DJ Screw, born Robert Earl Davis, Jr. (July 20, 1971 – November 16, 2000, was a central figure in the Houston hip hop scene. His innovation included the trademark technique of slowing down the basic tracks of a cut when he remixed it.
DJ Screw was born in Bastrop, Texas to Robert Earl Davis, Sr. DJ Screw had lived in Smithville, Houston, and Los Angeles; at one point his father took him to Houston in order to keep him from trouble. There DJ Screw lived in a working class, mostly African American neighborhood near Hobby Airport described by Michael Hall of Texas Monthly as “hard-edged.” DJ Screw dropped out of Sterling High School during his 10th grade year and focused on music.
DJ Screw began deejaying at age 13, and started his trademark slowed down mixes in 1984. During the early 1990s, he invited some of Houston’s most renowned rappers from the south side of the city to flow on his Screw tapes. This eventually led to the formation of the Screwed Up Click.
After spending most of the 1990s as an infamous local phenomenon in Houston, TX, DJ Screw suddenly found himself gaining sudden notoriety before his unfortunate death in late 2000. The Houston DJ made a name for himself primarily because of his uncanny mixing style, which found him pitching down his records to a lumbering and quite eerie pace. Over the course of the ’90s, what began as novelty actually became a rather lucrative venture for DJ Screw, who produced hundreds of mix tapes, with some estimates projecting his total number of tapes topping over a thousand; furthermore, he sold the tapes at his record store, Screwed Up Records and Tapes.
Yet it’s hard to imagine DJ Screw’s legacy being what it is if not for his role as an adamant advocate of “syrup sippin’,” a Southern rap phenomenon involving codeine-infused cough syrup — the resulting intoxication induces a hallucinatory state where everything slows down and becomes the senses swirl. As marijuana was to early-’90s gangsta rap, LSD was to late-’60s psychedelic rock, ecstasy was to late-’80s rave — and so on — the syrup sippin’ advocated by DJ Screw’s trippy hip-hop mixes led to a small drug movement within the late-’90s Dirty South genre, reaching its zenith with Three 6 Mafia’s hit “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” in 2000. It’s hard to deny that this phenomenon wasn’t as important to DJ Screw’s popularity as his music was (especially considering some of his tape titles: Syrup & Soda, Syrup Sippers, Sippin’ Codeine, etc.) Still, DJ Screw did serve as a leader for Houston’s burgeoning rap scene; his home studio, The Screw Shop, functioned as the home base for what was loosely referred to as the Screwed Up Click, including rappers such as Big Pokey and Lil’ Keke, along with about 30 others were known locally.
Ironically, when DJ Screw was found dead in his studio of a fatal heart attack at the tender age of 30 on the morning of November 16, 2000, the Houston Chronicle published a story stating that police suspected DJ Screw of overdosing on the same syrup that he so adamantly advocated. Weeks later the theory proved valid, making the artist the victim of his own self-promoted phenomenon. More unfortunate, though, was the loss of DJ Screw to Houston’s fledging scene, which seemed on the verge of being nationally recognized as a Southern rap mecca. His legacy lived on, though, since his trademark mixing style was by no means exclusive, as countless imitators had arisen in the South by the time of his death, the most noteworthy being the Swisha House and Beltway 8 record labels.