Lance Scott Walker On DJ Screw (Part Two)

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 second of a two-part interview discussing the subject of his book. (Read the first part here.)


From your research and the conversations you had with people who knew him, how important was the mixtape format to DJ Screw as his primary means of sharing his work with Houston and, ultimately, with the world?

That was his sonic pallette. I think that was the way he expressed himself, in the beginning. That was the way he expressed his love for hip-hop. It became his physical thing. You know, he was a physical kid. Even whenever he got to Houston in the late eighties, he was running track and he was a physical kid. He lived in the country when he was growing up and they were running around out there. He played drums; he played some piano. We don't think of him as physical in his last ten years because he put on some weight. But I think that that became his physical outlet and his expressive outlet. As the years went along and people started doing shoutouts and freestyles on those tapes, that became his outlet for bringing people into his world. That became his outlet for inclusion, for connecting with, and expressing his love for, the people that he knew that were coming in to get tapes done.

Not everybody who came in to get a tape done was somebody that he knew or was close to. He had to at least know you somehow for you to get in that house. But for the people that he really knew, I think that that was a way of showing that connection and showing that love. What attracted me to Screw in the first place was that he showed love to people around him and he made the people around him really feel loved. That was what drew me to writing a book about him, like, wow, this person's life was full of love and people still love him so much. And they still feel so connected to him. So many people told me, I felt like I was his best friend, the way he treated me. That's a really special person and you can't help but see his work as an extension of that, in the way that he connected with people.

The mixtape, as an art form, as it relates to mixtapes the world over, I don't know how connected he was with that. Was he hearing mixtapes from New York? I know he was hearing mixtapes from Darryl Scott in Houston. Did he hear how other people were doing it? I don't know. I asked that question of a few people and I never really got an answer on that. For him, I think it was a very raw, very proprietary thing, where he was just starting from a space of feeling and maybe not necessarily knowing how other people were doing it or how the culture was evolving, but just going for it himself.

So much of his stuff isn't like on streaming platforms. for obvious reasons. Much of his work is really in those hundreds of tapes. And so much of what we talk about when we talk about DJ Screw is about chopped and screwed, that technique. What can you tell me from what you learned from these conversations that you had that made his approach so unique?

Well, obviously the format is a big part of it. He's going from vinyl to cassette. So you automatically know–whether or not he was considering this in advance. I don't know–this is gonna go down one generation on the recording. Then I'm gonna take that master cassette and I'm gonna record it slower onto to a new master. There's a second generation. And then I'm gonna take that new master and I'm gonna make dubs of it. That's a third generation. I would have to imagine, to some degree, he's thinking far ahead enough to know that like, I'm gonna go a little psychedelic with this because of where this is gonna end up. Some of the crispness is gonna be taken off of this in the end and it's gonna go into a different place. So I think that he had that kind of sonic sensibility. Whether it was omnipresent for him or not, I don't know.

He didn't play drums very long. I think he played drums just for a little bit in middle school. I started playing drums in the eighties, and I still play drums. I know how it informs your thinking. Drums inform my writing. Drums inform literally everything I do. Think about the structure of the book. Okay, well what's structure? Playing drums, that's structure. I really have to feel that playing drums influenced his approach. I feel like he approached DJing like a drummer. A really good drummer is not somebody who plays along with a drum machine and sounds perfect. A really good drummer slips and slides around a little bit. They're stretching it out. A really good drummer is feeling their way around a song. And I feel like that was the way Screw went about it. Those rhythms are something that he's got in the back seat and the records are just a path towards that for him.

Another thing that I found really fascinating in the book was his sort of transition from weed to lean. There's this association with him like, oh, it's slow because of lean. But what I learned otherwise in the book was, before lean was heavy in his life, a lot of that sound seemed to be about what weed did. Was that particularly surprising to you with your prior understanding of Screw as you were going through and writing?

Definitely, that part. because of how people talk about it, the influence of codeine promethazine on his work. In the beginning, I probably thought, like a lot of people, that codeine was what took the music down that path. But it couldn't have been further from the truth, because he was working like that for years. He was slowing down tapes before lean came into the picture. That was 1994 that we're talking about. As far as how much weed was in the picture? Of course it was. Was it the overarching factor? I don't necessarily think so. The thing you gotta remember also is that Screw lived with his dad, you know, until really up until right before the point that we're talking about where lean came in. How much of that was going on in his dad's apartment? I don't know. His dad wasn't around a whole lot. His dad drove trucks; he was out on the road. So there was a possibility for that.

Having not been there [myself] and not having it be something that popped up a lot in conversations with people who knew him, I stayed away from the idea that drugs were what led him to this sound. I just didn't feel like it was my place to say it. Who knows? There could be some truth to it, but I didn't get that feeling. There wasn't enough talk of that, somebody saying that he was smoking weed all the time or anything like that. It just wasn't enough of that to where I felt like that was the case. You know, he says that himself. There's interviews where he says, oh, you smoke and listen to a record. He does talk about that. And of course, we understand that. But I stayed away from giving too much credit to the drugs.  I just don't feel like, at least in the beginning while he was developing that sound, that that was a motivating factor.

