Lance Scott Walker On DJ Screw (Part One)
The Houston rap expert and author discusses his new book about one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history.
A Texas native currently based in New York City, journalist and author Lance Scott Walker has become one of America's foremost experts on Houston rap music. Beyond his writing for music media outlets like Vice, Wondering Sound, and The Wire, he's written extensively for both the Houston Chronicle and Houston Press. He partnered with photographer Peter Beste on the books Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop, the latter of which was updated and released as a second edition in 2018. His latest book is the brand-new DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, an oral-history-as-biography about the hip-hop legend now available from University of Texas Press. This conversation, edited for clarity, is the first of a two-part interview discussing the subject of his book.
I think perhaps the most important part of this book and Houston Rap Tapes is that you were able to reach people who don't typically get interviewed. And I guess that has to start with you being somebody who not only lived in Houston, but reported on Houston–not just about music, about Houston in general.
It's a love for Houston. It's a love for Peter Beste; he's a good friend of mine. I realized how much I didn't know. Once I started working with him, I realized, oh wow, this there's all these other layers. South Park Coalition–I didn't really know much about them. I knew a little bit about them, but it was way bigger than I could have imagined. Screwed Up Click–way bigger than I could have imagined. But I had a deep love for Houston. That was a big foundation for it, because I'd been there and because I'd been part of it, I was familiar with the landscape and the surroundings.
For a writer, it's a lot easier to follow a camera, because people respond to a camera so differently than they do to a tape recorder or to somebody who's asking questions for a book. A book, for some people, could be a really far off idea, but a photograph is an immediate idea. Peter's technique really had a lot to do with how I approached that. I just watched him and how he interacted with people that he'd never met, and might not really know much about, but was leaving a window open to get close to them–if that's what they wanted–or to keep away from them, to figure out how to read how somebody's feeling in the situation. As a couple of white dudes, going into the neighborhoods that we went into in Houston, you have to be cognizant of that. You really have to be cognizant of how you're coming off and try to make yourself disappear a little bit, as much as you are omnipresent. It's a tough balance that you don't always get right in every situation, but over the years you learn that a little bit more. That really helps with people feeling comfortable with you.
One of the things I continue to find so interesting about your work is that you're able to get people to tell stories and to give these details. Even in the most heartbreaking moments in this book, you know, talking about finding DJ Screw on that fateful day, the way they tell that story, you could tell just how much people cared about him as a friend, as a person. No one's just gonna give you that just because you're writing a book.
They shouldn't. It shouldn't be easy. These are personal histories. Some people will be happy to tell you facts and some people will want to open up because they haven't been interviewed before. And sometimes, when you haven't been interviewed before, you don't know how to be interviewed. You don't know any different. It may have been something you've been waiting for forever and you don't really realize it until you start talking. Those were beautiful moments where somebody realized like, oh wow, I can really talk about some stuff that I might not even get to talk to the people who were there about–for whatever reason, because of personal dynamics or that sort of thing.
You're right in the sense that it takes time with some interview subjects to bring them around. But I made room for there to be maybe somebody who I would talk to just once, because that's all they were really gonna allot in a short time, and just try to find the thing in that interview that tells part of the story, but also gives you something of them and fits them into that greater puzzle. It's a lot of juggling, because there's a lot of voices and I wanted to get them all in there.
How do you determine who the right people are? How do you create your list of who you wanna reach and how does that evolve over the course of a project like this?
The answer is everybody. Everybody that I can reach, you know? I would find people different ways. I would interview somebody and I'd say at the end, who else should I talk to? Have you talked to this person? Yes. Have you talked to this person? Yes. Have you talked to this person? Who?! Can you get in touch with him? Do you know how to reach him? You do your best to reach out to people and you figure it out pretty quick. There's a lot of people who will say that they knew DJ Screw, and a lot of people did know DJ Screw, but I know more about him than any person that I haven't ever actually met, so I can kick the tires pretty well by this point. So whenever I would interview somebody who knew him sort of marginally, yeah, that's great, there's nothing wrong with that. I still wanna talk to those people, but you get a sense from the substance of their story just how much they have to offer.
The right people emerged on their own because of what they told me and because of how I could cross reference it. Sometimes you get some pretty wild claims out there. And sometimes you might get a wild claim over here and a wild claim over here that deal with this. You kind of have to make space for a couple different things to be true at once, when the main subject of your book is gone and didn't do very much press at all. He didn't have traditional marketing behind him, so it wasn't like he just didn't do interviews but he had publicists. He did to a degree, but not in the way where they would really fully flesh out his story and push that out. It was more like pushing his music and his image out there, which is great.
