Riding Dirty - A Guide to Southern Car Culture

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Car culture and hip-hop have been inherently entwined since the birth of the genre when hip-hop originators DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Sugarhill Gang flexed their aspirations for automobiles. DJ Kool Herc famously rolled through the Bronx in the 70s in a convertible Lincoln Town Car with the monster speakers in the back, while Big Bank Hank waxed lyrical about his rides of choice in Rappers Delight: “I got bodyguards, I got two big cars, that definitely ain't the whack/I got a Lincoln Continental and a sunroof Cadillac.”


Just as hip-hop evolved in style and sound as it spread across America, so too did the variations of car culture. From coast to coast, state to state, rap automobiles have come to define specific regions, with each area championing a distinct appetite for shape, size and brand. If you drove a Lincoln Continental you were probably an old-school rapper from the East Coast. A ’64 Impala meant you were tied into the low-rider scene. And a Lexus? Well, you were probably from the East or West, but you were definitely about 20 years old in 1995.

The South is one region that has developed a particularly rich culture for cars. Known for their crazy customs, sound systems, paint jobs and rims, these unique scenes have become ingrained in pop culture thanks to the influential artists who proudly put their whips front and centre in their lyrics, album artwork and music videos. Slim Thug and Paul Wall put on Houston with their Swangers n Slabs, Three 6 Mafia introduced us to Old Schools and spinners, while Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik defined a whole era of Atlanta rap.


Like most movements in hip-hop, many of these automotive scenes are rooted in an era that pre-dates hip-hop. Houston’s Slab scene for example is a product of the 1970s pimp culture and Blaxploitation films. Fuelled by the Texas oil boom and the explosive arrival of crack cocaine on the streets of Houston, successful hustlers of the era gravitated toward Cadillac’s elaborately styled 1980s Eldorados. “Those ’83s and ’84s were the ur-slab, and their revered trinity of Cadillac badge, elbows-out wire wheels, and Continental kit went on to define the trend for the next 10 years,” notes Hagerty writers Jack Baruth and Sajeev Mehta.

Today, these candy-coloured whips aren’t driven by drug dealers, as some observers might assume, but rather by regular working-class African-Americans who want to express their creativity, says Houston native and doctorate in folklore and ethnomusicology Langston Collin Wilkins. He explains to CNN that although 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.


The exact definition of “slab” differs depending on who you ask. Some say it's an acronym for “Slow, Loud, and Bangin’.” But locals will tell you the origin of the name, is simpler than that: A slab is a custom car that you put out on the concrete slab of a Houston freeway. “A slab is a vehicle in which you are seen—and heard. It has a unique look. Not only can it shake the windows; it can shatter them. No two slabs are alike,” Baruth and Mehta reveal.


Houston musician Slim Thug summed up the definition of Slab for Anthony Bourdain in a VICE documentary: “Candy paint. Gotta have these type of rims – the elbows, swangas. Fifth wheel and grill is mainly like for slab. That’s what makes 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.”

What makes slab culture—the act of “holdin’ slab”— so unique to Houston lies within the city's landscape. Houston, more so than any other city in America, is a commuter city. An enormous metropolis connected by wide, fast-moving freeways and tangled webs of overpasses. It’s the long drives on these roads that slab enthusiasts would listen to the sounds of regional rappers on their trunk rattling sound systems. As artists like DJ Michael Watts of Swishhouse and DJ Screw and members of the iconic Screwed Up Click (S.U.C) shaped the landscape of Houston rap, cars became essential to the material culture of hip-hop. Once symbols of criminality, those modified, large-bodied boats on wheels became the physical evidence of a rapper’s success.


Since then⁣ artists like Chamillionaire, Fat Pat, Mike Jones, Slim Thug and Paul Wall have continued to endorse the scene. Mike Jones ‘Still Tippin’ saw him rap about fo’ 4’s wrapped in fo’ vogues, while Bun B described the details on ‘That Candy Paint,’ saying “its that candy paint, 84s, belts and buckles, chrome and grills.” Today, younger artists like Travis Scott and Don Toliver have taken slab culture worldwide by featuring the cars on their album artwork and in music videos.


⁣Though it started with that 1986 Town Car, the scene has openly embraced newer models like the full-size, C-body Cadillacs, with particular respect paid to the 1990–92 Brougham model and its flush-mounted, corner-wrapped headlamps. It's not unusual to see other outdated American luxury cars like Buicks, Lincolns, W-body Impalas, LaCrosses, and Grand Prixs as slabs. And younger generations are focusing on late-model versions of the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Charger and you can even spot luxury vehicles like a Jaguar or Bentley kitted out with chrome wire wheels too.

