As a collector and critic, you tend to have a thing for detailed information. It’s one thing to put on some good music and just lean back into the comfort provided by a musical arrangement that is pleasing to the ear. But to be able to simultaneously draw references to your own personal life and the universe of music is to add additional value to your listening experience. Knowing who composed a certain piece, remembering when and where you first heard it, knowing what the band went through at that particular time, remembering how little you paid for what now is a collector’s item, etcetera etcetera. That said, I often frown upon what I consider carelessly edited compilations and re-issues. This goes double for posthumous releases. I’m a fan (or on my way to become one), give me some background information that will allow me to strengthen and deepen my fandom. In hip-hop, that wish is rarely anyone’s command. Be it the priority of making a quick buck, a lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of the record companies, or simply legal issues, retrospectives and re-issues are often even less informative than the original releases.
Nevertheless, the least I want to come across as here is ungreatful. Bootleg or retail, I appreciate any effort to make music available to a potential audience (provided the copyright owners are properly compensated, of course). Even more so in cases where intially only a limited amount of people had access to it. Like DJ Screw’s gray tapes, who may have been widespread around Houston while he was alive and active, but which I have little to no chance of obtaining in original form nowadays, five years after his untimely death while the Screw method continually gains popularity. So while I wish I could speak from the position of someone who is in possession of original Screw tapes, I’m glad that The DJ Screw Foundation has decided to release this double-disc of unreleased material, screwed and chopped by the man himself. True to Screw’s formula for mixtapes, “Playaz Nite” is a mixture of screwed songs by known artists and freestyles over instrumentals, equally slowed down and chopped up. The tracklisting on the CD gives few hints as to what you’ll find inside. Instrumentals are renamed, screwed songs mislabeled using a line or a hook in the song instead of the proper title. With sometimes unintentionally funny results. If the title “Make Money” makes you think of a Junior MAFIA song, it could also be Makaveli mocking that same Junior MAFIA in “Hit ‘Em Up,” which is exactly the case on “Playaz Nite.” But Screw could also be intentionally funny, like when he repeatedly cuts up MJG claiming to be “drunker than a whole school of fish,” murmuring to himself: “What’d he say?”
By my estimation, the majority of the material on “Playaz Nite” was mixed in 1996. Things take off with “It’s Real,” which is really Nas and Lauryn’s “If I Ruled the World” instrumental (itself an interpolation of Whodini’s “Friends”), extended to 15 minutes and featuring freestyles by a crew of Austin rappers, possibly going by the names of Shorty Mac, Tiny Toon, ACT and Killaflow, possibly representing something called Da Ville, which might be Smithville, TX, where Robert Earl Davis, Jr. spent his childhood. Apparently, they decided to “hit the south, fuck around with that Screw / get that slow tempo in your trunk / make you bob your head cause you know a nigga crunk.” By their own admission, they’re “throwed” and “leanin’,” and as their lyrics continue to come back to driving and (/or) doing drugs, you realize soon that these raps are in perfect sync with the music stretched to unusual lengths, in the sense that they compliment the hypnotizing loop, circling around the same themes again and again themselves. What happens on a musical level is mirrored on the lyrical level. What’s great is that after a quarter of an hour of rhyming to the same beat, the rappers tell DJ Screw to cut it up, and it’s only then that you’re reminded that he was behind the turntables during the entire set. Let this be a lesson to all you software-using Screw-wannabe’s who think you can manipulate the pitch a bit and that’s all there is to it. Not all tracks on “Playaz Nite” might stem from the same session, but the flow between tracks is largely kept, which helps a neophyte like me understand what a Screw tape was all about – a DJ and a handful of MC’s getting down, trying to get into the groove (and to keep it), trying to keep people and themselves entertained for a certain period of time. It’s a premise that takes us all the way back to ’70s New York when DJ’s spun breakbeats, lengthening existing musical fragments while MC’s repeated routines that often revolved around the same content.
In that respect, Screw music is a lot closer to old school hip-hop than what you can witness in today’s clubs where popular tunes usually follow in short succession. Agreed, lyrically it largely lacks the combatitive spirit of traditional freestyle raps, and musically it almost completely lacks the drive of dance music. In that regard, it is indeed something truly unique within hip-hop, yet at the same time closely related to another form of music without which there would be no hip-hop – Jamaican dub. That’s not to say that it would be impossible to dance to it. The beat still pulsates, the bass still grooves. Just at a slower pace. But not necessarily a considerably slower pace, because the majority of “Playaz Nite” is only slightly slowed down. Clearly it wasn’t DJ Screw’s intent to pitch everything down to the same slow motion, but to keep the relations. You can witness that on this double-disc, as the funked up “Playerz Night Out,” which was uptempo to begin with, is much more energetic than the melancholic “Bad Ways.” Either way, some beats and some voices lend themselves extremely well to being screwed, gaining in depth and volume, while others remain less affected. 2Pac almost always works, as exemplified here by screwed versions of “High ‘Til I Die” and “Hit ‘Em Up.” UGK are prime candidates too, as ably demonstrated by Screw as he manipulates “Ride My Car” (the radio edit of “Fuck My Car”) and “Diamonds & Wood,” which itself paid tribute to Screw in the chorus, sampling the phrase “I flips down the ave, know I’m lookin’ good / I’m bangin’ Screw, nigga, diamonds up against that wood.”
Under the impression of the countless Gulf Coast releases that have an accompanying S&C release these days, it certainly comes as a surprise to come across a lot of non-Southern stuff on “Playaz Nite.” Some instrumentals that I don’t recognize might be local, but really the only Southern selections that are screwed come courtesy of UGK, 8Ball & MJG and “Ice Cream Man” era No Limit. In fact, I think safe for DJ Screw himself none of the voices heard on “Playaz Nite” originate out of Houston. You have Vallejo’s Mac Mall, NOLA’s Master P, Port Arthur’s UGK, Memphis’ 8Ball & MJG, Oakland’s Too $hort, Sacramento’s C-Bo, and the aforementioned Austin representatives. Additionally, you have beats by producers from all three coasts. If my calculations are correct, “If I Ruled the World” was more or less brand new when Screw decided to put it into his mix. So while it is common knowledge that Screw put many a local rapper on during his all too brief career, I conclude that he also was a true DJ who looked both far and near for dope shit to add his personal touch to. Such as Mac Mall’s “Dopefiends Lullaby,” which proves to be a great pick with its hypnotic organ and the lullaby-like sing-song. But most importantly, the screwed tracks don’t lose their individual characteristics, they don’t turn into something completely different, they’re merely thickened sufficiently to fall back into the Southern speed of life. C-Bo is still cold as fuck, Too $hort is the same pimp as ever.
So much for the information this one reviewer (with a little help from fellow RapReviews contributor Pedro Hernandez) is able to relate about 100 minutes of pure music with almost no additional information available. If this is mostly old news to you, good for you, if it has made you curious, “Playaz Nite” is as good a place to start as any, especially since the originator himself mans the decks on this one.