Since my early teens Houston’s chopped not slopped music - a sound influenced by DJ Screw and his “screw tapes” - has been something I’ve been aware of, and have tried to understand.
At first it was contrived, a way to feel more authentically in tune with the music of guys like Lil Flip, Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Mike Jones, who I adored from 4,700 miles away. Their albums often came with a second disc, on which the original was presented in a “chopped not slopped” form; slowed in tempo, pitched down, with key phrases from the lyrics highlighted through repetition.
Later my interest in the technique became aesthetic - I loved the purple drenched, remixed covers of OG Ron C’s reinterpretations of the latest popular albums; ‘Channel Purple’, ‘Chop The Throne’, ‘Chop Care’. Then the sound - which Houstonian’s will tell you should never be referred to as “Screwed” unless DJ Screw, who passed away in November 2000, did it himself - began to penetrate contemporary music, with pitched down vocal samples increasingly appearing in original songs by some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, including Drake and, naturally, Houston’s own Beyoncé.
It wasn’t until 2017, during a trip to Houston to write a profile on Travis Scott, that I experienced my first true connection with DJ Screw’s sound. With some spare time on my hands I took an Uber out to Screwed Up Records and Tapes, relocated from it’s original location in 2011, but still run by Screw’s estate. Inside the mural covered store, where visitors can browse huge books of laminated track lists before settling on which ‘Chapter’ they want to purchase, the music was booming at full volume on a sound system unlike any I’ve heard before.
It’s a physical, cathartic, experience. Every bass note vibrates through your entire body, every word drags itself slowly across your mind’s eye and each drum is like a controlled explosion. It’s surreal, as though the store is in a different realm, operating on a different frequency as time slows down around you and the music takes control of your body.
When I’m invited back to the city it’s to experience ‘When I Get Home’, an album and film by Solange Knowles released at the intersection between Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Live streaming across Apple Music and Black Planet, nine screenings take place simultaneously at key locations that informed both the artist’s childhood and black history in Houston; these include a hair salon that was once owned by her mother, the Unity National Bank Texas’ only black owned bank, a local tire and rim shop that specialises in Slabs, and the Houston Museum of African-American Culture.
Before the screening at SHAPE Community Center - a 50 year old institution that stands for Self-Help for African People through Education - a DJ sets the scene with a set of chopped not slopped music that incorporated local legends like Bun B, who takes a seat in the audience, as well as recent R&B cuts like Ella Mai’s ‘Boo’d Up’, and a few selections from ‘A Seat At The Table’. The audience includes collaborators Cassie and Abra, A$AP Ferg, Paul Wall, Solange’s friends and family, her mother Tina Knowles, cowboys, local community figures and members of the media. Despite the guest list, SHAPE retains its community spirit, and hearing the music in this space transports me back to my experience at Screwed Up Records and Tapes.
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When the screening begins, the music that for the past three days I’ve been listening to in headphones suddenly transforms into another very physical experience, that surreal sonic realm that Houston draws you into. What I’d originally perceived to be mellow jazz suddenly bangs through the air around me, and Solange’s repetitive lyrics become the looped mantras of a Screw tape.
“With ‘A Seat At The Table’ I had so much to say,” Solange tells art critic Antwaun Sargent in a conversation following the screening. “With this album I had so much to feel.” The process of writing the new album overlapped with touring her previous record, but after she took some time off to battle with an autonomic disorder in 2017, she returned home to Third Ward where she quietly moved into a house and began working. She says that during her time there she noticed that the things she might‘ve previously considered mundane were beginning to enrich her. The exploration of mundane and repetition within the lyrics on the album also draw from this perspective. “Repetition is a really strong way to reinforce these mantras,” explains Solange. “The first four times I didn’t actually believe it, but by the eight time it’s coming into my body and my spirit.”
