"A slab is not a car.” Lil Keke begins an enlightening interview with this bewildering statement. “I don’t mean no disrespect in that,” he continues. “But the term, slab.. The slab was the concrete. It’s the black top. The slab is Martin Luther King, McGregor Park, Kappa Beach, you know, Carros on a Saturday night. That was the slab.”
Slabs, or better yet, slab culture—the act of “holdin’ slab”— is a Houston original. An artform and a lifestyle born here in the Bayou City. A culture molded by its surroundings in a city shaped, quite literally, by freeways. Houston, more so than any other city in America, is a commuter city. An enormous metropolis connected by wide, fast-moving freeways and tangled webs of overpasses. Freeways that slice the city into wards and neighborhoods, often becoming physical representations of income disparity and racial divides.
Marcus Lakee Edwards, better known on and off stage as the rapper Lil Keke, was instrumental to slab culture’s genesis. Yet, in the first moments of our interview with him, he dismantled our very notion of what the word means. Slabs, as they are colloquially understood (or perhaps misunderstood), are heavily modified automobiles.
Large-bodied, luxury, American coupes and sedans—Cadillacs, Lincolns, Buicks, and so on—painted in unnaturally bright candy hues; decked out with enough speakers to set off car alarms; equipped with over-the-top accessories like “fifth wheels” and neon trunk signs; and, most importantly, fitted with aftermarket wire spoke rims called “swangas”, “elbows” or “84s”. The original 84s were the factory wheels installed on certain 1983 and 1984 Cadillac models, though the term now extends to the much-exaggerated replicas made by after-market manufacturer Texas Wire Wheels, which can extend 12 to 22 inches beyond the profile of the car.
When we think of American car enthusiasm, we tend to think of NASCAR, Jeeps, classic muscle cars and road trips on Route 66. We picture Steve McQueen in a fastback Mustang, Carroll Shelby in a Cobra 427 and whiskey bootleggers outrunning the law in souped up Ford coupes.
But what comes to mind when we see the gleam of candy paint and chrome swangas? What cultural association do we have with the trunk-rattling boom of a car meant to be heard before it’s ever seen?
Slab culture is a uniquely American and deeply southern subculture of auto-enthusiasm. One that is nearly inseparable from the regional music that so heavily influences it. While the origins and true definition of the word, as Keke informs us, are rather murky, some consider the modern use of the term SLAB (meaning the car) to be an acronym: slow, loud, and bangin’. A nod to the role that hip hop and, more to the point, aftermarket sound systems play in the construction of the car.
“You just get a car from scratch,” says East Up J Hawk, Houston slab owner and builder for over a decade. “You know, pretty much a hoopty. That’s what they call it.” J Hawk built his first slab, a 1990 Buick LeSabre, in 2007 and has been building and showcasing cars ever since. Today, he drives a 1996 Buick Park Avenue in unmistakable candy orange. “I always build mine from scratch,” he explains, with no small amount of pride.
Across the south, nascent forms of slab culture have existed within Black and brown communities dating back to the early 1970s. These trends emerged from the popularity of Blaxploitation films and the outlandish cars they showcased. Chromed-out Cadillacs with fifth wheels embedded in the trunk, sleek and powerful muscle cars like Shaft’s Chevelle SS. Like so much of the exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek imagery of the Blaxploitation era, the cars found their way into the real world, adopted in Houston and other cities by pimps, drug dealers and street hustlers as material symbols of wealth.
Here, however, that car culture, that expression of black prosperity, met with the advent of another, more regionally original culture—Houston rap. “That’s all we cared about,” says rapper, and car collector Le$, whose foray into slab ownership came years after the cars’ integration into hip-hop culture. “Getting some amps, getting some speakers and just having the loudest trunk.” At a certain point in the early to mid-90s, the longstanding culture of modifying cars for purely aesthetic purposes, a practice that had already spawned L.A.’s lowrider scene, merged with a burgeoning brand of local hip hop.
As artists like DJ Screw and members of the iconic Screwed Up Click (S.U.C) shaped the landscape of Houston rap, cars became essential to the material culture of hip hop. Once symbols of criminality, those modified, large-bodied boats on wheels became the physical evidence of a rapper’s success. “That’s where it all came from,” explains slab owner and influencer Kandy Red Bread. “Because a rapper did it. Fat Pat had a slab, and it was candy red. That’s the reason why I put my car together.”
Like J Hawk, Kandy Red Bread is a known slab owner, an influencer in a community that has experienced a renaissance. He and his candy red Lincoln Town Car have made appearances everywhere from Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival to a recent Vice documentary. “I feel like it has gained that national respect,” he says. “Supercar Blondie, she came out here and did something with us. Anthony Bourdain, he came out here and did something with us. We’re growing bigger and bigger.”
Slabs, believe it or not, weren’t always the beloved cultural symbol they are today. In fact, they were once at the center of a violent period of criminal unrest. An infamous era of robberies, drive-by shootings and regional hostilities known simply as the “north/south beef.” “It really comes from the north and the south sides,” explains J Hawk. “The ridin’ on 4s and the candy paint, you know? They had DJ Screw on the southside and DJ Michael Watts on the northside.”
In Houston, it is generally understood that Robert Earl Davis Jr, under the stage name DJ Screw, invented the chopped and screwed style of hip hop that came to define Houston’s music scene in the 1990s. Screw’s signature “Screw Tapes” would go on to make not only himself, but his closest collaborators and fellow Southsiders—artists like the late Fat Pat and aforementioned Lil Keke—nationally recognized rap stars. At a time when Houston was even more rigidly divided by neighborhood boundaries, Screw’s success and bragging rights extended to his community.
While south Houston neighborhoods like Sunnyside, South Park and the Third Ward were suddenly alive with the sights and sounds of their native sons, some northsiders grew resentful of the southside’s apparent come up, particularly when it manifested in the form of slabs. “It started behind some cars,” says Keke. “Me and Pat, we’re leading the way. I’m just being honest. We didn’t even know that we finna turn into stars, we finna turn into Pat and Lil Keke. Our tapes were for us. They were for us in our minds at 19, 20 [years old]. We made the tapes for the people on the southside to hear, but you know, the northside, they heard it anyway.”
The animosity stirred up by Screw’s tapes, combined with the boisterous, car-centric showboating of southside rappers, was like gasoline to a flame. Soon, slabs and nice cars in general, were regular targets for robberies and vandalism.
It wouldn’t take long for the northside to develop its own champions. The rise of DJ Michael “5000” Watts and the 1997 founding of his now iconic Swishahouse record label would give the north its own stars. Names like Paul Wall and Slim Thug rose through the ranks of Houston rap, feeding regional beef through their music and challenging the south’s superiority on the blacktop with their impressive rides. “Southside would ride candy red and the northside would ride blue,” explains J Hawk.
The regional hostilities would eventually end, thanks in large part to the efforts of Keke, Slim, Paul Wall and others. In truth, slab culture’s journey from illicit underground activity to beloved regional culture is not unlike other forms of auto-enthusiasm. Much of our national obsession with the automobile is rooted in our cultural fascination with rebellion. Slabs and their enduring popularity reflect that fascination.
Today, slab culture lives on beyond the violence and neighborhood wars that once defined it. It’s more popular than ever, having achieved respect and cultural acceptance outside of Houston. “It’s really dope to see it have this resurgence,” reflects Le$. “When you go out on Sunday to MLK and see all these dope photographers just capturing the visuals, it’s just people living their lives. And, it’s Houston.”