That also leads to the mystique that you see around Screw. People were telling me early on [that] the Screwed Up Click is not just rappers. It's a lot of other people. There's gonna be a lot of levels of people that you're gonna meet that aren't rappers and that aren't well known, or might be rappers or may have just been a rapper for one night on a Screw tape. It's still somebody I want to talk to. Then sometimes you end up talking to one of those people and it becomes a well. Hard Jarv, that's a name you might not hear, but it was somebody who was very close to Screw. He had a comment for the book that I was like, oh, wow, this is beautiful. You start to just kind of get a sense of how those puzzle pieces fit together and, based on their stories, how they fit into Screw's life. You can never really know 'cause you were not there. And not only that, but all the people that I interviewed have a different relationship with Screw. Somebody over here might not know somebody over here or may have never even heard of them, but they're both important to Screw and their stories reveal that.
Your DJ Screw book has got this curious mix of oral history quoting, transcripted clips from the Screw tapes themselves, and written narrative that you employ all this throughout this book that gives its its own style. Why did you choose this experimental approach, versus writing a more straightforward book with the quotes peppered in from people?
Because a straightforward book with quotes peppered in from people would be white centered. That's the reason. I wanted to try to take myself out of it as much as I could. Yes, I'm the writer, I'm the narrator, I'm your guide. But what really, really matters in here is the interviews. What really matters in here is the stories that people tell, the recollections that people tell. What matters for me is the middle of the book where everybody's talking and everybody's telling those stories–because this book is for them. This book is for the people who knew DJ Screw. If I don't get that part right, the whole book is a complete failure.
It needed to center on the voices of the people who knew him. It needed to center on the voices of the people who loved him and were close to him. It mattered to me tremendously that their voices were reflected in the book. If it works for them, the rest of the world will figure it out. It's underground music; it's an underground scene. And I wasn't there. I say that in the preface: I wasn't there. I was in the proximity. I was in Houston, I was in Galveston. I heard the music. I knew some of the music, but I wasn't there. And so it was a way of taking myself out of the story.
I worked on it for years to try to get the arrangement of text right. Because I did a book of straight oral histories, Houston Rap. And then I did a book of interviews, [Houston Rap Tapes] which is much easier to format. But I knew that oral history has its limits and that there was a lot of stuff that I wanted to say that I wasn't gonna be able to get anybody to say, or that it would've been really kind of convoluted to try to only reproduce certain things in other people's voices when I can get it done with a couple of quick brisk sentences, you know? What I came up with in the end worked because [University of Texas Press] went for it and they made it look a lot better than I even had it. I didn't want it to be something where the oral history was indented or in a different font, or had like a gray screen behind it or anything like that. I didn't wanna distract. I really wanted the voices that the interviewees to be something that was considered right along with that narrative text. I wanted it to all just kind of flow, like I was passing the mic, like on Screw tapes.
One of the best ways in which I think you do this in the book is the June 27th story. Even if you're familiar with these 37 minutes of amazing music, hearing directly from those people is amazing. How did that section in particular come together?
Well, the story's been told, to a degree, but I felt like there was a lot that I still wanted to know. I wanted to kind of come at it from a different angle and say, this is a story that a lot of people know, or maybe a lot of people think they know [or] have an idea of how this went down. But then there's other layers of people who maybe have heard about it and maybe know June 27th is important. So I have to set a foundational pallet for them, but I also wanna get deeper into stuff that maybe people haven't touched on. And oral history's so great for that because you pass the mic off and then somebody's talking about something and they're dropping in a couple of little facts they're not really thinking about. But I've chosen that quote very specifically because of, sometimes, a couple little things that they say, and it might be a couple little things that they say that are connecting to the piece of text afterwards. You want to kind of get a through line through there. And then just like, what am I getting in the end? Am I getting a sense of what this day was like? Was it during the day, or was it at night? 'Cause there were different ideas right there. Some people were talking about, well, I got over there in the afternoon. Other people were like, it was like four in the morning. So that's what I said earlier: you kind of have to make room for a couple different things to be true at once and move that information.
The reality is that it was a classic Houston story, the bestselling Screw tape of all time, a tape that people went wild for and still go wild for. So how can I take the facts as we know them and just give it a fresh perspective. And there was still a couple of other people who were there that day that I didn't get to talk to and would've loved to. There's still more to go with that, but that section was a lot bigger. I had to cut down a lot of stuff in the book. I had to cut a section on "25 Lighters." Anytime you're working on a manuscript, you have to cut. There were a few entire sections I had to cut and there was a bunch on June 27th that I cut because that's the longest chapter in the book. And that was the longest section of the longest chapter.