Candy paint and elbows: Swangin' through Houston's slab scene

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anthony bourdain parts unknown houston 2_00010610

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    Candy paint and trunk-rattling music: Houston's 'slabs'

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Candy paint and trunk-rattling music: Houston's 'slabs' 01:13

Story highlights

  • Houston is home to a unique car culture called slab
  • It's a cross-section of music, culture and community

(CNN)If you're in Houston, you can't miss them. Mainly, because they're not made to be missed.

They're called slabs. While they might resemble the lowriders you see cruising through many American cities, slabs form a cross-section of H-Town music, culture and community, making them more than mere souped-up rides.
    Houston native Langston Collin Wilkins, 32, used to see them as a kid, their owners proudly leaning on them as the bass bellowed from the trunk.
    Slab may be an acronym. Or not. Tough to say.
    Some claim it stands for slow, low and bangin', though Houston rappers Chamillionaire and Z-Ro both have songs called, "Slow, Loud and Bangin'." Others say slab refers to the cars -- most of them hunks of all-American steel -- or how they keep you close to the slab of concrete forming the curb.
    Wilkins was never part of the scene as a youngster, but in 2011, as he was doing field work in the hip-hop scene for his doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University, he realized that the cars were misunderstood.
    Houston musician Slim Thug gives Anthony Bourdain some slab pointers.
    A product of the "1970s pimp culture and Blaxploitation films these kids grew up with," slabs deserved more recognition, he said. They're not driven by drug dealers, as some observers might assume, he said, but rather by regular working-class African-Americans who want to express their creativity.
    With help from the Houston Arts Alliance and the Houston Museum of African-American Culture, he organized a 50-car parade and festival to showcase the culture in 2013.
    "I realized the slab scene was not really recognized outside the black community, despite 30 years in existence. They're amazing works of art that deserve to be appreciated," he said.
    And while it started in the African-American community, the culture has expanded since its early days.
    "We do see the participation of others," he said. "It's a black thing, but there's slab riders of all sorts."
    So, what makes a slab a slab?
    Houston musician Slim Thug recently summed it up for CNN's Anthony Bourdain:
    "Candy paint. Gotta have these type of rims -- the elbows, swangas. Fifth wheel and grill is mainly like for slab. That's what make it a complete (slab), you know," he said. "And the music. You know how you have the popped trunk with the custom music? You gotta have that also."

    The right whip

    Wilkins has some guidance, too: "It's an old-school, outdated American luxury car, so we're talking Cadillacs, Buicks, cars like that," Wilkins said.
    Some aficionados say Lincolns and Oldsmobiles work, too, and though you'll occasionally see more modern cars -- a Jaguar here, a Bentley there -- some purists frown on the use of later-model cars.

    It needs to be swangin'

    The rims may be the most important component. Slabs must, must, MUST -- there is no disagreement here -- have "swangas," aka elbows, 83s or 84s. They're 30-spoke wire rims that protrude from the car.
    Cadillac stopped making them in 1984. They were so rare in the 1990s that a set of four could cost $10,000 or more, Wilkins said, and "rim jackings" were common. Now, a Beverly Hills company makes several styles at far more reasonable prices, he said.
    Protruding elbow rims are a slab essential.

    You also need ... HUH?

    Slabs must be loud. It's not uncommon for slabs to have multiple batteries and amplifiers pushing boxes filled with woofers and the occasional flat-screen TV.
    "We're talking about explosive, trunk-rattling, house-rattling stereo systems," Wilkins said.

    That candy paint

    The paint on slabs has a translucent finish, often in the hue of a Skittle. The best paint jobs will look wet. Bright reds, greens and blues are popular, owing to old neighborhood allegiances when turf wars were more a part of black life in Houston.
    But while southsiders might still cling to red and northsiders might still opt for blue, the colors don't mean what they used to. It's OK to paint your slab any color, so long as it's candy.
    Slabs should be shiny and brightly colored.

    Riding on Vogues

    As Houston rapper Paul Wall once told The Boombox, "You also have to have Vogue Tyres. They are white-wall with the gold stripes. 'The mayo and the mustard,' like E-40 say. If you don't have those then it's not a slab, hands down."

    Fifth wheel

    You won't be buying just four swangas, no sir. You'll need a fifth (and in some cases a sixth) wheel on the back of the car. They're sometimes encased in fiberglass and outfitted with actuators that recline the wheel and open the trunk.
    A fifth wheel on the back of the car is a slab signature.

    Goddess and grill

    You need a gaudy grill, usually chrome -- and we're not talking about Paul Wall's teeth. Depending on the make of car, you can modify the stock grill or have one custom made.
    A hood ornament is also a must. Flying women, like the ones that used to adorn the old Cadillacs and Packards, are popular, while some custom ornaments feature women in ... um, let's say sexier positions. (If you hear a slab rider, talking about his "woman," he may be talking about his hood ornament.)

    Take care of the cockpit

    Anything goes here, and comfort isn't always a consideration. Use your imagination. Start with some wild colors. Throw in a custom steering wheel, gear shifter and dashboard. Maybe some designer leather or fur for the seats?
    "Mrs. Cadillac" has put her stamp on this cockpit.

    Not just bump in the trunk

    Yes, you need big speakers artfully laid out in the boot, but that doesn't mean you're done with the trunk. Slab trunks are an extension of the car -- that is to say, flashy -- and may include mirrors, vinyl and anything else the slab rider can dream up.
    Most slabs have a little message in the trunk, usually in neon. They might be shout-outs to loved ones or neighborhoods, Wilkins said. RIPs and Bible verses are also popular, as are simple expressions of braggadocio, such, "Money supposed to shine" or "Disturbing tha peace."

    Not just any bump

    Scenes from the aforementioned slab parade may have been featured by Houston's Beyonce in her "No Angel" video, but slab riders typically aren't jamming to Queen Bey.
    No, you'll need something "chopped and screwed" to pump through your 15-inch kickers. The late DJ Screw pioneered the technique, which involves putting the same record on two turntables but a beat apart, slowing down the song and using the crossfader to repeat certain beats and words.
    Wilkins said "(DJ) Screw was kind of the soundcheck for the slab scene" because his songs lent themselves to the way in which the slabs are supposed to be driven -- slowly and side to side.