I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Lance Scott Walker is one of the most foremost historians of Houston hip-hop. His latest book DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, which will quickly establish itself as the authoritative text on the wildly influential figure. The DJ Screw book follows his essential tome Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop. Lance often employs oral histories in his work, but this new book took on a slightly more experimental approach in how it’s organized. It’s one of the many interesting things he talks about in this interview.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
My working background is in printing and graphic design, but to backtrack to where I started writing about music, it would be when I was a DJ at Rice University (KTRU) in the early ’90s. I didn’t go to school at Rice, but I was friendly with people at the radio station and knew enough about music to get myself in the door, so they gave me a shift where you start—in the small hours. One of the responsibilities of DJs there included reviewing new releases that came in, tagging them for profanities so we knew what we could and couldn’t play on the air, so I took my time at night going through the bins and wrote about as many records as I could, giving myself a musical education in the process. This was from ’93 to ’96. I did lots of writing during that time, even if I didn’t really think of it that way. To me it was just part of the world of music—playing in bands, designing flyers, booking shows.
I co-founded a record label (Ojet) in 1998 and a booking collective (Hands Up Houston) in 2000, and all that activity led to me being asked to write a piece for a site called Tranjka. I had never written an article before, but I took up the challenge and wrote an essay about digital music called “Napster Of Puppets.” I was working at a creative agency then, and at work I printed out the article, which got snatched off the printer by one of the content writers, who brought it to my desk and said, “Did you write this? You can write.” He wanted to get me away from design and into the content department, but before that happened I was laid off in the dot-com bubble.
So I just spent the summer of 2001 reading. I was starting to write, too, but mostly my free time was spent falling back in love with reading—Evelyn Waugh, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Iris Murdoch, Chinua Achebe, and lots of Texas history books. By the end of that summer I was writing every day—mostly fiction. I had grown up on science fiction—Asimov, Butler, Clarke—but I never had any ambition to write it, or fiction in general. That summer, though, was a watershed period for me. Even when I took another job as a graphic designer in the fall, I kept writing, and I never looked back.
By 2002, my work in the Houston music scene drew the attention of John Nova Lomax at the Houston Press, who brought me in as a freelancer. I started writing about music for them and then over the next couple of years for most every magazine and newspaper in town—Local Houston, OutSmart, Free Press Houston, a few zines and some publications out of town—San Diego Fahrenheit, Portland Mercury, Orlando Weekly, RollingStone.com. When I moved over to the Houston Chronicle, I had to drop Houston Press because you couldn’t do both. The Press didn’t care, but the Chronicle did. I had wanted to write for the Houston Chronicle forever, so I took a job where they hired me to write about nightlife and music.
That was the same year that an old friend of mine, Peter Beste, and I started working together on the project that would become the book Houston Rap. After the first year of working with him, I shook off my day job and just went for it. And for what would be my last year in Houston, in 2006, I made a living as a writer. Just barely, but that was the only thing I was doing to pay the rent, was writing. I scraped by, to the extent that I would drive down and cover the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for the Chronicle because they had free food in the press box. I would go early, interview people at the livestock show, and then go upstairs to write copy, filling up on popcorn, hot dogs and beer while I watched the rodeo. I stayed up all night, slept through the mornings, filed on deadline by 2pm, went for a run and then went out into the city again, a different part of it every night, getting back late and writing about it, every night—even if I didn’t always publish every day, I was still running the engine. It was a fantastic job. And in the middle of all that, I busted it up! I broke all of that up and moved to New York, took a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and went to work with Peter Beste on the book project.
I kept writing for Houston papers the whole time, and wrote articles for lots of other publications along the way—Red Bull Music Academy, Vice, Wondering Sound—but mostly the focus for me over the years has been the books. I’ve kept a day job the whole time, and because that job doesn’t have me sitting at a computer, it was a perfect balance (and still is). The first two books, Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes, were published in 2013 and 2014, and in 2018, UT Press published a reworked and bulked up version of Houston Rap Tapes. That was along the way during the making of DJ Screw, which has been in the works over the last decade. As far as what the rest of what my writing career might look like, it’s so hard to know. I do know that I fell in love with the discipline, and have dedicated my life to the process.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
DJ Screw: A Life In Slow Revolution is about Robert Earl Davis, Jr., a pioneer turntablist from Smithville, Texas whose multiple trademarks included slowing down the music, “chopping” between two copies of the same record playing a different points, and having local rappers or would-be rappers freestyle over the beats he mixed together, condensing their sounds together onto cassette tape into a syrupy slow, almost psychedelic effect in the end that perfectly mirrored the climate and culture of his adopted city of Houston. The book is a narrative biography heavy on oral history, culled from my interviews with the people who knew him and the great work of other journalists who spoke with some of the subjects who had passed away by the time I got started. The book will be published by University of Texas Press on May 17.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
I grew up with the music. I’m from Galveston Island, which is about 45 minutes south of Houston just off the coast, and I moved to Houston in 1992. Not long after that, Screw’s tapes started really getting out there, and it became the soundtrack of the streets in 1990s Houston. I knew the music like everybody in the city did because we heard it everywhere. When I started working with Peter on our first book, the study of DJ Screw was in tandem with our study of Houston hip-hop, and his story was fascinating to me because of how people talked about him. It wasn’t just because he wasn’t with us anymore, but more like how he was with us still in some way.
