BY: DOUGLAS DONESON
In 1984, around the South Florida area, DJ Disco Dave and Jam Pony Express were releasing mix tapes called “Drag Mixes.” These two DJs would play their tapes over and over for audiences. Over time the tape would deteriorate and drag. In some people’s opinions the dragging songs sounded better, plus the bass hit a lot harder. So, “Drag Mixes” were popularized similar to the haphazard discovery of penicillin.
Around 1981, in the isolated town of Smithville, about 50 miles outside of Austin, Texas, ten year old, Robert Earl Davis Jr. (also known as DJ Screw) began playing with a turn table. “Screw spent hours analyzing records by the top DJs of the time.” Several years later he moved to Houston, Texas. Screw’s skills developed to the point where turntables became his instrument, producing sounds and patterns that only he could create. Screw’s former girlfriend, Nicole ‘Nik-Nak’ Williams, pointed to one of Screw’s influences. She revealed that “Darryl Scott, I think, influenced Screw on a level that Darryl, I don’t even think to this day would even know, he wanted to make Daryl proud…he told me when he was younger…his mom had this record player and he would use a screw and put it on her record.”
According to Jesse Washington, Darryl Scott was Houston’s first superstar DJ. The story goes:
Scott had a protégé named Michael Price whom he was teaching how to DJ. One day the batteries on the tape deck ran down, and the music started dragging. “Man, that sounds good!” Scott recalls Price saying. Soon, Scott says, Price had rigged a tape deck with a special screw. Turning the screw would slow down the speed. “Man, you can’t slow down everything,” Scott told him. But Price dug the sound that much. Price later hooked up with Screw, Scott says, and they did some parties together before Price was stabbed to death while gambling. Scott says arguments still rage in jails across Texas about who invented “screw” music.
DJ Screw would slow down and mix songs (“screw”) on a turn table and record the resulting songs on mix tapes, they became known as Screw tapes. At the corner of Poplar and Greenstone, near Gulfgate Mall, cars lined up stretching around DJ Screw’s house. He had the tapes ready each Wednesday night and sold them for $10 each. People flocked to his house from all over Texas. Screw would sell 1000 tapes in 15 minutes.
Of the tapes the late Pimp C described, “We had our own thing, wasn’t really worried about what was going on in the rest of the world, when we did hear the rest of the world, its cuz DJ Screw was puttin’ us up on it, ya-know-what-I’m-tabbin-bout? Cuz we really wasn’t checkin’ for nobody unless it was on a Screw tape.” Lil Keke expressed the same sentiment, “he brought us on to every type of music, we heard California music, east coast music, Biggie, we heard everybody through him.”
Andrew Noz further explained the significance of DJ Screw’s Screw tapes:
Where many DJs allow their hands to be tied by hits and “classics,” Screw was only ever beholden to own convictions. He built his own canon…In his world Bay Area mob music and old school New York 808 work outs and the many twisted branches of the NWA family tree and Steel Pulse and Street Military were all interchangeable parts. He found their commonalities and then literally drew out an entirely new genre of music from them. Style is immaterial, it can be borrowed and repurposed and butchered. But honest and reliable taste is a true rarity.
Many times the police took one look at DJ Screw—making fistfuls of cash out of his trunk and house—and assumed he was selling drugs. After each search, all the police ever found was money and a gun or two. Subsequently, they’d return his pistols and money. Everything he was doing was 100 percent legal.
Not quite 100 percent. Under the exclusive economic rights of copyright law, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to do and authorize any of the following: (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords; (2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; (4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly; (5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work; publicly; and in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission. In the past however, music labels have viewed mix tapes as local promotional materials (see prior post I wrote touching on tension among promotions, technology, and copyright infringement) rather than competition.
DJ Screw was seemingly violating § 106(1), (2), (3), and (4) of the copyright holders exclusive economic rights. DJ Screw was reproducing copyright holder’s copyrighted works in his screw tapes. He was preparing derivative works based upon copyrighted work which did not belong to him by ‘screwing’ the copyright holder’s songs. He distributed these songs to the public by sale. And finally he was dj-ing and performing copyrighted songs publicly at parties. In other words, Screw tapes were no longer a promotional tool. They became the final product; Screw started selling enough tapes nationwide on independent labels that royalties did become a problem.
The major labels were probably alleging copyright infringement. They probably asserted that DJ Screw was reproducing, distributing to the public, and performing, their copyright work and that DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were derived from their copyrighted works and that the songs on DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were sufficiently similar in their copyrightable expression to constitute unlawful appropriation. Or were they?
Fair Use: Supplanted, Transformed, SCREWED!
