Image by Rodney Hazard
"Everything I ride original, no kits on them chops," Pimp C proudly declares on "Pinky Ring," a thick slice of Curtis Mayfield-sampling funk from UGK's 1996 opus, Ridin Dirty. The Port Arthur, Texas duo managed to make waves 90 miles down the road in Houston by applying to their music the same virtue that was paramount to the city's auto aficionados: originality. For decades, H-Town's car culture has revolved around "slabs"—slow, low, and bangin' riders outfitted with candy paint, a fifth wheel mounted on the trunk, and rare rims outfitted with protruding spears called "pokes," "swangas," or "elbows." These aftermarket details required imaginative customization from any number of the city's experts. In 1996, Houston already had a well-established hip-hop scene. Geto Boys put the city on the map with their unadulterated realness, and by the mid-90s, the Screwed Up Click's pitched-down, glacially-paced sound came to define the region. But by the time Pimp C and Bun B hit their stride on Ridin Dirty, they, like H-Town's custom car artists, injected even more vibrant originality into the city's culture.
Similarly to Atlanta's Organized Noize, who Pimp actually shouts out in the outro of "Pinky Ring," Ridin Dirty's production team (primarily comprised of Pimp and Scarface confidant N.O. Joe) breathed life into their beats with a heavy use of live instrumentation, hiring a number of keyboard, bass, and guitar players to bolster samples of golden-era funk. The result was a vivid document of both the good and bad—from the crystalline laments of mortality on "One Day" to the sun-kissed glory of "Hi Life"—that was to the increasingly stagnant Houston sound as slabs are to factory-made car models.
Of course, Ridin Dirty was tied to slab culture in much more than a metaphorical sense, too. References to Fleetwood 'Lacs, Mercedes Benz 600 Ss, AMG and Lorenzo rims, Yokohama tires, candy paint, and trunk-popping jump off the page as colorful scene-setting devices, as well as aspirational luxuries for the listener. Cars are so central to the album that Bun and Pimp actually appear in one on the cover, looking over their shoulders in a perfect distillation of Ridin Dirty's intoxicating blend of paranoia and pursuit of wealth.
As Bun B tells it today, he and Pimp were just like any other auto-obsessed Houstonites in '96. "Comparing, showcasing, and talking about the newest car innovations is a way to bond between Southern men and I think car men in general," he told VICE over email, going on to explain the importance of the city's car washes that offered detailing services. "The car wash is the common communal area for car people in the South. Meet up, get clean, and show your sound. The detailing took an hour tops, but guys hung out for two or three times that."
Unlike, say, the stretch Hummer in Juvenile and Lil Wayne's "Bling Bling" video, or the prohibitively expensive (starting at only $189,350!) Maybachs immortalized in the name of Rick Ross's record label, the cars UGK touted were more competitive on the street level. They actually required some work on the owner's part. Constructing slabs has become a much more attainable pursuit in the years since the album's release, thanks to specialized auto parts businesses popping up in response to fierce demand that sometimes proved violent in Houston. UGK's impact on this culture still reverberates through South Texas's custom shops today. So in celebration of Ridin Dirty's 20th anniversary, we hopped on the phone with some of the region's longtime slab artists to get their thoughts on the landmark album.
EDDIE KENNEDY, OWNER OF 3RD COAST CUSTOMS
Bun, Pimp, and I, we're all from the same area. I'm originally from Beaumont, they're from Port Arthur [20 miles away]. They were a couple years younger, but we all knew someone who was affiliated with someone. With the city being so small, we would always connect through different people.
In high school in '89 and '90, I took a vocational class for painting car bodies, and as soon as I graduated, I jumped into the field. The cars that we liked back then were the ones our mom and dad had. When we were fresh out of high school, a few guys—street hustlers—they started purchasing these older-model vehicles. There were a few Cadillac dealerships in Houston that actually offered those slab accessories in the '80s—the grill, the fifth wheel kit, and the wheels. But those original '84 swangas were only ever made by one company, and they only made them for two years between '84-'85 before they were discontinued.
If you went to the dealership and purchased a car that was already customized during those early days, that was boss status. Hustlers and other guys who started in the rap game, they started purchasing these types of cars. They wouldn't go out and buy a new one and get it redone; they were all fascinated with the early-model cars, mainly because that's what we saw when we were coming up. What made it a fad was trying to get your hands on a set.
The history behind it is that the guys who were actually coming up on the wheels were more hood type of guys, more grimy, with more of an illegal background. It got to a point, up until the mid-90s, where if you had those type of wheels on your car, you could be at a red light and someone could come up to you and literally kill you behind the wheel. When UGK talked about "riding dirty," that meant they had their vehicles all the way together and knew the risk. That was something that came with having a slab—you had to be ready at all times, anything could go on. Not just anybody could ride those cars at the time.
Slab culture got more exposure [on Ridin Dirty], and by the time that came out, the wheels were even harder to get your hands on—in Houston, the slab game had really topped off. At first, it was only a few guys who were actually putting cars together, and then mid-90s there were more people taking the time out to restore an old model and put it back out on the road as a slab. It was a different generation, seeing those cars from a different perspective, but that kept it going. It was probably 15-20 years after those original models came out, but those guys were driving the same type of vehicle.
The main guys who were putting the cars together [in the 90s] lived in Houston, and on a sunny Sunday, they would ride down to the park, up and down Martin Luther King—it was almost competition, but there was fun in it. Having UGK's music to listen to while you rode was phenomenal. They tell you about a typical Sunday through one of their songs, playing the rap music loud, riding up and down the block, through the neighborhood, pulling up to a park on the weekends. To listen to the music while driving by some of the locations that Pimp and Bun named on their songs, to be out doing it, living it, was surreal.
