[12 October 2003]
To those who haven’t experienced one firsthand, the appeal of a screwtape is a little tough to convey. The screw remix was pioneered by Houston’s DJ Screw, and basically involves the remixer taking the original track and—wait for it—slowing it waaaaaay down. The technique was largely inspired by the effects of lean, the Houston rap scene’s signature drug, more officially known as codeine. Mixed with soda or juice, or just sipped solo, it’s both a cough suppressant and a fruity, psychedelic party accessory. It does essentially the same thing to a user’s perception as Screw did to tracks (before his lean-related death in 2000)—the world begins to move at a snail’s pace, while at the same time becoming vaguely psychedelic and even sinister. There’s a bit more to this kind of remix than just slowing things down—as the title indicates, David Banner‘s Mississippi has been both screwed and chopped by Michael Watts, one of DJ Screw’s Swisha House successors. The chopping sounds as simple as the screwing when you describe it on paper—the DJ simply uses two copies of the track’s vocal to perform some very simple cuts, most commonly doubling the first words of lines, or, alternately, looping a bar several times.
Despite the simplicity of the Screw-style remix, the outcome can be truly surprising, and occasionally powerful. The Texas rap that has been the most frequent recipient of the treatment can generally be described as being persistent and intense rather than funky, itself seemingly the product of a few too many tweaked-out studio sessions. But with the Screw laid on, the rhythms take on a nearly Zen quality in their unvarying repetition, not entirely dissimilar to the time loss offered by electronic trance music. The spare melodies are often dropped into minor keys, if they didn’t start out there, and what was once aggressive and braggadocious becomes melancholy. The best example of this on Mississippi is “Choose Me”, which echoes Screw’s classic “Better Way” with its firmly gospel-rooted lament. Screwing can also take things in a decidedly different direction, transforming high-octane party tracks into menacing, nightmarish horror shows of surreally deep vocals, lurching vinyl drags, and beats slower than the other shoe dropping. “Might Getcha”, featuring Lil’ Jon, takes this route, and it’s easily the best track on the album. Even at full speed, Lil’ Jon’s demonic roar encompasses most of the sub-bass frequency, but the Screw treatment makes him sound like Damian with a two-pack-a-day habit. Watts goes this one better by setting his phasers on “psycho”, drenching the chorus in wavy, stereo-spanning dust.
“Might Getcha” also benefits from two or three of the only halfway-decent lines Banner delivers for the entire album. His limitations as a lyricist are put on (unintentionally?) hilarious display in a couple of soliloquies and intros. On “Whoremonger”, he bids for respect from those who would put him on for less than eighty g’s: “Fuck you and yo’ money, you ol’ ho-ass, fuck-ass, dick-suckin’ ass, hide behind your gold and platinum ass, muthafuckin’ . . . weak . . . ooh, you son of a bitch! Aargh!” He may take his name from the Absorbing Man, but Banner expresses himself with about as much sophistication as that much bigger, greener member of the Banner clan. Still, lyrics aren’t really the point of any screwed album—it’s all about the voice, and Banner comes with the requisite brutal force. To paraphrase one of Screw’s best tracks, this shit is made to knock pictures off the wall.
Another nice track is “Fuck ‘Em”, featuring Pastor Troy. Bold, broad horns mimic a Grambling field routine, the chops are high-octane, and Watts interpolates the creepy woodblock line from Banner’s hit, “Like a Pimp”. “Pimp” itself doesn’t gain much from the screw—in fact it’s already screwed in its most widely-heard single form, and its inclusion here, just a little bit slower, is totally superfluous. The balance of the album is solid and impressively diverse in tone, from the contemplative and delicate “My Shawty”, to the doom-metal blowback of “Really Don’t Wanna Go”, to the Simon and Garfunkel folkiness of “Cadillac On 22s”. Yet, there are way too many interjections from both Banner himself and Watts, who pops up in annoying mixtape fashion to remind us that it’s a “Swisha House remix, bitch!” Despite this, it’s an interlude that’s easily the most bracing moment on the album. In the foreground of “Phone Tap” is that terrible cliché, the answering machine message—in this case a series of them, all well-wishers congratulating Banner on his success. But there are strange sounds in the background, and it takes a few moments to realize that Banner, while listening to this roll-call of love, is miserably sobbing, dry-heaving, and, in a gesture as grim as anything the Geto Boys ever did, playing one-man Russian Roulette.
“Phone Tap” is representative of the mix of aggression and melancholy that suffuses Mississippi, a tone that rises out of Banner’s sense of having been doubly cheated, both as a black man in a racist society, and as a rapper from a marginal state in an industry that leans on geography as a branding tool. Banner’s main goal, exemplified in the injustice-chronicling, six-minute title track, is to make a case for the musical relevance of states like Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, which get less recognition these days than hip-hop hotbeds like NYC, Cali, Georgia, and, um, Missouri. Though he hasn’t got the lyrical chops to express this with any significant degree of subtlety, the music on Mississipi makes the case elegantly by being entertaining, creative, and truly different from anything else on rap radio.