Screw: The Ties of Heft and Simplicity

This is a remix of Jace Clayton’s wonderful article “Curiosity Slowdown”: using bits from his article interspersed with thoughts…

Robert Earl Davis Jr. died at 29 from an overdose of cough syrup. Poetic really, because his art can be distilled to a viscous overload. Under the name DJ Screw, Davis earned a living taking other people’s rap songs and slowing them down. Like a good mixtape DJ, he would add EQ, subtle effects and scratches to heighten the impact of each song, but what made him special was his unrelenting commitment to syrupy slowness.

Everyone who has mistakenly played a 45rpm single at 33 knows the effect, but by dedicating himself to this process Screw turned what could have ben a joke into a rap subgenre (Screw), an oft-copied process (countless Southern rap records have “chopped & screwed” versions), based on a technique so simple that it has philosophical heft.

What is this connection between simplicity and philosophical heft? Its line runs deep through the annals of antiquity and the avant-garde: Alexander the Great supposedly untied the mythical Gordian Knot by cutting through it with a sword. When asked to respond to the argument that motion did not exist, a certain Greek philosopher got up, saying nothing, and walked away. Marcel Duchamp purchased a urinal, signed it, and proceeded to upend the art world by putting it on display. John Cage wrote a piece of music that was three movements of rest.

Within small acts can be weight.

The weight of Davis’ music lies within, as Stefan Wolpe once said, an “early Dada obsession, or interest, namely, the concept of unforeseeability: that means that every moment events are so freshly invented, so newly born, that it has almost no history in the piece itself but its own actual presence.” Unforeseeability takes refuge in DJ Screw’s simplicity of means.

Slowed down, rap songs tow a line between the demonic and surreal. Once screwed, upbeat songs in a major key destabilize into eerie tonalities. Dark tunes get darker. The bass goes viscous. A screwed song urges the listener to internalize its dampened tempo, to stretch the existential qualities of the moment to match the music. Screw dislocates body from voice – baritone rappers sound demonic, turgid, other; and female singers melt into androgyny.

These results have no history in the songs themselves. Davis’ technique reveals a hidden face whose image can’t be guessed beforehand. Screwed songs carry their own presence, brought to life from such an undemanding slight of hand.

What is the connection between simplicity and philosophical heft? Is it because Davis’ act and others like it are so simple that they have the room required for profundity? Does weight demand a humble vessel? We are left with Davis’ music as an analogy to a search for a definite answer: wading slowly through a swamp.

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