Life in the Slow Lane

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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."

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Jesse Washington