Today we re-cast one of our favorite episodes, an interview with folklorist and Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins, who studies “slab” culture and the “screwed and chopped” hip hop that rattles the slabs and serves as the culture’s soundtrack.
Since the 1990s, many of Houston’s African American residents have customized cars and customized the sound of hip hop. Cars called “slabs” swerve a slow path through the city streets, banging out a distinctive local music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods.
Wilkins shows us how sonic creativity turns a space—a collection of buildings and streets—into a place that is known, respected, and loved.
In this show we hear the slow, muddy, psychedelic sounds of DJ Screw and The Screwed Up Click, including rappers such as Lil Keke, Fat Pat, Big Hawk, and UGK–as well as songs by Geto Boys, Willie Dee, Swishahouse, Point Blank, Biggie Smalls, and MC T Tucker & DJ Irv.
Photos by Langston Collin Wilkins.
[low humming and static playing]
[Tamborine beat blends in]
Episode 7: Screwed and Chopped.
[Hip hop music with vocals cuts in]
Parental discretion is advised. Welcome to Phantom Power. I’m cris cheek. Today on the seventh and final episode of our first season, my co-host Mack Hagood converses with Langston Collin Wilkins. Langston is a folklorist an ethnomusicologist active in both academia and the public sector. Working as a traditional art specialist at the Tennessee Arts Commission. Mack spoke with Langston recently about his research into Houston’s unique slab, car culture. The city’s relationship to hip hop and hip hop’s to community. Enjoy.
[Different hip hop music plays]
So before we get into the research of Langston Collin Wilkins, maybe we should get one question out of the way. Why would a folklorist be studying hip hop? Don’t they study things like folk tales or traditional music or quilting? Well, in fact the folklorist I know study things like bodybuilding and fashion and internet memes. Folklorists study everyday creativity. One contemporary definition of folklore is “artistic communication in small groups.” As Langston shows, it’s the way a town like Houston gets a look and a sound all its own, but folklore didn’t lead Langston to hip hop. In fact, it was quite the other way around.
[Hip hop music cuts out]
[LANGSTON COLLINS WILKINS]
Back when I was a kid, around 12 years old, I received my first hip hop record, which was the “Ghetto Boys Resurrection Album” in 1996.
[A song from the album plays]
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, the south side, where Scarface is from that same area. The Ghetto Boys in my hometown heroes as they are for everyone growing up in Houston in those communities. I just became obsessed with hip hop, and not just the music, but just the larger culture and community surrounding it. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about hip hop, I was watching everything, just studying the culture and that kind of continued through college. When I got the grad school, I went hoping to study hip hop in some form or fashion. It was through hip hop that I learned about folklore and became interested in it. I spent a year doing ethnographic research in Houston amongst the hip hop community there. I focus mostly on I guess the more street oriented or gangsta rappers, and we’re studying the artists and producers connection to place. I was looking at how and why these artists was so deeply connected to the city itself, apartment buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and how these attachments and connection to place have been reproduced in their musical output.
[Different hip hop song plays]
Why do Houston Raptors always shout out, call out, give dedications to places that they are familiar and intimately connected with?
[Several places are listed through hip hop songs]
Washington, Armstrong, Mainwelles and St. Williams. Robinson, Thomas Hopes, we all be chillin but when a sucka starts illin’, the chillin gets rough, and like (inaudible) we tie an ass up.
[song continues, then ends]
That’s what I studied and as I was doing that research I realized that this car culture slab, which originated in Houston Texas, was a part of this place identity that these artists were projecting.
[Street sounds with cars, motors running, and people talking]
It originated amongst working class African Americans in the early 1980s. It’s hard to offer a concrete definition of slabs, but mostly they’re older modeled cars, older model American luxury cars. So we’re talking Cadillacs, Lincolns,old mobiles, if you can find those, and they’re modified in various ways. Some of the core components include the rims or wheels which are in the community call swingers or elbows depending on who you talk to. These are 30 spoked home like wheels made of chrome. That’s a core fundamental aspect to slap culture. Then you have the paint, which is typically called candy paint, really shiny, glossy, paint with bold colors, and beyond that you have the stereo systems which are also important components of the culture. These stereo systems feature multiple speakers, subwoofers that feature incredible bass sounds. They’re typically powered by multiple batteries. Essentially, slab is a modified, customized car and the components are unique to Houston because there are various car cultures, modified car cultures around the country, but I think the combination of the candy paint, the swingers, the elbows, and the stereo systems make slab unique to Houston.
