West Coast and East Coast hip hop artists achieved international notoriety in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, thanks to well publicized rivalries and deaths. At the same time that Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were blaring from headlines and thumping from heavily customized car stereos, a thriving hip hop underground was taking place in Houston, Texas under the aegis of Robert Earl Davis, Jr., the legendary DJ Screw. Sadly it was a peculiar local drink that led to early deaths of DJ Screw and other young southern rappers.
Nicknamed “The Originator,” DJ Screw was a gifted musician and wily entrepreneur and marketer. His slowed-down, mellower style of “chopped and screwed” hip hop differed from the predominant, faster form of the time. His effects included skipping beats, stop-time, using the same record on dual turntables, and scratching. He released his mixtapes, called “Screwtapes,” selling them out of his house to friends and fans and later out of his independent record store, Screwed Up Records and Tapes, on the southeast side of Houston. The growth of his popularity through the mixtape network is exactly how Metallica first disseminated their music as a new band.
It’s been claimed that the infamous cocktail called “lean” or “Purple Drank” was a source of inspiration for DJ Screw’s chopped and screwed subgenre because of its trippy, slowing effect on the brain. He was a consumer and popularizer of the infamous “lean” concoction of cough syrup (prescription-only brands containing the antihistamine promethazine and codeine), soda and—for color—Jolly Rancher hard candy. This mixture was also called “sizzurp,” “Dirty Sprite” and “Texas tea.” Lean dates back to late 1960s/early 1970s Houston and experienced a surge in demand among rappers in the area in the 1990s.
DJ Screw, “Drank Up in My Cup”
Cough syrups containing codeine only are available over the counter in some states, but cough syrups with promethazine alone or with codeine have almost always been prescription-only all over the country. The abuse potential of promethazine has made it more of a concern than codeine. The popularity of the strongest promethazine-codeine cough syrups led to their widespread theft from pharmacies and the subsequent restriction of their sales. Over the counter brands containing dextromethorphan are also abused.
Indo G, “Purple Drank”
Three 6 Mafia, “Sippin’ On Some Syrup”
The health consequences from drinking lean, including obesity, heart problems, and dental issues, quickly damaged the lives of its users. Sadly DJ Screw overdosed in 2000 on a combination of lean made with prescription-strength codeine cough syrup, alcohol, PCP, and Valium. DJ Screw protégé Big Moe, who was addicted to lean and used it as the subject of many of his songs, overdosed in 2007. (Both Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber have been associated with sizzurp.)
It wasn’t until 2004-05 that the scene and artists associated with and inspired by DJ Screw, the so-called Screwed Up Click, gained national attention. DJ Screw’s 2005 album 3 ‘n the Mornin’ (Part Two) was named #13 on alternative newsweekly The Houston Press’s list of best Houston rap albums of all time.
Republican Texas governor Rick Perry has officially named DJ Screw a Texas Music Pioneer. In 2007 Vice produced a five-part documentary about the Houston hip-hop scene (and the use of purple drank), Screwed in Houston.