The act of slowing down a song seems so simple, but Houston’s DJ Screw, born Robert Davis Jr., created a revolutionary, sacred genre called “chopped and screwed.” He realized that slowing down the record significantly changed the song’s meaning, emphasizing the lyrics. This discovery birthed a successful tape business, sold right out of his car and home, netting the DJ thousands of dollars a day. His home became a revolving door of rappers looking to rhyme on his mixes, the bulk of which became known as the Screwed Up Click.
On June 27, 1996, Davis got together with Big Moe, Bird, Key-C, Yungstar, Big Pokey, Kay-Luv and Haircut Joe to celebrate fellow member DeMo’s birthday. Everyone, including the birthday boy himself, got in the booth to record a 35-minute long freestyle that became hip-hop history. The eight traded bars about riding around in cars, getting money, meeting girls. Over a slowed-down instrumental sample of Kriss Kross’ “Da Streets Ain’t Right,” that freestyle was a jovial family affair that celebrated not only the birthday of their beloved friend but also the rich hip-hop community that Screw and his peers were part of.
Davis and many of his associates in the Click, both official and unofficial, thrived in their own microcosm of hip-hop. While labels and the media focused on the bubbling tension of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry, the South took matters into their own hands. They created a self-sufficient economy within their neighborhoods and cities. No Limit Records went from a dream Master P had and turned into one of the most influential hip-hop powerhouses in history. Houston label Suave House was founded by a then-16-year-old Tony Draper, eventually signing national deals before Draper turned 30. DJ Screw created an empire with no more than a turntable and a vision, with his work finding revitalized interest in the years since his passing in 2000.
However, Davis’ legacy expands far beyond his massive tape catalog (currently sitting at over 350). As leader of the Screwed Up Click, its members released many albums of their own that have also gone down in history as being influential in shaping Southern hip-hop. The Click’s roster has been sampled and referenced by everyone from Drake to Travis Scott. They’ve collaborated with future superstars Destiny’s Child. Some of them have gone on to sell thousands of records. Others passed before they could see the Internet take hold of their music and breathe new life into what once was a best-kept secret. Davis’ legacy is still felt to this day. In the same way that he took existing records and chopped and screwed them into new creations, his work is reinterpreted for a new generation that is perpetually online and as hungry as ever for hyper-regional gems that many pioneers, Davis included, created when there weren’t algorithms or streaming numbers to worry about.
22 years on since Screw’s passing and 26 years since the legendary freestyle, Paste takes a look at 10 essential albums by some of the Screwed Up Click’s members and close associates to scratch the surface of one of the richest collective catalogs in hip-hop history.
It Is What It Is is an underrated Houston rap gem. ABN, the short-lived duo composed of powerhouse S.U.C. members Z-Ro and Trae the Truth, somehow encapsulated “unbothered” perfectly. “Rain” interpolates New Edition’s “Can You Stand The Rain” into a deceptively soulful threat of a bullet shower. Z-Ro’s earworm hooks burrow themselves deep, especially the scathing “All you hoes still get no love / All you can get is a ‘fuck you’” on “Still Gets No Love.” It’s an album of two friends trying to one-up each other, boasting about their accomplishments at every chance they get. After all, “asshole” is in their name.
All groups need to have a wildcard. For the Screwed Up Click, it was Big Moe. He’s the resident softie of S.U.C., and his croon is unmistakable. From football star to freestyler, Moe’s warm voice and laid-back raps can be found throughout Screw’s catalog, most notably when he sings the introductions to the legendary June 27 freestyle participants.
His 2000 debut City of Syrup gives a complete picture of the one-of-a-kind talent. There’s a hefty amount of features, but it makes sense given the context Moe came from. That communal warmth shines throughout the album, especially when Moe grooves on the infectious funk of “Get Back” alongside Lil O and H.A.W.K., and when he sings the simple-yet-effective “All I wanna do is bang Screw” hook on the album’s title track. When we think of rap-singing, Drake often comes to mind. Real ones know who did it first.
