Over at 713 Motoring on the southwest side, Brandon Stewart, vice president of that custom car shop, is weighing his words carefully. He has to; he’s a point man of sorts for the slab diaspora.
“Some people come to us with their car and say, ‘I have no idea what to do,’” Stewart tells us. “Other people have a very specific vision, and some people do everything on their own.”
Hence, the ongoing evolution in what it means to be a slab, the name for those wet-looking, low-to-the-ground, Skittles-colored vintage cars that popular culture likes to associate with rappers and gangsters but actually predate said association. Now visible everywhere from Harlem to L.A., it’s an automotive art form that’s been gracing Houston’s streets since the 1980s; indeed, it was born right here, not far from Stewart’s shop.
“We’re seeing slab trucks and brand new cars fresh off the lot with candy paint and swangas”—those glossy, cone-shaped rims that look like armor from a Mad Max movie. “Now you have so many different options than we did growing up, and it can get real expensive real fast.”
In other words, whereas slabs were once renovation projects, a way for car owners to draw attention to their old heaps without spending a fortune, now it’s the slab aesthetic itself that’s being remade. Car lovers are refashioning newer models in the slab style, upping their value and creating a new market for expensive custom parts.
Expect the discussion of slabs and their meaning to continue on October 20, when the Houston Arts Alliance’s Folklife and Traditional Arts Program and the Houston Museum of African American Culture team up to produce the city’s first ever Houston Slab Parade and Family Festival. The 50-car parade will begin on the corner of Griggs and Calhoun and end at MacGregor Park in the Third Ward.
The festival is the brain child of former Hiram Clarke resident Langston Collin Wilkins, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Indiana University studying the connection between Houston hip-hop and place. He is likely the only academic in the world -- as far as anyone can tell -- exploring the role that slabs play in the city's hip-hop culture. “There’s a gap in Houston’s cultural history,” says Wilkins, “and we really need to fill the void in that history, because what we’re missing from an artistic perspective alone is rich.”
The hope, at least in some corners, is that slabs will gain attention from a wider public. For his part, John Guess, Jr., CEO of the Museum of African American Culture, thinks the parade will at last debunk the idea that slabs are the province of thugs and dealers.
“There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll musicians were seen as anti-social, anti-order, dangerous kinds of people,” he says. “But the guys who own these cars have created an art form—from right here in Houston—that expresses itself so intensely that it connects with people all over the country.”
Which is all good news to Stewart, who says it’s rare for a car owner to spend less than $20,000 on a slab these days; indeed, some spend five times that.
“Some of these cars don’t even have motors in the beginning,” he says. “By the time you add the body work, the paint, the sound system and the rims you’ve probably spent enough money to buy you a new car. The rims alone can cost $10,000, easy.”