Part 2 of our “Obscure Hip-Hop Genres” series heads down to the muggy streets of Houston, TX – the birthplace of the codeine-fueled, hazy sounds of Chopped and Screwed.
Since its emergence in the South Bronx in the early 1970s, hip-hop has been a cultural phenomenon with variety at its core. Characterized by four distinct elements or “pillars” – emceeing (oral), turntablism (aural), breakdancing (physical) and graffiti (visual) – the genre has long offered many avenues for creativity and expression, with fashion serving as an unseen fifth.
Like almost no other form of music, hip-hop is colored by the attitudes, aspirations and experiences of its environment. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that it has found itself twisted into a multitude of styles, subgenres and regionally specific varieties by those eager to create something they can call their own. Following our examination of the grotesque and chilling Horrorcore subgenre, we examine the gauzy, codeine-guzzling sounds of one of hip-hop’s more psychedelic styles: Chopped and Screwed.
Transcending rap music into a realm of hazy psychedelia, Houston-based DJ Screw’s method of slowing and manipulating records resulted in a funereal sound known as chopped and screwed. The antithesis of preceding hip-hop styles that emerged from the south – like the breakneck, bass-heavy sounds of ATL crunk and Miami bass – chopped and screwed slowed records down to a heavy, molasses-like groove where drowsy lyrics and beats oozed out of speakers and filled rooms with a soggy, atmospheric energy.
The style originated in 1990 when South Side Houston, TX resident Robert Earl Davis, Jr (aka DJ Screw) began experimenting with pitch controls on his turntables and sedating records at abnormally slow speeds, serendipitously producing a mellow sound which resonated with the muggy, slow-paced Houston lifestyle. Continuing to melt hip-hop records to a state of primordial goo, Screw began broadcasting his distinct sound across his south Houston neighborhood via full-length cassette mixtapes (dubbed “Screw Tapes”) that featured some of the city’s most notable rappers. The popularity of the tapes eventually formed the Screwed Up Click, comprising of a crew of MCs who fortified Screw’s DJ technique. The collective, which included rappers such as Big Hawk, E.S.G., Lil Flip, Lil Keke and Screw himself, spawned a number of local legends whose careers were built exclusively on slowed-down beats.
By the mid-’90s, chopped and screwed had dragged its way over to Houston’s North Side. Seasoned hip-hop DJ Michael “5000” Watts appropriated Screw’s technique into something that would represent his own neighborhood, inverting the term to “screwed and chopped,” which would in turn create a rivalry between the city’s two polars (the “originators” versus the “adopters”). Watts, who was always adamant in crediting DJ Screw as the inventor of the chopped and screwed sound, has been widely regarded as expanding the subgenre beyond its Houston borders. The success of his label Swisha House Records, which represented artists such as Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Mike Jones, lead to an increase of mixtape sales to cities throughout the South, and his broadcast of a “screwed and chopped” mix-show on local commercial radio would garner new generations of listeners.
The emergence of DJ Screw and his syrupy sound coincided with the rise of a drug culture in Houston that centered on the consumption of a beverage called purple drank, which also went under the monikers lean, drank, sizzurp and Texas Tea. The violet-hued concoction, whose most potent ingredient was the prescription-strength cough syrup known as codeine, was considered to be a significant catalyst in the way people listened to chopped and screwed, due to its lethargic, brain-numbing effect when consumed in large quantities. The drug’s prominence in the lyrics of chopped and screwed artists resulted in an enduring affiliation with the subgenre, coexisting in way LSD did with psych rock. This relationship solidified when Screw, an avid consumer of the drug, died on November 16, 2000, from what medical examiners said was a lethal combination of codeine and alcohol.
Following Screw’s death, chopped and screwed saw a prominent rise in popularity throughout America’s South, acting as a tribute to his memory. Later in 2000, Memphis-based group Three Six Mafia released the drank-eulogizing “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” which would become one of the group’s biggest singles. In 2003, Mississippi native David Banner became the first artist to turn over a chopped and screwed album – Mississippi: The Album – to the hands of a major record label, Universal Records. A pivotal moment for the subgenre, Banner’s album went on to sell over 50,000 copies and managed to infiltrate cities outside of the South, including St. Louis, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. This prompted Universal to commission a slew of chopped and screwed album remixes from their entire roster of Southern rap artists, including the Cash Money Records crew.
The legacy of DJ Screw and his codeine-guzzling sound would continue to resonate with newer generations of artists long after his premature demise. Mainstream acts including Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Mystikal and Juvenile would all release chopped and screwed versions of their albums, and even Ciara and A$AP Rocky would incorporate the style into some of their tracks. The technique would even inspire subgenres outside of the hip-hop sphere, demonstrated via creeping basslines and pulsing reverberations in the synth-laden dirges by “witch house” acts such as SALEM and White Ring. Yet despite chopped and screwed’s unremitting musical influence that has since reached a global scale, the style will always be engraved in the identity of its Houston birthplace and that of its namesake, DJ Screw.
Get dazed and confused with our Ultimate Highsnobiety Chopped and Screwed Playlist below.