DJ Screw Was a Beat Head

How the Houston legend used greatly extended song lengths and long instrumental sequences to give producers their well-deserved shine.

I’ve been listening to a lot of tapes by the late Houston, Texas legend DJ Screw recently. With over 300 mixtapes to choose from, I’ve had no shortage of material to shift through.

From his earliest releases to his last projects, I keep finding different aspects of his sound to marvel at. When I listen to chopped and screwed songs or entire tapes, I’m often struck by the way Screw completely transformed the experience of listening to a song. By slowing the music down and adding his own scratches and voice overs, he turned each selection into something beautiful—somehow both familiar and almost unrecognizable.

Screw had a deep appreciation for lyricism, you can tell that right away from listening to his mixes. He really studied the nuances of every record and knew the precise places to run a verse back to underscore the importance of it for the listener.

According to prolific veteran Houston MC Devin the Dude, the slowed down pace of Screw’s tapes made city residents take stock of what MCs were saying and enhanced their appreciation for non-Texas rappers. “He slowed it down, so that communication could be understood so we can really understand each other from whatever coast that we’re from—especially in Houston,” he told Justin Hunte in a 2013 HipHopDX interview.

Much as Screw was clearly a student of masterful lyricism, he was also a passionate beat head. It’s a beautiful thing to hear how he would extend a song to the edge of absurdity just to hammer home the importance of the production. Listen to Screw’s take on Spice 1’s 1992 track “Welcome To The Ghetto” as a prime example. Using it for the second track on his G Love release, Screw took the Bay Area pioneer’s self-produced, four-minute and nine-second masterpiece and turned it into a immersive listening experience nearly 15 minutes in length.

It should also be noted that the original non-screwed version is a feat of production ingenuity in its own right. Spice used a tiny snippet of the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced S.O.S. Band selection “No One's Gonna Love You” and turned it into the ultimate backing track for his introspective, brutally honest lyrics about drugs, gangs, trauma, deceased friends, police brutality, and contemplations of suicide.

Spice then enhanced his enduring cut by using a sample of Marvin Gaye’s timeless “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” on the hook. Beat fanatics may also note that “Welcome To The Ghetto” later became a sample source in its own right, with Tupac repurposing it three separate times—most notably on the Johnny J-produced Thug Life song “Pour Out A Little Liquor.”

In a fierce nod of approval to song’s masterful production, Screw paid homage to Spice 1 and let the beat ride out for a solid five-plus minutes before dropping the first verse, talking and cutting over the music throughout this extended opening. In true beat head fashion he kept the instrumental rocking for longer than the original song length before bringing in any Spice 1 vocals.

Hearing Screw’s handiwork on “Welcome To The Ghetto” is a beautiful and hypnotizing experience. The instrumental is one of those beats that sounds like it was custom made for chopping and screwing, with Marvin Gaye’s voice emitting an ethereal beauty as it plays at a reduced tempo.

Fans of lyrics need not fret, as Screw also paid proper attention to every choice verse, doubling up and repeating Spice 1’s words throughout, including the aforementioned Tupac/Thug Life sampled verse, “I wonder if heaven got a ghetto/My cousin died last year/And I still can't let go.”

And in a moving moment starting right after the 12-minute mark, Screw added some weighty words of his after bringing the instrumental back to the very beginning and doubling it up. “It’s OK to represent the hood, represent where you from, but you don’t want to be there forever. Every day ain’t gonna be a sunny day, but it ain’t got to be a cloudy and a rainy day either.”

This part of the song is potent as hell. Screw’s brief but heartfelt thoughts match the beat perfectly and embed the song in the listener’s memory long after its done. Then the beat rides for another two-plus minutes. Again—some true beat head shit.

In 2020, where everything feels so dark and hopeless, I’ve found it comforting to revisit the work of someone who loved records enough to let them play for 15 minutes without a bit of hesitation. By any measure expecting people to stick with a song for three times its original length is an absurd expectation to put on listeners, but it somehow works perfectly—even for today’s music fanatics who are inundated with choices and distractions. Screw’s mixes still give listeners permission to slow down and fully appreciate the artistry of the music they’re hearing.

Screw felt every element and detail of the music he put on his tapes. He figured out a way to make listeners fall in love with the minutiae of the lyrics and production without it ever feeling forced. Check out his take on Whodini’s 1984 Larry Smith-produced classic “Friends” for further confirmation. Much like “Welcome To The Ghetto,” Screw proudly showed off his beat fanaticism by giving the instrumental extended shine at the beginning and end of the 15-minute song.

And for every “Welcome To The Ghetto” and “Friends,” there are countless other selections like the Paris-produced remix of The Conscious Daughters’ "Somethin' to Ride To (Fonky Expedition)" where Screw put the beat front and center before giving the talented MCs on the track their just due.

DJ Screw was a beat head who studied his records front to back, inside and out. He left a legacy of over 300 tapes that perfectly captured his passion for recorded sound.

Even if you’ve never been a fan of the his chopped and screwed style or it feels too extreme for your ears, give it another chance. It’s a unique way of experiencing music, highlighting subtleties that might normally fly under the radar.

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