The second part of our investigation into records that sound good at the wrong speed, focusing on New Beat and Chopped & Screwed.
Last year we wrote about records that sound good at the wrong speed. We had lots of feedback and suggestions for other records or whole scenes where pitch adjustments were a central element so we decided to do Part 2. We’re going to cover two DJ led scenes that have been based around playing records at the wrong speed: Belgian New Beat and Houston’s Chopped & Screwed scene. Both were created by DJ innovation and based around the magic that happens when records are substantially slowed down, revealing musical treasures that weren’t initially apparent when played at their intended speed.
...it makes the whole thing sound otherworldly and it brings sounds and atmospheres even the producers/writers didn't know were there to the front...
First a brief recap. Vinyl record decks like the DJ standard Technics 1200s and 1210s play records at one of two set speeds: either 45 revolutions per minute (RPM) or 33 RPM. They also have a pitch control which can incrementally speed up or slow down playing speed within a range of -8 to +8%. Generally, albums are played at 33, singles are played at 45, with 12” singles usually, but not always, playing at 45 too.
Playing a vinyl record at the wrong speed usually makes it sound ridiculously fast and high pitched or slow and sludgy. However, many DJs over the years have discovered that playing certain records at the incorrect RPM, while also utilising the pitch control on a Technics record deck can yield genuinely interesting and usable results.
So a 45 RPM record played at 33 might sound too slow and murky to play, but if the DJ then turns up the Technics pitch control to its highest setting of +8%, it might become more usable, while still sounding radically slower than it was originally intended to sound. This was a technique that was the basis of Belgian New Beat and Houston’s Chopped & Screwed scene.
Belgium has an interesting history of DJs playing music at the wrong speed. Separate from electronic dance music, Belgium’s ‘Popcorn Scene’ arose in the 1970s, with DJs playing rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, Latin and rock and roll records all with a certain type of swing rhythm and often radically pitch adjusted.
New Beat, meanwhile, is a genre of dance music that popped up in Belgium in the late 80s, combining certain elements of EBM, house, new wave, hi-energy, industrial and electro. It was a club scene that was originally pioneered and driven by DJs. From their initial innovations of finding records that worked at the wrong speed, the heavy, sludgy sound went on to be reflected in New Beat productions.
DJ Dikke Ronny
New Beat was kicked off by Ronny Harmsen, known as DJ Dikke Ronny (literally ‘Fat Ronny’). He DJed regularly at the Ancienne Belgique club in Antwerp and one night he accidentally played a 45rpm record at 33rpm on +8. Ronny takes up the story:
“I was too late between two records [the record was running out], I put my finger on the turntable, the pitch control was at +8 and I switched it to the wrong speed – and it was like a new hit! The record was ‘Coitus Interuptus’ by Fad Gadget. It was an accident but immediately it filled the floor and it sounded fantastic, beautiful.”
Ronny would often use the Technics pitch control in tandem with the RPM switch to speed the slowed record up to a more listenable degree, finding a musical sweet spot that appealed to him. “And so whenever I would go looking for records I would try to find other songs that sounded good if played them slower or faster. Usually, the beats were around 110 and 120 bpm as it sounded so good with the very low bass.” Ronny kindly put together a playlist of some of the biggest records of the early New Beat scene to which he used to give the extreme pitch treatment.
DJ Geert Sermon
Geert Sermon is a Belgian DJ who was at the centre of the New Beat scene and who went on to compile The Sound Of Belgium compilation: “I started playing in the late 80s in small local clubs and doing small New Beat parties for the “under 18”-ish crowd.. playing records on the wrong speed stayed my trademark up until today haha! I kept on doing it with every kind of style where a track sound better “wrong” than right… My faves are: Stanton Miranda ‘Wheels Over Indian Trails’, Fred Brown’s ‘Roman Days’ and ‘Boytronic’s ‘Bryllyant’.”
“Playing records slowed down, it makes the whole thing sound otherworldly and it brings sounds and atmospheres even the producers/writers didn’t know were there to the front. Slowing down adds “space” and “bottom” which is always an interesting combination I think. I love it when a track sounds mediocre on the right speed but becomes an unintentional piece of art on the wrong speed.”
You can listen to Geert in pitched-down-action via this mix:
Chopped & Screwed
DJ Screw, real name Robert Earl Davis (1971 – 2000), was a US hip hop DJ based in Houston, Texas. He pioneered a unique style of DJing, ‘Chopped & Screwed’, where he slowed down the tempo of records (screwed) and then, using two copies, beat juggled and scratched (chopped) them to create a new, weird, ethereal sound, one that tweaked and teased the listener’s sense of time.
His mixing style, immortalised in hundreds of mixtapes, created a distorted, deep, hissy, psychedelic aesthetic that was hugely influential in hip hop and the various lo-fi and ‘wave’ subgenres that sprouted in the 2000s and beyond. Aside from lowering the tempo and cutting between tracks to perform basic live remixes, he would also sometimes play several tracks at the same time. DJ Screw’s innovations put Houston at the centre of hip hop in the mid-2000s and his mixtapes became infamous.
Julie Grob is the founder and curator of the Houston Hip Hop Research Collection at the University of Houston, which documents Houston hip hop music and culture. She told us over email about the continuing influence of DJ Screw:
“DJ Screw’s musical influence has been enormous. In Houston, appearances on his mixtapes developed the careers of enduring artists like Lil’ Keke, Big Pokey, and ESG. His Chopped and Screwed sound with its repeated beats, words, and phrases and slowed down tempo also influenced the artists on Houston’s Swishahouse label, which had a major hit in the mid-2000s with “Still Tippin’” by Mike Jones featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall. DJ Screw’s innovative sound continues to be heard in the work of major artists including Drake, ASAP Rocky, Frank Ocean, Beyonce, and Solange Knowles. Culturally, DJ Screw and his circle of rappers known as the Screwed Up Click shined a light on Houston’s unique underground culture of slang, slabs (highly modified cars), and grills (teeth jewellery).”
The much-missed DJ Screw tragically passed away in November 2000 at a point when he was perhaps on the verge of much wider fame. His legacy is the broadening of the boundaries of hip hop and the creation of a decelerated, hazy, molasses-thick aesthetic that has proved both popular and influential worldwide.
Radical Re-Pitching: The Future
The radical re-pitching and tempo adjustment of records by DJs has been a continual source of new styles and scenes within dance music. With warping and time-stretching algorithms now more effective and accessible than ever before, we’ll likely be seeing more developments in this area.
The technique has generally tended to be used to slow the music down rather than speed it up (the obvious exception being some of the breaks records we mentioned in Part 1) for the practical reason that when you speed a vinyl record up, it loses bass information.
However, digital technology enables much more radical tempo adjustments without affecting the pitch, so the future of extreme DJing tempo and pitch adjustments has plenty of room for more creativity and innovation. In a dance music world where the underground is constantly battling appropriation and homogenisation, extreme DJing techniques can push musical culture and innovation forward. And as Geert Sermon says: “It adds some decadence in an otherwise dull world or dancefloor”.