Inside the recording studio at Screwed Up Records & Tapes, William Gibbs lights up a Black & Mild and pauses to consider how long he’s been sipping. Next to Gibbs—who’s better known as Will-Lean, a member of the legendary Houston hip-hop collective Screwed Up Click—is a tall, white Styrofoam cup. The concoction inside mixes Faygo Redpop, a strawberry-flavored cream soda, and promethazine codeine cough syrup, a prescription pain reliever and cough suppressant that’s also the main ingredient for any number of similar cocktails referred to as “drank,” “purple stuff,” “lean,” and “sizzurp,” among other names.
Gibbs decides he’s been sipping since the mid-’90s. “I feel like I’m checking myself into rehab or something,” he says as he ponders his history. “I don’t get high. I just drink it for the taste. It tastes as good as a motherf—–. Shit don’t do anything for me anymore, but I still do it.” He’s made good headway on his Redpop, and his relaxed vibe reflects it—the effects include numbness, lethargy, and euphoria.
In the parking lot out front, on West Fuqua Street in the South Park neighborhood of Houston, someone is tossing chicken legs, boudin sausage, and rib slabs on a grill. This isn’t just any Wednesday afternoon on the South Side: It’s the 16th anniversary of the death of Robert Earl Davis Jr., better known as DJ Screw, the main popularizer of “chopped and screwed,” the technique that helped put the Houston hip-hop scene on the map. Davis would slow down the tempo of a song to make it seem as if the music were unfolding in slow motion, layering in new beats and scratches. He died in November 2000 of a “codeine overdose with mixed drug intoxication,” according to the autopsy report, just as the styles he helped pioneer were becoming synonymous with the slower pace of Southern cities. To many, the music spoke of everyday life, which for some people included drinking drank. Artists such as Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber have since celebrated its high, spreading its fame and boosting recreational consumption.