BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Advertisement feature
View the latest news
Big Reads

All you need to know about SLAB car culture

Grab some sizzurp and prepare to pop trunk as we deep dive into Houston’s wildest car culture

Published: 18 Aug 2022

“Meet at MacGregor Park and ask for a man called Les. Les spelt with a dollar sign $$$”

The text message that pinged into my pocket when I was walking out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport sounded simple. But rolling into MacGregor Park on the southside of Houston 30 minutes later, photographer Mark Riccioni and I quickly realised that finding Les spelt with a dollar sign might be a challenge. Partly because we had driven into what looked and felt like a riot, but mainly because the potent and blinding combination of tyre, marijuana and barbeque smoke filling the air hindered our vision.

Advertisement - Page continues below

Spilling out of the park to frame the adjacent six-lane highway were hundreds of people; all cheering, jeering and live-streaming the health and safety nightmare we were witnessing. People sipped sizzurp (see slang guide at the bottom of this page) and smoked joints the size of carrots while motorbikes adopted beyond vertical numberplate-kissing wheelies, old boys dripped out in gold straddled trikes and did burnouts at the traffic lights while ‘bally boys’ on quads conducted dusty donuts. But the various-wheeled bikes were just the filler for the main attraction: the cars.

Not giving two hoots to the Highway Code were cars like we’d never seen before – big, lazy luxury American sleds (lots of Buicks, a handful of Mercuries, Lincolns, Oldsmobiles but most notably Cadillacs) with retina-burning candy paint, chopped springs, mismatched grilles and cartoonish protruding chrome wheels. These scythed chariots would weave across the six-lane highway like a fresher stumbling back from the pub, race on the wrong side of the road and block each other in like they were hunting prey – all while ‘popping trunk’ (again, see the slang list – you’ll be doing that a lot) to reveal neon-lit epitaphs and free the dirty bass reverberating from their oversized sound systems. Sandwiching the stretch of road were the police. “Is this legal?” I asked. Knowingly outnumbered and outgunned, their response came in the form of a shrug, having been forced to turn a blind eye.

Welcome to Slab Sunday and the start of our most intriguing couple of days crawling into the underbelly of Houston’s most outrageous, interesting and misunderstood car culture: slabs. To fully understand whatever the hell we have implanted ourselves into, we need a guide. We need Les spelt with a dollar sign to decipher what the hell was going on. 

Advertisement - Page continues below

“Slabs are Houston,” Le$, a rapper and entrepreneur associated with Boss Hogg Outlawz, says in his slow, soft voice that furiously contradicted his loud full body tattoos. “Where the west coast has lowriders, east has donks, we out here with slabs. These are the story of our streets.” But what about those outrageous wheels?

Luckily, Josh ‘KandySlabs’ (a mild-mannered Hispanic and slab encyclopaedia) helps explain. “They called ‘swangas’ or ‘elbows’,” he says in a syrupy weed daze. “They’re the most important part of a slab – the rims are where it all started.”

Swangas/elbows refer to two styles of rims that Cragar Wire Wheel Company produced for Cadillac models in the early Eighties: the ‘83s’ and the ‘84s’. The original swangas were a 30-spoke chrome rim that Cragar produced for Cadillac Eldorados from 1979–1983. However, the intricate wired rim was modified in 1984, reducing the lips so there was more space between the outer 10 spokes making them poke out much further; several inches beyond the front profile of the car, giving a Boudicca-style pronged aesthetic.

Put simply, they looked cool as hell and became the envy of the streets. But due to a production flaw their structural integrity was compromised so they’d easily break and start ‘clackin’. Being dangerous, Cragar discontinued them after a single year making the 84s (or simply ‘4s’) extremely rare but wildly desirable. They became the thing to have on your car, and people would go to extreme lengths to get hold of them. “They were known as ‘Dead Man Wheels,’” Josh tells us. “Everyone wanted them – so they’d kill for them.”

In the early Noughties Texan Wire Wheels began manufacturing reissues of the popular 84s, which made them accessible and popular within the streets again. That’s when they started growing in both popularity and size. The central poker would be extended out further and further, with the current king of the wheels being a ‘G24’ – a 24-inch (61cm) poker on each wheel. The longer the poker, the more expensive they are – so the more respect you get out on the streets. But also the easier it is to take out the side of a car or blender an unsuspecting pedestrian/dog on the sidewalk.

