Life in the Slow Lane

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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.

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Jesse Washington