Screw Music: Cocaine Pentagrams and the Twerk Team at a Black Mass

February 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fifteenth. I realized I had a lot of screw music in the official rotation. It’s a type of music I like a lot, but find it hard to articulate why. There’s a good reason for that, I think. I keep going to a few key words, though–it sounds evil, it sounds wrong, it sounds off, it sounds abstract, it sounds sideways, it sounds like Hell… it sounds great. It’s just that whenever those monks get around to updating the Ars Goetia, they’ll have to add a footnote that King Paimon is the patron demon of screw music.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs

Drive by Xheathcaresx

Press play on this joint while you read.

I’ve been thinking about writing about chopped and screwed music for a while now. This cat named Heath Caring created a C&S version of the Drive soundtrack and it came on my radar a little bit ago. I’ve been regularly spinning it ever since. The problem is that the appeal of screw music is such a weird and specific thing. Screw music is post-modernism stacked on the already pomo origins of rap. I’ve been mulling it over for days, trying to find an angle of attack, but it’s a slippery subject.

My man Ray, a dude who has put me onto a lot of good screw, recently said this while spotlighting a new screw mix:

I’ve come to realize, trying to explain chopped and screwed music to people makes you sound like you’re fucking insane. The idea of slowing down music and making it skip on purpose isn’t the easiest thing for heads to imagine. That’s why instead of explaining what the music actually sounds like it’s best to describe the feeling screw gives you. Sometimes you feel like you’re being dragged through a black hole where time and space are being warped. Other times screw feels like you’re at a dope pool party but you spent the entire affair chillin’ out at the bottom of the pool listening to the DJ do work.

And that’s it right there. It’s about the music, but it’s not. It’s about how it feels. Listening to screw, whether you’re sober or high, is like listening to regular music, sure. There’s a beat, and you can bop to it. You might could even do a slowed down version of the wop to it if you had the right song, and I mean the wop that your parents used to do when they hit up house parties, not the wack dance that swept youtube a few years back. But screw music is… it’s like abstracted rap. Not abstract, like Q-Tip or Aes Rock. Abstracted. Taking a thing and making it different. It’s psychedelia for people who were raised on Three 6 Mafia and UGK instead of The Beatles.

But it’s real hard to explain what screw music sounds like to people who can’t parse the idea that DJ Mr. Rogers’s chopped and screwed version of Drake’s “Say What’s Real” sounds like the feeling you get when you walk into a black mass in the basement of the club by accident and realize that the chief anti-priest is your ex-girlfriend. The way the harmonious melody in the background is slowed down changes its sound from a generic triumphant rap orchestra into a funeral dirge, Drake’s voice goes lower and he’s enunciating clearly, but the track keeps skipping and hopping and stripping all the smooth charm out his voice. That feels different from “I like how John Lennon sings this song because you can hear the hurt in his heart” to me.

I’ve been describing that screwed version of the Drive soundtrack to other people as evil, like a house party in Hell in the ’80s where all the coke’s run out. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” turns into something else entirely when the upbeat synth-pop gives way to a voice that moans and groans the words out and the synths are stretched to the breaking point. It sounds slow, is the thing. It sounds wrong, and I mean wrong in the sense of what it feels like to come into your house and realize something is out of place, but not being able to figure out what that out of place thing is or who could have been in there but you. “Nightcall” turns into the musical equivalent of a gross leer, and you can’t do anything but let it wash over you.

The wildest part of the mix to me is the point when Kendrick Lamar’s “ADHD” rolls in. I didn’t even realize that it had faded in on my first listen, because it’s slipped in there so smoothly and the song sounds so different. There’s a great thematic link between Drive and Lamar’s Section.80, but the screwed “ADHD” tripped me out. It fits so well, and the Clipse joint that comes after is tremendous.

It sounds so full, like it’s just overflowing out of your speakers. It sounds like something you want to bang so loud on your speakers that your neighbors spontaneously shatter into dust from the bass. Like a… like a sustained earthquake, or something. It rolls over you and makes you feel trapped. Claustrophobic. The lyrics twist and turn uglier than they might be at first glance when they’re this slow.

This specific example of screw music is like the most comfortable uncomfortable situation ever, like the tail end of what happens when you screw up and eat an entire hash brownie, not realizing you only needed half to get right. It feels like that last hour or so of being over-high for thirteen hours straight, when you’re done panicking and you know you’re way too high, but man the couch feels too good right now and you feel so relaxed and life is so nice that it’s all to the good.

I like this Lil Sprite mix Ray hooked up, too. It’s called Cocaine Pentagrams, which makes it incredible from jump. Sean Witzke was on Twitter talking about how it made him think of David Bowie’s Station to Station, and I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s dead on. Station to Station is an incredibly funky album, and one of my favorite Bowie joints. He was so coked out while working on it that he doesn’t even remember doing it.