In terms of his legacy, his style has been widely copycatted–you can't say duplicated, because that's not accurate–but widely copycatted with the benefit of technology, making things easier to do and more user-friendly. Given how much time you spent getting to know DJ Screw through these conversations with people whike making this book, would he have been receptive to the ways in which his style has gone beyond the city? Apart from the anecdote in the book about his run-in with Michael "5000" Watts, do you think he would've been receptive to Salem and Yung Lean or even the slowed-and-reverb kids on TikTok?

He was protective of his name, very protective of his name. I think he would've been receptive to stuff, because he was open and he wasn't a competitive person. I also look at it like, how would John Bonham have felt about every drummer that followed him trying to sound like him? Nobody can do it. Nobody sounds like that–and nobody sounds like DJ Screw. I think that, when you reach that level of familiarity with your craft and that sort of excellence in your craft, you're untouchable. I mean, if somebody drives by playing something slowed and chopped. I know instantly if it's DJ Screw. There's a feel to it. Not just because of the tape, but just because of the feel. I one hundred percent know it and I'm never wrong. [laughs]

That said, I think it's a legitimate art form. I love the fact that there are other artists who do it and that there are other artists who have their own take on it. Slowed-and-reverb gets kicked around because there was the naïveté that went with it and the sort of, okay, you can just kind of click and do a couple things on your computer and all of a sudden, oh wow, I've created a new genre. You can't expect everybody to know everything, but I feel like that was a teachable moment. Donny Houston and down in Houston does a podcast. He had the young woman on who had made the TikTok video, I think, that really went around. He invited her on the show and kinda gave her a history lesson. His whole thing was: don't put the word screw on there. Don't call it screwed. Don't call it chopped and screwed. Don't call it screw music. Don't call it a screw tape. Whatever your name is, whatever you're doing, do your thing. I put that flag in cement in the book. I felt like that was a really important thing to do in the last chapter, to make that distinction. There's other people out there doing this work and they're doing their take on it. They're influenced by DJ Screw to some extent, whether or not they're a screwhead that listens to all kinds of stuff that he does, or if they just know a little bit of it and the general style and it's just their take on it. But I think it's beautiful that other people doing it. Who knows how he would've reacted to it!

Put it this way: before he passed away, things were set to truly evolve for DJ Screw. He was gonna start making stuff on CDs. He was gonna start doing mail order. It sounded like he was gonna start an actual label. So there were lots of changes coming from him. He had shown over the years that he was ready to evolve. I think that he was getting ready to go into another stage of his life where he truly would've evolved. So would we have had that same Houston explosion in 2004, 2005 if Screw hadn't passed? Would that attention have been on the North Side of Houston or would that attention have been on the Screwed Up Click during that time? Who knows?

Assuming that they have the means to listen to whatever could be available out there, either in legitimate or illegitimate spaces, what do you think are good entry points or highlights for people to go into DJ Screw's vast catalog?

3 'n the Mornin' is a great one. It's a studio album, for one. That's not to take anything away from the underground. The fidelity is just one part of it. But he really gets a chance to show off his skills. He worked with four turntables. He's mixing local artists; a lot of it is local stuff, Lil Keke. There's UGK basslines and stuff he's using in there. I always tell people that as a starting point. It's really easy to get, it's accessible. It's one of the handful of things that he released that was actually on a label. It's still being pressed and is still out there. All Screwed Up, same thing. It's maybe more of a mixtape on vinyl, that it wasn't necessarily his vision. But 3 'n the Mornin' was his masterpiece. I got a section on it in the book. It's something that he worked on getting right and playing with the idea of it for years.

I mean, really, go find any Screw tape. Find a Screw tape that's got lots of freestyles from one or two people. Whether it's Fat Pat and Lil Keke or Fat Pat and Mike D, whoever it might be, it's interesting to hear them going back and forth song to song and the energy of the night kind of unfolding, from track to track. Sometimes, they're freestyling several tracks through, or E.S.G. might just freestyle the entire side of the tape. There's times that he did that and it's really fascinating to hear that, and probably a little bit easier of an entry point, But down the line, as you get more familiar with Screw tapes, good places to look are tapes where you see a bunch of names. That's really interesting too, to hear the difference of the microphone being passed around the room. You hear one person pick it up and they might kind of start off like this. And it might not be somebody who freestyles a lot and maybe their voice isn't really that loud or they kind of slur in a few words. And then sometimes it gets passed to somebody who's ready for that microphone and he goes for it. Yungstar's a good example right there. I got a story in the book about how he was in that room before, and the microphone just came to him and all he said was his name. But it's fascinating to listen when somebody gets that microphone and they're ready for it, and they're ready to go. An energy just comes into the room. That's what did it for Screw, when he could get somebody to open up like that and have somebody connect with the music and connect with the moment.

Lance Scott Walker. Photo credit: Jennifer Charles

Read Part One of this interview here. Purchase a signed hardcover edition of DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution here.

Gary Suarez

Gary Suarez