[Street sounds fade out]
Was there anything from your training in folklore that made you see this phenomenon and maybe even hear it in a different way?
[Hip hop music plays in the background]
I had seen these cars going up, but I’d never really appreciated them. They were just how people got from A to B. That’s how they traveled. My uncle who I’m close to, he had not a slab, but he had a modified car, but that was just his car. Going through the program and learning about how cars and other forms of material culture are results of both individual and communal creativity, I began to look at the cars more deeply.
It’s interesting what you’re saying there, that these material objects we come up with, almost as these reasons we create spaces to come together and generate a sense of community, but also promote this arena for individuals to show off their distinct abilities at the same time. It’s funny, because the automobile has formed that space for a lot of different subcultures. Those old codgers who have their vintage car things like in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel, or whatever.
Maybe not that different in some ways.
I don’t think it is. Beyond that, as I was taking the music, the cars were constantly referred to in these rappers’ verbal output. So, that’s what turned my attention for staying in the cars because I figured out that they were both an interesting form of creative culture in themselves, but also a fundamental part of Houston rappers, creative output.
[Another rap song fades in, then fades out]
People who own slabs aren’t going to your local car audio store to get their systems put together, they go to the audio guy in their neighborhood, who knows the culture, knows the community, and knows the aesthetic to put these sounds together. We were just talking about multiple speakers, heavy bass, and the base, you have to be able to feel the bass that’s part of the aesthetic. Actually, you’re able to see the music. That’s another part of this, that your slab is supposed to rattle, and the truck is supposed to rattle and kind of bump when you’re listening to your music which is typically local hip hop.
[Hip hop plays from what sounds like a car stereo. You can hear the base.]
At least in slab culture, in the music it’s meant to be felt and heard and seen. I think that’s why you get these terms like bang or bump, to refer to the sound systems.
[The bass has completely taken over. Hip hop music slowly fades back in to show how the bass fits. Both sounds fade out]
You mentioned that it’s local music. Can you talk about the kind of music that’s associated with this culture?
There was a major economic downturn recession in Houston in the early 1980s that resulted in a lot of people being out of work, a lot of black people being out of work, I’ll say. At the same time in the early 1980s, you saw the rise of crack cocaine and that offered a kind of an economic pathway for many of those guys in those communities. So that’s kind of the context. There’s this community of dope dealers in the south side who wanted to flaunt their wealth and wanted their names, and their presence to be as big as possible in the cars and the music, the local hip hop sound. Scared, Screwed and Chopped, kind of allowed them to do that.
[Another hip hop song plays]
Essentially, screwed means to slow a record down. Screwed records typically are between 60 and 70 beats per minute. It kind of creates a muddy, slow and somewhat psychedelic sound for hip hop. The pioneer of the sound is DJ Screw who passed away in 2000. He was from the south side of Houston, Texas, again, from these working class communities.
[A song from DJ Screw plays. It sounds like a hip hop sound that has been slowed down.]
Anybody who’s familiar with dance music or hip hop production will know that 60 to 70 beats per minute is really slow.
I think the slowness of the music is heavily influenced by the car culture, because these cars kind of originated out of the street culture in the mid 1980s. Pioneered by local drug dealers who kind of used modified cars to flaunt their wealth. They would put together these cars and they would drive them slowly, to parade them to the streets of Houston. Very slowly so people could pay attention to him and focus on him.
[Hip hop song continues]
DJ Screws first mixtapes were being purchased by these local drug dealers. They would play them in their cars as they were traversing the streets. You had this slow experience, these slow parades going on through the streets of Houston. You also have the drug culture the lean, the Serb culture, which just makes you move extra slow, and that was certainly a part of the screwed and chopped culture and certainly a part of the slap culture as well.
[Different hip hop song plays, this one with with a faster tempo]
Lean, also called syrup. There’s other names for depending on who you talk to. It’s essentially prescription strength, cough syrup, mix with some sort of sweetener. I could be soda, or people put candy in the cough syrup. When you drink it, it slows your faculties down. You move slower, you you lose your sense of balance, which is why it’s sometimes called lean because people on the drug kind of lean over so, and again, kind of like slab, it became a marker of local hip hop identity.
