Books

Finally, Rappers Are Getting the Biographies They Deserve

Two new books are welcome additions to the genre.

Tiled covers of the DJ Screw and Biggie biographies
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by University of Texas Press and Harry N. Abrams.

Most Americans who learned George Floyd’s name two years ago have still never heard the stage name by which his hometown of Houston recognized him: Big Floyd, member of the legendary rap group Screwed Up Click. Even if you’ve never heard of the Click or its anchoring leader, DJ Screw, you have felt and heard the group’s impact on popular music and culture. Their innovative “chopped and screwed” method, with its trademark slowed-down, ethereal, drum-snapping, repetitive, bass-heavy, low-voiced sounds, echoes in songs and videos from Texans like Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion—and even beyond that, in a beautiful scene from the Oscar-winning Moonlight, or within hits by Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne, Drake, Mac Miller, ASAP Rocky, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar. In a more just world, Big Floyd would have achieved the fame he’d long desired for having been part of this movement, rather than for what his death now represents; more would have heard Floyd’s voice from his vivid, straight-talking freestyles than from the recording of his wrenching final words.

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But now, this part of his life and career finally may be getting its due, and its celebration. Last month, the first major biography of DJ Screw and the S.U.C. was published by Houston journalist Lance Scott Walker, following 14 years of reporting. DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution offers an overdue look at the life of this titan and his often-overlooked compatriots, combining deeply reported geographical surveys of Houston with oral histories from the people who knew Screw. Like the other major rap biography released last month, Justin Tinsley’s It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him, the Screw bio lays out a historically informed, nuanced survey of the economic and technological factors that drove an artist’s creations and the Screwed Up Click’s career—the kind of grounded study of a singular life that rarely garners such mass hype among rap fans.

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It’s no exaggeration to say DJ Screw, born Robert Earl Davis Jr., changed everything. As Walker notes, he wasn’t the first to champion the core aspect of chopping and screwing—playing a vinyl record at a slower speed in a public setting—but he did make an M.O. of it, and added his spins: interspersing bits of other songs within the slowed-down tracks, repeating certain lines and instrumental portions, sprinkling in loud, snapping drums to accompany repeated syllables, and capturing all these turntable tricks on cassette. These moves fleshed out the most essential aspects of any given rap song, forcing listeners to pay attention to the beats within the beats, drawing out words listeners may have overlooked. The songs weren’t warped, like they may have initially sounded; they were reinterpreted. And then there were the freestyles: Screw took beats from rap artists and had his friends (like Big Floyd) spit their own bars or sing their own melodies over those rhythms, later slowing the recordings of these sessions down and giving the rappers’ voices a deep, trippy ring and echo. In essence, Screw conducted a Houstonian symphony: variations on a theme, packed with images of tricked-out cars, overflowing codeine cups, and scratched-up vinyl discs.

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It was completely counterintuitive to how most listeners thought this music should sound—played at normal speed and loud volume, with the bass jacked up—and yet they couldn’t deny it. As Walker chronicles, artists like Ice Cube would send their singles to Screw and his team in order to get the chopped-and-screwed treatment, which led to further publicity. Screw was so iconic within his city that he not only brought national attention to Houston’s rappers, but was credited with helping end violent rivalries between Houston’s North and South sides; he was so iconic within his state that, months after he died of an overdose in November 2000, at age 29, Texas Monthly ran a lengthy profile of the man and placed his name in a coverline, right next to its centered photo of then–first lady Laura Bush. A Life in Slow Revolution not only offers Screw the studied biographical record he deserves, but also puts so many of his fellow S.U.C. members, who’d never gotten a high-profile book of their own, squarely within the rap canon: Al-D, E.S.G., Big Pokey, Big Moe, and, of course, Big Floyd.

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If DJ Screw serves to introduce more readers and rap heads to its subject, that’s not the same role It Was All a Dream assumes for the Notorious B.I.G., one of the most beloved, worshipped, and documented rappers in history (we at Slate have done our part). Even so, there is great value for a newer book like Dream, not least due to the timing: Last month marked the date that would have been Biggie’s 50th birthday, which New York hailed with citywide parties. Biggie has been hip-hop royalty since 1994, but in recent years his canonization has accelerated: He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 while being painted on several new murals in Brooklyn.