It’s important to remember that a lot of these albums that came out in the ‘90s were from young men, and the Botany Boyz, all in their late teens and early twenties, rapped with a lifetime’s worth of harrowing tales. Their name references a street in the Cloverland area of Houston, a neighborhood that was home to many of the scene’s legends. Thought Of Many Ways is interspersed with clever skits and sound effects, such as jail cell clinks and news reporters on-site to report on the murder of a police officer. In addition to the 10 members of the Botany Boyz, there’s also a wide cast of features to make a gangster epic, including a narrator who uplifts the Botany Boyz to fight back against corrupt police in the gun-advocating anthem “Straped-N-Texas,” and UGK’s Bun-B confronting a loudmouth on the G-funk laced “Snitches.” Thought Of Many Ways paints the picture of pure, uncompromising hustling in a golden age of hip-hop.
Houston’s own Devin the Dude is a rapper’s rapper, building up an incredible career with a handful of beloved albums that never reached above cult status. Then again, that open secrecy makes Devin such a special musician. Devin is considered an honorary member of the Click, originating as a member of the Odd Squad, whom DJ Screw helped record their demo.
Devin’s solo 1998 Rap-A-Lot debut pulls the curtain back on the rapper to reveal an earnest, chilled-and-smoked-out rapper who doesn’t feel the need for all the bells and whistles. He’s a drifter, along for life’s ride—so long as there’s some weed and sex along the way. He ascends above the minimalist percussion and deep bass grooves, unwinding into long, vivid tales of sexual adventures and the never-ending mission to make money. He even recognizes the appeal of selling out in a cutthroat industry, saying, “You don’t have a Benz, but if you get on the mic and spit it / You will have enough to get it, whatever you do, I’m with it” on “Write & Wrong.” There’s also the self-explanatory “Do What You Wanna Do,” in which a wisened Devin explains that it’s better to live in the moment than “wait until ya 80 and start sayin’ what you coulda did.” Devin never raises his voice above a conversational level on The Dude, and he pulls up a chair to invite you to listen in on his gospel of chill.
E.S.G. may not ring bells to people not already familiar with Houston’s rich hip-hop history, but many will know the gorgeous, harrowing hook he wrote for Lil Troy’s “Wanna Be A Baller.”
His 1995 sophomore album Sailin’ Da South is one of the more apparent examples of G-funk’s influences on Texas hip-hop. He effortlessly glides over the slick West Coast synths that are accented with light piano keys and jazzy bass, especially on the stunning “Swangin’ and Bangin’.” Alongside vivid descriptions of gang life, money and drugs are glimpses of grief that impacted many of these men at such young ages. Album standout “R.I.P.” reflects on the fleeting moments with E.S.G.’s fallen friends, and features a soulful vocal contribution by Montina Cooper (who eventually became a backup singer for Beyoncé). If you take away nothing else from this short description, listen to “G-Ride” and sink yourself into that soulful Flava hook.
Fat Pat’s career was short but impactful. Not only was he part of two of the region’s most legendary songs (DJ DMD’s “25 Lighters” and Lil Troy’s “Wanna Be A Baller”), but he was also part of a short-lived group with Screw, his older brother H.A.W.K. and Kay-K called the Dead End Alliance. Unfortunately, some of the brightest stars fade away too quickly and Fat Pat was murdered at the age of 27 a month before his solo debut was released.
Ghetto Dreams is a triumphant debut, and Pat’s swagger and skill shine through every bar and melody. His deep voice is polished with clarity that allows you to hear every word that he delivers with conviction. Pat was a renaissance man, armed with a silky voice, clever bars and body-moving hooks. “Tops Drop,” one of his best-known songs, is a love letter to Houston’s car culture set to J-Slash’s funky cacophony of instruments and layered harmonies. There’s also “Superstar,” a true gem in Pat’s catalog that samples Loose Ends’ 1986 R&B hit “Nights of Pleasure” and builds upon its disco groove for a new era. Fat Pat’s legacy continues to live on, and he was a rare hip-hop triple threat.
