Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All Screwed Up: ESG's "Smoke On"

Over the past two months, I've developed an immense appreciation for the music of DJ Screw. At their best, Screw's mixes re-imagine and re-contextualize rap music, making it, in turns psychedelic and bizarre, haunting and heartbroken, and celebratory and slow motion funky. Since Screw made over three hundred tapes and often mixed based on playlist requests, the results aren't always as great as they could be. However, since only the residents of Houston during the 90s and early part of this decade know which tapes were playlist requests and which were curated by Screw, there is the exciting possibility that random dudes from the neighborhood understood Screw's aesthetic and could hear the possibilities in screwing up, say, Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight."

When you realize that, for almost ten years, people rode around Houston in their cars bumping this dark and druggy music, music that often requires incredible patience and tolerance for repetition (on Blue Ova Grey, Screw stretches out Ice Cube's "Loved Ones" for twelve minutes, with the first five minutes devoted to nothing but the song's first couple of bars and slowed-down, drunken shout-outs from the Screwed Up Click), it's hard not to be in awe of the whole phenomenon, something that shows, as Brandon from No Trivia says "just how weird regionalism can be." Listeners who probably wouldn't even consider something like drone music music had no problem hearing a Scarface punchline repeated so many times that it starts to fold back on itself and become meaningless, at least in the literal sense of communicating meaning through words. Like drone or ambient music, Screw's music slows down the listener, lowering your heart rate and making time seem slower and more meditative. While some people insist the music should only be listened to under the influence of codeine cough syrup or marijuana, I disagree. Listen to the music for long enough and it creates the conditions needed to appreciate it.

Since the All Screwed Up series is about specific songs that I feel like people need to hear to continually appreciate the brilliance of Screw, I want to start with ESG's "Smoke On." Featured on the Syrup and Soda tape, "Smoke On" is great in so many ways. It mimics the slow, laid back feeling of being high and without a care in the world, the beat's airy G-funk keyboards sounding like the afternoon light that creeps through your window as you're zoning out on your living room couch. But since the original song was never meant to sound this druggy, it also retains its aggression and anger, sounding like a bunch of dudes who, high as they may be, are ready in second to get yanked back into the reality of defending their manhood and their status in their neighborhood.

Or you could hear it in all its passivity, its swagger and boasts empty in the face of a pleasant numbness. The chorus can sound so ghostly, as if you're smoking on and on to feel less human, less connected to your body and your mind, or, instead, less connected to things specific to you and more tuned into how it feels to just be. As pretentious as this last interpretation sounds, you can't deny it's not there in the music, just like you also can't deny that, druggy or not, part of the song is still rooted in the culture of dudes driving around stoned and showing off their cars and jewelry.

This is the complexity of Screw's music, the way it opens up songs to new interpretations and new ways of hearing, instead of closing them on some "This is gangsta music--case closed" crap.
In future installments of All Screwed Up, I hope to explore this complexity and hopefully help people realize how revolutionary and powerful Screw's music was and is.