Review: DJ Screw All Work No Play

Houston’s DJ Screw is an anti-mercurial genius. Musical originators are often praised for quickness, eclecticism, and nimbleness. Screw, though, leans back with half-lidded eyes and spreads his innovation like syrup, coating everything with the same smooth, sticky head-nodding immobilized groove. His music is the doom metal of hip hop. But even doom metal rarely if ever achieves Screw’s blank, stoned consistency, in which posses roll through the hood like geological movements and waking is just a more enervated kind of unconsciousness.

Robert Earl Davis, Jr., aka DJ Screw, found his style early, and never wavered. Born in 1971, he is supposed to have stumbled on screwed and chopped music in the late 1980s when he would have been only 18 or so. Leaning alllll theee waaaayyy back into the traditionally slower Houston hip hop sound, Screw dropped record speeds down to 60 or 70 beats a minute.

At those tempos, DJ techniques like skipping beats and record scratching were no longer jittery propulsion, but more like burping texture to pull you further into the tar pit of sizzurp—the purple street drank of codeine-laced cough syrup that was the drug of choice in the scene.

Picking out a single DJ Screw album for praise is a little like choosing your favorite 2-foot square segment of a breaching whale. Before his drug overdose in 2000, he self-released somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 mixtapes, and while much of his music has been sporadically reissued, there hasn’t been much of a systematic effort to catalog it. (Much of it is available through the Internet Archive here.) Online reviews of individual releases are sparse to nonexistent. He’s a hugely influential figure, but he died just before he could move from a regional to a national profile.

All Work No Play is one of a handful of semi-mainstream recordings put out during Screw’s lifetime, and it’s a fine place to start sinking into his mesmerizingly idiosyncratic typicality. Some of Screw’s most famous tracks are reworkings of songs by Phil Collins or Aaliyah, but this album is designed to “let you know how we do in the south,” as the man himself says on the intro, his voice downshifted to a comatose rumbling mumble.The tracklist is a series of contemporary semi-hits from Houston fellow-slow rollers like Lil Keke and Herschelwood Hardheadz passed through the gravitational pull of Screw’s heavy fingers: the tracks gently smash into each other like doped-up elephants twerking in slo-mo grace.

The most brilliant remix may be the thorough screwing of Lil Keke’s “Nig**s Be Hatin,” whose aggressive fist-punching flow becomes an easy crawl in Screw’s drank-stained version. On the remix when Keke declares, “Nig**s be hatin’ me/and making my pressure rise/I’m caught up in the game/got my eyes on the fuckin’ prize,” it’s not a threat so much as a lazy boast of absolute chill. No one makes Screw’s pressure rise.

Similarly, Screw transforms Hardheadz’ ode to grinding, “CDS & LPs,” into a reverie on Screw’s own effortlessly viscous creative Robotussin tsunami. The series of rappers on the cut—Lil Keke, Fat Pat, Hardheadz—all find their slowed down voices speaking with that single Screw tone, their records all part of his absolutely uncompromising and barely ambulatory vision.

Screw’s crew doesn’t even need to drop those CDs and LPs; they head for the ground themselves, and make webs of cracks in the pavement when they hit the street. The album is embedded in Houston: “something about the south side/makes me feel bad” one track intones, bad here of course meaning the opposite. Screw is a deliberate poet of place who spent his life uttering one long, slow perfect sound.

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