Photo via YouTube
A quiet artists’ loft in downtown LA is not the place you’d expect to find Lil’ Keke on a Saturday night. Even if you’d seen the flyer promoting his performance at “Don't Screw Up: A DJ Screw Retrospective” at the Handbag Factory, you wouldn’t expect the venue to be so silent. The Houston rapper and original Screwed Up Click member didn’t walk on stage and launch into any of his hits. He just sat down in front of a hushed, attentive audience, like a guest lecturer at an art college's hip-hop history class. He was there not necessarily to entertain, but to educate.
As is the case with any regional music scene that achieves recognition outside its original borders, Houston's chopped and screwed sound is often mythologized by those with no direct connection to the place or people that created it. DJ Screw is worshipped as the Originator by kids who've never had to put a cassette in a car stereo. Grills and syrup are viewed as iconic symbols of life in the Southern city. While other tourists visit the Space Center, rap fans make the pilgrimage to Screwed Up Records and Tapes. They're the same fans who hold retrospectives in downtown LA lofts to commemorate the 15th anniversary of DJ Screw's death. And they invite Lil' Keke to talk about it.
The event made no attempt to conceal the fact that it had been organized by outsiders, a group of fans and artists that enjoy and respect Houston's chopped and screwed sound, even though they weren't around to fully participate in it. Visual artist and moderator Tim Hix projected Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown videos on the wall, playing the accompanying musical tracks at an agonizingly-slow pace while chopping up the clips with VJ equipment. Other DJs paid homage to Screw's sound with a similarly distant, artistically high-minded approach. The unifying theme seemed to be that every song needed to be played as slowly as possible. At least one guy in the crowd fell asleep.
Lil' Keke acknowledged the disconnect between the night’s avant-garde performances and the type of music he makes, jokingly pointing out how Screw’s music “isn’t as slow as you just had it going.” He fielded probing questions about the relationship between lean and screwed music, dispelling the notion that the drug has any effect on the latter's creation or consumption.
“That’s a misconception,” Keke said. “They don’t go hand in hand. Syrup was here before Screw got started, and Screw [will be] here after syrup is gonna be here. The thing about syrup, what people didn’t understand was that we didn’t make the music slow like that. It didn’t really have anything to do with syrup. The music was still fast. Screw slowed the music down, it wasn’t like we were in there drinking syrup and the music was going slow. It wasn’t happening like that. The music was at normal speed, like if you had a regular party.”
Keke’s brief performance following the Q&A was the closest the night came to feeling like a regular party. He ran through a medley of songs, including “Peepin’ In My Window,” “25 Lighters,” “South Side,” “Pimp Tha Pen” and “Chunk Up the Deuce.” In the wake of the Q&A and all the quietness, though, the show still felt academic. Keke had to tell people these songs were classics; they weren’t reacting as if they were aware of that already. It was less a celebration of DJ Screw’s legacy and more of an attempt to get people to understand and appreciate it.
At least there was a lot to learn. Like how Keke met Screw through his friend that cut Screw’s hair. Or how long it would take Screw to put together his tapes, with 3 'N The Morning apparently taking two years to complete. "Screw was just as slow as the music," Keke said.
But the loose energy (or lackthereof) of DJ Screw is part of what makes him so legendary. He was operating outside the traditional music industry, unhindered by major label deadlines, taking others’ music and crafting it into an entirely original sound. He’d talk over songs, let rappers freestyle for as long as they feasibly could. He always made sure Houston’s young talent had a platform, launching the careers of artists like Lil' Flip and Z-Ro simply by giving them spots on his tapes. Keke credited Screw for giving him exposure, leading him to a point where he could sell two million records as an independent artist.
Keke also gave Fat Pat credit for popularizing freestyle rap in Houston, even though he'd end up challenging him for the title of Freestyle King. “Pat was one of the first voices on the Screw Tapes getting the opportunity to freestyle. So as that spread, everybody started doing it in the neighborhood,” Keke said. “It got to the point where we weren’t even writing any raps at all. We didn’t even know what writing raps was about. It was just about this freestyling.”
Keke’s explanation of the way of freestyle rap spread throughout his neighborhood mirrors the way Screw’s music ultimately reached the rest of the world. It happened organically. It flourished underground. Screw would slow down popular records, scratch over them, and chop up the beats. Then he'd compile the tracks into mixtapes that he sold out of his house, a place where young artists would spend hours hanging out and recording. These tapes would disseminate throughout the city, duplicated and shared by fans innumerable times along the way. It was an entirely internet-like way of making and spreading music, years before that would become the standard distribution model.
Today, the web makes it easy for anyone anywhere to immerse themselves in the music of a specific city or era. Regional scenes can transcend their physical boundaries. Chopped and screwed music reached its commercial peak after Screw's death in 2000, with mid-aughts artists like Mike Jones and Slim Thug bringing the sound to a broader audience. But the origin story survives. Screw Tapes are still out there to be discovered. There are troves of Screwed Up Click freestyle videos waiting to be watched on YouTube. We're no longer passing tapes hand to hand, yet the outcome is the same. People discover good music when it comes to them, no matter where they are. You can't help if you weren't born in Houston yet you happen to like your rap music chopped and screwed. As long as you're aware of the history.
Fifteen years removed from DJ Screw's death, Lil' Keke is one of the best remaining primary sources for understanding that so often-mythologized era of Houston rap history. Yet Screw's legacy is still far from complete. The tapes are still being circulated, both physically and digitally. The chopped and screwed sound is still being reinterpreted and reinvented, and not only by avant-garde loft artists. The night's final question and answer summed up that sentiment.
“Any other genres you like to hear screwed? Because I personally took it to these other levels,” Hix asked, referencing the demonic-sounding, ten-minute-long slowed version of Metallica’s “One” he’d forced us all to endure moments prior.
“I've heard it in everything. Rock 'n roll, Christian, everything. Everybody’s tried it,” Keke said. “It's great, man. I love to hear people try to spread the culture. Anybody who wants to chop and screw it, do your thing.”
Will Hagle is glad he managed to stay awake. Follow him on Twitter.