Essay

How a Houstonian Found Purpose Archiving DJ Screw’s Legacy

'My upbringing was probably far different from that of a traditional DJ Screw fan.'

By Rocky Rockett January 6, 2022

A Day of the Dead altar dedicated to DJ Screw and created by Houston graffiti artist Colorsoner713 was on display at a 2019 event following the premier of the documentary "Ben DeSoto: For Art's Sake." The film was about a photographer most famous for his images of DJ Screw. 

I may be the last person you'D ever expect to be a DJ Screw research advisor to museums, and an educator on Houston’s hip-hop history. A decade ago, there was no way I would have known I’d become part of the DJ Screw community. It’s been a blessing in more ways than I could have imagined.

In recent years I’ve been able to not only help curators develop a well-received local exhibit about DJ Screw’s legacy, but I’ve also helped do the first virtual DJ Screw birthday celebration, and became part of the group that spearheaded the creation of the non-profit Screwed Up HQ.

I’ve found purpose in archiving DJ Screw’s legacy and keeping his memory alive.

My upbringing was probably far different from that of a traditional DJ Screw fan. I was born into a Jehovah’s Witness household in the Southwest part of Houston. Mine was a conservative upbringing, and my music options were limited, especially in the 90s when DJ Screw was establishing his name on the streets of Houston.

I wasn’t aware of what I was missing out on at the time, because my youth was also a musical one. My earliest music memories were of my mom cleaning the house, blasting The Jets (the Polynesian-American pop group by way of Minnesota) and singing You've Got It All (Over Him) at the top of her lungs. That image, and that song, still gives me the feeling of “home”.

Another musical influence came from my father, who would play Depeche Mode songs on his keyboard to decompress from a long day after work.

I would later unwind while my mom tucked me into bed to the sounds of classical music, or Sunny 99.1, which was soft rock. The music I was raised on was about as far away from Houston hip-hop as you could get, and it would be a while before music from my city would factor into my life. 

Learning About Hip-Hop

Growing up, what my parents listened to is what I listened to. But, slowly, hip-hop music started to creep into my life. It wasn’t until my mother’s music collection started expanding that I would hear the evolution of the hip-hop genre. Salt N’ Pepa, TLC, MC Hammer and Color Me Badd somehow made their way into my mother’s music collection. I wore these CD’s out with countless replays. I started to become more passionate about my listening tastes. The immediacy of hip-hop in all of its forms pulled me in deep.

 One day, I took my mom’s Walkman outside and changed the station from whatever pop music or classical music station I was allowed to listen to. Aaliyah’s smooth voice on Back & Forth came through my headphones right as I turned on 97.9 the Box (Houston’s only full-time, dedicated hip-hop radio station at that point in the mid-1990s), and it’s a moment I’ll never forget. From that point onward, I would never change the station. Hip-hop had officially entered my life, and I was hooked. The music felt important to me, and it’s a sound I felt like I was missing out on all those years earlier.

And, little by little, the sounds of Houston rap made its way to my ears. After discovering hip-hop as a teen, I had permanently borrowed my mother’s boombox and learned how to make my own recordings of radio songs onto cassette tapes. I’d sit in my room with the radio on, and would fall out of my bed to run to hit record on the boombox when Fat Pat’s iconic Houston rap anthem, Tops Drop, or another Houston-specific rap song I was lucky enough to catch on the radio, came on.

 In those early moments of forming my enthusiasm for Houston rap culture, I just knew that music would somehow, eventually, become part of what I would do when I grew up.

But how I got here, with a front-row seat to helping curate museum exhibits and other experiences that help people learn more about one of Houston’s greatest hip-hop contributions, still surprises me.

Houston Rap History

 It wasn’t until many years after I first started listening to hip-hop that I would learn about how Houston’s hip-hop music scene got started. Rappers from my hometown were creating their own independent music industry, and it was bringing a lot of attention to the South.

 Unfortunately for me, I didn’t grow up with access to street mixtapes either, or around the “hand to hand” distribution of mixtapes and CDs. There were no blogs or music sites that I knew of at the time, and all of my hip-hop knowledge came mainly from what was allowed on the Houston airwaves circa 1995 - 2000.

 I eventually ended up getting involved in the local hip-hop culture as a manager for E.S.G, one of the members of DJ Screw’s Screwed Up Click. It was through him that I discovered my own deeper understanding of Houston music culture, and the legacy of DJ Screw.

One day, while doing a podcast with my brother, Ryan Rockett, we interviewed E.S.G. He was so knowledgeable and passionate about our culture in Houston. He told countless stories about local rap history, and he knew so many people rallying around preserving the memories of Houston hip-hop legends. He introduced me to many individuals from Houston’s hip-hop scene, some of the same ones who made those hits I was scrambling to record off the radio growing up. 

 He didn’t stop there, E.S.G. also introduced me to a woman who was focused on preserving any tangible materials she could find that were attached to Houston’s hip-hop history moments, and the life of DJ Screw. That woman is a University of Houston librarian, and curator for the Houston Hip Hop Research Collection, Julie Grob.

 It was the perfect time for me to meet Grob, too. One thing I noticed, after getting more involved with music as a manager and a writer, was that Houston wasn’t getting its proper respect for the foundations of hip-hop culture it created, namely the influence of pitching down music and chopping up records in the Screw style.

