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Courtesy of A24

February 8, 2017

JONES | Chopped and Screwed: The Music of Moonlight

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In general, I try not to learn too much about new movies before I see them; I like to protect the unpredictability and promise one feels in the dark theater just before the movie begins. The only thing I knew about Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight coming in, besides that it had been widely acclaimed, was that it had a chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s 2015 club hit “Classic Man” in it, which had been showcased in a trailer I hadn’t actually seen but had heard about. This song provided a barometer of the age and perspective of the people I saw the movie with. I saw Moonlight first with my parents, and tried to talk to them about why the inclusion of an altered version of the song was an interesting choice; they didn’t know the original song and didn’t have much interest in why a remix of it was in the movie. When I saw the film again a few weeks later with two high school friends, about three seconds into the scene in which the song comes blaring out of the car speakers, my friend leaned over and whispered, “Ayyy, chopped and screwed!”

The “chopped and screwed” style of remixing hip-hop originated in Houston in the ‘90s, although it’s found a second life in online file-sharing sites like DatPiff, where amateur DJs can upload their own mixes of hit songs and albums. The sound comes from two processes: “chopping” — cutting up sections of the song or vocals and making them repeat as if a DJ scratch – and “screwing,” slowing the tempo down so that the pitch of the instruments and vocals falls as well (the name for this comes from DJ Screw, who is credited with the creation of the style). A chopped and screwed mix slows down the bounce of a club beat to a stoned crawl, while the vocals fall several registers into a sleepy robot drone. Take Biggie’s “Juicy” for example: what begins as an infectious declaration of triumph becomes, in the hands of DJ Screw, something much stranger and darker, like a garbled deathbed reminiscence with the narrator’s thick, syrupy voice stumbling over his words and repeating some phrases again and again.

While working together on the soundtrack for Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins and score composer Nicholas Britell even applied the technique of chopping and screwing to classical music and to Britell’s original score for the movie. The main character’s musical theme — he’s called “Little,” Chiron (his real name) and “Black” in the three different sections of his life that the movie depicts — begins as “Little’s Theme,” which is a few simple, melancholic piano chords and a plaintive violin. This melody recurs throughout the film in different forms, including a chopped and screwed version that plays during a harrowing scene of violence; here the melody is slowed down, becoming all thudding bass and muted anxiety.

However, the most bizarre and ultimately most rewarding musical moment in the film is still when the chopped and screwed “Classic Man” comes out of Black’s car. He’s outside a diner and when he comes back to his car later, with Kevin, a man he hasn’t seen in years and with whom he had his first sexual experience. In this context, when Black cranks up his car and “Classic Man” resumes over the rumbling car engine, the implication is clear. As much as the song’s chorus insists on dated, stoic ideas of masculinity — “I’m a classic man / You can be mean when you look this clean… Old-fashioned man” — Black is anything but a “classic,” heteronormative individual. His song choice for his car only underlines his sense of discomfort with his identity, rather than reflecting boldness or confidence. This has everything to do with the technique of chopping and screwing the song, which takes Jidenna’s bratty, smooth voice and turns it into a forlorn moan. The meaning of the lyrics themselves seems to change; “Even if she go away” turns from an expression of independence and bravado to a lament. Jenkins commented on how the process of chopping and screwing the song changed the meaning, saying, “By trying to make it hard you actually reveal even more this sensitivity, and this yearning… I think the lyrics in that song, when you actually take your time with them, it’s some sensitive shit, you know?”

Moonlight is a film that asks the viewer to slow down, to bathe in anxiety and paranoia, to live for a while in a world warped by drugs, crime, governmental and societal neglect. It’s fitting that the soundtrack takes a song and warps it by slowing it down, until the isolation and sadness at its heart is exposed.

Jack Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jackjones@cornellsun.com. His column Despite All the Amputations runs alternate Thursdays this semester.