By all indications, tonight will be a good one for Trey Barclay. Not only did he “rape” his organic chemistry exam, but he finally secured the phone number of his classmate, who, according to Trey, is one “bad bitch.” Thankfully, Trey isn’t plotting the same sort of strategy he used with his exam, but rather a casual outing for drinks at Buffalo Wild Wings during the midweek. Plus, it’s hump-day, which of course is the precursor to Thursday, or what some folks refer to fondly as direct deposit eve. Trey’s dose of good fortune is a refreshing reminder that sometimes the various trials of young adulthood are powerless in halting good times. Currently, Trey’s entire posture resembles that of a man at ease, completely satisfied with life. Even as Trey sits on his plush couch with legs propped on his coffee table, watching Iron Man 2, his eyes twinkle with self-identification. Trey sees himself as the red and gold super-hero protagonist, beating the shit out of his enemies while mingling with beautiful women in the process, sitting on giant donuts while conversing with Samuel Jackson. It be like that sometimes, as the saying goes. Seducing the ever-fleeting goddess of good fortune is no easy feat, and when victorious, one wants to prolong such ecstasies.
Because Iron Man 2 is showing on FX, there are more than plenty commercial breaks. During one such break, Trey saunters over to his fridge and takes out bottle filled to the brim with an airy pink liquid. He takes a sip, smiles, and walks back to his couch. By the look in his eyes, it seems that he has somehow defied all logic, and elongated not only his delight, but his day as well.
30 years ago, Robert Earl Davis Jr. had similar intentions of time manipulation. The son of a long haul- truck driver, Robert dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps as a young boy. The allure of the pristine Texas landscape floating in the rear-view during lengthy trips produced idyllic images in his youthful mental database, and the sense of leisure produced from winding through I-10 and I-45 while sitting passenger-side seemed to have no rival in the world. Of course, the foundations of youth are whimsical at best, and passions are subject to dissolve, especially via impressionistic mediums, like film. In 1984, a film entitled Breakin about the rise of the underground djing and breakdancing movement occurring in Southern California was released. Upon viewing the film, Robert’s grand truck dreams vanished in the light of musical pipe dreams. He realized that the turntable had a celestial aura about it, allowing a DJ (Disc Jockey) the ability to manipulate the sound of recordings based off the strategic placement of his or her fingers, a process known as “scratching”. With scratching, gifted DJs were able to dramatically alter the genetic makeup of a track, improving upon it by honing in on special moments and highlighting them through looped repetitions As Robert grew, so did his appreciation of the DJ, which in his teens could easily classify as mythological. Breaking and entering into house-parties and clubs widened his scope of the divine powers of the DJ. Robert quickly learned that with meticulous timing, ambidextrous hands, and an ear to the pulse of the crowd, a DJ controlled the vitals of every person in the room. He was a god.
But Robert’s musical tastes extended far beyond just scratching. Both music adorers themselves, his parents provided him with a plenitude of vinyl treasures around the household. Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke. The Isley Brothers. An avid of fan classical music, Robert studied the piano for seven long teenage years, eventually achieving teenage prodigy status. However, the call of the scratch eventually drowned out the sonatas of Chopin, and he took up the art of DJing seriously in the late 80’s. At first, Robert mixed whatever records were at his disposal, such as the Johnny Taylor and B.B. King pieces of his mother’s collection. But when the thrill was gone from those experiments, Robert began experimenting with his own unique brand of mixing in 1990. As Michael Jordan was forever changing the face of basketball, Robert was changing the face of music by slowing down tracks, bridging out the scales, and chopping them. Initially, his off-brand of stylizing only lent itself to requests from friends, but as word spread, Robert soon had customers from all across Texas eager to purchase his slowed-down mixes of their favorite songs. The style of mix quickly became known in the South as “Chopped and Screwed,” and from then on Robert Earl Davis Jr. was forever transformed into DJ Screw.
As anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the American South knows, the territory is chock-full of stubborn do-it-yourselfers. No problem or dilemma is too intimidating for the average Southerner, as most classify as unofficial Macgyvers, willing and able to disentangle problems with whatever means are at their disposal. These means are often scarce, as, historically, many of the region’s residents come from poor upbringings. This same sort of predilection also lends itself to less noble endeavors, such as when poor Blacks in the early 70’s discovered that when mixed with promethazine, codeine-laced cough syrup produced a substantial, inexpensive high that seemed to slow down one’s perception of time. For the next two decades, the then nameless concoction was the best-kept secret in the South, with people mostly mixing it in with “light” carbonated drinks, like ginger ale or Sprite. It would soon be known to the world by a multitude of names, but most commonly referred to as “lean”, “sizzurp”, or “purple drank.”