A few years ago, we decided to do a giveaway for a radio station, and teamed up with several different people to make a slab dedicated to UGK. It was me, Bun B, an owner of a tire shop, and Texan Wire & Wheel. Texan Wire & Wheel, believe it or not, saved a lot of lives by remanufacturing these swanga wheels [in the mid-2000s]. There was a lot of bloodshed over those original wheels in Houston.
The concept [of slabs] is still the same, but the age group is changing. The older generation is still stuck on the days of what we saw, but the new generation is trying to add their swag to the culture, bringing in newer-model vehicles. They'll go buy a 2015 Camaro, paint it, and put swangas on it. It's more widespread, and everything's going through a newer phase, but it's still keeping similarities with what was going on back in the day.
WARREN "WB," OWNER OF WB'S AUTO SALES
I started my car lot in '97, but I was dealing with cars since high school. I was that kid who was always fixing up cars. So when Ridin Dirty came out, I was really trying to get into the car business. I started listening to UGK when they first came out with "Tell Me Something Good" [in 1992], and I could just tell they had a Southern swag about themselves, and that they were probably going to be a good group. I didn't know we'd still be talking about them 20 years later, but there was just something about their sound at the time that was not only raw, but relatable too.
What Ridin Dirty did was put a stamp on the culture, as far as fixing up cars goes. From '92 to about '96, slabs got their signature [aesthetics], you know, the fifth wheels, grills, belts, buckles, custom interior, candy paint. I don't think UGK were the first [to rap about slabs], but they were on the cusp of it. Guys had rapped about it, but it all solidified around that year. I put a bumper kit on my car in '91, '92, and at that particular time, it was rare. And then '92 to '94, you start to see guys concentrating on custom grills, bumper kits—they started adding more things to the car.
I hadn't listened to "Diamonds & Wood" in a long time, but I did this morning, and I was reminiscing like, Man, this is crazy. Cars were important, but it's crazy when I look back on it—I'm 44 now—you're actually building a car that you know is going to bring all of this heat and attention from the police. And not only them, but also guys on the street who wanted the wheels off your car. When you put those cars together you knew you had to have a pistol, even though it's illegal to carry one. You weren't able to drive this car without a gun because people were carjacking out here. It's crazy to think about the effort that we put into automobiles to get them to a certain point, but at the same time, the danger that was involved in getting them to that point.
So when I think about Ridin Dirty, it means there's someone drinking, smoking, driving a car with a pistol somewhere in it, and that car is attractive, a magnet for people looking at it. UGK brought it all together and essentially said, Hey, this is what I'm doing and I'm enjoying it. It's crazy that I would actually put myself in this position, but I put myself in this position, and this is what it feels like. On the inside it feels good, because I did something that people are admiring. All races of people could look at it and say, "That's a good-looking car! It's beautiful."
Ridin Dirty took it to another level, as far as taking it to different cities and showing them that this is what we do in Houston. People knew it, but that album helped push [slab culture] further, past the gulf Texas coast here. You've got guys in Georgia doing cars with 28, 30-inch wheels on them—we don't do that in Texas, this is what we do. So UGK exposed all that, and Ridin Dirty was the album that made it known.
THOMAS KEMPER, OWNER OF SLAB CUSTOMS
I've been with UGK since day one, all the way from "Tell Me Something Good" to now. When the first tape dropped, I was in tenth grade and I can remember being in class rapping "Tell Me Something Good"—everybody in Houston was digging it like crazy. It took the city by storm, it wasn't like they had to catch on. When I started going to Texas Southern University, they performed there and it was nuts. Much as everybody was going to get DJ Screw tapes, when UGK dropped something, you had to go get it, off top.
Especially back then in '96, it was different in Houston than it is now. You had the north side/south side beef going on, with people from the Rosewood and South Park neighborhoods taking each other's cars. You had Screw and them from the south side beefing with the boys from the north side, going on the albums and saying different things, and then [DJ Screw] does a grey tape with UGK, so they were really connected to all that. That's why they were able to rap about the beef, the swangas, all that stuff going on in Houston.
At that time, I wasn't working on slabs, I was trying to ride them. I was one of the ones out there trying to get slabs together and play around with them in the neighborhood. Back then it was harder and way more dangerous to ride swangas just because they were rare—when Texan Wire & Wheel got started, they made swangas more plentiful—but back then, from the '90s until 2006, it was really rare to ride swangas.
UGK took slab culture and put it in everybody's face.
I remember buying Ridin Dirty when it first came out; it's a classic. When I go back to that album, I think about "Diamonds & Wood." That right there was a big one, because they're straight talking about slabs, gripping grain, fifth wheels through the whole song. It basically gave the slab life a bigger platform. I mean, we were getting it from Screw's grey tapes, but it was real good to hear someone getting more exposure outside of Houston.
The grey tapes at that time were only hitting the Texas region, and I'm not even including Dallas. It was weird to them. I went to Mississippi, played a Screw tape, and they were like, "This is weird." But you put some UGK on and they were jamming to that. You play Ridin Dirty, and man, everybody knows it. You can go word-for-word on that one. So UGK was exposing what was going on in Houston on a more national level. It was really big for them to be doing that, because at that time, Geto Boys weren't even talking about riding slabs, you heard Big Mello mentioning it a couple times, but UGK had a whole lot of references going on. They paved the way for Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire to get national exposure, because they'd been talking about the exact same stuff that all those guys came out with.
UGK took [slab culture] and put it in everybody's face. And a lot of people for a long time never knew what a slab was, but it started to get major exposure and people actually started to accept the slab scene. People in Canada, New Zealand, Tokyo— we ship swangas everywhere. There's people everywhere that want to be down with it now, it's crazy.
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