90s genre chopped and screwed makes its comeback

By NIKITA SHTARKMAN | September 27, 2018

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Kevin/ CC BY 2.0

DJ Screw was the originator of chopped and screwed music in the early 90s

Open up YouTube, look up “Redbone Chopped and Screwed” and click on the first link. The thumbnail is a cover of Childish Gambino’s project “Awaken, My Love!” with a purple tint. Sit on a comfortable couch. Hit play.

Your first reaction will probably be one of confusion. The song is slow, far slower than the original. The sound is crackly and imperfect. At this low tempo, the baseline that backs the song becomes an eerie, full drone. Every once in a while, the music skips and repeats — as if it’s playing on a bad turntable. The result is alien and yet somehow pure and sweet. The lower frequencies are soft, smooth and pleasant. At some points, there are filter sweeps and stereo effects that place you deeper, right into the middle of the instrumentation.

When the chorus comes in, you get goose bumps and feel a tingle at the top of your spine. The swell of instrumentation, the choral elements — all slow and sweet — are excruciatingly satisfying. By the end of the song, you find yourself sinking into the couch. Your mind is clear, and your heart rate is slow.

You probably do not realize it yet, but you are now forever changed. This is your introduction to chopped and screwed music.

Chopped and screwed music was invented by DJ Screw in Houston in the early 90s. DJ Screw realized that when he played records at lower tempos on his turntables, he created a heavier, more plodding soundscape. Along with slowing the tempo, Screw would play the same song on both turntables offset by one beat. Then, using the track switcher, he would repeat and emphasize parts of the song, without messing up the groove. 

Screw created “screw tapes,” mixtapes filled with songs that he chopped and screwed and mixed together. Selling hundreds of his records all throughout Houston, completely independently, Screw accrued a cult following. Just as the screwed movement was getting traction in other parts of the U.S., DJ Screw tragically passed from an overdose on codeine and alcohol in 2000. After his death, Screw’s music blew up into every region in the U.S. 

Today, chopped and screwed music has become a genre. With every new music release, there are dozens of different slowed versions that come out almost instantaneously. YouTube is littered with purple-tinted album covers and screwed mixes. There are disc jockeys (DJs) like OG Ron C, Slim K and DJ Purpberry who continue to champion the sound.

So what is it about screwed music that makes it so ubiquitous? A major part of the screwed appeal is that it bucks the norms for popular music. Most music that gets radio play is energetic, fast-paced and overproduced. While this can be great, screwed music allows a release from this. The slow pace opens the song up for deeper analysis. Listening to a screwed song is like watching a film frame by frame; you are able to see all of the details and touches you missed at full speed. The best parts of the song will linger — each sound, each chord, each lyric getting space to ring out. A good DJ can use chops to emphasize the best grooves and moments in the track.

The real draw for screwed music, though, is that specific strange yet incredible effect that listening to something slowed down has. There is something about the distortion of the voices and the low tempo that creates an encompassing calm. You can feel your heart rate drop and your anxieties wash away as you listen to a track.

If you listen to screwed music for long enough, you’ll find yourself in a slower mindstate. All of your worries will have disappeared. You’ll walk slower than usual. Your head will nod slowly. Or more likely, you will be buried on a couch or leaning against a wall, frozen by the tempo. It is a meditative and lazy pleasure.

While the source of most screwed songs is hip hop, it can be done to any genre of music. DJ Screw experimented a lot with various styles, and one of his most popular tracks is his remix of “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. The song builds tension at an almost excruciating pace. The repetition of the dreamy “I can feel it coming in the air tonight” becomes addictive. When the drums finally kick in and the resolution of the track arrives, it is a sublime feeling.

Music, like all art forms, moves toward extremes. Hip hop — now very clearly the leading genre of popular music — is rapidly becoming as aggressive, violent and loud as it can, with artists like Sheck Wes and 6ix9ine pushing that envelope.

For those who tire of the never-ending release of loud, fast, booming trap, I wholeheartedly recommend listening to screwed music. 

If you want to go from the beginning, you should listen to the original screw tapes. Apart from their historical significance, they are incredible mixtapes. Wineberry Over Gold is a classic, with 16 West Coast songs all slowed to snail’s pace. The melodic bounce of G-funk is somehow even groovier when slowed. 

If you don’t want to listen to original DJ Screw, you can look up artists you like with the words chopped and screwed after. You will almost certainly find a version online. 

This is just an introduction to the screwed style; there is so much more to the culture. There are thousands of screwed songs out there to discover and hundreds of screw tapes to listen to. Sometimes it can be better to slow down, take your time and melt into sound.

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