I Myself Am Hell

Skrewtape is a music column curated by Alex Ashford, an award-winning poet, educator, and music writer. The title draws on such disparate influences as DJ Screw and C.S. Lewis, reflecting her chopped up Southern heritage and philosophical thoughts. 

The shortest, sweetest way to explain Skrewtape as a concept is: C.S Lewis and DJ Screw walk into a bar. Welcome to the little juke joint in my head that I affectionately refer to as “the crossroads,” where seemingly unrelated things converge. This phenomena is beyond my control and feeds other weird quirks like my insufferable eye for “coincidence,” or what I imagine as crystal breadcrumbs scattered at my feet leading to some looming truth. 

The Screwtape Letters, one of Lewis’ best-known works, is a “compilation” of correspondences between a high-ranking demon named Screwtape, and his mentee, Wormwood, on how to — no pun intended — screw humans over. Lewis likely did not imagine, back in 1942 when the work was published, that the name of his demonic anti-hero would be literally chopped and screwed back together again during the advent of hip-hop by the new meanings “screw” and “tape” would take on. In case you’re unfamiliar, in the early ‘90s a then twenty-something Robert Earl Davis (aka DJ Screw) pioneered a Texan DJ technique marked by “chopping and screwing” records. This method eventually morphed into a globally-recognized southern hip-hop signature.

What’s more, Southern rap’s unending preoccupation with God and the Devil is ultimately the same preoccupation that drives Lewis’ Letters, and the popular Christian rhetoric asserting Lucifer’s original office was minister of music seems to tie him to the codeine-laced ambience of DJ Screw’s syrupy, purple sonic brainchild. Which leads me back to that crystal breadcrumb thing I was talking about earlier, Skrewtape’s existence hinges on the clandestine pairings of metaphors and ghosts that show up to my head’s resident juke joint. As such, the column will provide a monthly offering of three songs that will be added to an updating playlist I hope you’ll listen to along with me. 

As 2021 opens, I feel tumultuous inside. Like Robert Lowell writes in Skunk Hour (dedicated to  Elizabeth Bishop, no less) “I myself am hell,” and that seems a fairly fitting introduction to both the year and this column. The tracks on this month’s tape are both transitional and processional, like walking toward an altar — one metaphor from my Bible Belt upbringing that feels clean. It’s all I can do to process my confused grieving to make room for the very real excitement and hope I’m nervous to fully accept. A track from Drake’s Dark Lane gives way to a billowy street lullaby from Dave East, and tapers to a southern staple from Goodie Mob and Outkast, about rebounding after a close call.   

Drake, “Losses” (Dark Lane Demo Tapes, 2020)

“You sold me up the river but I rowed back,” Drake raps. “You put me on the road without a road map.” Every sullen word Drizzy utters on “Losses,” a song that opens with a sample from a song his dad introduced on IG Live, refuses to pay tribute to halcyon days, and as such, boasts no silver linings. His use of the road trip metaphor — an inverted nod to his and Dennis’ storied drives from Canada to Memphis every summer — is especially biting. I have my own brooding musician father, a classically-trained pianist who may or may not have almost toured with David Bowie sometime in the ‘80s. I’m familiar with the cold, cruel chill of being slighted by a man who is not only your dad, but your idol, the person who has taught you more than anyone else about the thing (music) you love most in the world. 

When Drake says “I’m a fortune teller listen to what I say,” it’s hard to argue with the assertion. Ten years ago on his debut, he talked about his idols becoming rivals; now, on “Losses” he grapples with the fallout of that prophecy, and admits that the man who taught him everything about music, a man whose photo he used for More Life’s cover, left him alone on the road, directionless. Drake is clear that he’s not just “tryna make a song,” that “these are cold facts,” and when he says so, I catch a glimpse of So Far Gone and Comeback Season Drake, the kid who’d spend almost an entire song wallowing in a sea of turbid, Scorpio emotion, then, take a turn so stoic it’d become evident his  complexity is unmatched. “Losses” is about self-love, about the “storied drive” alone in search of peace after a parent-inflicted trauma. It’s a boundary spell, too, a departure from enmeshment, a child finally understanding where his father ends and he begins. 

I realize now that the only truly peaceful moments with my dad have all been on the road with only us and the music and possibility ahead, the next bump, landmark, or song. To imagine him leaving me stranded, music-less, on the turf we both hold sacred, feels like a betrayal of Caesar and Brutus (or Jesus and Judas) proportions. If I close my eyes, the track’s winding emotives feel like making my way through the familiar maze of backroads between my home state of Mississippi and Drake’s inherited Shelby County, where the trick is to keep the faith with each inscrutable turn.  

