto Boys hit nationally with "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me," and everybody in town wanted to rap. Screw started letting folks who requested personal tapes talk over their selections -- send shout-outs to their friends, their hoods, whatever. It didn't take long for the talking to become rapping.

This is where the legend of DJ Screw was born. A lot of DJs are nice on the mix, and have tapes with hit songs. Some of them even let people rap on their tapes. But Screw's slowed-down style, combined with his turntable wizardry and the local talent, created something 100 percent original. Like other originators in hip-hop -- Grandmaster Flash, Rakim, N.W.A., Scarface -- he blew up.

At the corner of Poplar and Greenstone, near Gulfgate Mall, cars lined up 20 deep outside DJ Screw's house. It was generally known that Screw had a new tape ready each Wednesday night, and folks flocked from all over, $10 bills in hand.

"It was normal for him to have a line of people wait outside to buy a tape," says Louis Martinez, a fan. "My first time seeing him made me feel strange, 'cause when I got to his back door and told him what I wanted, he turned around and I saw a pistol in his back pocket."

Screw stayed strapped. He was making so much cash, it was just common sense. "We went to this one car show, and I told him he should put up a banner 'cause people didn't know what he looked like," says longtime friend Orion "Lump" Lumpkin, an A&R executive for Elektra and owner of On the Level Promotions. "We set up about 11 in the morning. By 6 p.m. he had sold $12,000 worth of mix tapes. He could have sold more, but we had to leave."

Of course, the police took one look at a young black man making fistfuls of cash out of his trunk and his house and promptly broke down the door looking for drugs. Did that a few times, actually. All they ever found was money and a gun or two, for protection. After each raid, the police had to return Screw's pistols to him. He was 100 percent legal.

Well, maybe 99 percent. According to the letter of the law, a DJ who sells a mix tape should pay royalties to the owners of the songs. But rap labels have always viewed mix tapes as local promotional opportunities rather than competition, so unless a tape is being sold nationwide, record companies leave mix-tape DJs alone when it comes to royalties.

Eventually Screw started selling enough tapes nationwide on independent labels that royalties did become a problem. So he just amassed a crew of local artists, had them rap over unheard-of beats and kept doing his thing. "There was a time when you couldn't sell a mix tape in Houston unless it was Screw," says Russell Washington, longtime record store proprietor and owner of Big Tyme Records, which released several of Screw's albums. "Everyone would come in here to ask for his tapes, and they would remember the [freestyle] flows word for word."

Of course, the flows. So many Houston rappers got their start on Screw tapes. Big Moe, whose hit "Barre Baby" is saturating local airwaves, came up with the Screwed Up Click, the name for Screw's loose confederacy of MCs. Big Hawk, who appeared on Lil' Troy's smash "Wanna Be a Baller," was one of the first members of the crew. Lil' Flip, Big Pokey, Lil' Keke, Yungstar, the late Fat Pat, the Botany Boys… The list goes on, testament to Screw's greatest legacy: He gave more than he could ever receive.

Screw's tapes let local MCs build fan bases, and those who shone were signed to recording contracts by local and national labels. Radio airplay for new artists is tough to get for major labels, let alone guys with day jobs. But "one Screw tape could reach 100,000 people," says Washington. "That made names for a lot of local artists."

Screw never asked for a dime in return. For a DJ -- the profession that coined the term payola -- this was unheard of. "He was such a good-hearted person," says Shorty Mack, his distant cousin and a member of the Screwed Up Click. "His mission was to help everybody he could, get folks off the street into something legal, so they wouldn't be in and out of jail." That's what he did with Shorty Mack, who was 13 and not even thinking about being a rapper when Screw took him under his wing.

Among those closest to Screw, there's a strong feeling that many rappers whom Screw broke -- and who have gone on to sell millions of records -- haven't shown the proper gratitude and respect. No names are ever mentioned. "Screw gave everybody so much," says Tommie Langston, who runs the Texas record pool Mix Wiz and used to be a manager, and much more, for Screw. "I'm not naming no names, but every brother out there who he touched and helped, they know who's giving something back and who isn't."

"To all the rappers he made, and to all the other DJs who are slowing down their records, all I want is for them to do one tape," says Lumpkin. "Just do one tape, put all Screw's Click on there, and give something back. Because if it wasn't for Darryl Scott, there wouldn't be DJ Screw. If it wasn't for DJ Screw, there wouldn't be none of these guys gettin' money."

Not that Screw cared all that much about leeches, real or perceived. "You have to understand something about Screw," Langston says. "Every single thing that he did was about one thing: He just wanted to be the coldest DJ out there." Says Washington: "He felt like each mix had a life of its own. He said he wanted to tell his own story with [the rappers'] words."