Also, as I interviewed more and more people about him, I got the sense that his story hadn’t really been told in the right way. Screw didn’t have managers, or a record label, in the traditional sense. He hadn’t been marketed all that much, so the narrative about him that was out there was slippery. There were lots of loose ends, and the stories that his friends told painted a picture of him that I didn’t see in media interpretations of his story. He deserved to have a book written about him, with his friends and family telling the stories.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.
I already had the two books out when I went looking for a deal for this one, so I had wind at my back, even if those didn’t sell so well. I honed in on a publisher I thought was right for the book (UTP) and asked a writer I knew who had written a couple of blues and zydeco books for them—Roger Wood—what his experience with them was like. He said he got paid once a year and that his book stayed in print, which were the only things I really wanted out of publishing. My first two books went out of print and I never got paid anything, so that sounded like a dream to me.
I asked him what the process was like to get in front of them and he said I could write a standard book proposal, which they were 100% going to require, or that I could instead first send an exploratory email to see if they were interested. This was 2015, so I asked for the email address. I wrote to UT, and an editor wrote me back the very next day and said he was so glad I reached out. He knew who I was and had seen my work, and he said they were very much interested. So the fire was lit right away.
But it really wasn’t about me. DJ Screw is a Texas icon. The subject was what drove the book. So they told me to get to work on the proposal, and during the wait, they came to me with the idea of redoing Houston Rap Tapes—a new edition—where we could have it peer reviewed and I could restructure it. There was plenty I wanted to add to it, and probably added a lot more than they wanted me to, but it made for a much better book. By the time I actually signed the book deal for DJ Screw, it was a year or two after that newer Houston Rap Tapes was published. I think they had an idea even then of how the Screw book will do, and wanted to publish a back catalog item so when people found the DJ Screw book they’d also find something else out there by the same author and same publisher.
What did the research process look like?
I had to start from the ground up! There were a handful of interviews done with DJ Screw in his lifetime, but only a handful, and there were so many parts of his life that he hadn’t been asked about, so I had to build a timeline from what I knew to be true (calendar events, release dates, deaths) and construct the rest based on people’s memories, making room for the fact that some of those memories aren’t always going to interlock with others, seeing as this all took place 20 or 30 years ago. I had to go about putting those stories together in a way that made space for differing perceptions, knowing that many things can be true at once. That’s all part of the legend.
So the research was really in the interviews, and seeing what people had been asked about before, and what they hadn’t. Sometimes I would only get to interview someone once, but others I ran into more frequently or just stayed in touch with, so there were lots of people I interviewed several times over. They weren’t all professional sit-down interviews, but plenty of these interview subjects never would have happened were it not for a late night phone call. That was the real research, checking facts and incidents through multiple perspectives, all of their accounts coming together to paint the picture.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
The quotes drive the story, so I built a library of interviews from which to draw, cross referencing anecdotes between different interviewees. I always intended for the manuscript to be built around oral histories, but I knew from my first book that the form has limits. I wanted to fill in some of the story that happened around the anecdotes, and move the history along without the constraints of using quotes just from my own interviews for one—but also using those from the work of other writers—and also to fill out the framework of the story along as it supports the recollections of the people quoted.
I didn’t know if UT Press was going to go for my idea, because it’s a little wacky. I had never seen a book formatted like this one. There are variations of oral histories with narrative components, but not put together like this—back and forth between the written narrative and the oral history components like we’re passing the mic around. And that was exactly the idea! Through the chapters, the story becomes a reflection of Screw’s method of passing the mic and letting everyone express themselves. I worked on it for years before I showed it to them, formatting different arrangements and different font combinations until I got to a place where I thought I had something that would really sing, that would really read well. And after the editors over there saw it, they thought it worked, and gave me the green light.
