High gas prices have hit Americans’ pockets everywhere, but slabs — and their owners — have held on in Houston.
On any given Sunday in Houston’s historic MacGregor Park, a Saturday night at Carrington’s Sports Bar & Grill, or simply riding down Houston’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, you’ll see a slab line that stretches multiple blocks. Miles of brightly-hued cars, blaring car speakers, and unmistakable elbow wire wheels (commonly referred to as “elbows” or “swangas”) that hog the entire lane mark the unofficial celebration of a tradition native to Houston. The flashy, old (and sometimes new) school cars embellished with freshly polished elbows that extend past the lanes, complemented by exaggerated sound systems and neon lights that illuminate the trunk swang wide on the street, are a glorious display of Houston culture.
However, over the last couple of months, gas prices have hit costly heights nationally, reaching up to $6 in some states. Texas’s statewide gas price average captured an all-time high in June at $4.34 for a gallon of regular unleaded gas. Houston, in particular, hit $4.16 per gallon in May, marking a new record of the highest price ever recorded in the city, up nearly $2.00 from last year. High gas prices have hit Americans’ pockets everywhere, but slabs — and their owners — have held on.
If the 2007-2009 recession were any indication, higher gas prices would denote a massive hit to the automotive industry. As a 2022 article from Motor and Wheels explained, “people are not willing to splash coin on a new car if it means they’d have to spend double the normal rate on fueling them.” Although slabs are not typically newer makes and models, older cars still face the brunt of increasingly high gas prices, as older vintage vehicles don’t get the same gas mileage that newer cars may have, or utilize unleaded gas.
Cory “Sly Drexler” Carlson, the owner of a 2000 candy red Cadillac DeVille, said when prices reached nearly $5.00 in Houston, he put less gas in his tank to save money.
“It’s affected [my slab] it, to put in less gas, just because it’s another car to maintain,” he said during a phone call while sitting in an auto body shop. “I typically use premium gas, but once the prices really went high I went with a lower grade. I’m supposed to go with 93.”
Barring gas costs, slabs are costly vehicles to build, own and maintain. Houstonians have conflicting opinions on where slabs originally got their name, but by definition, the “slab” is the pavement, road, or concrete that the cars cruise on. Similarly, although there’s no pinpointed origin of slabs in Houston, Lil Keke, rapper and captain of the Screwed Up Click, recalled first seeing them growing up in the Southside area of Houston in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when DJ Screw’s infamous Screw Tapes rose to prominence.
A keynote to Houston’s early rap zeitgeist is that most rappers who rose to fame in the late ‘90s were wealthy before entering the rap game, whether at the hands of drug dealing or other means of hustling. Hence, seeing the everyday man with a flashy car wasn’t far-fetched. Corey Blount, the man coined Houston’s “slab king” by Keke himself, owned several at a time and blazed the trail for what a slab could look like.
“[Corey Blount] had the Slant, he had the El Dog [El Dorado], he had the suburban. It was a time where he had the Lexus on buttons. Buttons were big rims, just as big as 83s, 84s. Those are blades, like when you hear people say they’re ‘Chopping on blades,’” Keke said. “This was one of the blades that came out as a three piece. So, at one time he had the Lexus – that was the first time having a foreign, a [traditional] slab, and a truck.”
The expensive cars would denote signs of individualism and ingenuity throughout the city. Original slabs were built with older model cars like Lincoln Towncars, Oldsmobiles, Cadillac Fleetwoods, DeVilles, and El Dorados. Since then, the culture has evolved to the more modern vehicles of today.
A few essential parts are necessary for a car to be a slab. Whether new or old, slabs require candy paint, sound systems that make the car windows pulsate, and its most distinct feature, elbow wire wheels that poke outward. World-renowned Houston slab rider Kandy Red Bread spent upward of $20,000 on his car, a 1986 candy red Lincoln Towncar that he started building in 2005.
“Overall, how much I spent on it is close to $50,000 – actually, I’ll say about 30,” he said of his now infamous slab. “But I had my car painted three times. [The candy paint] Like around $5,000 each time.”
Likewise, Keke, a godfather to slab culture, owns a 1970 all-white cutlass and a soon-to-come Cadillac slab, and has built most of his custom cars from the ground up. He revived his cutlass himself, referring to the process as “open heart surgery” for all the time and effort he put into repairing the antique vehicle.
