HoustonPBS UH Moment: The ‘Chopped and Screwed’ History of Houston Hip-Hop

Houston has a unique spot in the history of hip-hop. The distinctive “chopped and screwed” sound originated by the late Houston mix-tape artist Robert Davis Jr., or “DJ Screw,” in the 1980s and ‘90s is still an influence on musicians of all genres today. ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons told Texas Monthly in its August 2012 issue that the band has always been inspired by the style of Houston hip-hop, and it’s the basis of ZZ Top’s latest single “I Gotsta Get Paid.”

“I became fixated with this ‘hypnotic chronicle of the toil of a ghetto hustler’,” Gibbons told Texas Monthly, “and I was deteDJ Screw Collectionrmined to use it as the basis for something ZZ Top could record.”

Julie Grob, coordinator for digital projects and instruction, Special Collections for the University of Houston Libraries, says ‘chopped and screwed’ is the sound most closely associated with Houston hip-hop and recognized the importance of archiving this piece of Houston culture.

“DJ Screw would slow down all of the music and he would repeat certain beats and words and phrases,” says Grob. “The style became known as ‘chopped and screwed.’ Other Houston artists began using that style. People started releasing one album that was regular, and one that was a ‘chopped and screwed’ production.”

Grob has been instrumental in documenting the history of Houston hip-hop and collecting the archival pieces that are now part of the Houston Hip-Hop Collection at the University of Houston Special Collections library. The collection includes items from DJ Screw and many other artists such as The Geto Boys, Screwed Up Click, Fat Pat and HAWK.

“We collect a lot of Houston history, Houston arts and culture, and I felt if we are collecting Houston— to truly represent it— we should also be collecting Houston hip-hop,” says Grob. “It’s just so associated with Houston.”

DJ Screw’s father, Robert Davis Sr., donated the vinyl collection his son used to produce his famous mix tapes. Other artists, fans and families also donated materials. The collection includes photos, posters and personal items such as a notebook from rapper HAWK that includes lyrics, rhyme schemes, personal notes and phone numbers.

“I think this collection is something people can come to for research in different areas—people trying to learn about DJ Screw, people trying to learn about the genre of chopped and screwed music and Houston hip-hop in general,” says Grob.

It will take the library at least another year to catalog all of the items, but many of the highlights are on display through Sept. 21 in the "DJ Screw and the Rise of Houston Hip-Hop" exhibit at the University of Houston M.D. Anderson Library. The exhibit is free and open to the public. 

“I think rappers are really happy to see their work preserved, and fans are really happy to see their culture represented in the library. It really is a way to connect the university to the students and community around us,” says Grob.