Friday, September 30, 2011

New Riders of The Purple Drank

"The barre baby, got the whole world sippin drank with me"

Folks in Houston say that the use of codeine cough syrup (promethazine-codeine, prescription strength) started in the late 1960's. The concoction is sometimes known as Texas Tea, Barre, Purple Drank (from the purplish hues used in manufacture) or most recently Sizzurp. Mixed with soft drinks such as Sprite or Mountain Dew and pieces of Jolly Roger candies it takes on rainbow colors and consumption is referred to as "sippin' syrup." 

Promethazine or Prometh is an antihistamine intended to deter abuse at high doses. Codeine is a narcotic that can lead to sedation, altered levels of consciousness and in high dosage can mimic opiates. High levels of Prometh, leads to heavy users experiencing extreme weakness, sleep disorders, respiratory depression and altered heart rates. The potential for danger rises with increased dosage and Prometh as a CNS depressant can be lethal when mixed with alcohol.

The barre sippers were a regional phenomena, although by the 1990's with the explosion of Houston based gangsta rap groups the drank started to spread beyond The Big Fun. Purple drank became the recreational drug of choice for the southern hip hop community. The narcotic effects of the drug affected the flow and pace of the music, resulting a heavy slowed down sound with slurred vocals.
Three 6 Mafia first brought the purple drank to national attention with their single "Sippin' on Some Syrup" released in 2000. However the shit was nothing new to H-Town,  "they were throwed in the game, draped up and drifted out"

"Ever sense '92 i've been screwed up.... syrup in my cup...and strawberry crush"

In the late 1970's, the idea of slowing music down, was catching on in Houston. DJ Darryl Scott, an early mix-tape artist credits his protegé DJ Michael Price with starting the craze. Price would use Scott's mix tapes in his act. At one particular show the batteries on Price's boombox ran down and the tape started dragging. The slowed down sound caught Price's ear. In order to replicate that sound, he inserted a screw into the spool of the tape player to make it play slower. Scott quickly picked up on the idea, and an early form of chop & screw music was born.

Robert Davis, otherwise known as DJ Screw was influenced by Scott, but he was self taught and developed his talents independent of Scott or Price. (Davis is said to have got his DJ moniker from his habit of defacing vinyl albums he didn't like with a screw.) In 1990, when DJ Screw  took some of his mix-tapes to Darryl Scott, the mix was so slow  that Scott thought there was something wrong with the tape player. Once Davis explained that it was supposed to sound that way, Scott knew DJ Screw was on to something totally different. 

"Still bangin screw. ridin candy blue... i don't gang bang so i ride red too"

Robert Davis Jr. was born in Smithfield, Tx. near Austin. The family moved to California for 2 years and upon their return settled in Houston. Davis started mixing music at the age of 12, when he discovered his mother's turntable. By holding his finger on the edge of the record, he could change speeds and pitch. It was a technique that DJ's were using all over the country. Robert Davis worked it until he had developed a style all his own. Robert became an obsessed record collector, a habit he kept up all his life. It was said that if he had $30 in his pocket, he would spend $25 on records and $5 on Church's chicken. 

His technique would come to be known as "Chopped & Screwed"  DJ Screw started by compiling mix tapes for his friends, charging an average of ten dollars per tape.. The tapes usually contained chopped & screwed versions of whatever hip-hop music was hot at the time. Word of DJ Screw and his mixtapes spread word of mouth, to get a hold of a tape was great, to have a tape made for you was even better. As the tapes circulated, DJ Screw's fame and legend started to grow, music fans starting making their way to his home, to place their request for personalized tapes. 

Those requesting tapes got to know the routine: playlists were placed in a box that DJ Screw kept, sometimes there were hundreds of  lists in the carton. As Screw worked each list into his rotation he would call that person to his house so they could rap over the music or add shout outs to the final mix.  From these humble beginnings a legend grew, demand was so high that police started to harass him about all the traffic. To solve this problem in 1996 DJ Screw opened up a record store "Screwed Up Records & Tapes" in Houston. 

"Its kinda hard to explain why i'm so off the chain"

In order to flesh out his compositions, DJ Screw started inviting local rappers to work with him on the compilations. Collectively they became known as the Screwed Up Click (Fat Pat, Big Pokey, Hawk, Keke, C-Note)  As they toured around the Gulf Coast they were amazed to discover just how popular the tapes had become. Everywhere S.U.C. went, club patrons would request tracks from the tapes. This led to incorporating music from the mix tapes into their stage act.

It wasn't long before DJ Screw was in high demand at recording sessions, rappers started including "screwed" versions on their albums.  On these re-mixed songs,  the voices were slowed downed to disembodied echoing growls, the music would swirl and double-back on itself. DJ Screw would weave layers of sound, while progressing ahead at a snail's pace. It was hypnotic, lulling the syrup cult into varying states of nodded out bliss. To DJ Screw it was "riding music" a soundtrack for cruising the urban landscape of Screwston.  

In essence "chopped & screwed" was the technique of slowing down (screwing) then repeatedly rewinding or back tracking the music (chopping) By generally changing the structure of the music, some songs would become almost unrecognizable. Smartly he would leave behind just enough traces of the original composition to remind us of the starting point. In this fashion DJ Screw gave us a peek into the mind of the sizzurp sippers. The lightshow artists of the mid-1960's, had tried to convey the LSD experience to straights in the same manner.

"Tha shit don't stop till my casket drop, i'm high till i die" 

DJ Screw recorded hundreds of mixtapes, the man had a tireless work ethic and he never stopped creating or recording. The bulk of his production was conventional hip hop with his trademark re-mixing flairs added. DJ Screw's other work was much more than that, at its nascent core it was avant garde.  His revolutionary technique was not an accidental bi-product of the creative process. It was the crowning achievement of a man who studied the possibilities of music his entire life.

DJ Screw died of a codeine- promethazine- alcohol overdose on Nov. 16th 2000. The cause of death has been disputed by those close to him. They argue that he died of a heart attack in his sleep and not from an overdose. Either way his death was the direct result of prolonged codeine-prometh use. The destructive effects of the narcotics on his body and his heavy work schedule played a part in his demise. Big Moe, a protegé of DJ Screw died of a heart attack in 2007, there's speculation that his use of codeine-prometh may have contributed to his death. Pimp C of the rap duo UGK also died in 2007 from the effects of codeine-prometh use.

The sizzurp has been in the news in recent years, most noticeably when former Oakland Raider, JaMarcus Russell (a #1 draft pick) was arrested for possession of codeine syrup without a prescription. Two other NFL players Terrence Kiel (Chargers) and Johnny Jolly (Packers) have also run afoul of the law for codeine-prometh possession. The most famous rock music death from cough syrup was music writer & critic Lester Bangs. He died on April 30th 1982 not from codeine-prometh, but from a lethal cocktail of Darvon, Valium & Nyquil.

It was music for daydreamers, and those dreams just like candles in a cobweb forest, were a fleeting trail out of the darkness.  All Robert Davis Jr. ever wanted to do was make a difference, as DJ Screw that's what he did.