Remembering the Signature Slow Motion Sound of DJ Screw

How Robert Earl Davis Jr. took an innovative, slowed-down sound from his Houston apartment to the world.

By Alain StephensNovember 16, 2015 3:11 pm

Robert Earl Davis isn’t exactly a household name. But the sound he pioneered for Houston hip-hop is now known around the world – a world that’s still coming to grips with a legacy of the artist named DJ Screw.

Fifteen years ago today, Screw passed away. Matt Sonzala, is a music promoter who worked in Houston hip-hop radio back in the 1990s when the Screw sound was just starting to reach people’s ears.

Though we don’t know how he first came up with his stage name, DJ Screw used the tool he was named after to make his records unique. “He would take a screw and screw up the records, he would literally take them and scratch them,” Sonzala says.

In some ways, the origins of his DJ name are lost in the fog of those early days in Houston hip-hop, much the same as the way he created his signature sound on the original Screw tapes.

“He could mix, he could scratch, and he came up with his own style of slowing down the records,” Sonzala says. With his own, “mysterious” process of slowing down records, Sonzala says he would mass-produce mix tapes in his own apartment.

At first, Sonzala admits he thought DJ Screw’s slowed-down mix tapes were “the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life.” But he soon came to understand how important this new sound was when it hit the streets.

“It really started to infect the streets of Houston and I started to get it, kind of,” he says. “It took a minute to understand it. Coming in as a hip-hop purist, you don’t necessarily want the DJ to slow down the music.”

Sonzala says the sound, which reminded him of when a cassette tape would get eaten in the player and slow down the track, was harsh and strange at first. “I’m like, is this tape broken? What’s going on here?… It’s like the batteries are running out.” But

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.