“So, it took an extreme amount of time,” he said over a phone call. “It took me two years. It could have taken longer, but it took two years and over $150,000 into it.”
High gas prices — and slabs’ expensive car parts — hasn’t brought Houston car culture to a complete stop. There’s a deep-seated passion and car pride that all slab owners possess, and not much can get in between slab riders and their cars, including soaring gas prices.
Dlaveen “Dee” Guy, an owner of a candy orange 2018 Infiniti Q60 Coupe, said that while more expensive gas may drain his pockets, it’s insignificant when it comes to driving his slab.
“I’m going to jump in it and ride regardless,” Guy said. “It’s therapeutic for me.”
Bread, who drives trucks for a living, responded in kind.
“Honestly, no,” he said about gas prices affecting him riding in his slab. “I spend like $500 a day on fuel, and that’s just in my truck. But in my car, I think the only thing that’s affecting me right now is the gas just sitting in there, and I need to drive it to get it out.”
While many car enthusiasts build their slabs simply for the love of cars, slabs aren’t just automobiles but evidence of history specific to Houston, and symbolic of Houston rap culture. Bringing them out on Sundays is a regular to-do in the city that unites the community — from the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Third and Fifth Ward to the steps of Downtown Houston’s City Hall. The candy-coated cars hold a deep meaning to the city: Mayor Sylvester Turner declared June 24, 2018 a Slab Holiday in Houston, and presented the leader in sales of 30 spoke wire rims (the acclaimed ‘83 or ‘84 wheels known as swangas) Texan Wire Wheels, with a proclamation.
Slab culture is unlike any other American car culture. In comparison to lowrider culture, for instance, lowriders will usually be towed from one place to the next for events like car shows and gatherings, in which lowrider owners are hit doubly with the cost of gas, consequently what Carlson likes to call “trailer queens.”
“For the most part, slabs are for the streets,” Carlson added. “And that’s the difference. I mean, you have people that build [slabs] for shows, but the thing with slabs is, you’ll see that same show car on the street.”
Outside of traditional slab rides on Sundays, you may see slabs in city-sanctioned events. Local slab riders have featured their cars at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival and parades like MLK Day and Juneteenth. Most recently, Mayor Turner rode in a slab for the 2022 Art Car Parade, and rapper Bun B showcased them for his debut at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo’s Black Heritage Day.
As for slab Sundays, there’s no intention of slowing down. Bread, who’s organized multiple car meetups, said that slab Sundays are still held on a regular basis, and everyone still comes out routinely.
“The amount of gas that you’re going to spend going to a slab meet is probably going to be equivalent to $10. You don’t ever have to go too far,” Bread said. “The only thing that will stop me from not driving my slab, is if I go in my garage and I crank it open and it doesn’t start.”
But if there’s one thing that slab riders can agree on as something that stands in between Houston’s car culture and riding slabs, is the over-policing of the cars.
“The only legitimate way [to stop me from riding] is if our judicial system decides to kill our culture and make it to where we can’t ride on elbows anymore,” Guy said, referring to the years of hypervigilance officers have had with slabs. The notorious Kappa Beach, the semi-annual car meetup on Galveston Island, also famous for legendary freestyles from members of the Screwed Up Click, was shut down last year by police officers, and the Houston Chronicle reported that a man was allegedly tased and beaten by policemen. The Galveston Police Department characterized the car meetup as a “military-style police threat.”
Nonetheless, the culture withstands.
“It’s like this mane,” Bread said, contemplating his next thought. “The people in Houston, we painted this city drank. We painted this city purple. We painted this city the ‘Home of the syrup,’ the home of DJ Screw. Every time you turn on a radio or listen to some music, you’re always going to hear something about a slab.”
Slabs may be regular cars to the rest of the world, but they’re the lifeblood of some of Houston’s oldest communities — and it’ll take more than just higher gas prices to get these precious vehicles off the streets.
“These rappers are keeping it alive; the streets are keeping it alive. The people selling wheels and painting cars are keeping it alive,” Bread continued. “Everybody who’s involved in building a slab is why it’s important. So long as Paul Wall and Lil Keke keep making music about slabs, everyone’s going to think it’s important. The legacy will stay alive.