That evening Le$ and a few friends take us to Turkey Leg Hut for some proper southern hospitality and a colon-bursting meal. Famed for its toddler-sized Alfredo shrimp stuffed and Hennessy glazed (rapper’s favourite cognac, not to be confused with the man who makes really fast cars) turkey legs, TLH has become an iconic location in the scene and the South. Its car obsessed co-owner Lynn Price may also be the most well-connected man in the city; and not just because the walls of the VIP room he is hosting us in are covered with pictures of him with the glitterati from the various worlds of basketball, rap and pop culture.

Within minutes Lynn puts us on the phone to rappers Rick Ross, Lil Keke and OG slab riders Jonathan ‘JC’ Coleman and Corey Blount. When the phone wasn’t red-hot FaceTiming, he filled us in on the history of slabs. “The term ‘slab’ nowadays is thought to mean ‘Slow, loud and bangin’. But that’s not the truth. The term ‘slab’ refers to the slabs of concrete that make up the street. We’d hit the slab.”

Top Gear

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

Slabs originated in the various African American ’hoods around Houston. Where we see mad modifications, people in the game see more than that. To them, a fully tricked out slab represents a hustle; someone who has ascended from poverty and created a physical representation of coming out of a struggle and true social elevation within the community. It’s something the whole of Houston gets behind. The day before we arrived, Lynn and legendary rapper and parade grand marshal Bun B led a 350-car, 300,000-spectator parade through Houston with the mayor, Sylvester Turner. “Mayor from the ’hood – he LOVES it!” Lynn says. “Houston is a car city, you need a car to get anywhere, so they mean everything.”

I see his point the next day as we venture to the east side of the city. Houston, more so than any other city in America, is a commuter city. Lassoed by fast moving motorways that splinter off into towering, tangled webs of overpasses, roads are the concrete veins that keep the place alive. We meet with East Up J Hawk, a renowned slab owner and builder, at a community centre’s basketball court. Initially having been into racecars, J Hawk transitioned and built his first slab – a 1990 Buick LeSabre – in 2007 having been inspired by creativity and engineering efforts he saw from the OG slab riders while growing up. His current slab – a candy orange 1996 Buick Park Avenue – is one of the most authentic slabs out there and a perfect guide to what makes a slab a slab. “You can’t buy a slab,” J Hawk says. “You’ve gotta start with a ‘hoopty’ and fix it up.”

J Hawk bought his off a granny and tells us the first thing you need to do is check the motor is good. “If it isn’t, you clean it up. Or swap it for an LS.” Then it’s on to the interior. “That’s got to be clad in fresh contrasting or matching leather, have a woodgrain dashboard and steering wheel and screens in the back.” Once you’ve got this foundation, it’s time to turn to the big ticket items on the outside.

No matter what your base car is, front grilles are often swapped out for those from Nineties Cadillacs as they were king of the ’hood and the epitome of wealth back in the day. A personal bonnet ornament can sit above that while the ‘fifth wheel’ and ‘bumper kit’ sit on the back end of a slab. The fifth wheel is exactly what it says it is – a full-size spare swanga cut in half lengthwise and cocooned in a fibreglass case that matches the paint of the car. The origins of the fifth wheel come from the Opera edition of Cadillacs from 1979 to 1985 – they featured extra wheels cut and moulded into the side of the bumpers to resemble the spare tire compartment on a Thirties Cadillac. The holy grail slab is to have an Opera edition slab with a fifth wheel on the back and four wheels on the floor, so seven swangas in total.

The ‘bumper kit’ fastens the fifth wheel to the trunk of the vehicle, while ornate chrome ‘belts’ are added to make it look like the trunk is strapped down. To ‘pop trunk’, the trunk/boot mechanism runs off actuators operated from the inside so it can be lifted at will and show off the trunk display. Trunk displays are a neon-lit expression of whatever you want it to be: a memorial, a quote, or, in J Hawk’s case, a four-piece neon installation of Bart Simpson showing his behind and famous slogan “Kiss my ass”. Why? “I just love The Simpsons,” J Hawk says with a smile. He also loves wrestling, hence the WWE belts.

