Art without Humans

Those DJs lost. Serato is everywhere, and it happened with less resistance than one might have expected. Maybe it’s because many DJs are interested in exploring new technology; maybe it’s because they aren’t organized as a labor force.

DJ Screw has been dead for over a decade, but the art form he pioneered — slowed-down hip-hop mixes, with jarring repetitions created by cutting between two copies of the same record, slightly out of phase — lives on. For what was first known as his “screwed and chopped” (and is now known as “chopped and screwed”) mixing style, Texas governor Rick Perry named the late Houston native a Texas Music Pioneer.  After his death, Screw’s associates continued his practice until it burst into mainstream hip-hop in 2005. It’s now ensconced as a widely practiced form of remixing, and even song writing.

So there’s DJ Screw’s music, and then there’s chopped and screwed. Although they’re related they aren’t quite the same. They come from the same place, even the same circle of people. But the difference is in the technique, the work process carried out to create the finished mix. Screw used a more-or-less traditional setup: analog turntables connected to an eight-track mixer. His disciples use digital software to slow down and chop up tracks. The difference is palpable. The ghostly warble of the vocals on Screw tapes, the hypnagogic layers of hiss and crackle, the sounds of the turntable belt powering down — these are crucial elements of Screw’s aesthetic as much as the trademark tempo and chopping technique (both of which are rather subtle elements of Screw mixes, they are sometimes completely absent).

Screw was an inveterate devotee of the underground, eschewing major labels and technological upgrades. His disciples, however, weren’t as rooted in tradition. DJs like Michael “5000″ Watts and OG Ron C embraced the mainstream even as they honed in on the signature elements of Screw’s style. But they didn’t replicate the artistic process. Chopped and screwed is now a digital affair, allowing for harder and more frequent chopping. While Screw navigated the narrow channel between flow and rupture while maintaining a continuous groove, chopped and screwed mixes have a hiccuping loopiness to them. The digital treatments sound slicker because the audio quality hasn’t degraded the way it would in a Screw mix. They are more heavily affected, with words and sentences broken down into macerated phonemes.

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