Screw wasn't hurting for money, anyway. His prediction about club owners came true; after his tapes took off in the early '90s, clubs started paying him close to $1,500 a night. In 1994 Screw started releasing albums on independent labels like Big Tyme and Jam Down, selling a total of more than 200,000 copies through conventional record stores. He was the most popular DJ in the entire South, and Langston could get Screw almost as much for a performance as a platinum rapper. In 1996 the DJ opened his own store, Screwed Up Records and Tapes, to keep the law from bothering him at his house. It was a smash.

Through it all, Screw stayed the same humble, friendly dude from Smithfield. Chill remembers that even after his tapes started selling, Screw wore the same pair of black Nikes until the sides of his feet poked though. No Lexus or Benz for Screw -- when he died there was a Chevy Impala Super Sport in his driveway.

Searching for an anecdote to explain the essence of Screw, several friends recall a road trip to Port Arthur. When Langston and Chill arrived at his house to pick him up, Screw was nowhere near ready. He was famous for being late. "If you said be there at three, he might be there at eight, or maybe the next day," says Langston. "But he'd get there in his own good time, and it was still okay."

Screw, Chill and rapper Big Hawk finally piled into Langston's car. All of them were dead tired. Screw had been up for about two days straight, as usual, working on his music. "He was like a little ant, always working himself to death behind the turntables," Chill says. Somewhere along the way a stop was made, and the fellas bought a pie. Soon thereafter Screw keeled over dead asleep in the back seat -- so soundly that he didn't realize he was sleeping in a pie.

When Screw awoke with pie all over himself, the fellas must have laughed for two hours straight. Screw laughed right along with them.

"You wouldn't even think he was in the rap game," says Screw's cousin Chris Cooley. "He carried himself like he worked at a gas station, like he just had a regular-ass job. He would see somebody big, a rapper or something, and get happy just like a fan. Whenever someone would tell him, 'Man, you're a star,' he would point up in the sky and say, 'Naw, man, the stars are up there.' "

People always want to see a falling star. After Screw was found dead in the restroom of his studio, plenty of folks were quick to assume the worst.

First to jump the gun were the police. Screw's body showed no sign of injury; it appeared that his heart had just stopped beating. But police suggested to the Houston Chronicle that Screw died of a cough medicine overdose. Screw had been associated with "sippin' syrup" -- the latest hip-hop drug trend of mixing cough syrup with soda -- through the titles of some of his mix tapes and the lyrics of some rappers in the Screwed Up Click. Apparently this is all that police based their comments on, since they made them before any toxicology tests were performed on the body. Results of those tests were still pending earlier this month, according to the Harris County medical examiner's office.

Screw's death was noted by media outlets from MTV to The New York Times, and each one mentioned syrup. Each story twisted the knife a little deeper into the hearts of those who loved Screw. "It hurt real bad," says his father. "He told me, 'Pops, I don't do drugs. I go to schools and tell kids, hugs, not drugs.' "

Whether Screw sipped syrup -- most of those close to him avoid the subject -- his family and friends are convinced that syrup is not what killed him. Chill, for one, cites the stress of working two and three days at a time. Langston cites Screw's diet. "Robert Davis was a man who loved the word 'fried chicken,' " he says with no shame. "I mean, he was in love with fried chicken. If nothing else was left on this earth, as long as there was fried chicken, it would be okay."

Screw, who had been skinny as a youth, also had gained a tremendous amount of weight over the past few years. "Here's a black male about 300 pounds, cholesterol over 200, who ate fried chicken every day. If you do this year after year after year, something will happen eventually."

According to a Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse report, syrup's common side effects include lethargy, fatigue, loss of coordination and constipation. The report does not mention heart failure.

On a recent Saturday in January at Screwed Up Records and Tapes, people are lined up 20 deep at the bulletproof glass window, asking for tapes. They mainly want the classics -- June 27th, The Final Chapter, Plots and Schemes. Behind the counter are Screw's cousins Chris Cooley and Shorty Mack. The cash register rings constantly.

The store has an inventory of about 130 different Screw tapes, with some unreleased material still to come. Cooley, Mack and several of Screw's other cousins have pledged to keep the store and Screw's music alive. They've launched a Web site, www.screweduprecords.com. They're recording tracks in Screw's studio. Another cousin is starting a nonprofit foundation to continue his legacy of helping people. But all the work in the world isn't nearly enough to keep them from remembering.

"I got to the studio after they took him away," says Shorty Mack. "I stayed there for a few days. It was hard to believe that he would never be back there. This is the longest time we've been apart in years. At the studio, I just knew it wasn't true that he was dead. Every day it would just sink in more and more, and it got harder and harder."

"Screw was always late," Chill says. "Even now, that's what I want to believe. He's just late, that's all."

Read Washington's companion article, "Turn the Beat Around." See also Craig D. Lindsay's tribute to DJ Screw.

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Jesse Washington