Slabs are all about personal expression and people in the scene ultimately respect hard work and effort knowing that others have put serious coin into their passion. A set of rims costs up to £13k without tyres and people will put in excess of £40k into their slabs, on top of the value of the car. With paint being a huge, but crucial expense.

I drive a few miles south to Lil Ike’s paint shop in Magnolia Park behind the wheel of a ‘Purple Drank Candy’ Buick Regal slab on G24s. It honestly feels like you’re living in a width restrictor nightmare. Thankfully, no one comes near you. Luckily, if I do cause any catastrophic damage, I’ve come to the right place. For three generations the Caballero family has been offering collision repairs, but Lil Ike (son of Big Ike – a 6ft 8in bona fide hard man from the ’hood) made his name in the slab community for the quality of his paintwork.

“My dad was the first to do candy,” Lil Ike’s son, Amos Caballero, says. Candy paint has become a staple of the slab scene and the way to stand out. In more ways than you think. Firstly, because this iridescent finish (a clear coat that is tinted with a colour and sometimes a metallic or pearl) gives translucent properties so really pops – making you stand out from the crowd. But also because the colour of your slab holds geographical links, operating as a vibrant, rolling postcode. Slab riders from the south side of the city slather their slabs in candy red, the north side adopt candy blue, folks from MLK chose candy green, Yellowstone use candy yellow, Hiram Clarke candy orange and J Hawk, being from the east side, has his in gold.

“Paint went crazy during the crack days,” Amos says. “That’s when people had real money.” Ah, yes. The crack days. In the mid-Eighties, times were very hard in Houston and opportunities were scarce. With very few legitimate employment opportunities available to them, many in the ’hood began to engage in a fierce and deadly underground economy: crack cocaine. “If you got $30–40k put into a slab, you’re more than likely not a doctor,” says rapper E.S.G, a member of the infamous Screwed Up Click, with a laugh. “You may deal in prescription pharmaceuticals, but you’re not a doctor.”

Unsurprisingly, expensive cars finished in glitzy paint draw attention, greed and theft. During the late Eighties and early Nineties the streets became hostile places, with the north and south side of Houston becoming divided. However, I’m assured by the incredibly friendly and hospitable people that I’ve met that the beef between all parties has been squashed.

But the statistics say otherwise – Bayou City is what they call Houston on the tourist boards and the posters. What they don’t tend to print on T-shirts is that the largest city in Texas is also 2022’s murder capital of the United States. Something that rings in my ears like tinnitus as I go and meet one of the most notorious slab crews in Houston – the ‘Red or Dead’ Southside Slab Line.

Sitting in a copper gown and barber’s chair in Sunnyside’s Q Kutz Barber Shop in the heart of Houston’s south side, Big Rick (who is not named ironically and did 23 years inside) does wonders to ease my anxiety given he’s in perilous proximity to a cut-throat razor. “If you got a clean slab, you hustle and you hard – I’m down for it. I’m colour blind. I don’t care what paint you roll with. A clean slab is a clean slab and I respect that.”

Inside the tiny, single storey barbershop the mood is friendly, air dense with high-grade and laughter bounces off the walls like the bass in the trunks of the imposing amount of candy red slabs outside. But it’s not intimidating. There’s an honest, palpable appreciation for us coming and investigating the scene. “This is our culture, we wanna share it with y’all,” Melbox says from behind his diamond rimmed spectacles.

Having seen the crew a few days earlier at MacGregor Park, they were the slab line (an informal car club sharing the same hue) rolling deepest and driving hardest. “We doing it for the attention!” Q, the short, deferential barber says. The south siders inform me that the hypnotic, rhythmic snaking across the six lanes is called ‘swangin’. Meanwhile the high-speed jostling for position and blocking in is known as ‘play’. “You’re just trying to get the better of someone,” Q says. It’s competition. It’s domination. Where NASCAR want to be in front, so do we. We just ‘park em’. Pen them in. We stop them and make them read our trunk. It’s all done for fun.”

Slim Thug Slab Culture Houston

Later that evening Houston’s hot, heavy humidity hits us like God has belched a burrito in our face. With damp rings under our armpits, we arrive at our most lucrative interview yet. In the car park shadows, glowing with perspiration and bedecked in diamonds and heavy jewellery is rapper Slim Thug, flanked by his contemporary and our initial guide, Le$.