[Hip hop song continues]
So you have this slow, muddy kind of psychedelic sound, that’s the screwed part. Chopping is a fundamental part of the hip hop DJ aesthetic, but what DJ Screw would do was that he would take two copies of the same record, put them on two different turntables, but he would play one record a little behind the other record. When he would mix back and forth, he would repeat phrases.
[An example of DJ Screw’s mixing]
That became the chopping part of screwed and chopped. Repeating phrases and sometimes repeating percussive sounds, so that the mix between the slowness and these repeated phrases. That’s essentially screwed and chopped music.
[An example of screwed and chopped music plays]
I think if you get down into DJ Screw’s mixtapes which they were maybe 250 plus of, if you haven’t been part of the culture, it’s hard to really understand what’s going on there, what he’s doing, and how complex it is.
When you say it’s hard to know how complex what he’s doing is, is it because someone who isn’t familiar with the original songs that he’s mixing can’t tell how he’s chopping them?
Yeah, I think so. I think because he’s mixing at any given time, maybe five or six records together, and he’s manipulating them in real time and then he’s going back and slowing it all down. It’s just these record,s these songs are hard to navigate.
[Upbeat, childlike music plays]
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[Upbeat music fades out and slow hip hop music fades in]
So far, Langston has shown us how some of south side Houston’s African American residents customize cars, and customize the sound of hip hop. The slab swerved a slow path through the city streets, banging out music that paid tribute to those very same streets and neighborhoods. In the process, individuals made names for themselves as makers of money or cars or sound systems or music while at the same time, the community made a name and an image and a sound for itself. This is the everyday artistic communication folklorists look for. It’s also the way of space, a collection of buildings and streets, becomes a place that is known, respected, and loved. All of this is taking place on the consumption side of the music, but as Langston explained to me, a similar social process was taking place on the production side. When DJ Screw and screwed up click rappers like Little Kiki, Fat Pat, ESG, and Big Hawk made tapes at house parties.
[Hip hop music winds down and ends]
the screwed and chopped mixtapes. Essentially, he would invite rappers over to his house, maybe 3, 4, 5. They would have a big party, and in the midst of this party, he would begin playing music and recording a mixtape. What you’re getting on these mixtapes are a social experience.
[A mixtape is played. We hear music with rappers talking and laughing over it.]
This whole culture was rooted in the drug game, and so you had a lot of early deaths in these communities in the late 1980s early 1990s. You had a lot of memorial mixtapes, mixtapes that were created in dedication to someone who had just lost their life. You also had mixed tapes that were for someone’s graduation celebration. You had mixtapes to celebrate someone in community who had given birth. All of these tapes has some sort of social function to them.
[Mixtape continues. We hear a rapper come up with a wrap.]
So in that context then, DJ Screw is basically DJing and a party and then people are free styling.
Yeah he’s DJing a party, people are drinking, eating, having fun, talking crap to each other, and then he would hit record and he would do his mixes. If you’re a rapper in the space, you can come up and you can freestyle. Then they go back to partying for a couple hours. Then he would start recording again, and some other rappers could come up. If you talk to different members of screwed up click they’ll tell you that some of these quote unquote recording sessions will last all night. You would go over to Screw’s house around 7pm and you’d leave at maybe 9 o’clock the next day, the next morning. These are just kind of social events organically captured on tape. That’s what happening.
While it’s happening in real time, the beat is actually faster, it’s the original.
Yeah, they’re recording it regular speed.
[Mixtape continues, then fades out]
The DJ Screw would take the recordings, put them into his four track, and use the piss control knob to slow the speed down.
[An example of this slowed down track plays]
In my eyes, makes especially their rap performances much more interesting because most of those freestyles were done completely off the top of the head, and they were completely extemporaneous and performed in real time. These rappers don’t get the credit that they deserve for being incredible freestylers.
So maybe we should talk a bit about what that does to the voice.
Just a darker, almost otherworldly tone to the voice. I think again, that goes hand in hand with the drugs that were being consumed, to drug market based environment that they’re coming from, and also the slab culture. It just kind of produces an almost ghostly vocal sound.