 At the time, even with some of the most basic knowledge that I had about hip-hop in my hometown, I didn’t see it being lifted up in the same ways I saw New York rallying around their legends, creating a hip-hop museum in the Bronx in the last few years, for example.

 Recognizing the history of hip-hop is so mainstream at this point. A few years ago, I saw the Google homepage celebrate the birth of the genre in the summer of 1973 in New York, and on another occasion, I saw the Smithsonian display hip-hop related collections. But where was Houston?

 I had not heard of anything in Houston where our hip-hop legends were being celebrated in educational spaces in such a grand way. Grob, and her work at UH centered around preserving the history of local hip-hop opened my eyes.

 She invited me to view the DJ Screw collection at the University of Houston, and I took her up on the offer. As I entered a classroom off to the side of the special collections department in the library, I noticed that Julie pulled out all of the pieces she’d thought I’d be interested in. I was geeked over the private exhibit. Everything I wanted to know about DJ Screw’s history but never thought to ask was right there. I saw handwritten lyrics by late S.U.C members, photos and vinyl belonging to DJ Screw, and old notes written on the back of flyers. It was an intense experience for someone who grew up during the time this Houston music was being made.

 I immediately grabbed my camera to chronicle what I was seeing at the UH library that day. I couldn’t believe these items weren’t in a museum. I carefully picked up DJ Screw’s E.S.G Swang & Bang vinyl copy. Having managed E.S.G in the past, I knew for certain that this item in particular was priceless. Grob explained how she acquired the collection (through donations from collectors, among other things). Some of the best stuff from DJ Screw’s collection, however, comes from Papa Screw’s garage right before it flooded. The collection now sits, clean and well-preserved in University of Houston’s Special Collections climate-controlled unit.

 My connection with Grob continued after that first meeting. She invited me to UH, again, this time to check out an S.U.C exhibit in the halls of the main campus library. I was so excited to see large groups of people have a reaction to the display of the DJ Screw archival materials.

Being able to share the archives with the public felt like people were getting an incredible first-look at the history of Houston rap. People traveled from all over just to be near these modern artifacts of hip-hop culture from the Brothers in Rhyme exhibit.

 Not long after the UH library exhibit, Grob once again reached out to connect me with someone, this time from the Contemporary Arts Museum.  Patricia Restrepo, the exhibitions manager and assistant curator there had expressed interest in displaying some pieces from UH’s DJ Screw collection, and Grob asked if I would not mind speaking with her.

Restrepo and I had an hour-long conversation about the importance of the DJ Screw collection, and it wasn’t until this meeting that a new professional title became part of my identity, “research advisor.”  Becoming involved with the behind-the-scenes of curating Screw culture really changed my life and gave me a new purpose in a way that I never would have expected.

 I came onboard and immediately got to work on the 2020 exhibit. My advisor title allowed me to pull together people who would help shape the exhibition. I made an appointment for E.S.G to meet with Restrepo and Grob at the University of Houston. We all watched as E picked through the collection and spoke about each piece that he picked up. It felt like I was at a concert with a VIP pass, where a music legend just has a leisurely chat about their history.

A sign shows the image of DJ Screw, part of the Slowed and Throwed: Records of the City Through Mutated Lenses exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

DJ Screw's Legacy

Restrepo, Grob and I were excitedly sharing glances back and forth as we listened to the sentimental stories E.S.G told about each item he gently picked up from the box of archival materials. He was giving us an oral history about his late collaborator, DJ Screw that you just couldn’t hear anywhere else.

I was asked to interview E.S.G on camera, about some of the items from the collection. The footage became part of the exhibition, shown in the “Screw House,” section which held all of DJ Screw’s archived pieces.

 The first day of the exhibition, Slowed and Throwed: Records of the City Through Mutated Lenses, was a success for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, even given COVID-19 guidelines in March 2021. There was a line wrapped around the building, and we had to space out entry due to museum capacity limits.

 E.S.G and DJ Redd were hired to entertain the crowd and boy did they deliver. They had the room filled with Screw Heads (fans of DJ Screw and the Screwed Up Click) slowly bobbing their heads to the celebration of the Houston legend. It was like being in church with a choir, and a pastor, but in slow motion.

 Having my name attached to a key exhibition about DJ Screw’s legacy is something I’m super proud of. Researching and helping to educate people about Houston’s rich music history is something I never could have imagined doing.  By following my budding passion for archiving DJ Screw culture, I have not only acquired a new title, but found a new purpose, and I have developed a new understanding of what community means.

There’s a community of people in Houston and around the country who carry Screw’s legacy, too. At last year’s CAMH exhibition, so many people I met were elated to support something that would lift DJ Screw’s name, almost two decades after his passing.

It feels so nice to see the ball has kept rolling, in regard to projects that honor the DJ. I am seeing lots of creative ways, such as films and audio stories, in which the origins of our local hip-hop history are being explained, and I couldn’t be happier.

 As for me, I’m glad I’ve been able to develop a practice of doing cultural work, like archiving the stories and memories of the music legend, DJ Screw. It’s work I’ll continue to do, it’s changed my life forever.

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