At the forefront of my mind was Andre 3000 beginning a verse “I came into this world high as a bird from second-hand cocaine powder” and ending another “They call it horny because it’s devilish, now see, we dead wrong.” on ATLiens. Bowie is just the icing (provided by Freeway Ricky Ross and the CIA) on the cake, the missing puzzle piece that pulls it all together. Just from the start, Cocaine Pentagrams is ill, and that’s without even hearing a single word. It’s evocative. It’s the precursor to an experience.

It’s not just about slowing down a song or getting high and turning on an mp3. It’s an experience that’s different from how I regularly listen to music. I try to really listen when I’m playing songs, but with screw music, I just go with it and see what happens. I do a lot of writing to screw music. It just sorta sits at the back of your head, infecting your subconscious until you’re through. It’s music that’s easy to absorb when you aren’t thinking too hard about it.

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There to Here and Back Again [On Refn’s Drive]

October 10th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Like everybody else, I’ve been thinking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive since I saw it a while back. But first:


And a good song from the soundtrack:

(The Drive soundtrack’s really very good, by the way. Stretched out John Carpenter synths, real ’80s sort of sound.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this movie. I was actually thinking about it before falling asleep last night, and came up with a killer opening paragraph, but then I fell asleep. I had a couple of good email conversations with Morgan Jeske about it the day it came out, too. (Apologies to him if I accidentally steal any of his ideas.)

Drive is a movie that is aware that you watch movies. There’s a certain level of self-consciousness to a lot of modern films, sort of a Family Guy-esque drop in a reference and let you fill in the blank. Daniel Craig’s James Bond I think did this a few times to emphasize the difference between the sexy James Bond and the new thug, Die Hard 4 was better titled John McClane Versus Die Hard’s Bastard Children, Featuring Parkour Guy, Ninja Girl, and The Matrix Guy. It’s a wink at the audience, essentially, rather than any sort of effective storytelling. It’s a pat on the head, a congratulations for having seen a bunch of stupid movies. (Comics fans will know it as “continuity porn.”)

Drive comes off differently. It’s aware of the arc of your average action movie, it gets Michael Mann’s movies about dudes who are good at a thing, and it understands throwback aesthetics. And instead of rewarding the audience for knowing these things with a doggie biscuit and “Good boy!”, Refn and Amini use… I called it “negative space” in my emails to Morgan, and that’s really the best term I can come up for it. They simply don’t fully flesh out certain things, and we’re left with the responsibility of inferring the full shape.

It took me a while to realize that this is what they’re doing. It’s a very quiet movie, dialogue-wise, with an almost distractingly high number of knowing looks, tentative smiles, sidelong glances, and grins. There are precious few times where someone stands up and says, “I feel like this and so I am going to do that.” It works well, in context. It makes what could have been a cliché movie into something a little more ethereal. It’s to Drive‘s credit that it doesn’t quite feel like what it actually is.

The negative space thing is interesting. I had no trouble filling in any of the blanks in the movie, and it occurs to me that this is a sort of audience participation, too. I built part of this movie, maybe some fairly important parts, myself. That just strengthens my suspension of disbelief, since I’m not going to come up with something I can’t believe in, and strengthens the movie, too. It makes it more personal, more mine, than it would be if everything were clearly spelled out. For example, the romance part of the movie feels awkward and almost teenaged in demeanor. No one declares their love, and it isn’t even clear whether or not there’s a sexual aspect to their relationship. You assume so, sure, but was there really?

In Drive, Ryan Gosling’s character is nameless. It abstracts him as a person. He’s “The Driver.” What does he do? He drives. That isn’t the fullest explanation of who he is, but we’re left to interpret that for ourselves. We have to crystalize his abstraction into something we can believe in. For me, Gosling saying that he doesn’t carry a gun tripped something over in my head. He participates in sometimes violent crimes. He’d be held responsible in a court of law, but he divorces himself from the actual violence of the act. He won’t help you stick some place up and he won’t carry a gun. He’ll drive you from A to B, and that’s all you get. Is driving an adrenaline rush for him? It’s clearly something he’s good at, and he’s fairly clever, too. But he doesn’t want to carry a weapon or do the actual job. Does that keep him from overstepping his limits? “I don’t carry a gun” is a limit. It’s a rule, and we have rules because at some point someone did something that required the creation of the rule.

Bryan Cranston’s character mentions that Gosling just walked in off the street one day and asked for a gig. That suggests that he’s transient, and his lack of friends does, too. He’s not on the run from something, exactly, but he is escaping from something. Maybe he made a mistake or maybe he couldn’t do something any more.