If slabs on swangas represent Houston, then donks, represent Miami. The Florida-born car scene is deeply immersed in Southern culture bringing together multifaceted layers of influences between music, cars and slang. The donk phenomenon is specific to a particular breed of vehicles - full-sized Chevrolets Caprices or Impalas built between 1971 and 1976, customized with monstrous rims, extravagant sound systems, and often painted wild, candy colours. Not to be confused with lowriders, which are traditionally ’60s Chevrolets and are customized to ride low to the ground and often have hydraulics - donks are jacked up to ride higher. One of the distinctive features of donks is the extravagant rims which must be 26” or bigger. And as rim technology has improved, the donks have only gotten taller.


There are different stories as to where the term donk first came from. Some say the enormous trunk space earned the nickname as it alluded to a big booty. Ree Sims, who organizes Donk Day and founded the enthusiast network Donk Planet, says the backstory is a little murkier. “Some people say the car looks like a donkey,” Ree tells GQ. “Others think you can see a donkey in the OG Impala logo, or say the rear of the car reminds them of a donk in the Soulja Boy sense. The one thing Donk purists can agree on is that any car with big wheels that’s not a ’71–’76 Impala or Caprice is just a car with big wheels.”


According to Florida lore, young petrolheads first took to donks out of convenience in the late 80s and early 1990s, as parents and grandparents would bequeath the decades-old rides to their children and grandchildren. In the early days, Ree says, “a donk was known as a hustler’s car. They were the ones that could afford to put money into them.” During this time themed donks were popular—cars emblazoned with cereal and candy brand logos and painted in sugary hues like “Jolly Rancher green,” according to Ree. But as the scene has evolved and matured, so too has the sensibility put into the customisations.

Today it’s all about building the cleanest custom donk you can. Although the oversized wheels are the foundation for any donk, it is just the beginning. Enthusiasts pour tens of thousands of dollars into customisations like pearl paint jobs, matching rims, monochrome detailing, and other custom work. Ree, who organizes @donkday and founded the enthusiast network @donkplanet is helping keep the culture alive in Miami today. His annual donk festival attracts some of the dopest donks in Florida and as well as enthusiasts as far as Michigan, California and Canada.


While donks emerged on the streets of Florida, hip-hop has helped elevate it from an underground scene to become globally recognised. Miami’s rap royalty like Uncle Luke, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross helped drive the movement through the last three decades, while a younger generation of Florida rappers like Kodak Black and Rod Wave put on for the scene today. Many of these superstars' cars can be seen on pages like FL.RIDES and Shot by Whips TV which documents the rich regional subculture.

Across the South, nascent forms of donk culture have emerged within Black and brown communities. Memphis is one city that has developed its distinct take on the rides. Much like those seen in Florida, the Memphis scene revolves around large-bodied, luxury, American coupes and sedans—Cadillacs, Lincolns, Buicks, and so on. But when it comes to customs, the country boys in Mid-West do things their way. The candy paint jobs are a different shade; sound systems are louder; and, most importantly, monstrous rims, some of which can reach up to 30” or 50” in diameter have a more aggressive attitude.


Unlike Florida’s donk drivers, who mainly cruise freeways and peacock their rides at car shows, Memphis car owners are all about speed and who has the fastest car. These pressure whips are finely tuned to race on the dragstrip, something that was famously documented on Vice TV’s show, The Donkmaster. Donk racing has grown to become a subculture within the drag racing segment, and people bet thousands on each race. These aren’t your typical American muscle cars either. Instead, racers trick out their Hi Riser rides with big, flashy rims and under the hood, is an arsenal of carefully-guarded nitrous, turbos, and horsepower that make 1000hp look easy.


Memphis also lays claim to the rise in popularity of spinners in custom car culture. Originally pioneered by Davin Wheels in 1999, these trompe l'oeil rims are designed with a free-spinning attachment at the centre, which allows the wheel’s hubcap or another decorative element to rotate independently of the wheel’s motion. Not only did these wheels add a visually striking and dynamic element to the appearance of a car’s wheels, but it also represented the ostentatious attitude in hip-hop during the era.

Iconic Memphis crew Three 6 Mafia captured this bling generation perfectly when they dropped ‘Ridin Spinners’ in 2003. The song waxed lyrical about the free spinning rims; “My car sittin' still but my rims still rollin' man,” raps DJ Paul, while Crunchy Black’s bar “Ain't nothin' like Sprewells cause they spinnin'” paid homage to Latrell Sprewell, the NBA star who famously endorsed spinners on MTV’s “Cribs” in 2001. The music video featured the Memphis crew cruising around in an 03 Escalade and a 1969 Pontiac GTO jacked up on sparkly “dub-deuces” (22-inch wheels) helping spinners explode in both in Memphis donk scene and pop culture in general.

Today, donk culture remains the ultimate expression of black prosperity in Memphis, which is why artists like the late Young Dolph, Key Glock and Yo Gotti all keep vintage Hi-Risers and Old Schools in their private fleets. It’s more popular than ever, having achieved respect and cultural acceptance outside of Memphis. This is why the city is also home to the DUB show, the largest automobile show in the US. The annual event pulls together a variety of exclusive rides; everything from concept cars, celebrity cars and local tricked out whips as well as live performances from local artists.

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