For fans of music made in the post-War era, lowriders — the flashy classic cars with tiny wheels, Snoop’s 64 Impala — are the stuff of West Coast rap videos, with the crown of biggest baller on the block given to the guy whose whip scrapes lowest. But lowrider culture runs deeper than beater old Chevys bouncing on hydraulics. Like all automotive subcultures, the lowrider community is tight-knit; unlike others, the community’s numerous clubs have a historically political bent.
Ben Chappell, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, wrote a book that shows that lowriders aren’t merely cars. Not only do the cars speak volumes about class and ethnicity, but they challenge and redefine the way we interpret contemporary urban space. Chappell propelled himself directly into lowrider culture, talking to those directly involved, and reaching conclusions that will make you think of more than the last Game mixtape the next time someone mentions hydraulics. I asked Chappell how the book came about and what lowriders tell us about the country.
What originally inspired you to write an entire book on the culture surrounding lowriders?
I went to grad school because I was interested in understanding how aesthetics intersected with politics. Growing up in the 80s, I was inspired by hip-hop, which I felt was addressing some issues of race and class that I didn’t see political leaders or other authorities dealing with. I moved to Texas to study, saw some lowriders cruising around town, and immediately felt that there was something interesting going on there.
I researched my first paper on the subject and found out there wasn’t all that much work done on it. So that became my project, and in my line of work, anthropology and American Studies, you generally want to turn a project into a book. It never would have happened if the Austin lowriders that I met hadn’t been as hospitable as they were. But they all were well aware that society at large harbors a lot of stereotypes about lowriders, so they were generally pretty interested in sharing their perspective on what they were doing.
When and why did lowriding first originate?
Well, this depends on who you ask. Most people will say California, and there is definitely a long history there, and some important innovations. Hydraulic suspensions for example — it’s pretty widely accepted that Ron Aguirre innovated that in California. But every now and then you hear someone claim that they were lowering cars in El Paso before they knew about the style in California, so who knows?
I’m fine with letting that remain mysterious, because I’m more interested in what people do with lowrider style than where it came from in the first place. The lowriders I got to know for this book all came of age with Lowrider Magazine and other publications around, so it was an established thing that they could choose to join. As for why, it was to look good! Of course, different things look good to different people, so over time, the things that look good to a particular neighborhood, family or group of friends become tied to those identities.
Culturally, lowriders are often associated with West Coast rap and, by extension, gangbangers. You write that this perception is misguided. What kinds of individuals did you meet while researching?
I’m not going to lie and say that there are no gangbangers who like lowrider style. But there are two ways that I can say this stereotype is misguided. First, there are a whole lot of lowriders who are preoccupied with being a positive presence in their community. The club that I spent the most time with had strict rules: no drinking or drugs, no gang activity. When you were representing the club in public, that was a serious responsibility.
The other thing is that it’s problematic to say that “gangbanger” is a very clear category of humanity that is by definition illegitimate. People get involved in various things for better or for worse. Plenty of lowriders I knew had friends or relatives who might have been involved in a gang. The fact is, it’s close in certain communities. To be able to distance yourself from gangs is not a privilege that everybody enjoys. And sometimes people get into trouble, get into a fight or something. It happens.
But the people I got to know saw lowriding as a positive alternative to various kinds of trouble. They were mostly working-class, Mexican-Americans who wanted to spend time with friends and family and create beautiful cars. The argument of my book is that this activity created a little space for them to live in temporarily, a space for them to be comfortable, and share ideas, and take a break from the challenges and stress of the day-to-day routine. As for the West Coast hip-hop connection, this is what the late scholar Brenda Bright called one of the “mediations” of lowriding. Rap music videos got lowriders a lot of attention across the country, but they were representing something that already existed on the streets.
How does lowriding fit into wider concepts of ethnic identity in America, specifically in the case of Mexican-Americans?
I don’t know anybody involved in lowriding who denies that it’s part of Mexican-American culture, that Mexican-Americans innovated the style and have kept it alive for generations. But that doesn’t mean only Mexican-Americans are welcome in the scenes that I have known. Generally, the idea was, no matter who you are, if you can put a respectable ride together, you can take part in the shows, clubs, and cruising scenes. The club I spent the most time with had a couple of Anglo members in the time I was hanging around, and an African-American member as well. One of the more known clubs that originated in California is predominately Samoan.
I think people who get together around lowriding tend to share certain things in common: obviously an interest in cars, but also there is an ethos that you should try to work on a car yourself, and other kinds of things that relate to a working-class situation. A lot of people end up in the same club because they grew up in the same area, went to the same school, or something like that. One of the things that definitely interested me, though, was the fact that although anybody with a nice ride is welcome, there is an idea that Mexican-American culture and experience are authoritative in this style. That’s part of the value of it. There’s a kind of knowledge expressed in lowriding that another scholar, Raul Homero Villa calls “barriology.” That’s not a subject that is taught or valued at school. But it is taught at car club meetings and cruising nights. If you are willing to learn, you might have the opportunity to do so.
A Rolling Canvas is a good watch if you want more background on lowrider history.
You write about the relationship that these cars have with urban space. I’m interested in the dynamics that exist within that space, particularly between lowriding culture and law-enforcement.
As I suggested earlier, I came to this work with a kind of instinct that people producing culture like lowriders and hip-hop “got” something about modern life in a really profound but not always articulated way. One thing that lowriders seem to understand implicitly is that cities are controlled and policed spatially, and that control has to do with race and class, among other things. Anybody who is active in a lowrider scene can probably tell you which are the areas of town where you can expect to be pulled over in a lowrider. This is an expression of the stereotype of lowriders as gang members, but it’s also on a more general and vague level an official interpretation of lowriders as representing disorder or “the other.”
It becomes clear how ridiculous this is when you learn how most lowriders just want to be left alone to show their cars and socialize. But for whatever reason, it goes on. I was focused on understanding lowriders’ experiences and perspectives, so I did not try to interview police officers, which would be an interesting project. I did see some specific examples of lowriders trying to make contact and improve the relationship, without getting recognized by police. The car clubs I knew best did charity projects, and once held a fundraiser for a foundation that supported the families of officers killed in the line of duty. The local police department did not send a representative.