At the height of the Screwed Up Click’s productivity between 1995-1998, its members were breaking off into their own solo endeavors guided by Screw himself. Lil Keke was one of the group’s brightest stars and is one of the few members still alive to continue to carry on Screw’s legacy.
1997’s Don’t Mess Wit Texas opens with “Still Pimpin’ Pens,” which received the appropriate Screw treatment. Keke starts his verse with “I’m still draped up and dripped out, reclining to top,” referring to his iconic verse in the Screw classic “Pimp Tha Pen.” The album is one of the most focused of the collective’s output around this time and, like many others on this list, blends R&B and soul elements with Keke’s Lone Star State raps. The minimalist palette Keke draws upon is full of rumbly basslines, keys and hi-hats that marries G-funk with the eerie Southern blues. Keke’s deep, gravelly voice and Southern twang make for an unmistakable gangster country record that set the groundwork for a lot of modern hip-hop.
Lil’ Flip is one of the youngest members of the Houston scene, releasing his debut The Leprechaun when he was only 18. That caught the attention of DJ Screw, who invited him into the fold and crowned him “The Freestyle King.” 2002’s Undaground Legend is Flip’s major label debut, and the album entered the world as ringtone rap and crunk were on the rise. He trades the West Coast influences in favor of his own hometown sounds. Key crescendos give a sense of urgency, and Flip uses cartoonish sounds such as buzzy horns and organs for a fresh, youthful take on the same subject matter as his peers. Lil’ Flip paved his own path, eventually influencing and dominating a short-lived rap renaissance.
It’s 1996 and the world is embroiled in the tense rivalry between East and West Coast rappers. In hindsight, it was the perfect time for the South to release music. UGK was deep in their contract with Jive Records, known for signing everyone from Aaliyah to A Tribe Called Quest. UGK were always the underdogs, jaded by their label’s dismissive attitude toward all of their ideas. The resentment bubbled over into the recording process of their landmark album Ridin’ Dirty.
Pimp C’s aggressive, pointed Southern drawl gave every story on the album an air of truth. There’s no questioning the drug deals, sexscapades and threats when they left his mouth. Bun B’s intimidating baritone timbre lurks in the shadows, serving as Pimp C’s enforcer. As a duo, the two were unstoppable. UGK was born out of resourcefulness, and Pimp C was the duo’s main producer until he took a step back for Ridin’ Dirty, allowing Scarface producer N.O. Joe to collaborate with Pimp in a way that expanded his soul-entrenched, country-influenced production to make something even more cinematic. Ridin’ Dirty is the true essence of UGK and “country rap” as a whole. It’s gritty, uncompromising, crude, melodic, erotic and honest. As for Screw, he was one of the duo’s biggest supporters, and a photo of the three of them was included as Ridin’ Dirty’s album insert.
As per the aforementioned ABN album, Z-Ro is able to make you sing along to some of the most violent, dangerous lyrics one would ever hear. He often ventures into his gorgeous baritone, especially when he sings his own hooks. His eighth solo album The Life of Joseph W. McVey is one of the most focused projects of his prolific career, and it’s propelled by legendary producer Mike Dean. Ro’s deceptive, sensual charm is interrupted with darkly funny songs such as “I Hate U B***h” and the explosive rage of “Crooked Officer,” which features a subtle West Coast flair in its percussion and a direct homage to the Geto Boys song of the same name. The Life of Joseph W. McVey is not an easy listen, nor was it an easy story for Z-Ro to tell. He honestly captures the highs and lows of the life he leads with his expressive delivery and lyricism. Make no mistake, though. Despite his vulnerability, Z-Ro is not one to cross.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick. You can follow her on Twitter.