I had heard some screw before, but I don't think I was really prepared for the overwhelming, unbelievable coolness contained on this one slim disc of plastic. I have no idea what the original, unscrewed-and-unchopped version of Living Legends sounds like, and honestly I'm not too anxious to found out. I don't see how it can possibly be anywhere near as good as this.
First, a little bit of recap for those who came in late: Screw is the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of new hybrid hip-hop genres, and you can be excused for not knowing that if you're Caucasian. Screw was actually a regional style that originated in "Screwston" Texas, the brainchild of the eponymous DJ Screw. For whatever reason, Screw had the idea to slow down the records he was playing on his turntable platter, turning normal mid-and-high tempo hip-hop joints into slow and syrupy tracks that were almost the living definition of sick.
A large part of the inspiration for the genre came from Screw's drug of choice: codeine cough syrup. Unfortunately, Screw died in 2001 as a result of overdosing on a mixture of said codeine and the additional stimulus of cocaine. During his life, Screw repeatedly turned down advances from major labels who wanted to make "screw" the new "bounce" -- he didn't want to trade in his street cred for a label deal. Regardless of this, I can't help but think that wherever he is now it must be gratifying to see the style that he created and launched rising to a degree of surprising mainstream popularity.
I say "surprising" not because there's anything particularly wrong with screw, but because it's just downright freaky. They don't just slow down the beats when they "screw" up a track, they grab the whole record and slow it from 45 RPM to 33 1/3 RPM (and maybe they even pitch it down further from there). That means that everything -- from the beat to the bassline to the vocals -- sounds like a tape playing on your old Walkman when the batteries were running low. It sounds freaky. It sounds sinister. It sounds like something you'd only want to party to if you were seriously fucked up on something nasty.
As a result, I just can't get enough of it. In terms of formalistic experimentation, black urban music took a back seat in the 1990s to electronic music of a primarily European pedigree. It took a while for the hip-hop DJs and producers to catch up, but when folks like Timbaland, Swizz Beats, and the Neptunes finally did, they made the European avant-garde look positively tame in comparison. Now, with screw, the black American streets have surpassed all those pale British IDM guys clogging up the pages of The Wire. DJ Screw has created something simultaneously ambitious and disturbing, something that honestly makes you feel a little bit fucked in the head whenever you listen to it. Take that, Richard D. James.
The nature of screw means that the individual tracks are somewhat moot. Michael "5000" Watts has remixed and blended the entirety of 8 Ball & MJG's recent Living Legends album. The slow, loping nature of the beats makes everything blend together a little bit. It all sounds imposing and ominous. Sometimes the beats get so slow that they almost reach the subatomic level of abstract noise, random bangs floating in the misty fog of a sweaty subterranean club.
There are a few standouts, however. "You Don't Want Drama" kicks the album off with a strident, apocalyptically angry exhortation against all the "bitch niggas" out there. "Shot Off" features Ludacris on a guest rap, which is quite amusing: Ludacris is probably the most maniacally animated rapper on the streets today, and even when Watts is dragging his finger on the record he still sounds faster than anything this side of the Speedknot clique. Producer P. Diddy resurrected the hoary Mad Rapper for a skit on the album, but I didn't even notice until I read the liner notes because, with his voice sped down, he sounded normal.
"Gangsta" sounds like something the RZA would have popped out back in '93, with sinister Asian strings and stuttering handclaps dragging over the minimal beat. Ironically, Twista makes an appearance on "Look at the Grillz", and it's quite a bizarre cameo because he's so fast he sounds like he's speaking at regular speed. "Don't Make" revises the dangerous, almost palpably deadly menace of "You Don't Want Drama". The milieu of gangsta posing has been slightly parodic for a while now, but the fact that everyone sounds like Satan on a screwed mix makes the death and kidnapping threats slightly more vivid.
This is a hypnotically powerful album. Maybe it's just a drugged-out gimmick, but it works. I'm glad screw made it out of the Texas ghetto, but quite honestly I'm a little but scared too. Anything that can make rapping about rainbows (as they do on "Confessions") sound positively evil is just too cool for words.