Section 107 provides for fair use, a defense to copyright infringement. This means that use of the copyrighted material is not copyright infringement, as long as the use of the copyrighted material is for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered include—
(1) The purpose and character of the use; (a) did the second work supplant the first work in the market place? Or was the second work transformative, meaning that the second work is much different from the first work? (b) Was the second work made for commercial or noncommercial purposes?
(2) Nature of the work; (a) was the original work fact or fiction? (b) Was the original work published or unpublished?
(3) Amount and substantiality of copying of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; this factor examines the quantity of material taken and its overall importance to P’s work and considers whether more was taken from the original work than necessary, given the stated purpose of copying; and
(4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work (this is the most important factor); the court considers whether the second work could potentially harm the market—present or future—for the original copyright holder’s work.
Here, under Section 107 analysis, it is possible that DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were created under the fair use exception of the Copyright Act.
DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were created under the categories of section 107 of the Copyright Act, that provide for fair use, a defense to copyright infringement. According to Lil’ Keke and the late Pimp C, DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were created for purposes of teaching, scholarship, and news reporting (see block quote above). DJ Screw disseminated new music across the south and turned southerners on to music popular in other parts of the country. Furthermore, according to Andrew Noz, DJ Screw, on his Screw tapes, repurposed other artist’s songs for comment, arguably for criticism and perhaps even for research (see block quote above).
(1) DJ Screw’s Screw tapes were not supplanting they were transformative (AND SCREWED!). DJ Screw screwed songs. In an interview from the November ’95 Rap Pages, Screw said, “the Screw sound is when I mix tapes with songs that people can relax to. Slower tempos, to feel the music and so you can hear what the rapper is saying. When I am mixing, I might run across something a rapper’s saying which is important. I may run it back two or three times to let you hear what he is saying—so you can wake up and listen, because they are telling you something…The Screw sound is me hollering at my partners, shouting their neighborhoods and shit like that.” In fact, when labels release a screwed album, many times they will simultaneously release an unscrewed version or accompany the screwed version with an unscrewed version because screwed music is so much different. Labels realize that audiences do not only want to hear the screwed sound. Therefore, a screwed song does not supplant the original.
(2) In this case the original works are songs and not facts, which would weigh in favor of DJ Screw. Further, many of the songs he used were published. This would also weigh in favor of DJ Screw. Usually when the original song is published, courts will lean towards fair use.
(3) Here, DJ Screw did not take more than necessary. Although he usually screwed the whole song, this quantity was important for the overall purpose of his work and his overall stated purpose of his copying. In other words, his use of the song was not excessive. It was reasonable in relation to the purpose of the copying.
(4) As stated in (2), the effect of the use of DJ Screw’s work had little impact on the potential market for the original copyright holder’s songs. Although DJ Screw took the whole song, the screwed version sounded so different and communicated such a different vibe, there was a small chance the screwed version would saturate the demand for the original copyrighted work.
DJ Screw didn’t sweat the heat from the major labels. Instead of paying for compulsory licenses or paying out royalties, Screw amassed a crew of local artists, had them rap over unheard-of beats and kept doing his thing. Many rappers out of Houston, Texas, especially those from the Screwed Up Click, attribute their success to the screw tape features DJ Screw provided them. Lil Keke, the late Fat Pat, the late Big Hawk, Yungstar, Lil Flip, Big Moe, Big
Pokey, 3-2, the Botany Boys, and Z-Ro all got their start on screw tapes.
In the July 1995 issue of the Source, DJ Screw stated, “I wanna Screw the whole world.” Now, in 2012,type just about any artist or song name in the YouTube search box followed by “chopped and screwed” or just “screwed version” and you will probably find that DJ Screw accomplished his goal. Rest in Peace DJ SCREW (July 20, 1971 – November 16, 2000).
CLICK to watch DJ SCREW mixing “Swang Down” & “25 Lighters”
 The Origins of Screwed Music…According to Galvatron, the t.r.o.y.blog, http://www.thetroyblog.com/2011/06/23/the-origins-of-screwed-music-according-to-galvatron/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2012).
 DJ Screw The Untold Story, (2006).
 Jesse Washington, Life in the Slow Lane, The Houston Press, Jan 2001, http://www.houstonpress.com/2001-01-18/news/life-in-the-slow-lane/3/
(last visited Feb. 14, 2012).
 DJ Screw The Untold Story, (2006).
 Washington, supra note 6.
 DJ Screw The Untold Story,
 Washington, supra note 6.
 Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 106 (1972).
 Washington, supra.
 17 U.S.C. § 501 (1972).
 17 U.S.C. § 107 (1972).
 Washington, supra note 6.