The first wave of creation for the album came through jam sessions with her live drummer John Key and John Kirby on synths between shows and in rehearsals, and she was also able to collaborate with members of her middle school jazz band including Houston drummer Jamire Williams. “We thought we were really popping,” she remembers of her school days. “Our first song we wrote was called ‘Heartbreak’ and it kind of sucked. But we had a lot of heart and a lot of spirit. I think I went back to that place of being able to use improv as a foundation for my work.”
Her process for the songs on ‘When I Get Home’ normally began by starting a melody on click track and then building out chord progressions acapella, and then she’d then start inviting collaborators to add their own elements.
“John laying down keys, asking Pharrell to just give me drums and having everyone sort of improv on these songs. Many times because they were so good that they’d last 20 minutes and then I’d take them and just take this one bass sound and work at it for sixteen hours with my engineer [Mikaelin Bluespruce],” she describes. “The real joy and the real celebration was in those jam sessions.” Stevie Wonder’s score to Walon Green’s 1979 film ‘Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants’ is a reference that continually arises within the conversation, describing ‘When I Get Home’ as, “sort of a tribute to that record and what it did for me.”
During the jam sessions, Solange began to experience a parallel between what was happening in her body, and her musical process. She tells a story from her childhood, when a lady from her local church began to pray over her during a church retreat. “It felt so overwhelming and so strong, and my little ten year old mind didn’t know how to process that,” she says. “And I guess somebody called that the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost, depending on what you want to name it. It felt completely out of my control, it felt like something I had to surrender to. I couldn’t have a voice or a thought, it was just going to happen to me at any given time.”
The Holy Ghost appears thematically throughout the album and film, as Solange explores ideas around running from, surrendering to and confronting forces that are out of our control. “I was speaking to someone and I was telling them that I have a really hard time silencing my brain, and she said ‘I think you’re just afraid of what you’re going to hear and what you’re going to see, when you actually get quiet,’” she recalls. “And that scared the shit out of me too! I think when that happens it’s sometimes productive to try to put that into a traditional space, or give it words. You just have to feel it, this album is really about feelings, to the core.”
Following the very social and experimental jam sessions, Solange would then take on the insular task of editing, which she describes as being around 80% of her creative process, recalling long hours getting stuck into the minutiae of the record. “It feels really good for me to have all of these wide, vast moments of expression and then home in to the few elements that really relate and extend on what it is I’m trying to speak to,” she says, explaining that it can sometimes take six hours of improvised recording to find a single ad-lib that expresses precisely what she’s trying to articulate.
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During this time she remained supported and nourished through her group chat and a “finsta” - a secret Instagram account - that she used as a place to dump her thoughts and ideas. “The finsta is so crazy y’all!” she admits. “It’s not cute. If anyone were to find this they would be like ‘This bitch is crazy!’” Sargent comments that fans will be out there searching for the account, to which she declares, “I’ma delete that shit tonight!”
‘When I Get Home’ also encompasses a 33-minute film directed and edited by Solange alongside contributing directors Alan Ferguson, Terence Nance, Jacolby Satterwhite and Ray Tintori. Released via Apple Music, her self-described “Texas Film” is an exploration of origin; weighing up what we leave behind as we grow and evolve through our lives. From the album’s inception a film aspect was always part of Solange’s plan.
And she was inspired to work alongside a number of fellow Texans who she believes form a renaissance of black artists creating surreal and experimental work that reframes and challenges cliches that outsiders associate with the state. “That was one of the most exciting things for me,” she says, “to be able to connect and hone in with Texas artists and filmmakers who are really shifting the nature of how we’re experiencing these things.”
The intention of the film portion of the project is to be able to extend her vision to what can’t be articulated sonically, and she cites a production of The Wiz that she performed in when she was younger (as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South) as part of her motivation. “I think that was one of the first times that I had a clear vision of how to use and emote these other parts of myself that I couldn’t through dance, or I couldn’t through music,” she explains. “And so the film is really just an extension of that.”
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Solange also knew from early in the creative process that she wanted to play a part, however small, in telling the story of black cowboys. The idea came off the back of a 2017 Calvin Klein campaign she’d been involved in, based around the theme of Americana, and remembers receiving the mood boards.
