chopped and screwed 

By Hadley Heckman


Cough medicine, when used in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, has euphoric side effects, along with lethargy and a disassociation with the physical sensations of the body. To achieve this, promethazine/codeine syrup (exceeding 25 times the recommended dose) is mixed with sweet soda like Sprite or Mountain Dew. This beverage takes the name “purple drank”, also called sizzurp, lean, purple jelly, dirty Sprite, or Texas tea.

The last label derives from lean’s birthplace in Houston, Texas, when 1960's blues musicians cut Robitussin with beer or wine coolers. This behavior originated in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Third Ward, and South Park, all predominately black areas, and the practice was taken up by following generations of rappers and hip hop artists growing up in the same parts of the city. From this, drank and Houston hip hop became as closely related as LSD and acid rock.

A curious interplay of culture, income level, and legislation lead to purple drank’s high popularity in Houston, and the successive music scene it helped to produce. Texas’s strict drug laws limited cocaine and marijuana consumption, while cough syrup was cheap and available in supermarkets. Its cultural ties with music production and use by hip hop artists lead it to have a strong influence over the music that came out of the area. Eventually, an artist and sound like no other would emerge from the combined influences of south side Houston, resulting in a music genre that still thrives today.

DJ Screw, or Robert Earl Davis Jr., created a sound that was utterly unique to anything else being produced in hip hop at the time. Yet his appreciation of music originated with the piano, inspired by his admiration of classical music. After 7 years of study he could play the instrument by ear. But it was his discovery of his mother’s turntable at age 12 that turned his attention to disk jockeying. He came to have such a profound impact that groups were formed and inspired by, Houston became recognized for his sound, and an entire genre, “chopped and screwed”, was born from Screw and his mom's turntable.

Chopped and screwed is a technique of remixing hip hop music by slowing the tempo to a syrupy drawl of 60 or 70 quarter-note beats per minute, so that its sound mimics the lethargic effects of purple drank on the mind and body. Screw intentionally mixed records to match the narcotic-induced lethargic sensations of purple drank, producing a psychedelically glacial sound, and preserved the feeling with smooth cuts and his own slurred voice.

As the Screw following grew around Houston, Screw called on south side MCs to freestyle on his mixtapes, forming a coalition which became the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.). Despite his growing fame, Screw remained firmly grounded in south side Houston, supporting his home place and people, mirroring the life he saw in his city. He never charged members of the S.U.C. to rap on his mixtapes, although a screw tape feature could provide huge exposure. A single tape could reach 100,000 listeners at the time, and some features could lead to further success, including recording contracts. Screw himself was uncomfortable with mainstream business, preferring to keep his work independent, and focusing on his own people.

South side Houston sound revolves around its communities, groups of innovative emcees who come together over classic full Texas-style barbeques or sessions with purple drank that finish with freestyling. Groups like South Park Coalition and Screwed Up Click and independent record label Swishahouse now have a strong reputation in southern hip hop, with their members and affiliates in the hundreds.  These groups operate outside the major record label system, without radio play, instead hustling their work on the streets, recording in their homes, and supporting one another, just as Screw prioritized. They sold their records and gained notoriety representing themselves. Through group dedication and strength, they continue to be influential in the southern hip hop scene.

Members of S.U.C. now run DJ Screw’s store after his death from a codeine overdose in 2000. His “grey tapes”, on Maxell cassettes, are now respected as a cultural phenomenon. When the Houston hip hop scene reached national prominence in 2004, the biggest acts could be traced to members of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. It was during this time that Screw’s legacy was discovered by a much wider national audience. Today, mainstream artists like Drake (check out his Nov 18, an elegy to Screw’s June 27 mix) and A$AP Rocky pay homage to Screw’s slow Houston sound.

What started in 1990 with 19-year-old Screw sharing his mixes with friends became an increasingly popular sound, until Screw was selling tens of thousands of singles out of his house and achieved fame in 1995. The sound matched the slow, hot feel of Houston and the pastime of cruising down its wide streets. It’s grown into a lifestyle, a culture and a hip-hop movement in its purest form.