Slow-FM presents a taste of ‘chopped and screwed’ music in Philly

 Lee Tusman is producer of

Lee Tusman is producer of "Slow FM," a pirate radio broadcast and performance at Christ Church airing Tuesday at 10 a.m. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

All day Tuesday, a tiny, micro-watt pirate radio broadcast will transmit some of the most popular songs ever, slowed down to a spooky speed.

The experimental project called Slow-FM will focus on “chopped and screwed,” a sub-genre of hip-hop that remixes songs down to a narcotic level.

Take, for example, “Smooth Operator” by Sade. The sultry saxophone and laid-back vocals set the bar for sexy R&B since it was released in 1984. If you play it back at 3/4-speed, the saxophone grinds to a drone and the vocals smear like a paste. Drop a few quarter-beats, and the whole thing lurches.

“You want the beat to be slow and have a ghostly, ethereal feel,” said Lee Tusman, the producer of Slow-FM. “Sade starts to sound less female, more male — and drunk, a little bit.”

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The art of slowing down is below the radar in hip-hop. Fans of the groggy music find tracks mostly on blogs and through word-of-mouth. Now several DJs will be chopping and screwing during a 12-hour, micro-watt radio broadcast from the Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It is the first of a week of experimental music events at the Neighborhood House called “New Spaces, New Formats,” funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Slow-FM will also include chopped and screwed’s cousins: chill wave, ambient, and electronic art music.

“We’re in a beautiful period right now where people coming out of a sound-art context are interacting with hip-hop, and you’re seeing it happen in reverse,” said Tusman. “Kanye West’s new album is completely influenced by electronic music, bass music, and experimental music. I’m drawing connections between all of that.”

Some of the music will be prerecorded, some DJs will remix live with synthesizers and midi mixers, and some musicians will perform instruments.

One of those artists will be Tim Bieniosek, a Philadelphia software engineer who makes music as Chttr. He makes ambient tracks and releases them as CD-Rs and on SoundCloud. Although his ambient tracks have no slowed-down samples, he is strongly influenced by chopped and screwed.

“They’re quite transgressive in nature,” said Bieniosek. “If you think about what pop music is — people relate to the beat, and the vocals. Chopped and screwed music is about slowing the beat down and slowing the vocals down, rendering the vocalist as foreign from what it was meant to be. Ambient music is another reaction to pop music. No beats, not vocals, just purely tone.”

Chopped and screwed music was pioneered in the 1990s by a Texas DJ named Screw, who released chopped and screwed cassettes of other people’s albums through the South. He died in 2000 from an overdose of codeine; cough syrup was the drug of choice in the chopped and screwed subculture.

Tusman will set up the Neighborhood House for a small audience of a few dozen, in a small anteroom of the building’s event space. The space is intimate, with couches and easy chairs. Tusman will serve herbal tea.

The frequency of the radio broadcast (via a one-watt transmitter, enough to not quite cover the nieghborhood) will be announced immediately before the performance begins, on Tusman hopes people will listen in the environment the music is supposed to work best — lying on their own couches and rugs, chilling out at home.

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