“Not even on any controversial shit, it was just funny to me because all of the first cowboys I saw were black. Growing up here, off Almeda, you’re just going to see black cowboys on the street. I don’t know who John Wayne is, I don’t know his story is, I really don’t. But I know about Zydeco and I know about Trail Rides, and I know those stories,” she explains. “It’s just important to me that, black history, we’ve had to constantly rewrite what that means to us from the beginning of time. So that was really just that moment to really express this culture that was so enriching for me. And it’s not just an aesthetic, it’s really something that we actually live on Sundays, this is what you do, I see so many of my friends who still every weekend are turning up at the Zydeco. And to it was just important to me in relationship of being in this campaign and understanding, this is what Western Culture has meant to broader America and the world really.”
She also found inspiration in the physicality of the cowboys, battling through the obstacles that she encounters with her own body while navigating the business of entertainment. “I feel so privileged to have been able to meet so many of these cowboys and hear their stories, and see them pray before they go in the bullring,” she says. “And see what they are willing to do to their bodies for the sake of entertainment, which is something that I can relate to.”
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The physicality behind the film also manifests in its large scale sculpture and sets, designed by Solange herself, which she says were about leaving her imprint on the world and continuing the lineage of the artists that set the blueprint for her to make her work. “I’m rarely am ever thinking about now,” she explains, “I’m thinking about discovering Sun Ra thirty years after he was here and how that work impacted and influenced me that many years later, how it helped me understand myself better. I’m thinking about at any given time being able to Google a Kelis image from ten years ago and it telling me so much about myself, and how I see myself.”
She hopes that her work can do the same for creators in the future. “When I think about sculpture and creating sculpture, I’m thinking about the possibility of some young black girl in 20 years, needing to reference a black sculptor who’s making work that large, and landscape like that. And the blessing, the privilege that I might come up on that search.”
Once again, editing played a huge part in Solange’s process on when making the film. While she would generally arrive on set with a narrative and basic script in mind, she was just as likely to go off on a creative tangent informed by her collaborators. “I’m comfortable in saying ‘Lets experiment, let’s try new things. You as the actress, you as the performer, what feels right for you?’ And to re-evaluate that,” she says. “But I think ultimately the editing gives me the space to experiment. I think I just feel a lot of safety and comfortability in editing, both in producing and directing: getting as much as I can possibly get out and then reducing it to just the core things that matter.”
While Solange takes on a multitude of roles in making her work, it’s the role of producer in which she’s most proud, despite having to battle to be perceived as such. “It is rather difficult as a producer, to sometimes be reduced to just a songwriter or just an artist, when you spent 18 hours editing one drum sound,” she admits. “And I think we’ve come a long way from that for women, but it’s still got a long way to go in the way that we’re able to have that conversation about Rick Rubin, but we aren’t extending that conversation to others.”
Since releasing ‘When I Get Home’ two days ago, she’s already been received texts from peers that acknowledge her as a producer, indicating a step in the right direction. “That’s my heart and soul,” she says, “I honestly been have been telling Cassie for I don’t know how many years, ‘When you ready to go in, please let me produce your shit!’”
As her conversation with Sargent draws to a close, Solange takes one final opportunity to express the feeling of happiness that’s come with the creation and release of expansive and ambitious new body of work, that reflects the inner workings of her mind and brought her back to connect with her home, her self and her body. “To have something out in the world that feels like a true reflection of who I am, the things that I love to listen to, the things that I love to experience, as just sort of a snapshot of myself at this present time. I think any time that you truly feel seen, you just feel a certain level of joy,” she declares.
“I’m in Houston, in Third Ward, two days after my film came out, my son is here, my mother is here, my friends are here, my family, the people that make me who I am. Bun [B] is here, Paul Wall picked me up in a slab. There’s like fourteen cowboy hats in the building. It’s just joy, everywhere. It just feels good, that’s what home does to you. I can be anywhere in the world but nothing is going to make me feel like this place does.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
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