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Plus, Dream is a full measure of the man himself, going beyond coverage of his shocking, mysterious murder. As onetime music journalist Cheo Hodari Coker emphasized in the introduction to his 2003 book Unbelievable, much of the reason he wrote his own Biggie biography was to serve as a counter to then-prominent books that included full-spread, grisly photos of 2Pac’s and Biggie’s corpses. “If you’ve picked up a copy of Unbelievable just to find out who killed Biggie, then you’ve come to the wrong place,” he noted. “That’s not really what the book is about. … This is a book about the man in full.” It’s the same goal Tinsley pursues in It Was All a Dream, in which he doesn’t engage in any of the “who killed him?” speculation till the very end.

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It Was All a Dream is not nearly as strong a book as DJ Screw. It does pull off two compelling, admirable feats unusual for rap biographies: offering detailed historical and legislative context on the war on drugs, the international crack cartel, and the U.S.’s tough-on-crime carceral politics that, together, ravaged Brooklyn; and talking to Biggie’s loved ones about his darker side, especially regarding his misdeeds as a romantic partner. (This also extends to inner-circle members like Diddy, who does not get to evade the story of the Astroworld-style tragedy that occurred at an early-’90s concert he’d hosted.) These are undercut by subsequent narrative weaknesses: Tinsley does not always make the connection between the broader national history and its direct impact on Big and his family, and he often falls into flowing phrases of hero worship. Still, it’s an important book, offering a full-fledged portrait of the late Christopher Wallace from the moment his mother emigrated to Jamaica, to his first rap battles in Bed-Stuy, to his “so-called beef with you-know-who.” Plus, instead of ending with Big’s assassination, Tinsley dedicates his final chapter to Biggie’s now-grown-up son, CJ Wallace—what his life is like now, what he makes of his father’s impact, what he plans for his future. When so many rap chronicles wallow in death, Tinsley chooses instead to hail one of the young lives Biggie brought into this world.

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These two books arrive during an astonishingly prolific season for reported hip-hop biographies that center individual figures and dive into the cultural and political contexts that informed their lives and works. Despite controversies breaking out every so often—as with Mac Miller stans’ dismissal of a journalistic biography in favor of a book of fan reflections—rap biographies, as a genre, have been thriving. In the past few years alone, in addition to the Screw, Big, and Mac bios, we’ve seen the rapturous reception of high-profile books on J Dilla, Bushwick Bill, Nipsey Hussle, the Beastie Boys, Tekashi 6ix9ine, and Kendrick Lamar (who got two books!). A new book on MF DOOM is set for publication in 2024.

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This may not seem so significant until you survey the landscape of rap literature and notice how few quality studies of individual figures are otherwise present. There are plenty of incredible hip-hop histories, but proper journalistic profiles of our greatest rap figures that engage with all aspects of their lives and environments are still lacking. When they do arrive, they’re often sadly late. Look again at the rap artists I mentioned in the last paragraph; with the exceptions of 6ix9ine and Kendrick, all these books have come after their subjects’ deaths. If multiple already-outdated biographies can exist for, say, Elon Musk, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be writing the stories of some of our most important rap pioneers while they’re still alive.

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Almost every famous veteran of other historic genres—rock, pop, jazz, Broadway, etc.—has at least a few biographies attached to their name. Meanwhile, good luck seeking out similarly rigorously reported tomes about, say, Nas, or Grandmaster Caz, or MC Lyte, or even Fab 5 Freddy. There are any number of possible reasons for this paucity: the decadeslong crunching and consolidation of publishing houses and media companies, the racist cultural gatekeeping that still sidelines those involved with the world’s biggest genre, and the increasingly whittled-down field of serious rap journalism.

But whatever the cause, we now have books like DJ Screw and It Was All a Dream to help fix this problem, with more on the way. Rap scholars, music fans, and anyone who cares about the proper documentation of our cultural history should rejoice.

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