SLABs and Hip-Hop at the HMAAC: Voom, Voom, Voom

Last night, Art Attack swung by the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) for the presentation of "Still Holdin' SLAB: Cars, Music, and Community in Houston, Texas," which was co-sponsored by the Houston Arts Alliance. I will be completely honest: I felt somewhat duped, at first. I completely skimmed the description of the event and assumed that there would be cars there, and not just cars but a collection of SLABs. Upon arrival at HMAAC, I quickly realized that I was mistaken. "Well, maybe there is an exhibit of SLAB photography," I thought to myself. Again I was wrong.

The evening consisted of a lecture given by Langston Collins Wilkins, a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology & Folklore at Indiana University. The lecture on SLAB culture was more or less his dissertation. My initial disappointment, that I wasn't walking into a parking lot filled with souped-up cars, was supplanted by an interesting presentation on the culture behind the car.

Wilkins has been studying SLABs and their Houston origins for some time and his findings, based in scholarly examination, are wildly fascinating. If you are like me and you have no idea what the hell a SLAB is (prior to this evening), I will help you visualize: You are stopped at a red light. From somewhere in the near distance, a Chevy Impala comes into frame. It's hard to not take notice because a low bass is blasting from its interior. It is even more difficult to turn away because it has shiny silver rims with pointy spokes like the ones that pop out of James Bond's car or the Batmobile and that can rip any adversaries' wheels to shreds. Moreover, you cannot look away because it is bright purple.

This is a SLAB.

Wilkins's research is on how the cars are reflective of the Houston hip-hop community and how this has progressed over the past few decades. The term SLAB, according to Wilkins, may have evolved out of jumping in a car and having it hit the pavement, or "slab" of concrete. Moreover, the term SLAB is now associated with the meaning "Slow, Low and Banging," and it refers to an older car, mostly American, such as a Cadillac that has been pimped out with rims, extra wheels, candy-colored paint and a serious sound system.

Wilkins broke down the terms associated with SLAB culture: the elbows and swangas (the rims), the suicide doors (those doors that open up and down like on the DeLorean) and the fifth wheel (that unnecessary wheel sticking out of the trunk), among other slang.

Throughout the lecture, I kept wondering to myself, "Why?" Not saying it's not cool and all, but out of curiosity, why does this exist? According to Wilkins, there are a few reasons this Houston-centric practice of plunking upwards of $50 grand into your crappy Buick became so popular. For one, Wilkins says, "the ladies" are a factor, but more than that, SLAB culture is a way to showcase identity. Many of these cars pay homage to deceased family members or have personal catchphrases spray-painted across the backs; Wilkins even stumbled across a SLAB religious preacher, of sorts.

What makes SLABs so freakin' awesome is their showmanship. It is an art, and like any art, as much as the artist may claim it's for themselves, they are really looking for validation.

"It's when you roll up in your ride and you want people to know that you are the man," explains DJ Icey Hott, who just happened to be in the audience.

There is no doubt that tricked-out cars are prevalent in various cities across the country, but SLABs are primarily a Houston thing. As Icey Hott so poignantly puts it, "It's H-town."

As previously mentioned, I went into this event thinking it would be very different, but left with a knowledge base that I didn't have coming in. Would a parking lot full of SLABs have been really kick-ass? Totally.

Would the lecture have benefitted from a less formal format with perhaps a photography exhibit of SABs paired with video, interviews and music? Most certainly.

Did I leave wondering if I could add a fifth wheel to my 2007 Honda Fit? Oh, hell yeah.

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Abby Koenig
Contact: Abby Koenig