It’s the summer of 2006 and Houston hip hop is at its commercial peak. The previous year saw the release of Paul Wall’s timeless classic “Sittin Sidewayz,” Mike Jones’ indelible “Back Then,” and Bun B’s first solo album, Trill. 2006 will welcome Lil Keke’s star-studded Houston anthem “Chunk Up the Deuce” and Pimp C’s final cultural power statement “Knockin Doors Down.” These are the glory days of Houston hip hop, some five or six years after the death of DJ Screw. While Screw’s legacy is at its cultural peak, the next decade will see that legacy fade along with the relevance of his signature sound.
In 2005 DJ Screw’s legacy was as alive as ever, empowering Houston’s takeover of the national hip hop consciousness for those glorious few years in the mid 2000s. Thirteen years later, Houston struggles to insert itself into mainstream hip hop. As the industry evolves, the city often feels like it’s holding onto a moment in time that fades deeper into nostalgia with each passing year.
If the mid 2000s were the peak of Houston’s hip hop relevancy, the 90’s were the genesis years. It was during the early years of that decade that Robert Davis Jr. (Screw) invented the style of rap now known around the world as chopped and screwed. It would take the rest of the decade for his self-named style to become the ubiquitous sound of Houston. In fact, UGK’s 1992 debut album, Too Hard to Swallow — no doubt a pioneering work of southern hip hop — lacks a certain “screwed up” quality that would later become essential to the group’s music.
By the time of Screw’s death in 2000, Houston had adopted his screwed up beats and hooks as the regional template for rap production, though it would take another half decade for that sound to reach a national audience. When it did, the response was overwhelming. No local artist seized on the opportunity to export Houston hip hop better than Paul Wall. In 2005, he not only released The Peoples Champ, but also featured on Nelly’s “Grillz” and Kanye West’s College Dropout on the track “Drive Slow.” Paul, along with Mike Jones, Bun, Pimp, Slim and a score of Houston rappers, were no longer hip hop’s side acts — they were the main attraction.
While that 2004 to 2006 tidal wave managed to carry the city for the rest of the decade, by the early 2010s the wave had officially crashed. By then, new acts like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Tyler the Creator, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa had entered the hip hop zeitgeist, effectively ending an era of southern rap dominance that saw Houston briefly atop the industry. In the years that followed, mainstream hip hop grew stylistically more diverse. Today’s hip hop charts are dominated by a wide range of sub-genres as different from one another as Screw was from Nirvana.
During hip hop’s cultural expansion in the 2010s, Houston lost most of the industry relevance gained in the decade before. Sure, there were a few flashes in the pan; Kirko Bangz’ “Drank in My Cup” and Propain’s “2 Rounds” come to mind. Yet, in the decade that followed Paul Wall’s ascension into the hip hop spotlight, no Houston artist has managed to revive the world’s interest in the city’s signature sound. That is not to say Houston didn’t produced a mainstream artist in that time. Travis Scott seems to have taken over both hip hop and pop culture since 2013. Yet, Scott’s very success serves to further alienate the industry from Houston’s screwed up roots.
While the Mo City rapper pays regular homage to his hometown, it was both his physical and musical separation from Houston that enabled his rise to fame. His debut album Rodeo includes a slew of A-list features, none of which are from Houston. And while the album features one notable Pimp C sample, the whole project is, conceptually, light years removed from anything resembling a Screw Tape.
Like the industry as a whole, today’s Houston rap scene is splintered. An overarching Screw influence still exists, particularly among the old guard and one or two nationally recognized acts (Maxo Kream comes to mind). But in general, the city’s urban music community is more niche driven than ever. Artists like Fat Tony, Tobe Nwigwe and Travis Scott, each as different from one another as they are from the S.U.C. and Swisha House, are the new faces of Houston rap. As the industry moves further away from a time when Kanye West would reach out to Paul Wall for a feature, so too does Houston’s hip hop identity move further away from DJ Screw.
Today, Screw’s legacy feels more nostalgic than ever. It’s no longer a vivid representation of the city’s music, but an origin story of where it comes from. Like Detroit’s Motown roots, chopped and screwed hip hop is well past its cultural heyday — a fact those of us who grew up with it sometimes find hard to swallow. Yet, that homogenized era has been replaced by a more creatively diverse generation. Houston no longer has one definitive identity within hip hop. This is a reality that should excite those of us who live and breath the genre.