[Mixtape continues, then fades out]
I don’t know if you’ll agree with this, but I almost feel like to me, this music sounds more like west coast hip hop from the 1990s then the sort of, at least the stereotype of Southern hip hop.
[Different hip hop track plays, this one with a slightly faster tempo]
I was wondering if there’s some kind of connection there between,, like that car culture you’re talking about? Where there’s just something about this, that it sounds like riding music to me.
I think there’s a deep connection. I think you’re correct for multiple reasons. One, DJ Screw, the pioneer of this whole culture, his favorite artists were from the west coast. We’re talking, Ice Cube and CBOE from Sacramento, California. Much of the music on those early screw tapes and even towards the end of his life were comprised, most of the music was West Coast based, hip hop, gangster rap.
Just that endless, ribbon freeway.
Right, there you go. I mean, you have to have a car to get anywhere in Houston. Our public transit system wasn’t great. You have to have a car to get around. Therefore, people spend a lot of time in their cars. The culture seems similar. It seems like you have to have some sort wheels to get around in Los Angeles. I think just the sheer geographic sizes of these two hip hop centers creates a relationship between the two. I think that manifests in the similarities between Houston and west coast based hip hop.
[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]
In the 2000s, both slabs and the chopped and screwed sound spread beyond Houston south side, and eventually beyond Houston itself.
Between 2004 and 2007, local hip hop culture for the second time, because the first time was with the ghetto boys in the early 1990s, rose to national and maybe international prominence through music that was created on the northside of Houston, through this label called Swish a House. Rappers like Paul Wall, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug.
[One of these artist’s songs plays]
It was through them that screwed and chopped music rose to the mainstream, and they did it I think, by using car culture, because the first few songs that came out in that era from local hip hop artists were songs that were dedications to car cultures. Still Tippin was about SAP culture. Come Millionaires, Riding Dirty was about local car culture and the criminalisation of it.
[Hip hop song continues, then fades out]
It’s fascinating to me, because growing up in New Orleans, Houston and New Orleans are pretty close, as close as any place in Texas can be to anywhere, because Texas so big. It’s around that same time DJ Screw was creating his innovations, in New Orleans there was just really fast hip hop that was happening. With producers like Mannie Fresh, Hot Boys, Little Wayne, juvenile in this kind of bounce music sound with the trigger man beat.
[Another hip hop song plays, very fast tempoed, then fades out]
It just seems kind of interesting that these cities are so close together and yet their music couldn’t be more opposite, at least to my ears.
It is fascinating, and I will say that bounce and all of that New Orleans music had a strong presence in Houston as well, and we did also see it end up on DJ Screw’s mixtapes and such. I think the special thing about hip hop when I was growing up, and I hate to sound like old man, at least to me was the fact that hip hop in New York didn’t sound like hip hop in Houston and hip hop in Houston didn’t sound like hip hop in New Orleans even.
[Another hip hop song plays, more moderately tempoed]
Each region has its own unique sound. I thought that was a beautiful and incredible thing. The internet kind of has broken down those regional barriers and has made different regional sounds readily accessible to everyone around the country. In some respects, that’s awesome. I’m glad that sounds have changed. I’m glad that hip hop has grown and is continually reorienting itself, but I wish there was some sense of regional or local uniqueness because I just think that’s virtually disappeared in the culture and in the industry.
It’s almost like the regions are the different regions of the internet now. Like, you have SoundCloud rap, that’s a neighborhood in internet land.
Exactly. I think connection to place is a fundamental aspect of hip hop culture. It exposes an intimate relationship between the person and their place. Place in itself is something very different now.
[Hip hop song continues, then fades out. Another hip hop song fades in]
That’s it for this episode, and this season of Phantom Power. Thank you again to Langston Collin Wilkins, and we’ll be back in the fall with season two. We hope to connect with you then. You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve heard and talked about a phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts, and we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. Tell us what you thought about the show on Facebook, give us a shout on twitter @PhantomPod. Today’s show featured music by DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Clique. Our interns are Natalie Cooper and Adam Whitmer. Phantom Power is made possible through a generous grant from the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
[Hip hop song fades out]