Houston Rappers Remember DJ Screw, 15 Years After His Death

Courtesy Photo
A vintage photo of DJ Screw.

It's been 15 years since the death of Houston legend and chopped and screwed innovator DJ Screw, who died in his recording studio on Nov. 16, 2000 from a reported codeine overdose. But in that decade and a half, Screw's legacy has grown significantly as Houston's MCs and hip-hop culture have seeped into the mainstream rap world and beyond. In the mid-2000s, the likes of Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Slim Thug brought Screw's patented slowed down grooves onto the Billboard charts, while rappers that weren't born inside the H-Town city limits such as Juicy J, A$AP Rocky and Drake have picked up on the syrup-y aesthetic. Even more broadly, Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber have both experimented with the chopped and screwed sound in the past few years.

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But DJ Screw was more than just a musical pioneer to many Houston rappers; he was also a friend, a pillar in the music scene and one of the most important figures in terms of promoting local hip-hop and putting on up-and-coming rappers that Houston has ever had. His own Screwed Up Click featuring rappers like E.S.G., Fat Pat, Lil Keke and Big Hawk added fresh stories and local slang to Screw's canvas on hundreds of his Screw Tapes, and his style bled across neighborhood lines during Houston's Northside/Southside beef in the 1990s to the Northside-based Swishahouse collective, which spawned the city's next generation of MCs. To this day, producer OG Ron C carries on Screw's legacy with his own Chopped Not Slopped mixtape series -- as well as a pair of screw-focused radio shows -- taking the style beyond hip-hop by chopping up albums from all genres.

As hip-hop marks 15 years since Screw's untimely death at the age of 29, six Houston rappers spoke with Billboard about the late DJ's legacy and what he brought to the world.

Bun B

I [met Screw] working in King's Flea Market at Big Time Records. Screw was a DJ that would come in and talk about different music and look for music, and Screw would also DJ at an after hours club in Houston that I used to go to. When [UGK] first put "Tell Me Something Good" together in the studio, we sent it off to get a test press, the vinyl. When I got the test press vinyl I immediately took it to Screw and Screw played it at the club that night. This would be maybe January of 1992. This was before the mixtapes; he was making mixtapes at the time but not in his signature slowed down style that he's famous for now.

Screw was a very good friend of mine. We'd go by and see him all the time. If you actually look at Ridin' Dirty, there's a picture of us in the back room where Screw used to mix at, a picture of me, Pimp C and DJ Screw. And on the wall there's a record, and that was actually the test press of "Tell Me Something Good." We did the whole photo shoot outside of DJ Screw's house on the street with the Botany Boys. And Ridin' Dirty was really a celebration of that lifestyle, everything that was happening in the city of Houston at the time. The Northside/Southside beef, the rise of the screwed up music and sound, the candy cane car culture and popping trunks, that whole album was basically trying to open up the world to what was happening in Houston at the time. We just thought it was so amazing what Screw had been able to achieve.

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People like to say that I'm a humble person, but I don't think I know anyone as humble as Screw. I mean, he had this entire city in the palm of his hands, had every rapper begging him to start a record company and put them out, but he wasn't in it for the money, he wasn't in it for the fame. Screw loved music and he loved putting the city on. A lot of what we're doing in hip-hop is just our version of what other people have already done, but he's one of the few people in hip-hop culture who could say that he created something that never existed before him.

OG Ron C

I met DJ Screw a whole lot of times, but the one standout conversation that me and DJ Screw had was at the DJ DMD "So Real" video shoot. We had a conversation and that was kind of like the heat of the moment when it was a Northside/Southside thing. He just expressed that he, DJ Screw, didn't have a problem with the Northside. He didn't speak for everybody else, the rappers or whatever, but at that moment at that time he expressed that he didn't have any problems with the Northside and it was all cool. That was one of my most precious moments with DJ Screw.

If Screw hadn't come through and made slowed down music cool, I don't know where OG Ron C would be. I'd probably just be a DJ still doing parties or be at radio. But Screw, I credit Screw and Michael Watts [from Swishahouse] for my career as, now, the leader of this whole slowed down thing. DJ Screw said he wanted the whole world to be screwed up. So that's how me and the Chopstars are trying to carry on his legacy, by making sure that we chop up the whole world, all genres of music. We're just trying to carry DJ Screw's legacy on and make sure that it don't get lost in the sauce like any other thing that's created.