Dave East Featuring Mary J. Blige, “Know How I Feel” (Karma 3, 2020) 

To call Harlem rapper Dave East world-weary might be an understatement. He makes no secret of his obsession with mortality, and on his latest project, Karma 3, he picks up where he left off on 2019’s Survival, heavy-laden rhymes, paranoid as ever. Nas’ chosen protege grieves old and new losses, only now, there’s more at stake. “Know How I Feel” opens with a tone-setting confession from the queen of hip-hop soul herself as she sings in the opening :“The only way I can heal… pour out my heart and my soul.” 

Much like his New York rap forefathers Biggie and Tupac, East wrestles with theodicy, bluntly posing questions like “why the fake live a long time and the real die?” and even his hopes and dreams for the future are shrouded in a fretful paranoia. With the same long breath that he uses to ramble off a list of traumas he hopes his future son will avoid (“hope he don’t know ‘bout the pills… hope he don’t know ‘bout the coke…”), he also dares to hope his son will “know how to grow” and “how to build.” 

East’s survivor’s remorse blares loudest in the record’s subtleties, the quicksilver pauses, like how he almost seems to lament the changes brought on by fame. “Can’t spend too much time in the hood now, I could get killed,” he says, before sharply referencing the murder of his good friend, the subsequent psychic fallout of the tragedy becoming clear — “streets tricky, the way they did Nipsey / shit shocked me for real.” 

Rappers are no strangers to the art of eulogizing and even talking to the dead on record, and East makes full use of the tradition. Ironically, his portrayal of Method Man in Wu-Tang: An American Saga coupled here with the presence of Blige conjures the ghost of a New York hip-hop glam past, epitomized in Meth & Mary’s “You’re All I Need.” In “Know How I Feel,” East, famous for his war stories, is at a crossroads or a seance, I can’t quite tell which. 

Goodie Mob Featuring Outkast, “Black Ice (Sky High)” (Still Standing, 1998)

My morning bus ride to high school began when the sky was still dark, a consequence of living “in the sticks.” I grew up past the city limits, where the cops might not come if you called. I was always the first kid on the bus, and alone among the empty seats on the rickety ride, my favorite distraction from the discomfort was music. Watching night turn to day to the tune of one song locked on repeat became a ritual, “Black Ice” on loop on my portable CD player. 

Refined to its core, “Black Ice” is a frame story about surviving winter. Think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but with Goodie Mob and Outkast as arbiters. Instead of Middle English, “Black Ice” is told in a dazzling, Black, Southern AAVE befitting a country-rap grime tale brewing beneath the surface of what seem like genteel, even playful, rhymes. Gipp starts the track off with what I like to call a typical “corner store tale.” That is, a short anecdote with a moral lesson recited frequently by old heads at the neighborhood market nearest you: “Most of ya’ll that met me,” he quips, “thought I was tall” before openly admitting he slipped and “fell on the black ice.” 

It’s important to note that there are nuances here. Black ice to a southerner isn’t just a form of precipitation, it’s a harbinger. Encountering ice in the subtropical South, let alone slipping and “falling” on it, is an omen that more unexpected, probably dangerous shit is soon to pop off. And it’s likely related to the kind of “mindless” illegalities that the poor engage in out of desperation. As Dre puts it later, “ain’t a thing could explain what pertains to cocaine and sustaining reign.” The falling metaphor also serves as a nod to the all important fall of man and the harrowing curse of hard work and toil that results, plunging man into endless, difficult labor. 

Dre’s grandiose final stanza begins with a Shakespearean call to action, “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your eardrums,” he insists, the classical reference mixing with his homegrown Georgia accent, refashioning the harsh experiences of poor Black southerners in epic form. Recorded just three years after his famous Source Awards declaration “Da souf got sum to say,” Dre was, in fact, just getting started with fulfilling his own prophecy. Besides the stunning images and beautiful rhyme schemes, Dre’s last words are a cutting critique on white patriarchal capitalism as he declares its original sin, “take sun people put ‘em in a land of snow.” And despite the relatively grim realities the song traverses, its refrain feels like a celebration of the sheer magic of a people who find themselves in the throes of a cold, unfamiliar new world and created a world-renowned artform all about it: “Touch what I never touched befo’ / seen what I never seen befo’ / woke up and seen the sun sky high.” 

Keep up with Skrewtape’s progress on the updating, complete playlist found here.

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