Recently I decided to make the pilgrimage to the MD Anderson Library at the University of Houston to see the DJ Screw and Pen & Pixel Graphics collections within the Special Collections wing of the library. Houston has been one of the most important cities within the hip-hop genre and the University of Houston has had it’s share of musicians who once studied within its many buildings. Master P, Lil’ Wayne, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, L.E.$., and The Nice Guys (who were my next door neighbors at Cullen Oaks many years ago) all studied at UH at one point, not to mention the Kenny Rogers himself was once a student. I also remember a young Riff Raff hustling mixtapes by the shuttle stop in front of PGH hall back around 2008 when I was waiting to catch a ride back to Cullen Oaks. Short of Berklee, few schools have as much history with musicians studying on it’s campus.
The DJ Screw Papers
First I took a look at the DJ Screw papers which is a mix of photos and documents relating to the late deejay’s life. The collection is not behind a glass enclosure like in a museum but contained within several boxes that can only be viewed upon request from the Special Collections staff, who are all incredibly helpful and friendly.
Screw is lionized within Houston and the hip-hop community nationwide, rightfully, as one of the most innovative people ever to touch a set of turntables and it’s easy to forget that he was just a regular guy but viewing the papers made me realize his normalness. Screw was just a kid from Smithville, Texas who originally wanted to be nothing more than a truck driver like his father when he stumbled across his mother’s turntables and decided to teach himself how to scratch like he saw in the movie Breakin’. Eventually he would completely redefine the entire hip-hop genre and create a unique sound that is still being duplicated by countless musicians today.
[Note: This article will take a few minutes to load due to the amount of photos included. It’s best to wait for the page to finish loading before clicking into the photo galleries. The galleries also have an annoying “auto-play” feature, but I’ve marked the last photo in each gallery as “The End” so you know when you’ve seen everything. To see the larger version of an image, right-click and open image in a new tab.]
The Pen & Pixel Collection
Pen & Pixel Graphics was a graphics design firm from Houston that was most known for designing, primarily, southern hip-hop album covers in the 1990s and early 2000s. The firm was founded by brothers Aaron and Shawn Brauch who originally started doing artwork for Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records and received so many requests for artwork they decided to build their own art studio in 1992. Aaron is an MBA from Cornell and Mensa member (wonder if he knows Tom Herman?) and Shawn has multiple design degrees and is a scuba-diving and sailing fanatic and now resides in Oregon.
[note: short video documentary on Pen and Pixel from Noisey below]
The artwork typically was all very over the top and gaudy. Any hip-hop head, whether they listened to southern rap or not, was inundated by the images of Pen & Pixel in countless advertisements in The Source magazine and in record stores during this era. Pen & Pixel handled the majority of album covers for No Limit Records, Cash Money Records, and Hypnotize Minds as well as an endless amount of other independent record companies and aspiring emcees. While the hip-hop game has always been dominated by New York and Los Angeles, independent upstarts in America’s flyover country had to have attention grabbing artwork to entice listeners with the potential of a dope record inside the case to get them to purchase their album.
The firm designed over 19,000 album covers for an estimated 6,000-8,000 clients who sold a cumulative 750 million albums and were awarded over 80 plaques form the RIAA from 1992 until 2003. The artwork they made personified the Bling era, including the cover for B.G.’s “Chopper City In The Ghetto” who’s song “Bling Bling” put the term in the pop culture lexicon and eventually into both Webster’s and Oxford. Although hip-hop was what made them a household name, the firm also produced work for Cher, Chris Rock, Destiny’s Child, Lyle Lovett, and ZZ Top.
DJ Screw’s Personal Vinyl Collection
In this post I couldn’t possibly include pictures of every single vinyl record that Screw’s family donated to UH, nor every record from each artist mentioned, as Screw’s family donated nearly 5,000 of the late deejay’s records to the library and Julie Grob, the library’s Coordinator of Digital Projects & Instruction for Special Collections, and staff curated the collection down to 1,500, weeding out duplicates and LPs that were damaged. I’m trying to include photos of the ones I felt were the most significant to the this story and to the history of Houston and hip-hop. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found as the collection includes pretty much every important hip-hop and r&b album from the late eighties and nineties, up until Screw passed away on November 16th, 2000 at the incredibly young age of 29. There’s a few surprises like Marvin Gaye, Nirvana, Funkadelic, and Destiny’s Child.