After the illicit and nefarious crack days, slab moved beyond that and became inextricably tied to ‘Screw’ and hip-hop. If slabs are the cars of Houston, then screw is the music. It’s an inimitable down tempo, bass heavy, ambient and pseudo psychedelic strand of hip-hop named after its originator and sizzurp enthusiast, DJ Screw. His unique slo-mo recordings united the city and became the soundtracks for slabs and swangin. Since then, hip-hop and slabs have gone hand in hand; with one feeding the other.

“Y’know ‘Still Tippin’?” Slim asks, talking about his slab anthem that went mainstream thanks to MTV in 2005. “That’s about this,” he says pointing out his gorgeous murdered out ‘Boss Hog’ 1975 Cadillac Eldorado slab from his menacing wall of big-wheeled black-on-black cars. The chorus “Still tippin’ of fo fos, wrapped in fo vogues” is a direct reference to slab style, while his hit ‘Welcome 2 Houston’ is basically a ‘Slab Guide for Dummies’. These songs and their videos put slabs on a global stage, taking slabs far out of Texas.

“Us elders are proud of where we’ve come from,” Slim says. “I bought my first set of swangas when I was 17 after my first mixtape. Now I just want to show the world what Houston is about and we’re seeing slabs all over the place – they’re even doing it over in Japan. I love it, man. Houston love.”

But with the rise of social media, readily available wheels and more publicity, are slabs selling out? Well, we thought it was only right to ask a true OG – Haircut Steve. With a towering stature, gold and diamond grille on his teeth and awkward limp, Haircut Steve has respect in the streets.

Not only did he grow up and go to school with Corey ‘slab king’ Blount (who received a presidential pardon from Barack Obama in 2016 to commute his life sentence) and cut DJ Screw’s iconic hair, he also has a slab that stops everyone in the game dead: a traditional 1963 Cadillac Opera complete with a 2010 restomod interior, marble gold paint, authentic 84s and all the trimmings for a complete slab.

“The big dawg is the mother with the money. But you’ve got to be first and do slab after slab,” Steve says. “Blount was slab king – he was the first and did all the cars. I’m 50 plus and it ain’t about no beef no more. It’s about culture. When the OG rims were around there was commotions but now anyone can get them, so we’re all good.”

He’s right – that morning people from all over Houston, from all neighbourhoods across the city, come together and start cracking jokes – bending over backwards with husky, high-pitched laughter. We’re told how fathers are teaching their sons about slabs – who are then going away and putting swangas on everything from modern Americana to Maseratis.

Slabs represent so much more than their aesthetics. They’re the embodiment of Houston and its culture. They tell the story of its struggle, the amazing and interesting people who live there, the different neighbourhoods and what music they listen to. Everyone involved in the scene is immensely proud of what they have created. And they should be, because it’s unique. With regard to the future? Haircut Steve says it best.

“Just keep swangin.”

Know your slab slang

SIZZURP - Prescription-strength cough syrup mixed with soda
SWANGAS/ELBOWS - Extended 30-spoke chrome rim wheels
POP TRUNK - Opening your boot while on the move
FO-FOS - Translation: four, 1984s. A full set of the most desirable, original Cadillac rims
OG - A highly respected founding father from the scene
SWANGIN’ - A rhythmic procession where cars weave from lane to lane in a dawdling manner
FIFTH WHEEL - Spare wheels mounted on the car; normally on the back, trunk or side
VOGUES - A famed tyre marked by its distinctive whitewall and yellow stripe, also known as ‘mayo and mustard’
SCREW - Houston’s renowned low-tempo, lo-fi music genre named after its originator, DJ Screw
SLAB KING - The most legendary ‘slab rider’ in the game and a hotly debated subject
G24 - Texas Wire Wheel’s 24-inch spoked wheel. The biggest and most expensive one that was available
CANDY - A bright, vibrant multi-layer iridescent paint
EL DOG - Slang for an ‘Eldorado’: a luxury car by Cadillac and a popular slab
CLACKIN’ - The noise original Cadillac ‘83’ and ‘84’ rims made when they were broken
HOOPTY - An old, worn-out car

More from Top Gear

See more on Cadillac

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine