360°Sound attended the 2022 Texas Book Festival Nov. 5-6 in Austin. We were there to hear from authors of new music-related books. One of them was Lance Scott Walker, author of DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution (out now on University of Texas Press). DJ Screw (Robert Earl Davis Jr.) is a legendary hip-hop DJ who pioneered the “chopped and screwed” mixing technique. DJ Screw would “chop” in new rhythms, bring in local Houston rappers to freestyle over the tracks, and slow down the recording on tape.
Lance Scott Walker, who is originally from Galveston, Texas and is now based in Brooklyn, interviewed numerous people who knew DJ Screw, who died of a drug overdose in 2000 at age 29. Walker is also the author of Houston Rap Tapes. He has written for the Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Red Bull Music Academy, Vice, and Fader, among other publications. We’ve compiled some highlights from Walker’s Nov. 5 discussion on DJ Screw…
On the inspiration to write the book…
Lance Scott Walker: I felt like there should be a book on him because I knew how many stories there were about him and the way that people talked about him. The way people carried on his legacy, I felt like that needed to happen. I sort of quietly in the wings started working on this over the course of years. Because I was working on Houston Rap Tapes, not specifically DJ Screw, but I was putting aside some stuff like, ‘OK, I think this would be good for a DJ Screw book.’ I waited years before I ever announced it.
I really took my time with it. I wanted to warm people up to the idea. I wanted to make sure that everybody was on board. I wanted to make everybody feel like this was their book. You have to be really patient. You have to make sure you’re including everybody and work your way around to everybody. I was quietly interviewing everybody for years.
On the structure of the book…
I’m an outsider. I didn’t know DJ Screw. But I know so many people who knew him and so many people who were close to him – family and just everybody who worked with him. I felt like this needed to be a book for them. I got the sense early on that he was a really, really special person that people held near and dear to their hearts. The book really needed to work for them. And the way you make a book for a community is you put the community in the book.
Also, I’m a white guy writing about a Black culture and multiple cultures around Houston. So, it’s going to be filtered coming through me, no doubt. How can I dial myself back? That was the way I wanted to do it. That’s one of the many reasons I went with University of Texas Press. I don’t feel like a traditional big house publisher would have let me get away with that because it’s a hybrid, unorthodox structure. I’ve never seen a book structured the way it is.
On DJ Screw’s originality…
I talk about how important the town of Smithville, Texas was. DJ Screw was born in Bastrop, but his family lived in Smithville, then they moved to Houston when he was really young. This is when hip-hop starts to really break. Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Beat Street came out in 1984. Krush Groove came out the next year. This is when hip-hop slowly came into the mainstream. He was in Smithville and around his family and a couple of other DJs who had equipment and records they would lend him. I think that was really, really important to his development, giving him the freedom of experimentation, and the people around him being as excited about hip-hop and the newness of it.
A lot of people were excited about the rappers at that point. Screw was excited to see the DJ. There was something that clicked with him, something mechanical. I think in a different world Screw would have been an engineer or architect. He just had this mind where he was able to really focus on what he was doing. He could envision the mechanics of what he was doing, I think, before he even necessarily had the skills to make it happen. Most importantly, the patience. He definitely ticks differently.
I think he just found exactly the right thing for him. His mother was huge on music. She had lots of records in the house. She let him get his hands on her records. As a matter of fact, if he didn’t like some of the songs on those records, he’d take a screw and scratch through those songs, and that’s how he got his name.
On Screw’s legacy being tied to codeine…
DJ Screw is the originator of his style he put together. The culture that was developing in Houston around that time goes hand in hand with that. No doubt. It’s what people are talking about on tapes. They’re talking about candy paint, swangers, customized cars, their neighborhoods, freestylin’, and they’re also talking about codeine promethazine cough syrup. There’s definitely association there.
Certainly, when you got to the point when it was a privilege to go to Screw’s house, one of the things people did was bring a bunch of codeine promethazine with them. It was around. He consumed it. But it wasn’t even his drug of choice, which was smoking PCP. Some people smoke PCP and tear off their clothes and run down the street. Other people smoke PCP like it’s weed and that was him. There’s definitely a connection, and people are always going to make that association.
Codeine and promethazine no doubt [exacerbate] pre-existing health conditions. Screw had an enlarged heart. He was overweight. He didn’t exercise. He did not sleep. You can’t drink enough codeine and promethazine to overdose in one night. But you can drink enough of it over time to cause enough health problems that are going to take you down, and that’s basically what happened with him.
It’s not like I tried to dissociate him from codeine promethazine. Certainly, it was a part of his life and the culture. It’s still there. It’s a lot harder to get now. Some companies have stopped making it. It’s a lot more expensive. It’s probably not as available as it was, but in some ways, it’s kind of more in the spotlight, because there are other mainstream artists that use it.
On what he learned from the research…
I think the thing that kept coming around that was most surprising and revealing to me was how deep he saw into people. DJ Screw could really see people. People described that when they met him, it was like he was really staring into them and getting a sense of who they were, maybe before they even knew it themselves.
There are people who told me in interviews, ‘I was never gonna be a rapper. I thought rap was the stupidest fucking thing you could ever do. You do all this work, and you take 10 percent; somebody else takes all the other money. But Screw turned me into a rapper. Screw could see that I could do this. Screw was the one who compelled me to do to this.’ I think that was fascinating, the way that he could really see people and see into them and see who they were.