Like any artform, music is at its best when it refuses to stand still; rather extending branches from its foundations in perpetual exploration for something as yet undefined. Music is also a reflection of the environment in which it is created, and the heat in the densely populated US city of Houston suits a slower groove, its sounds markedly different than those of the East and West coasts.
It was there that hip-hop took a decided left turn in the early ‘90s when a young producer by the name of Robert Earl Davis decided to take his cue from the popular local DJ Darryl Scott, known for his slowed-down mixes of disco records. Davis extended that concept and applied it to hip-hop and soul productions, using two turntables to cut, or chop, back and forth between copies of the same record, one of which was always a full beat behind the other. Naming himself DJ Screw, the style subsequently became known as ‘chopped and screwed’, and its slowed down tempo became not only one of the dominant sounds of Southern hip-hop, but decades later its influence can be clearly identified in mainstream US pop music. Here is a brief tour of the musical legacy of chopped and screwed, including its recent, and welcome, revival.
DJ Screw – Tell Me Something Good
Of the hundreds of mixtapes, known as Screwtapes, released in Screw’s lifetime there are just as many highpoints, including the best-selling June 27th, or the acclaimed Leanin on a Switch and 3 N’ the Mornin’ (Part Two). But for anyone who wants to understand the essence of chopped and screwed, point them towards this otherworldly cut from DJ Screw’s All Screwed Up Volume II, his 1995 nationally distributed debut for Bigtyme Records.
The heavy, syncopated bass line shifts the entire feel and melodic frame of the piece far from the Rufus & Chaka Khan-sampling production of UGK’s 1992 version. In fact that sample, previously used as the main hook, is pitched down so far and buried in the background it’s not even noticeable at first. The keyboards and reverb drenched backing vocals seem to float above the track while the bass anchors it to earth, with the overall effect being one of drama and grandeur, while the lo-fi nature of chopped and screwed technique maintains the grit of all of Screw’s music. The result is something you can bob your head to and is at once mesmerising.
Three 6 Mafia – Sippin On Some Syrup
Reaching #30 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart in the US, this single from Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia helped introduced many of the elements of chopped and screwed — such as the slow moody feel to the music under the drums, the pitched down vocal on the hook — to a wide audience.
Frank Ocean - Close to You
After its moment in the sun in the early 2000s, when chopped and screwed reached a popularity not achieved during DJ Screw’s lifetime, its relevance in mainstream music seemed to wane in favour of the sounds of Miami bass, R&B and auto-tune hip-hop. However in the last five years the subgenre has experienced a mainstream renaissance as part of the general dominance of southern hip-hop in US popular music. Besides the trend of producers posting whole chopped and screwed versions of popular albums online, many of which, such as DJ Whut It Do’s version of “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino went viral, musical references have become frequent in the pop mainstream. Drake, Lil’ Wayne and A$AP Rocky have all paid tribute to the genre in one way or another, but Frank Ocean’s Blond manages to do so in a way that feels completely original, while remaining indebted to the work of DJ Screw. The pitched, woozy feel of ‘Close to You’ is perhaps one of its best examples.
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Composer Nicholas Britell took inspiration from chopped and screwed in creating the score for the 2016 film Moonlight, which slows down the orchestral pieces adding weight, gravitas and beauty to the music. In his review of the soundtrack for Pitchfork, Callum Marsh posited that the film’s greatest influence was not from the cinema world, but that of DJ Screw.
Britell uses variations of the same theme music as Moonlight’s story progresses to signify the evolution of its main character, Chiron, who is known initially by the nickname Little, and later Black.
Chiron’s Theme and Black’s Theme are slowed down versions of Little’s Theme, and while the sound is pretty far from Screw’s productions — there is no chopping/cutting back and forth between the records for a start, and Screw maintained that tracks could only be screwed if they were made by him — this is just another way that the subgenre’s legacy has revealed itself.
Solange - When I Get Home
The most recent album from Houston’s Solange pays tribute to the Southern African American experience in perhaps a more specific way than on her acclaimed soul and R&B leaning A Seat at the Table. Released in March, When I Get Home is purposefully indebted to the sound of chopped and screwed and all that it represents in Southern hip-hop. The woozy keyboards, repetitive bars, layers of murmured vocals just out of the range of intelligibility, and even an interlude with Houston legend Scarface pronouncing “It’s not screwed!” are all references to the genre. With only five of the 19 tracks stretching longer than three minutes and the entire thing clocking in at 39 minutes, the album is structured like a Screwtape, which were mixes made to suit each side of a 100 or 120 minute Maxell cassette.
Beyoncé – Bow Down/I Been On (Live)
In 2013 Beyoncé posted an ode to Houston on SoundCloud, with the first part of the track being reworked into ‘Flawless’ for her self-titled album of the same year. But it’s the second half, ‘I Been On’, which specifically references Houston’s hip hop legacy, by name checking the Geto Boys’ Willie D and UGK’s Pimp C, and chopped and screwed with its pitched down rap vocals and wobbly synth. The singer’s new live album Homecoming, taken from her headlining shows during Coachella 2018, is arranged like one long mixtape, remixing cuts from throughout her catalogue, including Bow Down/I Been On, which appears with an extended ending, adding chops that unmistakably place it within the genealogy of chopped and screwed.
However, the most explicit reference to chopped and screwed is actually the album’s first song, after the instrumental introduction of Welcome, when Beyoncé kicks things off with one of her biggest hits, Crazy in Love. At the 1.27 mark the song suddenly halts and then starts again in half time with even the live instruments managing to sound pitched down, with chops of Jay-Z’s voice included towards the end as it transitions into the following track. 19 years after DJ Screw’s death, the world’s biggest pop star placed his creation on just about the largest platform imaginable. Bow down bitches.