Once everything got turned over to the book designer, he followed the formatting structure I came up with (bold sans serif for the names of the speakers, quotes always in quotation marks, and quoted at length, but separated from the overall narrative, flowing back and forth) and just took the type design to another level. It’s a super complex book. Within the 10 chapters, there are 76 individual sections in the book, with lots of breaks within for the oral history text. The readability is so important when the format is something unorthodox like this, and they really nailed it. I can’t say enough good things about the designer, manuscript editor and copy editor who worked with me on it. I had a very complete idea of what I wanted the book to look like and how I wanted it to work. They saw that, and made it better than I had envisioned.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
There was nothing easy about this book, but the subject did pull me along. Screw inspires! That was what got me to embark on this in the first place, and I never lost sight. Also, working with Screw’s sister Michelle was a pleasure. The whole family, truly. He was such a special person, and the people he grew up with are the reason why. I hope the book reflects that.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
The hardest thing was getting everybody to talk. Not everybody wants to open up, and whatever their reasons, I had to respect that. But it shouldn’t be easy! These are personal recollections, private stories about a public person that everyone misses dearly. It’s their own history, too, and you aren’t going to swing through and walk out with everybody’s story. People have to get to know you, and what you’re trying to do. Over time, I had things to show—articles, interviews, radio shows I had done—so everybody could see where I was going with it. They could see what I was putting out into the world in other forms, even if it was only me who could then imagine it all as a book. And over the years, most everybody came around! That was the advantage of it taking so long, because it takes time to build trust, and it should. There were a few folks I wasn’t able to get an interview with, but I still wrote about them and included them in the story of Screw’s life. If he were still around, he would have wanted to see everybody in there.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
The documentaries DJ Screw: The Untold Story, Soldiers United For Cash, and Ghetto Dreams are a great place to start. Peter and I co-produced a special called Screwed In Houston for Vice back in 2007, and then the Netflix show Hip-Hop Evolution did a segment on Screw for its fourth season. There’s Smithville native Jason Culberson’s Screwville series, and then of course the Mogul podcast dedicated to Screw that came out last year with Brandon Jenkins. Keep a look out, too—there are other projects in the works about Screw from other creators coming in the near future.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I didn’t have any one true mentor, but the process of doing interviews with the larger group of people whose voices are featured in the book was a form of mentorship that I don’t think any one person could bring about. I’ve grown so much as a person just getting to know the people I’ve spoken with over the years, learning from their experiences, having the opportunity to go down life-changing conversational paths that I wouldn’t be involved in if I wasn’t doing this work.
I should also say that Peter Beste, the photographer I worked on my first two books with, was the heart and soul of the Houston rap project and the whole reason I went in this direction in my career. He’s younger than me, and works in a different discipline, so you might not think of it as the traditional old head/upstart mentorship, but from the beginning Peter’s approach to the project as a photographer was instructive for me when I went in to write about it. He’s incredibly sensitive to the uniqueness of the person he’s shooting, and not just the thing (music, culture, lifestyle) being documented. He does lots of research on his subjects and loves to geek out on the music.
While I was still in Houston and even moreso once I moved up north, we’d spend hours listening to tapes, learning about the history, talking about photographs and interviews, and ideas would come out of those conversations as we learned more and more about the music. Peter is from the Northside of Houston—we had been friends for 8 years already when we started—but he was living in New York by 2002 and was really the one who got me to move here in the first place. I stayed with him the first month, then found my own place and a couple of years later I met Jennifer Charles, whom I later married. So I have that dude to thank forever! His approach really gave me direction in the way I went in to write about things, reflecting something real in the way I present the subjects in my work. That’s what his photographs convey, and my work extends from that.
I should also say that my first editor, John Nova Lomax, with the Houston Press, deserves a ton of credit for getting me out there. I didn’t stay with the Press very long, and I was never a staff writer, but he was the one who got me started, and allowed me to learn as I went. I can’t stress how important a weekly paper like that was to a city like Houston back in the day. All around my editors taught me so much—Pamela Mitchell at the Chronicle and Carla Valencia with Local Houston were instrumental in giving me work, sending me out into the trenches to make mistakes, giving me guidance where I needed it.
Also Bill Olive, the great photographer I worked with at the Chronicle. Again, a photographer, and a different relationship because he followed me, whereas my work with Peter was more about me following him. But that taught me to be flexible in the moment, to expand and contract into the environment I was covering. Working for the newspaper really let me get out there and find my way. Also signing with UTP has been a form of mentorship because I get to read all the books.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
Do it! Especially if it’s something about which there is no book. I started working on DJ Screw long before I ever said a word about it to anybody other than the people I was interviewing, but I was checking around to see if anybody I was talking to had ever heard of someone doing a book. There are so many books out there! If there is someone or something that doesn’t have one, maybe you’re the one to write it.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on two manuscripts, fiction and non-fiction. The fictional book is set in my hometown of Galveston and the non-fiction takes place all over the world. I’ve been working on both for a while now, but they’re still a ways off. Mostly for me, the next thing is a book tour that will be happening on and off throughout the year, starting with two weeks in Texas where I hit all the big cities but also El Paso, Marfa, Odessa, Laredo and Corpus Christi, with fellow music writers Kiana Fitzgerald, Taylor Crumpton, Bavu Blakes, and Jacques Morel joining me on different dates. The road is always the best place to see people—whatever that may look like in a year like this. I’m looking forward to kicking it with the people of Texas and talking music.
Anything you want to plug?
My Soundcloud show, Houston Rap Tapes Radio. I do a bit of talking on there, but mostly I play music I love, with an emphasis on Houston rap and Texas music. I consider it a world music show, and Houston rap has definitely proven itself as music not just for Texas but for the entire world. I have a live writers series, Evil Hour Evening Reading, that I’ll be doing more of in the future here in New York. For the book, I have links to indie/local/Black-owned bookstores here.
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