A young kid from Smithville, Texas named Robert Davis, Jr discovered his mother’s turntables and taught himself to scratch records. Later in his high school years Davis would move to Houston to live with his father Robert Sr. The younger Davis, now calling himself DJ Screw, would continue to work on his turntable skills while working deejay gigs at local clubs and selling his own cassette tape mixes (known as “mixtapes”) on the side. Soon fate would intervene and alter Screw’s fate and the fate of Houston forever:
One day in 1989, he was mixing in his apartment with some friends. They were drinking and smoking marijuana and, according to Charles Washington, who would become Screw’s first manager, Screw accidentally hit the turntable’s pitch button, slowing everything down. Screw liked the way it sounded, though he was incredulous when one of his friends offered him $10 to record a slowed-down mix tape. “Screw thought the guy was crazy,” said Charles Washington. But he did it, and the next day Screw’s friend came back with a couple of friends, who also wanted slowed-down tapes.
LPs from the SUC and other Houston artists:
Soon enough the teenager’s slowed down Maxell cassette tapes began to spread across the city earning the young upstart an increasing amount of money. As Screw’s customer base grew across the region he began to receive custom mix requests and started giving a shoutout to various Houston neighborhoods on his tapes. Then he started taking the instrumentals of the songs he was mixing and allowed local up and coming rappers to rhyme on the tracks.
The tapes began to spread like wildfire outside Houston across the region and various Houston aspiring musicians would make themselves household names on the increasingly growing Houston underground hip-hop scene. Fat Pat, Lil Keke, ESG, Big Pokey, and Big Moe were just some of the young rappers in a sprawling, loosely connected group called the “Screwed Up Click” who would soon become known all across the south thanks to their freestyles over DJ Screw’s slowed down cassette tapes. Throughout this whole time he was making money hand over fist selling tapes, Screw was still selling the majority of tapes out of his house on Houston’s southside with cars lining the street for blocks to buy the tapes during the few hours the deejay left open for business. So many people were lining up to buy the tapes night after night the Houston police were called multiple times because so many neighbors assumed Screw was selling drugs.
Screw would receive multiple requests to start his record company over the years as his mixtape empire grew, but he always resisted. All he ever wanted to do was to put the city of Houston on the map and to expose our city’s unique culture to the rest of the world. That unique culture was the central topic of the freestyles on the Screw tapes, which typically consisted of talk about candy painted cars with swangers poking out the side, popped trunks exposed to show a slogan, swanging one’s car left to right down the street while driving real slow, sippin’ syrup, and general braggadocious street content.
Through the nineties as Screw music and Houston hip-hop culture began to boom in the underground, many other musicians across the south began to get national recognition. OutKast, Trick Daddy, Eightball & MJG, Master P and his No Limit Records, Three 6 Mafia, Cash Money Records, and several others began to sell millions of records and become prominent hip-hop acts.
It was pretty surreal going through many of the different crates of Screw’s records. This collection is a near-complete cross section of nineties hip-hop from across the country, a lot of the music I grew up on and several others I would discover as I grew older. As fans we tend to pigeonhole artists into being only within the type of music they make. Looking through Screw’s records I’m reminded that musicians were fans of the music first and they typically listen to a wide variety. Deejays in particular tend to be on the forefront of music, especially hip-hop mixtape deejays like Screw who are always looking for the next instrumental to flip into a dope freestyle beat for their next tape. I mean, who the heck thought a Kris Kross song would become the most famous underground hip-hop record from Houston and be later remade by an upstart rapper from Toronto?
Even though Screw has passed on, others like Michael Watts from Swisha House and OG Ron C have continued the tradition of chopping and screwing the latest hip-hop tracks and releasing countless mixtapes. I moved to Houston in August 2004 right when the Swisha House track “Still Tippin” blew up and it was wild seeing Houston’s previously underground hip-hop scene getting national respect for the first time. A year later, to kickoff my sophomore year at UH, Paul Wall’s “The People Champ” dropped and referenced the Moody Towers in one of the songs, the same dorm that I was living in at the time the album was released. I was very fortunate to chop it up with Mr. Wall a few months ago and to tell him the story of how wild that whole time period was being a student at UH and being a fan of Houston hip-hop.
A big special thanks to Ms. Julie Grob and the staff of the Special Collections at the University of Houston’s Anderson Library. Their friendliness and willingness to help me geek out for several hours and to pull countless crates of vinyl is much appreciated! I couldn’t have done it without their hospitality. Of course, even though I’ve never met them, a big thank you to the Davis family for donating the records to UH so the library can preserve Screw’s legacy.
- The Slow Life and Fast Life of DJ Screw
- Syrupy Surprises: Random Selections From DJ Screw’s Personal Vinyl Collection
- History, Screwed and Chopped
- Letter of Recommendation: Pen & Pixel