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Joshua Alston

Joshua Alston is a staff writer and television critic for The A.V. Club. He lives in Atlanta. 

“Chopped, Screwed, and Regendered: Vocal Dynamics and Tempo in Houston Hip-Hop”
Houston’s esoteric hip-hop scene, and its homegrown “chopped and screwed” subgenre, briefly attracted national attention due mostly to the drug culture that sprang up around “purple drank” and the recreational use of prescription cough syrup. But beyond the ephemeral media interest lies a thriving stylistic movement that rejected ephemerality in favor of sustaining each musical moment as long as possible. The chopped and screwed technique, which dates back to the early 1990s, involves slowing the tempo of hip-hop and R&B tracks to half the original tempo—if that—while manipulating the music to emphasize repetition and to savor each beat.

The natural consequence of the tempo reduction is a deepening of the voices that recontextualizes the tracks in provocative ways. Hip-hop growls become inhuman demon-speak, while female vocals take on a distinctly male sound, forcing the listener to process the text in a completely different way. The vocal shifting calls attention to how lyrics are rigidly gendered, and how heavily the sonic quality of vocals factors into our understanding of pop music narratives. For example, the experience of listening to Kelly Rowland sing about how she likes her “kisses down low” is a distinctly different experience at full speed than it is in DJ Polly Pop’s chopped and screwed version, in which Rowland’s husky female vocal timbre sounds like a male voice.

My paper will explore the voice in chopped and screwed tracks using the music itself, as well as interviews with the scene’s most prominent DJs, to explore how a narrow hip-hop subculture has broader things to say about the impact of the voice on the sexual politics and traditional narratives in hip-hop and R&B music. 

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