In the early 90’s, when hip-hop was making a commercial name for itself on the two coasts, Southern residents longed to carve out and define their own sense of identity and culture as it pertained to hip-hop. The g-funk rhythms of the West wouldn’t quite do, neither would the street peddler raps of the East. Like an unofficial call to arms, Southern rap artists started making waves in the underground terminals of popular Southern metropolitan areas and cities like Memphis, Atlanta, and of course, Houston. While early pioneers of Southern hip-hop varied heavily in their approach to the task of nationwide recognition, they all brought tangible qualities to the table that were impossible to deny. Groups like The Geto Boys, Three 6 Mafia, UGK, Outkast, and Eightball & MJG together molded a sub genre that emphasized beats over lyrics. The “su casa, mi casa” mentality of the South, which abounded in family fish-fries, barbecues, and impromptu house parties warranted no other possibilities than a sound in which everyone could get down to.
This beat-over-matter philosophy was probably most evident in the tastes of Houstonites, a fact DJ Screw understood well when his deeply-rooted entrepreneurial spirit put him back on the interstates of Texas, selling mixtapes out of the trunk of his car. This sales approach exponentially increased his name with every sold disc, and in later years, Southern artists like T.I. would follow the same blueprint for success. Eventually, DJ Screw had the finances to establish his own shop in Houston, Screwed-Up Records and Tapes, and soon fans traveled from all over Texas to Cullen Boulevard to purchase his product. However, not all those products were tapes.
“Sizzurp” exploded onto the Houston hip hop scene in the early 90’s after DJ Screw discovered that the slowed sense of perception produced from sipping the drink was a perfect compliment to the slowed-down music he was creating. The drink, or “drank”, exploded in popularity with known unknowns like UGK, Big Moe, Lil Keke, and Fat Pat littering their raps with purple-infused references. Much to the dismay of hip-hop purists, the South was slowly but surely making a name for itself in the hip-hop arena. When Outkast won the award for “Best New Artist” at the Source Awards, they were booed by many in the audience. Still, with each passing year, the collective region rose to the ranks of notoriety, in no small part thanks to Texas. A fan of the screwed and chopped style, 2pac incorporated the method frequently in his songs, such as “Straight Ballin” from his 1994 album, Thug Life Vol. 1. UGK, just as important to Texas hip-hop history as DJ Screw, were introduced to the regions outside the South when Jay-Z enlisted their help on his smash single, “Big Pimpin” in 1999.
In 2000, Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia and UGK forever introduced the world to the ways of purple when they released an entire ode to the drink, entitled “Sippin On Some Syrup,” on their appropriately titled album When The Smoke Clears. Other songs singing the praises of “lean” proceeded Three 6 Mafia’s billboard hit, such as Big Moe’s “Purple Stuff.” By 2000, Southern hip hop was firmly implanted in the mainstream conscious, with Southern-based record labels like No Limit and Cash Money dominating the charts. Sadly, The Originator would not be around to partake in the festivities. The same drink he brought to the mainstream also spelled his demise, and on November 16th, 2000, DJ Screw died, with over 200 mixtapes to his credit. Like most man-made pleasures, long-term use of purple drank is highly damaging to the body, and it unfortunately claimed the lives of its biggest advocates. Seven years after the drink brought about the downfall of their friend, Big Moe and UGK’s Pimp C both succumbed to the side effects.
DJ Screw’s legacy is deeply felt in the current landscape of hip-hop culture, for good and for bad. His chopped and screwed style is a staple in rap music, with artists from all over the world frequently visiting the technique. Even Houston enjoyed a brief period of rap dominance, when Michael Watts, CEO of SwishaHouse Records and descendant of DJ Screw, brought his label prodigies (Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire) to the public eye. But like Screw’s musical influence continues to rise, so does the popularity of purple drank. As a result, deaths stemming from overdosing on the drink continues to spike. Recently, even professional athletes have been charged and subsequently punished for their dabbling in purple waters. Most famous among these unfortunates was Jamarcus Russell, the simultaneously former combine superstar and first-round NFL bust, who was arrested in 2010 at his home in Alabama during an undercover narcotics investigation. Terrence Kiel of the San Diego Chargers and John Jolly of the Green Bay Packers were also involved in lengthy criminal proceedings stemming from charges related to the distribution and possession of purple drank, respectively.
There is no doubt that purple drank is a tempting force to reckon with. This much is clear, as my journalistic impulse to get as close to the source as possible propels me to sample a cup of the purple liquid in Trey Barclay’s fridge. The effect is almost immediate, and one can feel the pressures of the day alleviating by the second, while a second transforms into a minute. While the last moments of Iron Man 2 play out, I finish the cup, and am awakened by my Scarlett Johansson reverie to the sound of logical thinking, or rather, the brilliant second track off of UGK’s most celebrated album, Ridin’ Dirty
One day you’re here, baby, and then you’re gone…
I put the drank down, both saddened and relieved by my recent wave of rational thinking . Sometimes God speaks to you in mysterious ways, and when this happens, it’s always best to listen.
Rest in peace Big Moe. Rest in peace Pimp C. Rest in peace DJ Screw.