So, working backwards: The Driver leaves some place (my first thought is Chicago, actually) and moves to LA. He left because, at some point, he carried a gun and something went sour and somebody died or worse. The Driver got off clean, but still had to vacate. He comes to LA, finds a small job, and falls back into an old habit, but is careful to keep the worst aspects of that habit at a distance. “I don’t carry a gun.” And then, when given sufficient reason, he falls back into those old habits, not with relish, but a sort of… grim determination. Like the end of The Big Fat Kill–“We gotta kill every last rat-bastard one of them. We gotta kill them because we need them dead.”

There isn’t pleasure in the act, not that I can see, so much as a responsibility. He’s good at what he does, whether that is driving or killing. The problem is that that opens up something inside him that’s genuinely ugly and terrible. He understands fear and theatrics, on at least a surface level. That fits with Refn’s idea that Drive is a superhero origin story. But Drive isn’t, not really. It’s the end of a thug’s life.

The Driver’s “sufficient reason” isn’t your traditional action movie love. He becomes attached to a neighbor, Carey Mulligan’s Irene, and her young son Benicio. He takes them on a tour of the LA river, and they have a brightly lit, fun, familial picnic at a beautiful, but polluted, locale. The picnic is shot like Heaven, and the implication is pretty clear. This is a place the Driver thinks is cool, and it is, but it’s also tainted. At the same time, this brief taste of Heaven is enough to show the Driver a way out of his life, something to grasp to pull himself out of his past.

I really don’t think that Irene and the Driver had a physical relationship. The Driver filled a need while her husband was locked up, whether it was security or a strong role model for Benicio. They both filled a need, really. Irene and Benicio represented Heaven for the Driver. There was so much unspoken in their relationship, and they were definitely into each other, but it seems very much like that they were in the budding stages of a relationship up to the point where Irene says “My husband’s coming back” while riding with the Driver somewhere. That line’s dropped in there with murderous finality, and may well be one of the longest sentences she’s uttered up to that point. It certainly felt like the one with the most impact.

There’s a scene late in the movie that directly juxtaposes the Driver’s past and present. He’s in an elevator going down (you don’t go down to Heaven, by the way) to the parking garage with Irene. A man in the elevator is clearly a shooter come to clean both of them up. Driver and Irene kiss in the elevator, completely with a bright, heavenly light, and then the Driver turns, slams the shooter against the elevator, and then kicks his head in. Thanatos and Eros right there, or maybe just Heaven and Hell. Irene steps out of the elevator and the doors close with the Driver in the bloody elevator. The doors literally closed on his future. He was always damned, and getting a taste of Heaven tipped him over just enough to ruin his equilibrium. He was closed off emotionally, and then Irene and Benicio opened him up, and then it was too late. You don’t get to pick and choose your emotions, and that bright red poison inside him came out at its first opportunity.

Later, the Driver tells the story of the scorpion and the frog. It feels really on the nose and eye-rolly, but after I thought about it some… it isn’t. The story doesn’t track. He didn’t ask for help. He was shanghaied into helping someone else. And then, after being betrayed, he set about the business of hurting people until things were put right. The only thing that applies is that scorpions hurt people. That’s their nature.

And that train of thought swung me back around to “I don’t carry a gun” (because if he had his tools, he would hurt people) and Irene and Benicio as escape hatch (because it is definitely both of them, not just Irene. He wants to go somewhere and be a family man) and the way that he stomped that guy out in the elevator. I don’t think that he would have harmed Irene and Benicio, but at some point, he would have hurt someone and fallen once again. The scorpion & frog speech wasn’t about what he was about to do to the people. It was about him. It was a confession. “This is what I do when you make me break my rules.”

It’s a well made movie, is what I’m saying. It encourages conjecture while still managing to be complete in and of itself. The conjecture is integral and superfluous at the same time. It knows you know how these shake out, so it can skip the exposition and backstory. That’s your half of the movie. Refn and Amini’s half informs and overrides yours, but the two halves make for a great whole.

It’s great. Visually, it works really well, too, but that’s another essay. I did want to share this image that Morgan sent over to me. It’s thumbnailed because there’s bare breasts and this is theoretically a worksafe site, but check this:

Look at the focal point of the frame. I like this level of attention paid to small details. The strippers in this scene almost act as the audience, watching with somehow rapt attention and blank faces, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the violence to come… yeah, I like this movie quite a bit. It hit the spot perfectly. I’m flying to Los Angeles today, and I basically just bought the Kindle version of Drive just because. It’s short, you know?

Catch the flick if you can.

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