DJ Screw didn't start slowed down music -- true enough -- but he made it cool. Making the music chopped, making the words repeat, adding the rapping to it, adding the talking to it. That's what made it a Screw tape, because he came and added those elements to the slowed down music that Jam Pony Express and all those guys in Florida were already doing. You'll see a form of DJ Screw forever, to be honest with you.

Trae Tha Truth

One of the greatest to ever do it. He's responsible for every Texas artist’s career. He was my brother, friend and teammate. He is the backbone of the South. He is the South... Long live DJ Screw.

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Devin The Dude

I don't remember the exact day I met him, I just always knew he was a young, cool, influential cat. I don't even know if his name was Screw at the time. We got introduced to him through one of my cousins who was working with a group that DJ Screw was doing some cuts and scratches for. We were looking for a DJ to do some cuts on our demo tape as the Odd Squad. He was just so cool, man.

After that I think a couple years passed; this was in '92 I think. He was so busy then, but he always incorporated our music in his sets. But he was so different; he made sure that Houston was the melting pot of hip-hop when it comes to what people like. He just made sense with the culture that Houston was going through, too, that slowed down and laid back.

It's very, very influential. It's not just a statement, it's like the start of a whole new culture and a signature sound that Houston didn't have in the beginning. And it just takes you there and puts you in Houston when you listen to it. It brings you right to Houston. As a DJ, he pretty much single-handedly changed the whole structure of the game in Houston. As far as how I feel as well as the Odd Squad, we loved Screw like a brother back then, and we sure miss him. We sure appreciate what he did, not only for Houston but for the rest of the world.

Slim Thug

DJ Screw was, to us, the king of Houston. Something that he created is, to this day, being duplicated. It's influencing the mainstream rap game right now to this day. Not even just the mainstream rap game; Justin Timberlake had a chopped and screwed song. Justin Bieber, I heard, has done it before. Future's new CD is called Dirty Sprite 2. DJ Screw is the pioneer of all that. He and his artists are the ones who kind of branded the culture out here. The way he made his music chopped and screwed, that was something he invented. And then the Screwed Up Click, they was the first ones that was rapping about sipping syrup and a lot of stuff people talking about today. So his legacy is still getting bigger to this day, and he's been gone for a long time.

If it wasn't for DJ Screw, I wouldn't be nobody. I have to give him that credit. Him and his whole movement was the motivation to make me do what we did or whatever. And what made the tapes special was there was an exclusive freestyle that was attached. It was something you couldn't get anywhere else and it was the people around your area talking about not only the culture, but talking about the neighborhood you lived in or streets you were familiar with, so it made it real personal for us. They branded that. They started the Screwed Up Click. So later on, we started Swishahouse and Michael Watts was doing that form of music, and we would do the freestyles like they did. If it wasn't for Screw pioneering that genre of music, then I probably wouldn't even be who I am today.

It's just amazing to see people who don't even live in Houston and who live across the world talk about the stuff he was talking about back in the day in the early '90s. It's dope to see that our culture grew so big. Because back when we was doing "Still Tippin'" and coming in the game and going to New York and it was so new to everybody, they used to look at us like we was crazy. "Why are you slowing your music down? What are y'all drinking, cough syrup?" It just was so funny. And now, to see everybody on it, it's like, wow.

Paul Wall

We love our own in Texas; we got a lot of Texas pride where we support our own. The radio didn't play too much local music and there wasn't too many videos from Texas on TV. So when we wanted to hear Texas music, we'd listen to a Screw tape. He just created that avenue for us to have a way to hear our own music and have our own style in Texas, and to see that y'all are fans, it's just amazing to see how far it's come. That's what all my music and my whole sound and style is all about, is what DJ Screw created. That's my style completely. I'm from the generation that's a direct product of the Screwed Up Click; that's what we listened to, that's what inspired us and what made us want to do it.

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I met him on a few different occasions, but of course it was one of them things where he was like a legend or a myth. You'd see him out every now and then at different clubs and he would always be with his crew, they'd be all deep with their cars and everything. It was just very influential and inspiring to see that.

He always said he wanted to screw the world, and to see his influence and his style of music get permeated throughout the music business in different forms -- all these A-list, world renowned entertainers are using some of his style in their music. So to see that, and for him to come with this style that was looked at as just a local style and for it to be accepted and used worldwide, it's incredible. He always said he was gonna screw the world, and now the world is screwed up.