Lance Scott Walker begins DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution by declaring that “[t]his is folklore. DJ Screw is a Texas legend” (9). Since his death in 2000, much of what we know about DJ Screw is rooted in either his music or scattered personal stories from people who knew him. There are very few published interviews and in-depth articles about the artist. As such, DJ Screw is a legend both in regard to his impact on hip hop culture and also because the cloudy details of his life have elevated him to mythic status within his hometown of Houston. In this thoroughly researched and deeply moving work, Walker’s ambitious and innovative biography offers a detailed exploration of the Houston-based DJ’s life and the dynamic Houston-hip hop culture that he helped establish and transform into a hub for Southern rap.

As a journalist and musician who hails from Galveston, TX, Walker has been interrogating Houston’s hip hop culture for several years. His work has been published in The Houston Chronicle, Redbull Music Academy, and Vice, among other publications. In 2018, he published Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip Hop, a collection of oral histories from Houston hip hop practitioners that paints a portrait of the local hip hop scene and captures the nuances of Houston’s Black working-class community. With DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, Walker builds off his prior work by narrowing the focus to DJ Screw, the central figure who gave Houston hip hop its unique identity.

Born Robert L. Davis Jr. in 1971, DJ Screw pioneered the chopped and screwed sound, the slow and atmospheric music that took over Houston in the late 1990s and eventually went on to influence the national hip hop landscape through artists such as Lil Wayne, Three 6 Mafia, and ASAP Rocky. DJ Screw developed the screw sound over the course of 200 mixtapes and albums that he produced in his lifetime, most of which were created in his various home studios in the heart of working-class Black Houston. These mixtapes also featured freestyle performances from local MCs who would eventually become known as the Screwed Up Click. Together, DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click’s slowed-down music gave Houston a deeply local hip hop heritage.

Walker employs a unique approach to storytelling for this book. Although Walker is credited as the sole author, this is essentially a co-authored text. Walker notes that he is an “outsider to DJ Screw’s life” and centers the voices of the people who knew him personally in order “to open the aperture past my own eyes, ears, and experience, centering on the recollections of those who knew him, loved him and drew inspirations from his work” (10). In each of the book’s sections, Walker sets the stage through carefully crafted paragraphs that provide details about notable places, events, and recordings in Screw’s life. Then, readers are given personal recollections and perspectives from Screw’s family, friends, and collaborators about these same episodes. This is a truly powerful way of presenting the life of a figure who meant so much to his community. It respects both Screw’s artistic purpose and gives readers more direct insight into his social world.

Walker’s curated oral histories and analysis ground DJ Screw’s stories into an intelligible narrative that offers insight into how the artists moved through space and time. Walker and his collaborators take you from Screw’s beginnings as an impoverished Black youth from Smithville, Texas, who quickly became captivated by the burgeoning hip hop sounds that he heard on the radio and through local DJs. Walker then spends a significant amount of time detailing DJ Screw’s development of the chopped-and-screwed movement, which he sets against the backdrop of Houston street culture. The last few chapters focus on the impact of DJ Screw’s work, his peers’ life and work, and various Houston-based efforts to preserve his legacy. Along the way, readers get to witness the emergence of Houston’s dynamic hip hop culture, one rooted in a unique car tradition called “slab” and a drug practice called “lean” that contextualizes and enhances DJ Screw’s music.

Beyond aesthetics, the power of DJ Screw’s music was in how it captured slices of hyperlocal Black life. From the choice of sounds, lyrics, non-musical chatter, and tape names, each of DJ Screw’s recordings emerged out of some interpersonal moment while reflecting larger cultural events within the city of Houston. Given this, Walker spends much time investigating DJ Screw’s music, focusing on their social contexts and creative development. The book’s section on June 27th, possibly his most iconic recording, is noteworthy. The mixtape boasts a nearly forty-minute freestyle by several members of the Screwed Up Click that has been extensively sampled and inspired several remakes. It is also celebrated in Houston on June 27th Day. Most Screw fans know that the mixtape was recorded to celebrate S.U.C. member Big Demo’s birthday. But Walker’s precise storytelling of the tape’s creation, enhanced by commentary from collaborators such as Yungstar, Demo, and Key-C, allows readers to understand the creative process and impact even if they have not heard the music. Walker’s illumination of the stories behind these tapes is richly told and will be relevant for both Screw fans and scholars. They are incredible examples of how Black music emerges out of social life and reflects DJ Screw’s power as a galvanizing figure in Houston’s rap scene.

This book was written for those who either knew Screw, worked with him, or are fans of his music. That is not to say that those unfamiliar with Screw will have trouble deriving meaning from Walker’s narrative. The book is written in a very accessible way. Walker’s curation of Screw’s life, however, reflects the author’s deep knowledge of Houston hip hop culture and DJ’s Screw’s place in the tradition. While DJ Screw’s goal was to “Screw the World,” his music was deeply local and reflected the attitudes, practices, and aspirations of Houston’s Black community. Walker’s text upholds Screw’s creative philosophy, which centered intra-cultural desires while offering outsiders a way into this scene. With DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, Walker and his collaborators have created the definitive biography of the transformative DJ while also innovating approaches to writing the musical biography in ways that are more equitable and fruitful.

Langston Collin Wilkins
University of Wisconsin-Madison