Forgive me if everything I’m about to write is redundant to you: if you follow pop news, you probably know all of this already. Yet the overlap between the music press and mainstream media is not as great as those of us who spend our mornings reading Okayplayer and The FADER often imagine it is, so it’s possible that your account of the life of George Floyd isn’t as complete as it could be. In case this is new to any of the people who occasionally read this page, I’d like to explain.
George Floyd was a genuine affiliate of the Screwed Up Click. He was a high school athlete in Houston, but he was a rhymer, too, a participant in the creation of the Screw Tapes that rechanneled the flow of hip-hop. For those who aren’t aware, the late Robert Earl Davis, better known as DJ Screw, was the facilitator of an expressive movement that gave a voice to places that most of the rest of the country, and even the rest of the city, hadn’t heard. George Floyd, or Big Floyd, was from one of those places: Third Ward, the Cuney Homes. He had a tale to tell. DJ Screw provided a platform, and a matching, marvelously illustrative sound.
That’s what Screw did for many, many rappers, some of whom, like Lil Keke, Z-Ro, and Lil Flip, would go on to achieve some measure of national recognition. But none of the members of the Screwed Up Click, including Screw himself, achieved a fraction of the fame that Screw’s method did. DJ Screw slowed down his beats quite radically, sometimes to a poured-molasses crawl, and he favored rappers whose rhyme styles suited the pace he favored. That meant thick-voiced rappers, wary rappers, low, rumbling, cautious baritones, ones with the heaviness of hot and humid summer nights in their voices. Big Floyd had a voice like that: his was perfectly suited for the chopped and screwed treatment. While Screw was the visionary, it’s fair to say that he achieved the sound he was going for – one he developed over the course of making hundreds of tapes – in collaboration with the vocalists he recorded. Tape distortions and synth-signals pulled like taffy, or dripping on the tarmac like melted ice cream, and plaintive, soulful, aggrieved Texas vowels: from those building blocks, Screw built an aesthetic that is now embedded in the hip-hop vernacular. You can hear the echoes in Drake’s artfully-muffled production, or see reflections in Kanye’s candy-coated paranoia, or Future’s digital masks, or fellow Houstonian Travis Scott’s own fantasies at the meeting point between the steaming street and the oil-black Gulf Coast sky. It’s a provocative sound, a beautiful/disgusting sound, a disorienting and pained sound, full of suffering and longing, and unfulfilled promise, and fear, and everything else that makes hip-hop the great American art form it is. George Floyd was part of that.
Even at the time, the chopped and screwed style was associated with a specific drug: lean, that purple drank, promethazine with codeine, mixed in a Styrofoam cup with plenty of crushed ice and a jolly rancher for flavor. Some Southern rappers called it barre, or syrup, or sizzurp, and those who partook would get “throwed”; everything pleasantly, or maybe not-so-pleasantly, slowed to a near-halt and rendered irreal. The psychedelic applications of Screwed Up music is immediately apparent – it’s an altered state in progress, the mind playing tricks on you, and word was always that Screw’s music never sounded more appropriate than it did to those under the influence. In 2000, Screw overdosed on sizzurp, forever cementing the association between slowed-down Houstonian underground hip-hop and drug addiction. But if getting throwed was all there was to the Screw Tapes (there are 350 of them!), their significance to hip-hop history would not have been nearly as great as it is. Like all great drug music, from Pink Floyd to P-Funk to Lana Del Rey, the Screwed Up sound is less a celebration of hedonism than it is an exploration of a particular state of consciousness. What does it feel like to be alone and hunted, in the small hours, on a hot street in the summertime, when all you can feel is the beat of your heart and your fear that you’re in somebody’s crosshairs? What does it feel like to be observed, even as you can’t see who is looking at you? How long do the moments stretch when you’re afraid? How hard do you tug on the second hand in an attempt to stop time when you feel like you’re slipping, inexorably, toward the edge?
These were the beats that Big Floyd – George Floyd – rhymed over. In strict adherence with H-Town tradition, he rapped about his aspirations, his skills, the pride he took in his block, and his faith that he’d have a future worth inhabiting. There’s always something liturgical about the rapping on Screw Tapes, as the rappers bring out H-Town signifier after signifier, the draped up and dripped out paint, the barre, the gold grills, the smooth conflation between the ornamental car and the decked-out human behind the steering wheel. In verse, Big Floyd knelt at every station with the peculiar combination of awe and confidence common to true believers everywhere. As he did, Screw swung around the hammer: the big, slowed-down beats that stood in for those crushing, pile-driving pressures that dented the lives of the artists he worked with. We all find the churches that suit us, and Screw’s was a wide one, a beautiful one, a brave one, and ultimately, a realistic one. George Floyd was not an atypical parishioner, and eventually the prophecy inherent in the music came true for him, just as it came for Screw himself.
I was just a kid from urban New Jersey when I first heard Screwed Up music. Three decades later, I am no kid anymore, and I’m no less pale-faced. I don’t get throwed; I don’t even take aspirin. But I hope that true Houstonians will forgive me for saying that I felt this music from the moment I heard it, and I further feel that my understanding and respect deepens with each trial I face. I felt I knew exactly why Screw slowed the beats down, and why the emcees sounded so burdened, even as they rhymed about liberation through drugs, through fast cars, through their own outsized talents. Superficially, my life experience might not share much with that of George Floyd, but I know what it is to have a story to tell, and to search for a sound that matches my own sense of destabilization, and alienation, and my worries about my place in a society that never seemed to have any use for me. I know what it’s like to be told to shut up and go away, and to go right on talking nevertheless. And I know that’s precisely where fascism starts: first, the speaker is discouraged from telling his story because of who he is, or how he speaks, or his association with an unfavored class or group. You’re told that your voice is illegitimate, that you’re unworthy, or you’re too stoned, or you’re not man enough, or you aren’t using the right kind of language. For most, that discouragement suffices. Others continue speaking, right up until the day they feel the knee on their neck. You may feel it too, right now. You might be pushing through that same shortness of breath. You march for George Floyd, you march for Third Ward, you march for DJ Screw, you march for hip-hop, you march for me. I thank you. God bless you.