“A slab is not a car.” Lil Keke begins an enlightening interview with this baffling statement. “I don’t mean a lack of respect in this,” he continues. “But the term slab… The slab was concrete. This is the black top. The slab is Martin Luther King, McGregor Park, Kappa Beach, you know, Carros on a Saturday night. It was the slab.
Slabs, or better yet, slab culture – the act of “holding the slab” – is a Houston original. An art form and a lifestyle born here in the town of Bayou. A culture shaped by its environment in a city shaped, literally, by highways. Houston, more than any other city in America, is a suburban city. A huge metropolis linked by wide, fast highways and tangled networks of viaducts. Highways that divide the city into neighborhoods and neighborhoods, often becoming physical representations of income disparity and racial divisions.
Marcus Lakee Edwards, best known on and off the stage as rapper Lil Keke, was instrumental in the genesis of slab culture. Yet in the first few moments of our interview with him, he dismantled our very notion of what the word means. Tiles, as they are commonly understood (or perhaps misunderstood), are heavily modified automobiles.
Large body luxury American coupes and sedans – Cadillac, Lincoln, Buick, etc. – painted in unusually bright candy shades; equipped with enough speakers to trigger car alarms; equipped with high-end accessories such as fifth wheels and neon signs on the trunk; and, more importantly, fitted with aftermarket metal spoke rims called ‘swangas’, ‘elbows’ or ’84s’. The original 84s were the factory wheels fitted to some 1983 and 1984 Cadillac models, although the term now extends to heavily exaggerated replicas made by aftermarket parts maker Texas Wire Wheels, which may expand. 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 imagine Steve McQueen in a fastback Mustang, Carroll Shelby in a Cobra 427, and smugglers of smuggled whiskey in bloated Ford coupes.
But what comes to mind when we see the sparkle of candy paint and chrome swans? What cultural association do we have with the trunk noise of a car supposed to be heard before it is even seen?
Plate culture is a quintessentially American and deeply Southern self-enthusiastic subculture. The one that is almost inseparable from the regional music which influences it so strongly. While the origins and true definition of the word, as Keke informs us, is rather obscure, some consider the modern use of the term SLAB (meaning car) to be an acronym: slow, strong, and bangin ‘. A nod to the role that hip hop and, more specifically, aftermarket sound systems play in building the car.
“You just created a car from scratch,” says East Up J Hawk, owner and builder of slabs in Houston for over a decade. “You know, pretty much a hoopty. That’s what they call it. J Hawk built their first slab, a 1990 Buick LeSabre, in 2007 and since then have built and showcased cars. Today, he drives a 1996 Buick Park Avenue in unmistakable candy orange. “I always build mine from scratch,” he explains with great pride.
In the south, nascent forms of plate culture existed within black and brown communities dating back to the early 1970s. These trends emerged from the popularity of Blaxploitation films and the extravagant cars they featured. Chrome Cadillacs with fifth wheels integrated in the trunk, sleek and powerful muscle cars like Shaft’s Chevelle SS. Like so many exaggerated and ironic images of the Blaxploitation Era, cars have found their way into the real world, adopted in Houston and other cities by pimps, drug dealers and street con artists like material symbols of wealth.
Here, however, this automobile culture, this expression of black prosperity, met the advent of another, more regionally original culture, the Houston rap. “That’s all that mattered to us,” says rapper and car collector Le $, whose foray into tile ownership came years after cars became part of hip-hop culture. “Get amps, speakers, and just have the loudest trunk. At some point in the early to mid-90s, the long-standing culture of modifying cars for purely aesthetic purposes, a practice that had already spawned the lowrider scene in LA, merged with an emerging brand of hip hop. local.
As artists like DJ Screw and members of the iconic Screwed Up Click (SUC) shaped the rap landscape of Houston, cars have become essential to the material culture of hip hop. Once symbols of crime, these large modified boats on wheels have become the material proof of a rapper’s success. “That’s where it all came from,” says Kandy Red Bread, owner of the slab and influencer. “Because a rapper did it. Fat Pat had a pancake, and it was candy red. This is the reason why I assembled my car.
Like J Hawk, Kandy Red Bread is a known patty owner, an influencer in a renaissance community. He and his candy-red Lincoln Town Car have made appearances everywhere from Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival to a recent documentary on Vice. “I feel like he’s earned that national respect,” he says. “Supercar Blondie, she came here and did something with us. Anthony Bourdain, he came here and did something with us. We’re growing more and more.
Believe it or not, the slabs weren’t always the beloved cultural symbol that 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,” says J Hawk. “The crawl ride and the candy paint, you know?” They had DJ Screw in the south and DJ Michael Watts in the north.
In Houston, it’s generally believed that Robert Earl Davis Jr, under the stage name DJ Screw, invented the choppy, screwed-up hip hop style that defined the Houston music scene in the 1990s. Screw’s signature “Screw Tapes “would become not only himself, but also his closest Southsiders collaborators and colleagues – artists like the late Fat Pat and the aforementioned Lil Keke – nationally recognized rap stars. In an era when Houston was even more strictly divided by neighborhood boundaries, Screw’s success and bragging rights extended to her community.
As southern Houston neighborhoods like Sunnyside, South Park, and Third Ward were suddenly brought to life by the sights and sounds of their native sons, some northerners felt bitterness at the apparent rise of the south, especially when it manifests itself in the form of slabs. “It started behind some cars,” Keke explains. “Me and Pat are leading the way. I’m just being honest. We didn’t even know we would end up being stars, we would end up being 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 south side to hear it, but you know, on the north side, they heard it anyway.
The animosity sparked by Screw’s tapes, combined with the loud, car-centric showboating of southern rappers, was like gasoline for a flame. Soon slabs and fine cars in general were regular targets of robberies and vandalism.
It wouldn’t take long for the Northside to develop their own champions. The rise of DJ Michael “5000” Watts and the founding in 1997 of his now iconic label Swishahouse would give the north its own stars. Names like Paul Wall and Slim Thug have risen through Houston’s rap ranks, feeding regional beef through their music and challenging southern superiority on the asphalt with their awe-inspiring rides. “The south side would be rolling in candy red and the north side would be blue,” says J Hawk.
Regional hostilities would eventually come to an end, in large part thanks to the efforts of Keke, Slim, Paul Wall and others. In truth, the slab culture’s journey from an illicit underground activity to a beloved regional culture is reminiscent of other forms of self-enthusiasm. Much of our national obsession with the automobile is rooted in our cultural fascination with rebellion. Slabs and their enduring popularity reflect this fascination.
Today, slab culture survives beyond the violence and neighborhood wars that once defined it. He is more popular than ever, having gained respect and cultural acceptance outside of Houston. “It’s really silly to see him have this resurgence,” Le $ recalls. “When you go out on Sundays at MLK and you see all these dope photographers just capturing the visuals, these are just people living their lives. And, this is Houston.