Dj Screw/Robert Earl Davis (1971-2000)

DJ Screw seated in studio, surrounded by recording equipment with a Bugs Bunny doll visible.
DJ Screw at Maestro’s studio in southwest Houston, ca. 1996
Courtesy DeMo Sherman and University of Houston Libraries Special Collections

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Robert Earl “DJ Screw” Davis was an American hip hop Disk Jockey (DJ) who was best known as the creator of the chopped and screw technique, a music technique that slowed down the tempo of songs and became central to the rise of the musical foundation of hip hop.

Davis was born on July 20, 1971, to Robert Earl Davis Sr. and Ida May Deary in Smithville, Texas. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother moved him and her other children to Los Angeles, California, where they lived for a couple of years. In 1980, nine-year-old Davis and their family moved back to Houston and then returned to Smithville.

In 1984, Davis started getting interested in hip-hop after watching a hip-hop break-dancing movie called Breakin. He began to use his mother’s music records from artists such as B.B. King and Johnnie Taylor by scratching them on the turntable, a technique that spread quickly across the hip hop world.

By the early 1990s Davis created a turntable technique called chopped and screwed by remixing music by slowing down the tempo of a music artist’s song by 60 and 70 quarter-note beats per minute. He also incorporated other techniques including record scratching, stop-time, and skipping a beat.

Davis returned to Houston and started selling his mixes which he called Screw Tapes. These Screw Tapes included slowing records made by famous artists. It also included freestyles developed by local Houston rappers. Davis gathered these local Houston rappers and establish a hip hop collective called the Screwed Up Click consisting of rappers John Edward “Big Hawk” Hawkins, Patrick Lamark “Fat Pat” Hawkins, Wesley Eric “Lil Flip” Weston Jr. and Joseph Wayne “Z-Ro” McVey IV. For a brief while George Floyd, who would later be killed by Minneapolis police, was a member of Screwed Up Click.

The growing popularity of Davis’s chopped and screw technique led to fans lining up at his Houston home to buy screw tapes from him. Davis opened a Houston shop called Screwed Up Records and Tapes, where he sold his recordings and videos.

During his lifetime, Davis remixed dozens of famous artists’ songs, including Tupac “2Pac” Shakur and Christopher “Notorious Big” Wallace. He also released albums that featured his mixes, including 3 ‘n the Morning.’ Part One (1994), All Screwed Up, Vol. II (1995), 3 ‘N The Mornin’ (Part Two) (Blue) (1996), 3 ‘N The Mournin’ (Part Two) (Red) (1998), All Work No Play (1999), and Disc 2 of SPM’s Power Moves The Table (1999).  Although they were regionally successful, none of them ever reached the national charts.

Photograph by 2C2K Photography, courtesy Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

Legends of Houston rap mural at Houston Graffiti Building, Top: DJ Screw, L to R: Big Hawk, Big Moe, Pimp C, Bushwick Bill, and Mr. 3-2 The Governor, February 12, 2022

Sadly, Dj Screw/Robert Earl Davis died on December 16, 2000 at the age of 29. He was found dead inside the recording studio in his Houston home. An autopsy revealed that Davis died from a drug overdose of codeine and promethazine, popularly known in the hip-hop community as Purple Drink syrup lean. Other drugs were found in Davis’s system, including PCP and Valium.

Several albums would be released after his death including The Legend (2001), All Work, No Play, Vol. 2 (2002), and Soldiers United For Cash (2002). A mixtape collection called Diary of the Originator was also released posthumously that consisted of chopped and screwed mixtapes that he recorded between 1993 and 2000. Despite his passing, Davis’s influence and legacy helped propel Houston hip hop to national recognition and popularity during the 2000s.

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